[ ed halley ]

Microrants

I frequent a fair number of so-called "web log" websites, including slashdot.org and kuro5hin.org. These are open forums for people to post and discuss various news headlines, opinion articles, scientific and computing discoveries, and other topics.

In answer to a few recurring topics, I began to develop stock responses. I call these responses my "micro-rants."


On IANALism

The abbreviation IANAL normally stands for the caveat, "I am not a lawyer," which often serves as a disclaimer in online discussions where lay people are exchanging legal advice or their opinions on matters of law.

I contend, IANAL better means "Incompetent Advice Necessarily A Liability."

Why do people ask legal advice on weblogs where a real lawyer is essential? If you're concerned about a licensing issue or personal freedoms, especially with large corporate or government interests at stake, why would you even consider taking the opinions of anonymous amateur pundits on a for-profit advocacy weblog?

Get some professional, personal, specific advice from someone who is accountable for the answers they provide. As much as some people don't like the lawyer culture, it is clear that a reputable lawyer wants to stay that way, and will be very careful to consider your situation thoroughly.


On the Complexity of Legislation

Why must the law be so complex and incomprehensible that it no longer belongs to the people?

Take a look at most computer software projects. As the saying goes, "if carpenters built buildings as programmers wrote programs, the first woodpecker would wipe out civilization." After only a couple years of small super-targeted bug fixes, there's nothing but one fix on top of another fix on top of another hack. The original elegance, if any, is only seen in the specification document.

Legislation is the same way: each law tries to "correct" some "problem," and it either is so vague it affects many unrelated areas, or it's so targeted that it complicates life.

For example: As of this writing, the memory chip designer, Rambus, was accused of breaking various provisions of U.S. federal RICO statutes, in its zealous quest to protects its intellectual properties. (RICO: Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act). Was RICO designed as a patent-buster or trust-buster law? No. It was designed to give harsher penalties to cocaine smugglers and mafia kingpins. But since its solution is so broad, it affects unforeseen areas of the law.

The U.S. tax code is so complex because every legislator has an incentive to "help" a certain demographic of his or her constituency. It has been many years since the ostensibly temporary war-time income tax became a permanent responsibility of each American citizen. There are thousands of legislators between the state and federal Senates and Congress, and where are we? We either go overbroad with the 1040EZ, or we read a hundred page summary of excruciatingly focused, detailed tax rules before daring to fill out our name on the yearly or quarterly forms.

I'm no friend of lawyers, but they've become a necessity due to the two centuries of representative democracy and reactionary legislation. Unless a ground-up Constitution 2.0 is due out soon, this is not likely going to change.


On the Fallacy of "Free Software"

Don't Use My "Free" Methods

This is my issue with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) philosophy that companies shouldn't be able to remain proprietary about their source code, if they also use elements of process that are "Free."

Companies are proprietary about injection-molding techniques, they're proprietary about the integrated circuit layouts, they're proprietary about many physical processes that go on behind closed doors. They also use such open techniques such as how to mop the floors at night, and which motor oils they use when they're maintaining the printing presses. Why is software magically different?

If you aren't allowed to cut and paste existing processes with no effort, you'll have to innovate. Sure you have to start from scratch, or from simpler licensed technologies, but by setting down your own requirements for the new process, you'll probably have new strengths that the existing ways don't have.

The GPL is certainly good for something. When I see that a module is under the GPL, and I want to sell my product, I am forced to skip the not-so-"Free" methods and write it from scratch, thus making it fit exactly to my needs. This is exactly the same benefit which patent law gives us.

To me, Open Source is irrelevant. Free Software is irrelevant. Get the job done. If your competitors want to do the same, let them. If you want to open your source as a service to mankind, go for it. Showing me your methods and telling me not to use them, well, that's just being petty.

Incidentally, my license of choice is either "public domain" (where all copyrights are explicitly abandoned), or variations of the "artistic license" such as that which covers the Perl modules and script libraries.


On Government and Censorware

Let us take the issue of government-mandated, computer-controlled, censorship (or "content filtering") point by point. Computer software which filters publications based on some criteria of suitability is called censorware.
  1. Computers cannot be offended, they are merely machines that follow instructions. Therefore, it's not the censorware computer program that is doing the filtering of offensive material.
     
