Friday, April 22, 2005

other kinds of courage

Can't think of anything to say. Just read.

the Sullivan issue

Andrew Sullivan, for those of you who don't know, was one of the biggest bloggers during the run-up to the war. He was a big supporter of George Bush, a Catholic and a practicing and unrepentant homosexual. But when Bush came out against gay marriage, Sullivan turned against him. Sullivan became a vocal and non-stop critic of the war and a vocal and non-stop promoter of gay marriage. Now, Sullivan has rather intemperately criticized the new pope and been criticized in turn. Dean defends Sullivan:
I'll also say this much: a lot of criticism I've seen in the blogosphere has been pointed right at Sullivan--and most of the criticism of Sullivan (not all, but most that I have seen) has also come from non-Catholics. By comparison, Sullivan is a Roman Catholic, not just born one but a rather passionate member of that church for all of his life.
This would be a reasonable point if Sullivan really were a devout Catholic and if Sullivan were talking primarily to Catholics. But Sullivan abandoned the Catholic church a couple of years ago and he isn't talking primarily to Catholics. He is writing to gays and sexual libertines and other critics of the traditional Catholic church. Some of them are Catholic, some of them are nominal Catholics who only call themselves that for political purposes, and many of them are not Catholics at all. Sullivan is openly making common cause with enemies of the traditional Catholic church. I don't think it's out of line for allies of the church to take exception.

In 2003, Sullivan wrote:
The Catholic world looks at us [practicing and unrepentant homosexuals] as if we want to destroy an institution we simply want to belong to. So why not leave? In some ways, I suppose, I have. What was for almost 40 years a weekly church habit dried up this past year to close to nothing. Every time I walked into a church or close to one, the anger and hurt overwhelmed me. It was as if a dam of intellectual resistance to emotional distress finally burst. But there was no comfort in this, no relief, no resolution. There is no ultimate meaning for me outside the Gospels, however hard I try to imagine it; no true solace but the Eucharist; no divine love outside of Christ and the church he guides. In that sense, I have not left the church because I cannot leave the church, no more than I can leave my family. Like many other gay Catholics, I love this church; for me, there is and never will be any other. But I realize I cannot participate in it any longer either. It would be an act of dishonesty to enable an institution that is now a major force for the obliteration of gay lives and loves; that covered up for so long the sexual abuse of children but uses the word ``evil'' for two gay people wanting to commit to each other for life.
Sullivan finds that he must chose between Church and Sex, and he chooses Sex. Many others have made the same decision. Many of those were more honest about it than Sullivan. Instead of a making a clean and honest break, Sullivan chooses to maintain a polite fiction that he is still Catholic, even though he never attends mass, never accepts the sacraments, and is in constant political battle against the church.

One suspects that this choice is primarily motivated by the rhetorical authority of being a Catholic critic of the Catholic church. No one ever accused Sullivan of having weak rhetorical instincts.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

software patents

A friend from India just came into my office, excited that India no longer accepts software patents. The news originally came from a communist web site. They, of course, approved.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain why the communists are right on this issue.

Here are my biases: I'm a software engineer. I make my money from software intellectual property, so I have a strong personal incentive to favor them --assuming that they actually help the industry. I also hate communists. Agreeing with communists against the leadership of my own country is a bit painful, but here's the simple truth: software patents are bad for the public and bad for the industry.

First, I'd like to dispense with the idea that patent rights (or any other intellectual property rights) are natural or God-given rights like life, liberty, and the rights to own and dispose of physical property. Imagine a situation without government, where each decision has to be made solely on what is right and what is wrong. You have worked hard all summer to raise grain to see you and your family through the winter. Someone comes and tries to take the grain. Do you have a right to use physical violence to stop him? Of course you do. That grain is the product of your own labor and without it you will suffer.

Now imagine that you invent a clever song, so clever that people pay you to sing it. You make a nice living at this for a while. Then one day you find out that someone else has copied your song and that some people are paying him to sing it. Do you have a right to beat the other singer to make him stop singing your song?

It's a lot more problematic, isn't it? After all, by singing your song, the other singer hasn't actually taken anything away from you. You still have the song. You can keep singing it. There may be some people who no longer pay you to sing it because they prefer the other guy, but it isn't as though you really owned them as an audience, it is? They have a right to pay whoever they want. And who knows, by popularizing your song, the other singer may actually end up benefiting you in the long run.

The situation with intellectual property is just a lot more complicated than the situation with physical property. In the first place, when someone copies your intellectual work, it isn't clear that he has harmed you. And in the second place, even if he has harmed you, it isn't clear that you have a right to use violence as a remedy.

