Monday, August 25, 2003

Kids these days...

It's always amusing to watch someone of an older generation analyze yours quasi-anthropologically. I never went to one of the elite schools of which Brooks writes, but I have friends who did; and there are more general insights that have the ring of truth.

Also, there's the humor of seeing an older naïf navigate this territory that the kids all take for granted. When he talks about hookups like they're a ritual dreamed up by Martians, you want to say, "Duh! How else could it work?" But, of course, all social conventions seem alien if you didn't grow up with them.

(Via M. Yglesias's comment section.)

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Time to root for Microsoft

Court awards $520+ million victory over Microsoft to Eolas; the latter claims it owns a patent on the idea of a web browser plug-in. Riiight. Here's the patent, filed October 17, 1994; excerpts from the abstract:

A system allowing a user of a browser program on a computer connected to an open distributed hypermedia system to access and execute an embedded program object. The program object is embedded into a hypermedia document much like data objects. The user may select the program object from the screen. Once selected the program object executes on the user's (client) computer or may execute on a remote server or additional remote computers in a distributed processing arrangement. After launching the program object, the user is able to interact with the object as the invention provides for ongoing interprocess communication between the application object (program) and the browser program. ...

Oh, give me a break. Here's what this jargon-laden hot air basically says:

"You've got a web browser, right? Now you can load program extensions into it."

But the notion of extensible software is practically as old as programming. Whenever you develop any kind of application or platform, the obvious next step is to make it extensible. See: Emacs Lisp, Photoshop plugins, CGI, and more research papers than I can list, all of which predate Eolas's patent.

The only novel aspect of this system is the fact that it downloads content over a wide-area network. However, a patent does not have to be novel, useful, or non-obvious; it has to be novel, useful, and non-obvious. And if you're familiar with both the web and extensible software, the idea of combining them is completely obvious. The invention of the web would not justify a patent on "Method and Apparatus for Tying Your Shoelaces in a Web Browser", or (despite one local company's claims) "Method and Apparatus for Pushing a Button in a Web Browser". Nor does it justify a patent on "Method and Apparatus for Loading Program Extensions in a Web Browser", which is what this patent amounts to.

Notice, furthermore, that the patent's assignee is the Regents of the University of California. According to recent articles in the California Aggie and Forbes, Michael D. Doyle, CEO of Eolas (and first inventor on the patent filing), was a professor at UC San Francisco when he developed the technology. No doubt the other two authors were co-workers or students at UCSF. So, let's see if I've got this right:

  1. Taxpayers paid for Doyle et al. to develop a tweak on web browser technology, a tweak so trivially obvious that it was independently developed by several other groups around the same time.
  2. Doyle et al. succeed in patenting this "invention", and spin off a company based on this taxpayer-funded development.
  3. Years later, Doyle et al. sue Microsoft and make vague threats w.r.t. other companies developing browsers.
  4. Court awards Doyle et al. $520+ million; if paid, the award will be shared with the University of California, but a healthy chunk will go to the "inventors", while the public pays the real price: chilling effects on browser development everywhere.

Yet another boneheaded outcome of our present patent law system.

Eolas claims it will "probably" not go after Free Software projects. But this abstention is not a matter of principle --- it's just because projects like Mozilla and KDE don't have Microsoft's deep pockets. Furthermore, there's nothing to stop them from going after for-profit companies (like Red Hat or SuSE) who distribute Free Software browsers with their products. A defeat for Microsoft, in this case, means a defeat for Free Software. Fortunately, Microsoft plans to appeal. I'm rooting for them all the way.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

R. Puchalsky on W. Gibson

I sometimes read Usenet a bit on lazy afternoons; if you've spent any time on alt.books.iain-banks, you've probably run into Richard Puchalsky, who is probably among the most perceptive critics of Banks's work, and science fiction in general, that I've ever read. Alas, lit crit is not his day job, so all we've got are his scattered Usenet posts; but, e.g., his recent post on characters in William Gibson's fiction does nail the subject right on the head.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Oh, man, I would not want to be SCO right now...

...just take a look at what IBM's formidable legal resources have brought to bear. (Via Tales of the Racoon Fink) Actually, SCO's behavior throughout the SCO-Linux debacle has made me wonder, more than once, whether SCO's executives intended all along to commit some "savage, spectacular suicide"*. At least this way, they'll be installed in computing history's halls of infamy, rather than fading into quiet obsolescence, which would otherwise have been their fate.

