Wednesday, November 29, 2006


“As an example,” said Mr Coroneos, “a family who holds a birthday picnic in a place of public entertainment (for example, the grounds of a zoo) and sings ‘Happy Birthday’ in a manner that can be heard by others, risks an infringement notice carrying a fine of up to $1320. If they make a video recording of the event, they risk a further fine for the possession of a device for the purpose of making an infringing copy of a song. And if they go home and upload the clip to the internet where it can be accessed by others, they risk a further fine of up to $1320 for illegal distribution. All in all, possible fines of up to $3960 for this series of acts – and the new offences do not require knowledge or improper intent. Just the doing of the acts is enough to ground a legal liability under the new ‘strict liability’ offences.”
- New Copyright Laws Risk Criminalising Everyday Australians (Peter Coroneos is chief executive of the internet industry association)
It looks like the new australian version of copyright law is going through the parliament rapidly, without significant modification despite the various insightful submissions by google, Linux society, the IIA, the Queensland UT Copyright reform group and many others

It has now passed through the House of Reps and is due to be voted on in the Senate in two weeks.

The new australian copyright law is significantly worse than the US version (which is not good) and so there is no requirement for such a bad law arising from Australia being a signatory to the Australian-US Free Trade Act.

I downloaded the 'risk analysis for teenagers' (pdf) from the iia (internet industry association) site and it does confirm that teenagers will soon face hefty legal penalties, fines of $6600 are typical, for their current everyday behaviour - backing up or downloading music, recording music on their mobile phones and then sharing with friends, burning music on a CD and giving it to a friend, incorporating popular music into a video and uploading to You Tube, recording spontaneous song as video on a mobile phone and posting to MySpace

Download 'risk analysis for teenagers' (pdf) and others covering families, small businesses and industry from here

Welcome to the new world of Australian e-criminals, or is it i-criminals?

There is also an informative podcast interview by Brian Fitzgerald of Peter Coroneos available from the iia site.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

africa map game

I've released version 1_1 of the africa map game on the africaGame wiki, here. There is an executable version there too if you can't be bothered downloading game maker. Thanks to Roland and Sandra for their feedback.

Improved Version 1_1. The names of the countries appear as you return them and a sound plays, there is a "what's left" button, the difficulty buttons are moved off the screen during game play and the 4 islands are different colours and now have templates to assist their location.

As well as the african students (who like it) I showed the SOSE faculty at school and Barry came up with a great idea for an extension: A colonial history of Africa. This could be an adaptation or extension of the map game. Go back in time and start off with an old map of Africa, carved up by the colonial powers. Then over time the map changes, the names of the countries change. Could be a good way to represent important historical events in Africa. How to incorporate general knowledge and colonial history into the game play?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

fair use under threat

There are 3 positions on copyright:
  1. Copyright as the natural, inalienable right of the owner
  2. Copyright as a balance between the rights of the owner and the rights of society
  3. Copyleft, expand the commons
I support (3), then (2) if (3) is not immediately possible and am opposed to (1) in all circumstances. Some people believe that copyright law is mainly about the first position. But Lessig has pointed out that historically the second position has been the dominant tradition and that only recently, with the new ease of copying digital works over the internet, has the first position become strengthened through law.

The music industry and the movie industry support the first position. In today's world this means that they will have to control our machines and invade our privacy. Because the first position means that these industries will have to have control over our CD and MP3 players, our VCR and DVD players. As well as being an invasion of the natural rights of the consumer to control their property (do you own the machine you buy?) it also kills innovation. Rip, mix and burn is creative work. See the Linux Australia submission by Rusty Russell to the Australian Copyright Act 2006.

The second position is legally more complicated because it involves balance and consideration of both the rights of both the owner and the rights of society.

In this context the issue of "fair use" is being debated in the Australian Senate. I've read some of the submissions and the one from google was very helpful in understanding this.

The common, although vague understanding of fair use is that it's alright to duplicate a part of a book, CD or video for educational or research purposes because that serves a useful social purpose.