And make no mistake: when you sue someone in court, you are threatening violence against him. It is all very civilized, but a law suit is ultimately a threat of sending someone to prison if he does not cooperate --if he refuses to pay what the judge says. He could even be killed if he resists the police who come to take him to prison. Without that threat of government violence, law suits would have no power.

There is a place for intellectual property rights of course, but they aren't natural rights; they are more like the artificial rights you get when you drive a car. When the light turns green, you have a right to go. If the lines are dashed, you have a right to pass. There are many cases where the government enforces special privileges, licenses, and monopolies such as the special licenses of the electric company and TV and radio stations.

Intellectual property rights are more like these things: privileges and licenses that the government grants in order to regulate scarce resources and promote the common good. Consequently, when you make decisions about patents and copyrights and other forms of intellectual property rights, the primary consideration is not the "rights" of those who produced the intellectual property --there's no such thing-- but the common good.

Patents were originally created to encourage investors to risk their money on new inventions that needed to be manufactured, new manufacturing processes, and other things that took many years and a lot of capital to bring to market. They were intended to balance the incentives for the investors with the greatest public utility. Over all, they worked acceptably well.

But it never was perfect. For every factory that patents encouraged, it may have discouraged two. There are almost no cases in history where something was invented by just one person. The people we remember as the inventors are the ones who got investors interested. The other people who had ideas that were just as good, or even better, we never hear about in history classes.

Back in the days of manufactured inventions, that was OK. Overall there was a public benefit to giving a short-term monopoly to the first one and let the other potential investors go look for something else to invest in. But software is different. Software can be done by one guy in his den. In his pajamas. And there aren't a few dozen software "inventors", there are hundreds of thousands.

Of course investors are still critical to innovation. Capital creates organization. It brings multiple programmers together who otherwise might not be able to. It creates strong incentives to deliver a product rather than just mess around endlessly with cool ideas. But if you grant a monopoly to one inventor, you aren't blocking a couple of others, you are blocking a thousand others. What good would come from letting those thousand others take their chances in the market?

Software patents discourage innovation. The guy working in his pajamas not only can't afford to have a patent battle with Microsoft, he can't even afford to do a patent search. Every significant software product has a dozen new techniques that may or may not be patentable. Only huge companies can afford the time and expense to verify that no one has patented any of these techniques.

And the truth is that many of these software "inventions" are not really innovative. The US patent office has granted patents on some ridiculously obvious things. For example, it is a well-known trick in computer science that if you can arrange to keep your numbers as powers of two, then multiplication and division are much faster. One company applied for and was granted a patent on using this common trick in a specific application. I don't know if it's still true, but at one time the patent office refused to hire computer scientists because they thought physicists should be just as good at detecting novel software inventions. That's sort of like assuming that bass fishermen know how to sail three-masted frigates. They drive boats, don't they?

This problem of trivial patents, again, is no problem for big companies, but it is for the many small companies and individuals. If a big company gets caught violating a patent, they have lawyers and lobbyists and thousands of their own patents. They can probably find some trivial patent of theirs that you violated, and if not they might get a law passed to help their side, or at least get a congressman to talk to the patent office for them. Or failing that, they can tie you up in court until the patent expires. And as a last resort they can just pay you off, because it's a drop in the bucket for them. Patents create costs that slew the market in favor of the biggest companies, and even worse, against the most innovative companies.

With the low cost of development (and distribution) and the huge number of people involved in writing software, patents on software "inventions" are far more likely to hinder progress than promote it. This is not to say that all software patents should be prohibited, but that there should be a strong presumption against any software patent. The rules should be designed to promote the common good, not to line the pockets of the companies that give the biggest campaign contributions. And software patents should only be granted by actual computer scientists who have a good idea of what actually constitutes an invention.

wanted: script editor

I'm looking for someone to act as an editor for my screenplays. This is a paid gig but I want someone who actually has experience in writing and reading screenplays and knows the industry standards.

Please email me if you are interested.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

football judges

Here is an excellent metaphor to explain how judges became a political issue.

police monkeys

From Back of the Envelope, this story about a police department that wants to train a monkey for the swat team:
Weighing only 3 to 8 pounds with tiny humanlike hands and puzzle-solving skills, Truelove said it could unlock doors, search buildings and find suicide victims on command. Dressed in a Kevlar vest, video camera and two-way radio, the small monkey would be able to get into places no officer or robot could go.
Over all, I think it's a cool idea and worth a try, but the Kelvar vest is silly. A typical bullet weight is about .05 pounds. A typical weight for these monkeys is 5 pounds, so the bullet would weigh about 1/100th of what the monkey does. A monkey hit by a bullet would be about the same as a 180-pound man being hit by a 1.8-pound bullet. No Kelvar vest is going to save you from a 1.8-pound bullet, even if it doesn't penetrate the vest.