* Bonus points if you can figure out the reference, without using Google.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003


Whilst reading about Dyson spheres on Wikipedia, I came across this article on Statites; it's a cool idea, but this paragraph jumped out at me:

The concept of the statite was invented by Robert L. Forward. No statites have been deployed to date, as solar sail technology is still in its infancy. See Forward's US Patent 5,183,225 "Statite: Spacecraft That Utilizes Light Pressure and Method of Use." filed 9 Jan 1989 issued 2 Feb 1993.

Let's see, if this patent was issued in 1993, that means it will run out in 2010. Filing a patent costs considerable time, money, and effort; you don't file a patent just for the hell of it, unless you're rich. SO this dude evidently thinks that he'll be able to reap profits from his patent on statites before 2010. Erm, right.

The uses of XML in... politics?

Buried deep in this New Yorker article on Karl Rove (TAPPED), I came across the following bizarre paragraph:

Meanwhile, technological developments-in general, the personal computer, the Internet, and e-mail, and in particular a data technology called XML-have made it possible for political organizations to have much richer information about individual voters. It used to be that you could find registered Republicans and registered Democrats, or heavily Democratic and heavily Republican precincts, but that was about it; now, because XML cross-references previously incompatible databases, you can easily blend electoral and commercial information (gleaned, for example, from mail-in product-warranty cards) and identify the people in Republican precincts who are most likely to vote Democratic, or Republican voters who can be moved by a specific appeal on one issue but not by the Party's main over-all TV-ad pitch. (In the 2002 Georgia governor's race, the Republicans were able to use pro-Confederate flag material with rural voters without the major media markets noticing.)

Weird. XML is really just a syntax for marking up text so that it has a tree structure. It's basically identical to Lisp s-expressions, which have been around since the late 50's. What the writer really means in the above paragraph by "XML" is "techniques for integrating heterogeneous databases"; XML is only the tiniest piece of the enabling technology for this work. Still, it's interesting to hear that political consultants are using XML to produce integrated pictures of voters' behavior.

The Confederate Flag business is notable too, if only in the predictable "Well, yeah, there's the Republicans pandering shamelessly to people's worst instincts again" way.

Petra Moser: Patents do not increase innovation

J. B. DeLong notes this interesting abstract of a recent working paper by Petra Moser, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management ("not exactly a bastion of anti-capitalist sentiment"*):

This paper introduces a new internationally comparable data set that permits an empirical investigation of the effects of patent law on innovation. The data have been constructed from the catalogues of two 19th century world fairs: the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, 1851, and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876. They include innovations that were not patented, as well as those that were, and innovations from countries both with and without patent laws. I find no evidence that patent laws increased levels of innovative activity but strong evidence that patent systems influenced the distribution of innovative activity across industries.

Unfortunately, Petra Moser doesn't even appear to have a web page, much less a freely available electronic copy of the working paper; I suppose this is typical of economists and other non-computer-science academics, as I complain in DeLong's comments.

Incidentally (warning, blog post veering off onto radical tangent), how in blazes do people in these other fields get any work done? Luckily, I can get Moser's paper through my university's unlimited subscription, but it's still a pain to set up the proxy when I'm browsing from home; and what about the unwashed masses who don't have access to the resources of a large, well-funded university? Any single paper's reasonably cheap, but when you're doing a literature search you might want to read a few dozen papers and skim many more, from several different journals. The gated-access publishing model makes it basically impossible for an interested layperson to keep up with cutting-edge research in these fields, except through watered-down (and frequently distorted) accounts in the popular scientific press. One might object that cutting-edge research is too deeply technical for a lay reader to understand anyway, but I disagree --- in computer science, at least, a reasonably intelligent and well-educated programmer with an undergrad degree can get the basic gist of all but the hairiest papers. Some grotty technical details might remain out of reach, but there's still some value in reading the paper straight from the horse's mouth rather than secondhand --- the citations alone can make a huge difference in understanding the authors' contribution. I imagine that the same would be true in other disciplines.

And this does not even take into account the incredible value of a site like CiteSeer, which is only possible because most papers are freely available on the web, where they can be easily indexed and cross-referenced regardless of source publication.