Apparently there is some danger that the whole notion of a generalised fair use clause will be thrown out and replaced by a series of specific "exceptions". For instance, the Australian Copyright Councial is lobbying for this. Note the use of the word "exceptions" which implies that copyright is by default "owners exclusive rights" and not a social balance between owners rights and society's rights.

For example there are fair dealing provisions for research and study in relation to the reproduction of literary, dramatic and musical works. But the general concept of "fairness" has now been replaced "with strict rules that limit copying of most hardcopy and electronic documents only to specific amounts. One page more than this amount, no matter how obscure or difficult the book is to obtain, and you risk liability." (see copyright jails by Brian Fitzgerald)

Google presents a very strong and convincing case for maintaining fair use ("safety valve") provisions as well as exceptions.
... it is difficult to identify all current problems ... and impossible to prophesy future problems . An exclusive list of specific exemptions will inevitably run afoul of technology's rapidly changing reality ... such boundaries are inherently artificial and are not in accord with the nature of creativity ... Creativity is sui generis (of its own kind, unique in its characteristics, cannot be included in a wider concept) and contextual. An arbitrary limit on the number of words that can be copied ... runs roughshod over the way innovation arises ..."
It's disturbing that fair use is under threat.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

information wars

I posted the following to one of the Victorian IT teachers lists. My fear is that teachers won't get involved politically, that they will grumble about crazy copyright laws but just try to work around them rather than challenge them directly. Hope I'm wrong. My belief is that the intellectual property wars are escalating and that it's necessary to get involved. I'll be writing more about this.
It's about information which makes it more central to our profession than drugs or alcohol prohibition.

In this thread people are saying that they will break the law because it is an ass and turn a blind eye to students breaking stupid laws. Fair enough. However, I feel we have a broader social problem which requires political action when copyright laws exist which turn citizens into criminals.

To look at the US experience:
"According to the NY Times, 43 million Americans downloaded music in May 2002. According to the RIAA, the behaviour of those 43 million Americans is a felony. We thus have a set of rules that transform 20 percent of Americans into criminals ..." Lessig, Free Culture, 199
It's not going to go away. Copyright law is being strengthened in Australia as we speak.

How do teachers feel about the ethical dilemma of teaching copyright law in our courses and encouraging or turning a blind eye to students breaking that law when our employer has a clear expectation that we, as teachers, will not indulge in criminal activity and we can be sacked for doing so. Wouldn't happen you think? Check out some of the things that have been happening in the USA which is a bit further down the track on this issue than us. eg. a young student, Jesse Jordan, prosecuted for $15 million dollars damages for wilful violation of copyright law in 2002

I've recently joined the pirate party of australia, which is ridiculously small at the moment, but, nevertheless, I feel obliged to become political on this issue, based on my understanding of the information wars, which have already started, and which will intensify in the future.

The pirate party originated in Sweden and obtained 34,918 votes, or 0.63% of the popular vote. It's platform is reform of intellectual property laws - copyright, patent and the closely related issue of privacy

Information wars: commons v. proprietary, well, isn't it natural for teachers to support the maintenance or expansion of the commons (and not their restriction which is the way the Law is going), since our profession is based on the free and generous sharing of information?

Nor would it be wise IMO to just assume that the side that supports the maintenance / expansion of the commons will just win because that is "sensible" and the other side is ridiculous and laughable. It is laughable but common sense does not always win.

innovation talks

Some people think money talks but for me innovation talks louder, much louder. I'm writing this and still haven't done my tax.

A wonderful article by David Wheeler about software innovations created a number of thoughts and perspectives for me on this theme

I have a strong curiosity about computers in general, not only software, but software is a vital part of computing
"Software primarily impacts us because of its ubiquity and changeability, as the computers that software controls become ubiquitous and the software is adapted to changing needs"
Philip Armour said it this way:
Software is not a product. It is a medium in which we store knowledge. Historically there have been 5 such media: DNA, Brains, Hardware, Books, Software.
Wheeler provides a tantalising outline of a large number of software innovations. I'd love to be savvy about all of these. When I teach and learn about computing I try to reflect on the impact this has on the uptake of "the fundamentals" (for want of a better word).