  2. If it's not the censorware that does the filtering, then it must be the proponents or designers of the censorware, that choose what to hide from you. Further, organizations of people have biases in their philosophies; it is that fact which makes people organize. What political slant or prejudices are you entrusting with a filter? Do you want that organization to control what you can and cannot see?
     
  3. An organization forms defensive strategies to ensure it survives. The easiest way for a censor to remain a censor is to use that power to quash the publication of criticism. What criticism are you unable to see, because you trust your censorware products?
     
  4. Government-mandated filtering via a commercial product leads to making the private censorware company a de facto government bureaucracy. This is akin to forming a police force, a post office, a defense contractor, or any other service provided by a local or federal government. Think of the complexity of ensuring several million, if not billions, of websites are blocked or allowed according to government-mandated standards.
     
  5. If a government sets the standards for what to filter, then the government must offer the same transparency, due process, oversight controls and accountability that any taxpayer demands of their government services. If an 'appropriate' website is perhaps filtered unfairly, it must be accurately and responsibly reviewed and considered and the censorship stopped. If an 'inappropriate' website is not filtered, it must also be accurately and responsibly reviewed and considered and the filtering implemented. The world wide web, just accounting for http:-served static pages alone, changes millions of pages every day.
     
  6. Citizens demand that their government services should be run with high standards, high efficiency, lawful and just procedures, and all this at a minimum cost. How can these be reconciled against the sheer complexity of the task at hand? If you propose 'automation,' return to the first point above.
     
  7. The Constitution of the United States
    Amendment I
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

On Censorship and Protecting Children

Federal Judge Richard Posner, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, had this to say about 'protecting our kids':
    Now that eighteen-year-olds have the right to vote, it is obvious that they must be allowed the freedom to form their political views on the basis of uncensored speech before they turn eighteen, so that their minds are not a blank when they first exercise the franchise. And since an eighteen-year-old's right to vote is a right personal to him rather than a right to be exercised on his behalf by his parents, the right of parents to enlist the aid of the state to shield their children from ideas of which the parents disapprove cannot be plenary either. People are unlikely to become well- functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble.
    --American Amusement Machine Assoc. v. Kendrick No. 00-3643 (7th Cir., March 23, 2001)

Any elected government, be it Democracy, or Representative Republic, or otherwise, owes it to their constituents to allow unfettered access to information, praiseworthy or critical. To deny a citizen the right to know their own world is to deny them identity.


On Anonymity and the Constitution

Many people seem to be of the opinion that the First Amendment (of the United States Constitution) grants people the right to anonymity. This is very much not the case. There are two separate concepts wrapped up in the term 'anonymity', and the courts have been able to keep these distinct: there is 'unsigned speech', and there is 'unaccountable speech'.

The First Amendment does not say that one has a right to speak anonymously. In fact, a person is often put into a situation where their identity is compelled, especially if they are related to a case where a felony has been committed. One can publish without choosing to sign the publication, but if a publication can otherwise be lawfully tracked to its writer, then that evidence is quite admissible and it is no longer anonymous.

The right to privacy is used somewhat interchangeably with anonymity, but that is not proven in the reading of our Constitution. The right to privacy comes from the Fourth amendment, which guarantees a security within their persons, houses, papers and effects.

There is also the right to remain silent, written into the Fifth Amendment, which protects against a situation where someone is compelled to supply information about themselves or their conduct. Metaphorically, this can be read as an extension of the Fourth Amendment into someone's thoughts: "a brain cannot be seized and searched, one is secure within their own mind."

Lastly, there is a right to face one's accuser; the Sixth Amendment speficially grants the accused all manners of due process. In such a situation, there is no right to anonymity: a witness must divulge their identity to make a credible accusation. The US has a program that tries to secure high-profile testimony without endangering the witness, by helping the witness "disappear" with a new identity, but only after that explicit testimony is rendered.

A person is always to be held accountable for their own actions in a United States court of law; there is no right to being free from accountability.


On the Function of the US Patent Office

Patents are not about who is right, or who is first; patents are about who will sue.

