Treading anything but lightly

I just happened to notice this one fly by on my Twitter feed. I’m glad I was paying attention.

KSL-TV in Utah reports on probably the most morally bankrupt case of graffiti-based vandalism I have ever run across. It appears some bored vandal has painted graffiti at several locations on the scenic red rock along this portion of State Highway 128 (highlighted in blue).

I’m an admirer of nature, and somewhat of an environmentalist. I’m disgusted and horrified that someone would even think of tastelessly vandalizing nature in such a fashion. Defacing man-made structures with graffiti is bad enough, but this steps way over any sane line of decency.

Here’s hoping for a speedy arrest and conviction of the scum that defiled nature in the name of short-lived press coverage, and a maximum sentence as a deterrent to anyone else who would dare attempt a similar stunt.

(Note: this does not mean I’m against the graffiti “style” of artwork, as long as it’s not done as vandalism. My tastes in art are quite diverse, but as seen in the video, this is simple juvenile “tagging” and is way out of place where it was done.)

From the story:

[A law enforcement ranger with the Bureau of Land Management, Jason] Moore says last weekend vandals scarred the famous red rock by spray painting symbols and words probably only they know the meaning of.

“Numerous symbols, the words: ‘komy kyenta 2010,'” Moore says.
The BLM is offering a $1,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. If you have information, call 801-539-4001.

A lack of compassion: the story of Takumi

This is a bit different from my usual rants in a way, but then again it’s not. This is a story about someone with medical problems of grave severity for his age, whose parents eithe don’t understand the meaning of compassion or who have actively chosen to turn their back on their son.

The pages at tell the story in detail. I’ll summarize the key points:

Takumi is in his mid-twenties, was born in Italy and is currently living in Japan with his parents. In January of this year he suffered two heart attacks, and in February had a third heart attack and a stroke. He had surgery and his current symptoms keep him homebound most of the time.

Up until his medical problems, he was staying with his parents. Their response to his medical problems, particularly the stroke and resulting hospital bill, was to evict him! His father destroyed many of Takumi’s possessions including a computer and a camera. Their rationale for this is that Takumi is their “child of sin” because he’s gay, which is, in my eyes, an incredibly pathetic excuse to turn their back on him when he needs them most.

Nowhere does it say what religion Takumi’s parents are, but regardless of that, this is no way to treat one’s offspring. The Christian Bible has this to say: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13) I would expect other holy texts to contain similar verses.

Some kind people have already helped out, but he still needs more help; according to the figures on the website as of this writing, at least another US$640 (which would cover one month of rehab) and possibly more than that if he needs surgery again.

I know I’ve got a few loyal readers out there. I’m not sure who I’ve lost or gained in the past few months, but I’d like to think a significant chunk of that $640 from just readers of this blog is achievable easily. Let’s help Takumi out. He’s way too young for this. If you can’t chip in, spread the word.

The IRS in Sacramento: a lack of common sense about cents

I’m almost at a total loss for words on this one.

KTXL-TV in Sacramento reports on a car wash owner that got a visit from an IRS tax collector.

Aaron Zeff, the owner of a local car wash in Sacramento, California, was informed of the IRS visit by his manager. From the report:

“I looked at the letter and I couldn’t believe what I saw. The number was astonishing. Four cents,” Zeff said.

Coupled with late fees and penalties – coming to a total of $202.35.

“If we knew anything about it, if we received any correspondence we would’ve immediately addressed it,” Zeff’s attorney, Ashley West said.

And further down:

And whether it’s a half-million dollar debt, or a mere nickel, the investigator said… failure to pay, is a failure to pay.

Just about every other business will write off small debts under $1 (or rough equivalents abroad). One of my former car insurance companies even wrote off a back premium payment of nearly $20. It’s far cheaper to simply write off such small sums than collect on them.

More troubling than that is the absolutely ludicrous and insane difference between the principal and the amount after penalties and interest: a factor of over 5,000. Assumably, this is done with the intent of justifying a collection effort. All this really does, though, is anger the taxpayers, the people whom the IRS (and any government agency) is supposed to serve in the end. I am certainly horrified at this egregious misuse of resources, and no amount of trumped up penalties will make it right in my mind because it’s just plain silly to apply over $200 in penalties regarding a debt of less than a dollar.

For tax scofflaws who owe hundreds, thousands, or even millions in taxes and make no attempt to resolve the debt voluntarily, such draconian and ruthless “squeeze the turnip until we get blood” tactics are justified. Those are the people ripping off our government.

The IRS would do well to apply some common sense to these cents-only debts. Do the same thing so many other businesses do: write them off. We have far worse problems in this country than someone who owes taxes in an amount easily payable in coins.

On community, respect, and trademarks: the story of Nexuiz

About a month ago or so, I started playing a community-maintained GPL first-person shooter (FPS) called Nexuiz. I checked it out after tiring of OpenArena; I played tons of Quake 3 Arena back during my second round of getting into proprietary PC games back in the day, so OpenArena fit me style like a glove at first. But Nexuiz had a bit more of an allure to it, and after a while I realized the more I played Nexuiz, the more I liked it.

And it took me a while to really put my finger on why. I remember a certain player saying something like “I’m surprised you haven’t given up already” during a particularly bad game. And the players came to know me as the guy that has really weird taste in maps, but I’m welcomed and appreciated. That’s what it was: the community around the game, as much as the game itself.