This is my view of teaching. That it has to have hooks to engage the learner in the modern world. But also at a deeper level it has to mesh with the more fundamental computing concepts that lurk below the surface. Fads that don't mesh lower down are not of much use. One reason I'm slow to catch on to some new ideas (eg.mashups) is that I haven't figured out how to relate them to the "fundamentals". On the other hand Game Making using a programming language can be both engaging and address the fundamentals of programming. Web applications are both interesting and can be related to the fundamentals of markup language, internetworking using datagrams, remote procedure calls, distributed hypertext etc. One reason I'd prefer not to teach some fundamental ideas is that I find them hard to make them engaging (eg. Relational Data Base). But certainly, I acknowledge RDM and Codd as important.

But I'm mainly looking at Wheeler's article from the perspective of my own learning, my own desire to understand computation more deeply. If there are other spin offs from that, eg. I might teach better, then that is incidental to the sense of satisfaction I get from simply understanding computer science at a deeper level. I'm moderately obsessive about this.

So, when Wheeler makes this heroic effort to outline just about all software innovations, including a time line, then I'm very engaged by his list. I see it as a partial curriculum to further direct my own understanding of computation.

For instance, he mentions Object Oriented Programming (1967), Regular Expressions (1968), Remote Procedure Call (1981), Design Patterns (1991) and Refactoring (1993). They are some of the items on his list of which I am already aware but need to know more. His assertion that they are true innovations (not fads) is motivational for me to make the effort for those items and to spend some time there and not elsewhere. It's important to be able to find out what is innovation and what is not and by my reading Wheeler is an authority whose lead I can follow with some confidence.

To become expert in any field requires studying history, the individuals who made that history and the environments in which they worked. Wheelers review provides a thumbnail outline of all of these things. It is a brief contextual history of software innovation, which provides a good starting point for further study in particular areas of interest.

He briefly reminded me of the importance of studying mathematics, that a "mathematical algorithm is fundamentally what any software patent is". I've written about this before in reviewing a Steve Yegge article about using wikipedia to learn maths.

Some things at first appear to be missing so don't forget to check out his "further consideration" list at the end which includes such items as algorithms, complexity theory, recursion, operating systems, googles "page rank" algorithm and open source / free software. I wondered about some of these and thought he was being a bit too exclusive in his main list

Wheeler demonstrates that proprietary interests and patents are very marginal to the software innovation process. I'm glad that the world is like that. Money doesn't have to rule the world and here is a very important field in which money does not rule the world. For me, that's a strong affirmation of the true nature of humans, that we are innovative creatures more so than money making creatures. The history of software innovation shows that!

Wheeler also talks about what is not software innovation but also important, things like:
  • hardware innovation (eg. the electronic digital computer, transistors, integrated circuits, ethernet)
  • social and legal change that parallels technolgical change, as the original innovation moves into the mass market or non market
  • software standards
It's a great article that has made me think about a variety of issues.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

new game design tool

Fascinating blog by Ian Bogost about a new game design tool being developed by Eric Zimmerman, James Gee and Katie Salen.

I chatted to Tony about this who was disappointed that they weren't using existing tools such as Game Maker for their research.

The way I see it is that game design and programming are different sorts of things and that student game development is more stuck at the design phase, where students usually just try to build a clone or slight variation of an existing game. Students don't usually do original game design work.

My current thoughts are:
  • by taking the work out of learning programming and visual representation they hope to focus more on the design aspects of developing a game, which they see as the rules of the system - the demands of learning to program can be a drag / brake on design elements, particular for students who find programming difficult
  • I think it would be a huge step forward if we had better tools to teach and communicate about design - the bit they say about rules being central is impt I think, I've been fumbling around looking at UML (visual rep) and design patterns (which might be a bit like rules)
  • some people use UML diagrams as a programming blueprint although Martin Fowler, the author of UML Distilled (my review) doesn't like this approach, it is still an approach, ie. diagram input --> code output - they might have something similar in mind, but using rules not a visual
  • in industry the designer (the ideas) are more important than the programmer and there is a division of labour in the production process
  • it seems to be a new sort of approach, different from the 3 Ecks:
    1. have students build games from scratch;
    2. have educators and/or developers build educational games from scratch to teach students;
    3. integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games into the classroom

what lies beyond gun, car and run in games?