Unlike Amtrak, the US Patent and Trademark Office (US PTO) is not heavily subsidized. The PTO is a money-making service for the government, and this fact is why it operates as it does: profit.

There is a misconception that it is the central duty of the PTO to form a blockade against granting patents. The PTO can and will block applications where there's heavy similarity with prior art or existing patents, but that's really just a guideline to using the service, not the core function.

The US PTO is not a regulatory agency. The PTO's purpose is to grant patents for a fee, and the policies are designed to achieve that purpose.

The application vetting process of the PTO is a cost center for the operation of the PTO. It is required, but they'll cut costs as much as they can get away with. Specifically, they state that the only "prior art" that is known for the purposes of vetting is the database of previously-granted patents.

The truth is in the language. Applications are processed, not examined. The examiners are graded according to their production, and

For an effective patent doctrine, three things must happen:

  • Clerks at the PTO must come to understand the field in question, and not just query the internal patent database for obvious conflicts and impossible claims.
  • Congress must stop using the PTO's filing fees as a revenue source for other pet interests instead of the PTO's own budget, and
     
  • The PTO needs to allow third parties to aid the vetting process by challenging potential patents before and shortly after they're granted.

In other words, the entire function of the US PTO must be turned upside-down, culture and purpose and everything.

As of 15 March 2001, the USPTO has changed their policies to solve that second problem. They can now publish patent applications before the patent itself is awarded to the applicant. Third parties may now submit "helpful" arguments against controversial applications. The USPTO can then weigh obviousness against challenges without incurring the costs of doing all the searching themselves.

Breaking patents by finding simple non-registered prior art is not enough for most cases. Patents already granted are almost never cracked, certainly not by someone using an independent third party's prior art. In the famous Heinlein/Waterbed case, the patent was denied before it was ever granted by the Patent Office.

Once a patent has been granted, the Patent Office rarely will get involved in disputes; that is a matter for the courts. Juries in the courts will rarely dispute patents; that's a matter for the Patent Office.


If They Can See It, They Will Copy It

Photographers often ask, "how can I make it so customers can't download and copy my proofs?"

Whatever you give your clients, they can do whatever they want with it. If you give them a proof, they can print it. Poster sized. In the lobby of their business.

There is no way to "secure" an image on a CD or website. If they can see it, they can copy it. If they can hear it, they can copy it. People may give tips like "use Flash" or "use this cool ActiveX thingy." Every pixel displayed on the screen can be saved to disk just as easily. "But this tool even disables screen shots!" Maybe it can stop one kind of browser, or stop a certain known set of video drivers, but it can't stop everyone out there. You have no control over what tools or expertise the customer will use to access those files.

You're not going to stay in business long if you rely on copyright law to come to your aid. Sue your customers? For how much? What kind of publicity will that bring?

You have to balance the quality of the proof with the customer's ability to use it. Your choices are to offer a smaller proof, a portion of the proof, and/or to taint the proof with a watermark so that prints are commercially unattractive.


Piracy Isn't Just a Naval Term

The press rightly continues to use the word 'piracy' for illicit copying and distribution of original materials. Some think it's a new phenomenon, and hard to square with the traditional image of the Jolly Roger and swashbuckling robbers-at-sea. The use of the word 'piracy' as signifying an unauthorized copy of a manuscript is hundreds of years old, long before modern Copyright doctrine was developed. From http://www.ninch.org/forum/price.report.html:
    There was very little trust in the print medium when it was first developed--it was seen as unstable and subject to piracy and fraudulent copying. Authenticity was hard to guarantee: indeed, the term "piracy" was first used by John Fell, Bishop of Oxford, to describe certain pernicious practices of early printers and booksellers. A "pirate" was someone who participated in the "unauthorized reprinting of a title recognized to belong to someone else." "Stationers" eventually emerged as the trusted practitioners who were placed in charge of various aspects of publishing--practices we would now recognize as printing, publishing, editing, and bookselling. Stationers worked out the conventional practices of making books, and thus made printing a viable economic enterprise with the elaborate complexity of producing a book eventually invisible to all but the practitioners in the trade.

That's Dr. John Fell (1625-86), who was given the title of Bishop of Oxford in 1675.


