Letters to the Editor

‘Intellectual Property’ Term Is Vague

Friday’s news article about OLPC (“OLPC Sued for Allegedly Copying Keyboard Design,” Nov. 30, 2007) uses the term “intellectual property,” which is a tool of harmful vagueness. It lumps together copyright law and patent law (totally different) with other and disparate laws. Perhaps this term is why OLPC is unable to be sure whether the accusation concerns patents or copyrights. If we learn to recognize use of “intellectual property” as a sign that crucial information is missing, we can promote clear thinking about these various laws. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html.

The article says that the OLPC runs the “open source Linux operating system.” In fact, Linux (started 1991) is the kernel used together with the GNU operating system (started 1984). Some parts of GNU use the open source development model, but the aim of GNU is not a development model, it’s to respect the user’s freedom (free software).

CSAIL Research Affiliate

Chief GNUisance (gnu.org)

Free Software Foundation President (fsf.org)

Junk Food Ban Warranted

Charles Lin’s recent column on junk food school lunch bans (“Squid vs. Whale: Treasuring Junk Food,” Dec. 4, 2007) was highly entertaining but “lite” on facts. He sets out a very tempting, very familiar assault on regulatory control by appealing to our nostalgia for childhood indulgences and the liberties of youthful exploration. Indeed, who can resist the passages where he reminisces on Fruit Roll Up fests and pop rocks-soda chemical wonders?

Following these well-worn tropes of innocence lost and the big bad Big Brother (Does anyone else hear Andy Rooney quipping, “When I was a kid …”?), Lin takes us to a less than astonishing conclusion: that junk food doesn’t kill people, people (who do not exercise themselves properly) kill people. Thus — surprise — it is not junk food that causes our weight problems, but inactivity and video games. Here, too, Lin displays a dogged, or rather, a deceptively gentle narrowness as to what might be the underlying cause of this epidemic. For him, it is the siren call of well-crafted video game platforms which has led us astray from our playground pursuits.

In sum, Lin would have us believe that we (the consumer) are victims of our own choice. We choose to eat the junk food, we choose to bring it to school, we choose to stay indoors and play our way-cool game console, the console we chose to purchase over that other not-so-cool console. Given this narrative, it is easy to see why he balks at the government’s paternalistic, heavy-handed intervention into our individual lives, its constraints on our personal liberties. And it is easy to come to the conclusion he brings us to, that the solution must lie in crafting equally seductive choices — healthy game consoles — that will lure us of our own volition back onto the path of healthy living.

Where does one begin to argue with this picture? I might start with several convenient assertions Lin offers us, anecdotes that he dresses as factual supports for his thesis.

One is the assertion that we all ate junk food and are fine, so it can’t be that. Yet rising sales of soda and junk food do correlate with rising obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Lin incorrectly assumes that this epidemic emerged after his 1990s childhood. In fact, it began way back in the 1970s and 1980s, if not arguably earlier in post-World War II America. Plus, there is a slippery kind of reasoning that Lin deploys, one that has also surfaced in liability disputes surrounding cigarettes (an analogous “bad behavior” correlated to heart disease), which takes the individual case to refute a well-established population trend. Some of us can indulge in unhealthy habits and be none the worse for wear. However, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most people who make a habit of eating junk food will suffer higher probabilities of future chronic degenerative disease.

Lin also omits relevant facts about the rising availability of junk food. Yes, McDonald’s has been around as a national corporate chain since the 1950s, but one could not find McDonald’s or Pizza Hut in a school cafeteria until the 1990s. (Coca-cola soda machines entered school hallways only slightly earlier.) And decisions to permit them there were high-stakes. Unlike most other public spaces, children do not exactly choose to be there. Schools, as sites of consumption, have captive audiences. Oh, and need I add that reduced playtime is also an institutional concern? Since the 1990s, schools have decreased students’ recess time and gymnastics, a fact which must play some part in Lin’s conclusions about growing inactivity.

These extenuating circumstances are not merely complaints about the facts of Lin’s account, they cut to the core of how he frames the problem. Lin ignores how non-governmental organizations, and in particular food industries, also shape and direct individual consumer choice. Government regulation, albeit only when it is done well, is designed to protect consumers from an unequal playing field. And this is doubly true for minors who lack social experience and biological cognitive abilities to judge the long-term health consequences of their actions. Despite their laissez-faire, anything-goes rhetoric, industries know this. They know that regulation sets the boundaries of fair play within which they interact and build our marketplace. So why shouldn’t we, the consumers, also appreciate the machinery of the government as an institution that represents the aggregate public will and concerns of its citizens? In the real world, not the wistful world of nostalgia, we cannot have our cake and eat it too.