Game design is a field about which I have a lot to learn. But I do get the impression from some experts (Zimmerman, Koster) that currently there is a market driven commercial log-jam from which something more creative and interesting than gun, car and run will emerge. We don't know what.

Eric Zimmerman, interviewed by Gamasutra:
Gamasutra: Any gaming trends that are exciting or bothersome?

Well, I could talk about the increasing homogenization of the field of commercial games. That's sort of an old song, but I still think it's true. If you go to E3 where Sony and Nintendo have their booths and stand everywhere, you can see hundreds of screens at once, and they almost all look exactly the same in the sense that they're all 3D spaces with a horizontal plane in the middle and an object in the lower center of the screen. It might be the barrel of a gun, a vehicle, a person running. And it's amazing, considering how with today's technology we can really put almost anything on-screen, that there's such a structural homogeneity, both terms on aesthetics and in terms of content, but especially in the structure of the gameplay... it's shocking. But it's also hard to innovate. And as I said, that's both a business dilemma and a creative or design dilemma....

... there are great huge, unsolved problems in games. In other words, the subject matter that we see depicted in games is relatively narrow. Scott McCloud talks about what he thinks about what comics could depict or could do as a medium and what they have done, and he sees it like we've seen a little narrow slice and there's this whole huge world, and I think it's even more true about games.
Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen are co-authors of Rules of Play. I haven't read this but I liked this review by K. Sampanthar "kes_sampanthar" at amazon, which outlines the following interesting parts of the book:
- Reiner Knizia - writing about how he designed the Lord of the Rings Board game
- Richard Garfield (Sibling Rivalry), Frank Lantz (Iron Clad), Kira Snyder (Sneak) and James Ernest (Caribbean Star) - design board games for the book and each of them describe how they went about designing. (Note: James Ernest's game Caribbean Star is available as part of a game collection he released from his company Cheapass games - check out "Chief Herman's Next Big Thing" )
- There are game design exercises that students or teachers can use to learn more about each of the concepts. These exercises are split into 3 categories: game creation, game modification and game analysis.
- Complexity, Emergence, self organization as they refer to games
- Probability and Randomness (luck) in games
- Information Theory - uncertainty, noise and redundancy
- Systems of Information - public and private information
- Cybernetics - Feedback loops and game balancing
- Game Theory - Cake division and the prisoner's dilemma
- Conflict and Cooperation
- Interactivity
- Flow - Entrainment, reward schedules, behavior theory and addiction
- Edward De Bono's L Game
- Narrative play - story arcs etc..
- Simulations - games as simulations
- Metagames - the larger social context of games
- Open Source Games - like Icehouse
- Game modifications - Alterations, Juxtapositions, Reinventions
- Blurring the boundary between "real" and "play"

Sunday, November 12, 2006

software patents stink

After an incredibly useful review of software innovations, David Wheeler critiques software patents:
  • most of the important software innovations were never patented
  • many software innovators oppose software patents
  • the majority of professional programmers (10:1 ratio) believe that software patents impede software development
  • the majority of professional programmers (2:1) believe that software patents should be abolished
  • statistical evidence shows that as patents increase innovations decrease
  • patents cause serious problems in creating and implementing standards
  • all W3C standards are royalty free
  • patents are often awarded for non innovative ideas
  • there are no incentives for anyone in the patent process to reject bogus patents
  • patents increase customer costs
  • patent examiners have a poor database of prior art
  • the reason the internet protocols took hold so quickly is because Cerf and Kahn made no intellectual property claim
  • research shows that companies which are increasingly patenting software are also decreasing their R&D
  • the vast majority of software patents are obtained by firms outside of the software industry
  • software patents prevent new ideas from becoming available to end users
  • the only group that is unambiguously aided by software patents are patent lawyers
  • software patents have nothing to do with software innovation

League of Programming Freedom
Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure
Patently absurd
Patent nonsense

Saturday, November 11, 2006

pirate party of australia

I've just joined the pirate party of australia

It has to be done. There is a huge and intensifying worldwide battle raging over freedom of information. If you support freedom then there is really no choice but to become actively involved in this battle. The politicians will only listen to those who are organised politically.