Most handgun rounds are going to squish that little monkey like a bug, no matter how thick the Kelvar is. The monkey would be a lot better off if it were trained to jump erratically whenever someone points a gun at it. No one is going to hit an excited monkey with a handgun except by random chance.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

a solution to the national debt

From Roscoe:
While I disagree with his analysis, what really struck me about the piece is the unspoken assumption that money that we don't have to give the government, through avoidance of taxes, is the same thing as a government expenditure. For example, there is this paragraph:
As Cleveland State University College of Law professor Deborah Geier notes in a recent working paper, the home-mortgage deduction is the third-largest single "tax expenditure"...
I just realized something huge. The government doesn't tax anything at 100%. Each percentage point they don't tax something is a government expense because if they did tax it then they would have the money. Now add up all of the GDP that isn't taken away in 100% taxes and that right there is the government's biggest expense. The biggest expense by a huge margin! By trillions!

Why aren't we conservatives up in arms about this? We need to immediately being lobbying our congressmen for 100% taxes on every single finanancial transaction. With this, we could save enough money to pay off the national debt in one year while funding huge increases in the military and the border patrol all at the same time. Let's get the word out people!

Monday, April 18, 2005

to a friend, on the occasion of her 40th birthday

The names have been changed to protect the aged.

Happy Birthday, Bernice. I hope you enjoy, your two-scoreth birthday. You know me. I'm not one to give advice or to have much of an opinion on anything, but I do know a little something about being young middle-aged.

You are going to start running into some unpleasant things. Lots more young people are going to start calling you maam and you can't go around hitting them all. You may begin to notice that print is becoming smaller and blurrier. You may notice that nights are a bit darker when you drive and you may notice a tendency for cars and pedestrians to jump out of nowhere. You may find that chairs have gotten a bit lower so that getting out of them is slightly more of a challenge.

There are two ways to react to these things, Bernice, and I hope you chose the right one. You can take the stubborn approach of insisting that print, streetlights, other cars and pedestrians, and chairs are all actually changing and getting less convenient. Or, you can age gracefully. You can just admit that you are getting older, that your eyes don't focus as well as they used to, that your reactions have slowed down, that you are not as limber as you once were.

My advice? Admit nothing. Cling to your illusions of youth like you would cling to a thrown rope if you were being swept away in a flood. After all at this age, our treasured illusions are pretty much all we have to live for.

Do I sound pessimistic? Not at all. You can continue to succeed and overcome challenges just as you always did. The trick is to lower the bar. Now, it becomes a great success if you put down your keys to get the mail and then remember to pick them up again. Every time you get home from the store and can't think of anything you forgot, tell yourself, "Job well done."

You are going to have to change your vocabulary a bit too. Where you used to say, "Oh even my _grandmother_ could have done that!" You have to change to "Oh, even my _mom_ could have done that!" You are going to have to realize that when they talk about "the kids" any more, they don't mean you. And you are going to have to change from saying "that sounds like fun" to "that doesn't sound too tiring" and from "I can lift that, no problem" to "I think I can lift that but first let me see if I have some ibuprofen for my back". There are lots more, which I'm sure you will quickly discover.

Good luck, Bernice, and I'm sure you'll do fine.


Donald is accepting entries for the StoryBlogging Carnival.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

anticipated by the world

Remember that treasure-hunting story I was thinking about writing? Well, the newspapers beat me to it (link from Dean's World). My story was about someone who accidentally stumbled on information about a WWII Japanese submarine that was sunk while carrying gold.

Sorry about that last sentence but I can't think of anyway to break it up. Read it carefully so you don't sprain anything.

McCain stabs us again

John McCain has just announced that he will not vote against a change to senate rules that prevents filibustering judicial nominations (link from Patterico). I wrote the following letter to him:
Mr. McCain, I lived in Arizona for some thirty years and always voted for you. I can't tell you how sorry I am about that. First, you take away my first-amendment rights to speak out about political candidates and try to effect elections, and now you are hindering the Republican effort to reverse the judicial tyranny that has taken over this country.

What could be a more mild reaction to the leftist usurpation of power than to simply replace the usurpers with honorable judges? But you won't even support such a mild and peaceful counter-revolution.

You limit our rights to free speech, but not the rights of the media that opposes us. We win a majority even so handicapped and even so you would deny us the right that the constitution provides --for the majority to appoint judges.

What remedy would you leave us, short of violence?

medical experimentation

Space Monkey does science. He examines some data, notices a trend, establishes a hypothesis, makes a prediction based on the hypothesis, and tests the prediction. I think the lesson we can all learn from this is that the scientific method is a flawed tool.

By the way, I wrote the above paragraph with all those big words and the spel-cheker found no erors! I thinc zi've finally arived. No more need such causious writting and editing. zi've got it down!