On the Separation of Church and State

Whose God?

The Mayflower crowd left Europe in part because the state enforced certain standards of religion, standards with which they did not agree. They settled in North America, and formed their own religious standards. Even today, their descendants assume that it's their right and destiny to repeat history: to enforce their religious standards on others.

The whole premise of missionary evangelism is to spread the "Word" however it takes. Fundamentalism is built on evangelizing a religious "standard." When there's a desire to uphold specific standard, the most obvious way to enforce it on a wide scale is to wrap it into the government.

Luckily, we had some good thinkers in the colonies, who decided to put up a barrier between belief-systems and civic-systems. However, they were religious people too, and put in just enough Christian ideal that has confused this country's whole history. Our official national motto is "In God We Trust." Nice words, until you ask the civically irrelevant, but strictly spiritual question, "whose God?"

Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists cannot abide each other in Ireland. Muslim and Jewish and Christian hardliners clash in the middle east. China cracks down on Buddhist territories like Tibet. The Islamic Taliban tried to destroy all forms of ancient idolatry, and modern human rights as well, in Afghanistan. Even if the basic tenets of the religion are nearly identical (love one another, love the holy spirit, be responsible and ethical, etc.), they focus instead on the inconsequential differences in which miracles are to be believed or not. The result: wars, bigotry, and persecution.

The notion of "separation of Church and State" is not literally stated in the Constitution. The First Amendment implies it, and the US Supreme Court has reaffirmed that implication very clearly and pretty consistently, although the 'conservative constitutionalists' and the 'liberal constitutionalists' waver in their agreement on how far that implication should affect the daily devotions of religious citizens in their duties in civil service.

Much of the question typically comes down to "What's wrong with putting a little God in the courtroom or classroom?" Again, I ask, "Whose God?" Would a Muslim citizen be allowed to post the Islamic tenets of the Koran? How would Wiccan and Satanist tracts be treated, when placed next to the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments? A school or court must be devoted to other questions besides these.

If we as Americans believe in a society of laws, with access and justice for all, then we must be careful not to give in to the notion of posting religious views in state-sponsored civic venues. To allow the Ten Commandments in one courtroom, or to pay tax dollars for one Bible meeting in a schoolroom, is to enforce religious standards over other citizens against their power.

The IRS has granted tax-free status to the established churches and faith-based non-profit organizations. Surely if a religion is to be sanctioned by the government, this should be enough. Let the faithful's willing donations pay for proseletizing and evangelism, not tax money spent by all its citizens for the common good.

Lastly, in contrast to those edicts of a given religion, a court of law must uphold those laws passed by its citizens, and any other law must be considered secondary. Any other course of action sends the wrong message to those who would be tried in such a courtroom.


On the Seven Days of Creation

If the Bible is divinely inspired, then surely the verse about "a day to Him is an eon to us" applies to the Seven Days of Creation as well.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the Earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
... For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Psalms 90:2,4

By that reckoning, it quite plausibly took billions of our years to equal Five Days of His.

  • The Big Bang spread matter in all directions, which coalesced into dense and sparse clouds.
     
    And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
    Genesis 1:5
  • Stars and Planets formed from the clouds of matter, with a diversity of atomic types instead of homogeneous hydrogen.
     
    And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
    And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
    And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
    Genesis 1:6-8
  • Seas and Simple Plants developed on this planet once the temperatures fell enough that they would stop boiling.
     
    And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
    And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
    And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
    And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
    And the evening and the morning were the third day.
    Genesis 1:9-13
  • The Atmosphere Cleared of thick mists and ashes eventually, letting the light of the sun and moon to reach the surface.
     
    And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
    And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
    And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
    And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
    And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
    And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
    Genesis 1:14-19
  • Complex Animals Evolved to devour simpler animals and plants, creating diverse lifeforms to fill every survival niche.
     
    And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
    And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
    And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
    And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
    Genesis 1:20-23

If that follows, then we are currently in Day Six (the Era of Man).

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Genesis 1:31

We await Day Seven (Man's Extinction and his Rest).

I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.
I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.
For thus hath the Lord said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end.
For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it.
Jeremiah 4:25-28

On What is an American Car?