The draft manifesto is here. The manifesto is still being debated and needs improvement. The subheadings are:
  • Development as a technologically advanced open society
  • The spreading of culture and knowledge must not be hindered in any way
  • Copyright
  • Patents
  • Privacy
  • Open source software in publicly funded sectors
The pirate party originated in Sweden and gained 34,918 votes, or 0.63% of the popular vote in the September 2006 elections. It is now establishing parties on other countries. See the wikipedia article for more details.

Here is a video interview of Richard Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party.

related posts (by me):
every parent wants to protect their children
the culture of fear, apathy and play safe
the school administrators dilemma
censorware and fascism connection
free culture: introduction
free culture: creators
free culture: pirates
lessig slide

declining enrolments in IT courses

The glass is half empty

I don't have hard figures (would love to see them, they are not readily disclosed) but there has been consistent talk for some time about declining enrolments in IT courses in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and I presume the other states as well.

I find this astonishing, that serious study of such an important literacy for this century is on the decline.

This goes hand in hand with integration of ICT into the curriculum, which in general does not work very well because students end up being taught IT by non specialists. ie. they are not taught IT.

This is further compounded by generational factors - many students come to believe that many teachers don't have anything to teach them about IT. Unfortunately, some teachers seem to believe this too.

Students come away from the senior school course counselling process with the belief that universities would prefer they learn maths at school and wait until they get to uni before doing programming.

Some governments (India, China) have a policy of positively promoting science, maths and IT but in egalitarian Australia all subjects are regarded as equal and IT is hardly even regarded as a subject.

There is a current energetic discussion at the South Australian teachers IT list about the best way to refloat the sinking ship. This has taken the form of arguing about preferences for the best IT course, with options like:
  • focus on important computer science principles (the fundamentals, not the fads)
  • more emphasis on programming, which the new curriculum statement has allowed
  • keep the current emphasis on data base, well established resources here
  • more multimedia, students find this interesting
  • web programming is motivational
  • game making, tap into student motivation
It's an energetic and informed discussion and different teachers have made very good points about why their course preference is either better or necessary

One comment which I found the most interesting was:
> The core computing knowledge hasn't changed much over 26 years
From a computing science point of view I think this is not far from the truth.

I like this article by David Wheeler which, in a way, supports what was said:
Too many people confuse software innovations with other factors, such as the increasing speed of computer and network hardware
even though some significant innovations in the past 26 years are documented, such as distributed hypertext (1989) and design patterns (1991)

However, the factors of faster, more powerful computers (Moores Law), the growth of the internet / www and mobile communications have created an overall very different cultural and working environment for everyone, including teachers of IT. Some examples:

open source software development
- as well as producing great software offers us a collaborative development model
wikipedia - another tremendous success story of online collaboration - just this week I discovered a student at my school who has authored 14 wikipedia articles, completely on his own initiative
blogs - used selectively in combination with RSS feed provide new opportunities for connecting and discussing common interests, educational or whatever
open courseware - the premier technology institution in the world, MIT offers all its courses on line for free, - how long will it be before this sort of thing is extended to secondary education? For example, why doesn't the ED support the delivery of a game making course to all those students who want to do it but don't have a teacher in their school to offer it?
better search - for the first time in history there is the potential for students to independently find all of the material that is delivered to them in school

I think the major blocks for everyone (students and teachers) to be able to teach the course they want or to learn the course they want are cultural and institutional hangovers from a previous mode of course delivery limited by the geographical tyranny of distance. That era is now coming to an end, the quicker the better from my perspective.

The glass is half full.


Some people would probably say in response to the above that face-to-face teaching is still the best available model.

I'd reply that our current model is very much an industrial model. One teacher: twenty+ students in a classroom, on a site and that just doesn't work all that well for quite a few of the students

Specifically, in this blog I have been critical of the "glass half empty" mindset which IMO has characterised some of the current discussion amongst SA IT teachers. As enrolments in IT decline there is more struggle around the idea of the "best" IT course to retrieve the situation.