On the other hand, a few academics in other fields, like philosopher Nick Bostrom and law professor Yochai Benkler, do seem to "get it": they have home pages, with full papers. Maybe there's hope after all, in the coming generation of academics?

* To quote Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, in The Insider; those with sharp memories may recall that he's speaking of Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Duke Law conference on IP issues

Law and Contemporary Problems, 66(1,2) (Winter/Spring 2003) is a special issue based on Duke's Nov. 2001 Conference on the Public Domain --- probably one of the few legal conferences with a paper presented by the band Negativland.

Also appearing is Yochai Benkler, NYU prof and author of "Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm", an analysis of the economics of open source development that's very cool and also way more precise and thoughtful than Eric Raymond's much-lauded "The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

It also appears that Duke Law has an entire subprogram dedicated to public domain issues. Yay.

UPDATE: Here's a handy link to the archived conference webcast.

UPDATE 2: Most of the above links seem to be broken; see archived papers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Is that tea you're drinking there?

From Orlando Figes's estimable A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (hardcover edition link), which I'm reading this summer as a way of getting my mind off work:

Self-improvement was a natural enough aspiration among skilled workers, like Kanatchikov, who were anxious to rise above their peasant origins and attain the status in society which their growing sense of dignity made them feel they deserved. Many harboured dreams of marrying into the petty-bourgeoisie and of setting themselves up in a small shop or business. They read the boulevard dailies, such as the Petersburg Sheet (Peterburgskii listok), which espoused the Victorian ideals of self-help, guided its readers in questions of good taste and decorum, and entertained them with sensational stories about the glamorous and the rich.

It was only to be expected that this search for respectability should be accompanied by a certain priggishness on the part of the labour élite, a fussy concern to set themselves apart from the 'dark' mass of the peasant-workers by conducting themselves in a sober and 'cultured' way. But among those peasant-workers, like Kanatchikov, who would later join the Bolsheviks, this prudishness was often reflected in an extreme form. Their sobriety became a militant puritanism, as if by their prim and ascetic manners, by their tea-drinking and self-discipline, they could banish their peasant past completely. 'We were of the opinion that no conscious Socialist should ever drink vodka,' recalled one such Bolshevik. 'We even condemned smoking. We propagated morality in the strictest sense of the word.' It was for this reason that so many rank-and-file Bolsheviks abstained from romantic attachments, although in Kanatchikov's case this may have had more to do with his own dismal failure with women. The worker-revolutionaries, he later admitted, 'developed a negative attitude toward the family, toward marriage, and even toward women'. They saw themselves as 'doomed' men, their fate tied wholly to the cause of the revolution, which could only be compromised by 'contact with girls'. So strait-laced were these pioneering proletarians that people often mistook them for Pashkovites, a pious Bible sect. Even the police sometimes became confused when they were instructed to increase their surveillance of 'revolutionary' workers who drank only tea.

Figes's history is packed with colorful details like this one. A 900-page history of the Russian Revolution may sound like the literary equivalent of broccoli, but it's actually a great, absorbing read. Recommended.

The wrong Christians, and the cowards who accommodate them

Via M. Yglesias: Brein Leiter reports on a Houston Chronicle article stating that Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, publisher of biology textbooks, is caving in to pressure from the Texas Board of Education to include information about "Creation Science" in its textbooks. Because of Texas's size, it has disproportionate clout in the composition of textbooks, which are made for national publication (it's too expensive to prepare different editions for different states).

Lest you should be taken in by idea that, "Hey, what's the harm of presenting the alternative view?", read the FAQ. "Creation Science" and its alias "Intelligent Design Theory" are not science. They're monstrous, tendentious loads of nonsense masquerading as science in order to leech off science's aura of authority. Teaching "Creation Science" in a science classroom is tantamount to teaching The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a history class.

The maddening thing about modern society, as Iain Banks pointed out in one of his short stories, is that these medieval morons can live amongst all the cushy conveniences wrought by science, and yet reject (and indeed, actively work to undermine) all those pieces of science that conflict with their religious ideology. It honestly never occurs to them that, for example, the same atomic theory that governs radioactive dating also makes the electronics in their televisions work. News like this almost makes me think that believers in "Creation Science" should be exported to the Australian outback and subsequently forced to live the remainder of their lives without any access to the fruits of science, which they obviously hold in such rich contempt. While they work backbreaking hours on the farm squeezing a meager subsistence from the earth, dying from dysentery and plague, they can comfort themselves with the warm and fuzzy knowledge that evolution is non-scientific, and that the Biblical literalists were right all along.