Originally, an 'American Car' was easy to spot.
  • Ford
  • Chevrolet
  • General Motors

In the global marketplace, design and engineering are quite blurry now. Japanese manufacturers open production plants in the United States, and the American designers depend on European and Asian parts.

Your Toyota Camry may have been built in Kansas.

Manufacturers are changing owners. Ford assimilated Jaguar. Mercedes Benz and Jeep automobiles are made by the hybrid Daimler Chrysler Corporation.

One example of a shared design is the Mitsubishi Eclipse. The Jeep/Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser are essentially the same car.

Another example of "shared design" in cars is the Dodge Stealth and Mitsubishi 3000 GT. The Mitsubishi folks created the innards, while Dodge focused on the body styling. Mitsubishi then altered the body design to make it a bit more aggressive-looking, and bumped up the power and features of the Mitsubishi 3000 GT VR-4. Detroit hails the Stealth as an American design triumph.

Truly, there's no such thing as a purely American Car anymore.


On Irony and its Misuse

For anyone who can't go a couple days without using the word 'ironic': That which you call irony is not irony.

What many people mistakenly call 'irony' is just coincidence, or a meaningful juxtaposition. In Arsenio Hall's words, they're just things that make you go "hmm." Irony is very rare. It's when things are OPPOSITES, CONTRASTED, and UNEXPECTED.

    It was ironic that Ted Kaczynski thought the world would be a better place without technology, but he was caught when his UNABOMBer's Manifesto was published on the Internet. It was coincidence that it happened to be his own brother who recognized the writing and turned him in.

How about this usage note fom The American Heritage Dictionary?

    The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable," in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of ironically in the sentence In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York (though some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us). By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market, where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency.

On Using They in the Singular

Some people, myself included, use the word they as a singular gender-indeterminate pronoun, instead of defaulting to he, or using he/she, or expanding with he or she, or other new-age pronouns like zie, sie and hir.

From a usage note in the American Heritage dictionary:

    The use of the third-person plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun or pronoun is attested as early as 1300, and many admired writers have used they, them, themselves, and their to refer to singular nouns such as one, a person, an individual, and each.

    W.M. Thackeray, for example, wrote in Vanity Fair in 1848, "A person can't help their birth," and more recent writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Anne Morrow Lindbergh have also used this construction, in sentences such as "To do a person in means to kill them," and "When you love someone you do not love them all the time."

    The practice is widespread and can be found in such mainstream publications as the Christian Science Monitor, Discover, and the Washington Post. The usage is so common in speech that it generally passes unnoticed.

    However, despite the convenience of third-person plural forms as substitutes for generic he and for structurally awkward coordinate forms like his/her, many people avoid using they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for the traditional grammatical rule concerning pronoun agreement.

No one is willing to dispute this, are they?


On Gender versus Sex

Many people use these words interchangeably, saying 'gender' instead of saying 'sex' to refer to the physical and physiological differences between males and females.

Generally, psychologists use the term 'gender' more carefully and with a more rigorous definition than those who have not studied these concepts. The concept of gender is a social construct, an identity or role that a person takes on as a part of their personality and outlook on life. A person who was born with a male sex organ may decide that they are more comfortable with the lifestyle or dispositions that are socially recognized as being feminine; they may choose to identify themselves as a woman, whether or not their bodies agree.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Gender is in the head. Sex is in the genes.


On the "I18N" Abbreviation

"I18n" is a terrible, lazy abbreviation for "internationalization." (And the same goes for its bastard step-child, "l10n" for "localization.")

The term 'i18n' uses the number 18 to stand for the 18 lazily omitted letters, if the word was the English word 'internationalization.' If in Italy, do you type i20e for 'internazionalizzazione'? Or if in Germany, do you type i19g for 'Internationalisierung'? What do you type in kanji?

Internationalization, by its very nature, is the process of making things LESS tied to a particular language or culture or idiom. Conversely, by its very nature, the term 'i18n' is tied to a particular language, culture, AND idiom. It's stupid and counter to its own goals.

Learn to type, or make a keyboard macro, if it matters so much to you.


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Contact Ed Halley by email at
ed@halley.cc.
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