I definitely see that discussion as healthy - it's great that different teachers are being passionate about their preferred method of teaching IT and arguing their case.

But this discussion shouldn't be confined locally just to SA IT teachers when the technology already exists so that potentially all of these courses or parts of them could be delivered to students at a distance.

Of course the fact that the read/write web is censored by default in SA schools does not help things. Certainly teachers can plan and collaborate professionally around the world using blogs, wikis, podcasts and VOIP for voice and chat. This can be extended to students.

It is just the local accreditation mechanism and small pond mentality that is holding things back.

I remembered Lessig's refrain which he applies to draconian copyright law. I think it also applies to our current industrial model of education. It is the dead hand of the past that is keeping kids tied down to one teacher, one classroom, set curriculum, set accreditation, the bell rings, go to next lesson etc.
  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.


the battle for freedom of information

Yochai Benkler describes the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment:
To what extent will resources necessary for information production and exchange be governed as a commons, free for all to use and biased in their availability in favor of none? To what extent will these resources be entirely proprietary, and available only to those functioning in the market ... We see this battle played out at all layers of the information environment: the physical devices and network channels necessary to communicate; the existing information and cultural resources out of which new statements must be made; and the logical resources - the software and standards - necessary to translate what human being want to say to each other into signals that machines can process and transmit. It central question is whether there will, or will not, be a core common infrastructure that is governed as a commons and therefore available to anyone who wishes to participate in the networked information environment outside of the market based, proprietary framework
- The Wealth of Networks, 23
Benkler is pointing out that this battle over the freedom of information is operating over many different layers:
physical layer - companies tampering with hardware to prevent copying (DRM)
cultural layer - it's natural to share things which can be easily copied, such as CDs, with your friends
economic layer - some companies have Know-How (eg. google), others are more dependent on exclusive rights (eg. Disney)
legal layer - extension of copyright law,
logical layer - eg. whether software conforms to W3C standards, censorware in schools, code is law

He is bringing out attention to the fact that this battle is already raging all around us and that there is no guarantee that the commons, the free distribution of information, will be expanded. The battle has to be fought.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

teaching respect for the law

Teacher: You can't copy the music from that CD that you bought because it would be breaking copyright law
Student: But I bought the CD it's my property, I can do what I want with it
Teacher: No you can't, it is your property but it's not legal to make another copy of your property because that would deprive the company the privilege of selling that new copy to a new customer
Student: But I just want to copy it for my own use. And, at any rate what sort of weirdo would I be if I don't share my music with my friends? (thinks to self: this teacher is weird)
Teacher: I realise that but the law doesn't take that into account
Student: But that's stupid
Teacher: Part of my job is to teach respect for the law. At any rate it's out of my hands, the network manager has refused to copy the music file that you bought. btw you can be fined $1000 for copying that track that you bought.
Student: But the law is stupid
Teacher: ?????????

So this is how we teach copyright law and respect for the law in school?

Thanks to Donna Benjamin of Creative Contingencies for providing the following information about the new copyright legislation currently before parliament:
New Copyright Legislation is currently before Parliament.

Browsing through the current submissions to the legal and constitutional committee is an interesting exercise that shows the conflicting interests at work in copyright legislation.

Note there are submissions from Google, and the Copyright Advisory Group to the Schools Resourcing Taskforce of the MCEETYA, ARIA, and the Musicians Union of Australia.

Interestingly - a couple of film and video clubs have highlighted the issue raised above - hobbiest film makers would like to be able to include audio tracks from CDs they own, but there is currently no way for them to do so, and so they submit they would like to be able to do this.

Copying a CD in Australia is an act of Copyright Infringement. But it is not currently a criminal act.

Once the legislation is passed, copyright infringements will be deemed criminal, and for the first time, and as the first place in the world we will have enforcement provisions that carry on the spot fines of $1000 per infringement.

However the new legislation allows some level of format shifting exceptions which will legitimise copying a CD for use on an iPod for private and domestic use. There is some concern that this will not expand to cover student use at school, as that is neither private nor domestic.