So it was a bit of a shocker to pop on the IRC channel and read a whole bunch of flaming and controversy about a console (PlayStation 3) version of Nexuiz being made by a company called Illfonic. What upset everyone was not the console version itself, but that the domain name had been repurposed to promote almost exclusively the console version, at the expense of the community-developed GPL version for the PC. (I’m not linking to them here for reasons that should become obvious.)

Now, there’s all manner of bad blood against Lee Vermeulen, the nominal owner of the domain (he did not actually transfer the domain to Illfonic) and Alientrap (Vermeulen’s company). It’s widely believed that Mr. Vermeulen just saw the dollar signs and acted on his own best interests, caring little about the community around the game. Many consider Vermeulen’s actions paramount to theft and fraud against the community that made Nexuiz what it is while Vermeulen sat mostly idle. Contributing to the ill will is that Vermeulen’s idea of who was actually in Alientrap for the purposes of splitting the income from the licensing deal leaves out several people who thought they were “in” but are being left out in the cold.

In the coming days it would become more obvious that the name and goodwill behind it meant as much to the community as the game itself. I never really saw this happen with any other FPS game, whether it be any version of Doom, Heretic, Quake, Half-Life, etc. As it stands now, the next move is a fork of the Nexuiz codebase and probably a name change. I view this as very sad, very unfortunate, and something that should have been unnecessary, but it highlights the advantage of free software: if one doesn’t like the direction a project is taking, one can always take the source code, fork and begin one’s own.

I learned a lot about public relations, trademarks, goodwill, and community from this incident. I’ll summarize a few of the key points:

  • Communication is key when it comes to communities and community projects. If you’re part of a community project and the registration for the domain name or the Web hosting account is in your name, that does not make it yours outright. If there is any doubt at all in your mind as to whether others might object, consult with them before making any moves. This is especially true in the case of games being adapted to proprietary game consoles, something many who respect their freedoms will object to on philosphical grounds.
  • Goodwill and trust take a long time to build and can be lost very quickly. Few people in the community now trust Mr. Vermeulen. I sure don’t. I don’t really trust or like Illfonic a lot either. I cannot honestly say I wish the console port of Nexuiz much success. Now to be fair, it’s not really Illfonic’s fault that they are less liked than they otherwise might have been had Vermeulen been more transparent with the community in his dealings. But that’s the way things are. There are still people who will call it “FeeNex” or “Noxuiz” (the latter being pronounced a lot like “noxious”) thanks to the dubious circumstances under which the console port came to be.
  • Trademark law as it stands appears not to adequately recognizes a community-based or community-held trademark for a non-profit project such as Nexuiz. In general, copyright, patent, and trademark law needs to be brought up to current times now that free software and community-based projects are often the rule rather than the exception. This goes beyond software, it also extends to things like BarCamp and other community-based events.
  • The community is often just as important as the thing that brings that community together. I still talk to someone from the Dance Dance Revolution/Bemani games scene of the mid 2000’s even though that scene has mostly died off and I probably could not play DDR worth a damn today were I to try again.

As further developments arise, I may follow up on this post. This is still ongoing as I write this.

Save the date: A Day Against DRM, 2010 May 04 recently published an article entitled “The decade of DRM.” Included among the events were four events prior to 2000 that would set the stage for the introduction and proliferation of DRM (digital restrictions management), arguably one of the biggest steps backward for computing freedom ever.

Even as far back as 2000, a lot of devices that we do not ordinarily think of as computers are in fact exactly that. Television sets, VCRs, CD players, DVD players, portable audio players, mobile phones, copiers, printers, scanners, fax machines, and the list goes on; all of these have computers (microprocessor-based logic) built into them somewhere. In 1980, this was unheard of, but now, it’s a fact of life. I still remember my late grandfather’s rants about these new cars with “all this computer [excrement]” that made them much more difficult to fix.

We have yet to change one thing, and it’s probably one thing that should not be changed. Computers are still, by themselves, incredibly dumb. One would think this, by itself, would discourage widespread adoption of DRM. Sadly, this is not the case.

The recording industry (RIAA) has realized DRM is not in their best interests. However movies, e-books, and cable television continue to be saddled with obnoxious restrictions. It’s often said that locks only keep honest people honest, and this is the same with DRM which is just a cyberspace equivalent of a fancy padlock. Those who do not respect copyright or draconian laws like the DMCA will crack the DRM and share anyway. CSS (not the stylesheet language, the DVD encryption method) was cracked very on in the lifespan of the DVD format. The Blu-Ray AACS key has been changed several times, and it just gets cracked again and again. Copies of these movies, as well as scans of books in PDF form, are easily obtainable on peer-to-peer file sharing networks and sites.

Meanwhile, people who have legitimately paid for video and audio recordings get unwelcome surprises when license servers disappear and they try to play recordings they “own” on a new computer. (The term “own” and “ownership” is kind of pointless with DRM, as even if one still has a copy of the recording, it can be rendered useless on an arbitrary basis. It’s like having a CD, DVD, or book that can just vanish or turn to dust without warning.) Don’t believe me? Ask these baseball fans who got bitten by MLB’s change in DRM licensing servers. Or the many people who bought into Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM scheme.

Perhaps the worst example, however, is when Amazon reached in to thousands of Kindle e-book readers it sold and erased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984, back in 2009 July. The content of the book itself makes the message even more chilling than it would otherwise have been.

DRM is an anti-social technology and I feel it is out of place in a world where “social media” is the new buzzword. The sooner it dies, the better.