Note that many members of my family, and at least one of my good friends, are Christian. There are plenty of Christians who are perfectly non-objectionable. However, I find it deeply disturbing that mainstream Christianity has failed to stand up to the "Christian Science" element within its midst. I can only read this as a deep failure of intellectual integrity; and a failure that's much more widespread than you might think. I would guess that most of the members of my parents' church, from when I was growing up, believed that evolution was bollocks. I spoke to at least one person who dismissed biology because "scientists say we came from monkeys", a proposition that was apparently self-evidently bogus to him. When I was in high school and still observant, I had a conversation about evolution with one of my youth pastors; as soon as I mentioned it, he began spewing the same old "Creation Science" claptrap that I'd read about on the Internet. I once overheard my mother listening to a religious talk radio show where the speaker, misrepresenting a recent discovery in cosmology that was leading scientists to revise the standard model of the Big Bang, claimed that "physicists are puzzled by this discovery, but I'm not --- I've always known the Big Bang was wrong, because the Bible says the Earth was created six thousand years ago." I had read about this discovery in the popular scientific press, and of course it did not contradict the Big Bang theory at all. My mother, an intelligent and educated person with a Master's degree, seemed to accept this monologue as hunky-dory. I told her it was a lie, and I'm still not sure that, in her gut, she really believed me instead of that charlatan on the radio.

Oh, and the kicker: the churches we attended when I was growing up were in New York State (Westchester County, no less), and the congregation consisted mostly of educated middle-class people with at least a college degree, and often with graduate degrees. I can only imagine what it's like in Texas.

It's only against this cultural background that one can really understand Daniel Dennett's op-ed on "The Brights" (note interesting thread on collaborative philosophy blog Crooked Timber). If Dennett evinces some condescension towards the religious, well, in my opinion, they've earned it.

(And anyway, where was this religious zeal for tolerance and respect when the Church was burning heretics and atheists at the stake? Christians who complain about Dennett's condescension remind me of Republicans who fought civil rights tooth and nail in the 60's but suddenly rediscovered the virtues of color-blindness in the affirmative-action 90's.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Resistance to the police state is futile...

... if you're a bee, anyway.

This puts me in mind of a discussion between O'Brien and Winston Smith in 1984, in which O'Brien says that the Party is forever, and Smith says that something must stop the Party, someday --- some spark of humanity, some fact of human nature. O'Brien replies that human nature is malleable, and that we shall soon have the tools to smash it beyond recognition, and that the Party therefore really could live forever. The evidence of Hymenoptera societies hints that O'Brien was potentially right: there is nothing inherent in the nature of all societies that makes unending totalitarianism impossible --- it's only impossible in societies that require the cooperation of beings who reject totalitarianism.

When the vast majority of a society's members not only cooperates with totalitarianism, but actively defends it, resistance really does become futile.

Alternatively --- and here my thoughts wander away from the bees, and into our own human future --- if a society no longer needs the cooperation of its subjects in order to be productive, totalitarianism can last indefinitely. Note that the latter scenario makes the rise of artificially intelligent robots potentially alarming. Here's why: all modern industrial societies require the active cooperation, in some form, of a large population of human beings, who provide the intelligence needed to organize and produce wealth and power --- they manufacture goods, they invent new technologies, they run bureaucracies. A society that lacks the cooperation of these productive people will, in the long run, be overwhelmed by economic competition or military threats from its neighbors.

Regimes are therefore limited, in the degree and duration of oppressive power they can wield, by the need to maintain the cooperation of humans. They can obtain this cooperation by making people happy, or by bribing an elite to crack the whip and lord it over the proles. Human nature dictates that you generally can't make people happy without giving them freedom; and you can only bribe the elite for so long before the proles realize that they don't need to cooperate, and overthrow their masters. The happiness strategy mitigates the possible degree of oppression; the bribery strategy limits the possible duration of oppression. Most societies use a combination of the two strategies.

Since artificially intelligent robots might provide the intelligence and productive capacity needed to run a large society, without the accompanying human desire for freedom (or at least bribery), AIs might enable the construction of a totalitarian regime of unlimited degree and duration.

Incidentally, if you've never seen the staggeringly faithful British film adaptation of 1984, starring John Hurt, you should really check it out. Rarely has a film so completely captured the spirit of a novel. And if, like many literary types, you find Orwell's prose completely pedestrian, then the film gives you at least half of Orwell's ideas with none of the pain.

Lessig nails it again

Lawrenc Lessig's devastating assessment of the California recall debacle:

Whether or not you believe in the power to recall, the California provision is insanely stupid. It makes no sense to decide the winner on the basis of a plurality. This is just a badly crafted constitutional provision - a kind of constitutional loophole. It's the sort of clause which we fail people for writing in constitution-drafting classes. (No, there are not really any constitution drafting classes, but clearly there should have been in California at the beginning of the last century).


One might say, who could possibly resist such a loophole. That whether it is honorable or not, what politician would forgo the chance to become President or Governor, regardless of the means?

Yet we should remember that many believe that Nixon made essentially this choice when he refused to fight the results in Illinois and thus let Kennedy become President. In his moral universe, that's not how an executive should become an executive.

It is a measure of this Enronera that neither our President nor over 200 candidates in this California recall election live up to the moral standards of even Richard Nixon. By whatever means, they will claim power.

Incidentally, Lessig's quip about "constitution-drafting" actually has more than academic significance; as we learn in the third page of Stephen Levy's WIRED article on Lessig, Lessig helped write the constitution of the Republic of Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Oddly enough, Lessig doesn't even mention this on his massive c.v. If I had helped to draft a national constitution, you can bet it would be at the very top of mine.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Nostalgic for days gone by?

Read J. B. DeLong's Notes: In the Shadow of Malthus:

We know what a pre-industrial pre-birth-control population that is moderately well-off (an annual per-capita GDP of, say, $1100 in Maddison's 1990 international dollars) does: like the North American colonists, it doubles in a generation with a population growth rate of more than 2% per year. We know that the pre-1800 human race as a whole never achieved this.

What held back population growth? What keeps the numbers of the human race from growing at more than 0.2% even under the most favorable pre-industrial conditions? The conclusion seems inescapable: desperate poverty. For the overwhelming bulk of recorded history, population growth rates have been kept low by poverty so dire that women's fat reserves are so low that ovulation is a hit-or-miss affair, and by poverty so dire that nutritional deficits are so great as to seriously compromise immune systems' abilities to deal with the endemic disease pool.

Some commenters have different assessments, though they're hardly more encouraging: the likely culprits are disease and cyclical famine (with ensuing social upheaval), rather than infertility due to constant malnutrition. Anyway, the thread's worth reading.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

But how will yogi pay the rent?

Lessig again demonstrates that he is a wild-eyed, Communist radical nut case by linking to the Open Source Yoga Unity site. Without robust intellectual property protections, nobody will have any incentive to develop yogic techniques, and society will suffer from a tragic yoga shortage. Duh!

Friday, August 01, 2003

Those wacky leftists, and their conspira---oh, wait a second.

Laurie Mylroie thinks that the State Department and the CIA are deliberately undermining the War on Terror in order to protect their good buddy Saddam. (via Atrios)

Apparently, Mylroie's a friend of Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and her book has laudatory back-cover blurbs from prominent neoconservatives including Richard Perle and James Woolsey.

And right-wingers have the gall to accuse the left of making up conspiracy theories? Right, it's delusional partisan sophistry to claim that the Bush administration distorted evidence about Iraq's nuclear weapons program, but saying that the CIA framed bin Laden to protect Saddam is just jolly good investigative reporting!

Dimly related: PBS interview with Mylroie.

Avoid Masked and Anonymous at all costs...

Saw Dylan's new movie tonight with TM and AM. It was really awful. Trust me, you do not want to see this movie. I like all different kinds of film, including surrealist film and plotless character studies and quirky indie films and even action movies or thrillers. I can appreciate them all on their own level. But this movie doesn't work on any level; it consists entirely of one-dimensional characters staggering from scene to scene spouting stilted, pseudo-profound aphorisms at each other while Bob Dylan squints at them. It was tragic to see so many truly fine actors struggling valiantly to inject some life into this movie. Even TM, who is a big Dylan fan, thought the movie sucked.

As amazing as this sounds, the nearly-9-minute BMW commercial that ran before the movie (in lieu of trailers) was better than the movie itself. The commercial wasn't very good, either.