Friday, December 22, 2006


One of my dissertation reviewers wanted me to remove a humorous aside from my dissertation because he didn't think academic writing ought to be enjoyable to read. Or so I said to my advisor when I told him about it. I said that I would to refuse to remove the paragraphs just because some humorless ogre didn't like to laugh; I had my principles, after all.

My advisor never did tell me whether he thought the paragraphs should be removed or not, all he said to me was that I was losing sight of the goal, which was to graduate --not to publish a dissertation that I personally liked. He was right. I wasn't standing on principle, I was just being stubborn.

It is human nature to confuse stubbornness with principles when we want to be obstinate, and to confuse principle with stubbornness when we don't. There are various things we can do to help avoid this mistake. Ask yourself, "Who am I doing this for and what does it accomplish?" Or maybe ask yourself, "What principle, exactly, am I standing up for here, and is it really a noble one?"

But there is a simpler test that is extremely effective. If you have chosen to take a stand on something, examine your feelings. Do you feel righteously defiant? If so, you are probably just being stubborn. After all, righteous defiance feels good and we do wrong because it feels good, we don't to right because it feels good --Hollywood ethics to the contrary. We aren't stubborn for no reason; we are stubborn because it gives us a feeling of smug satisfaction. If you have that feeling, maybe you should reconsider.

The opposite is also true. When you have taken a stand and you are wondering if you were too inflexible, too stubborn, then ask yourself, did the stand cost you more than you wanted to pay? Do you wish that you could just get along rather than being defiant? Then there is a good chance that you are standing on principle. Don't give up now.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

shrink-wrap licenses

Xrlq is complaining about shrink-wrap licenses (among many other things). I have three problems with shrink-wrap licenses that make me think that they are not reasonable and make me hope that they are not legally enforceable. The first one is just an analogy (as I described in Xrlq's) comments: suppose a lawnmower manufacturer put a tag on the pull chord that says, "By pulling this chord you agree to only buy gas from us." Would that be enforceable? I would hope not. After all, by the time I'm getting ready to pull the chord it isn't their lawnmower any more; it's mine because I bought it. How can they put conditions on my use of my own property? Software should be the same. Sure, they can tell me that I'm not allowed to push the Install button until I agree to their terms, but I already bought the software and it's running on my own computer. How can they restrict the way I use it?

My second objection has to do with speech acts. A speech act is just the act you undertake when you say something. Speech acts include things like inform, ask a question, promise, etc. They have to do with what you say and what you intended when you said it. For example, suppose that I say to someone, "I'm going to the drug store." The speech act I am performing is an act of informing only if I meet conditions like the following (I don't remember the standard analysis so I'm inventing):
1. I said something that was a statement of fact, P to person H.
2. I intended for P to be true.
3. I intended by my statement of P that H understand that P is true.
4. I intended by my statement of P that H understand that I intended to communicate to H that P is true.
This is probably more complicated than you expected, but if you leave out any of the conditions, then I can come up with an example that makes this a case of something else besides informing.

Now, how does this apply to shrink-wrap licenses? The manufacturer of the software wants you, by pushing the Install button, to undertake a speech act --the act of agreeing to terms. But in order to do that, you have to have the proper intentions. The act of agreeing to terms involves conditions like the following:
1. I make an affirmation P to H referring to a set of terms T.
2. I intend for H to understand that P refers to T.
3. I intend for H to understand by P that I intend to abide by T.
Notice that I don't include
4'. I intend to abide by T.
You can agree to terms while having no intention to abide by them. The core point in an act of agreeing to terms is what you intend for your hearer to understand. If you intend for your hearer to believe that you have agreed to the terms, then you have agreed to them.

When I push the button to install my software, am I fulfilling any speech act? I don't see how this is possible, given that there is no H. Conditions 2 and 3 cannot possibly be fulfilled because I don't intend by pushing that button to communicate anything to anyone; I only intend to install my software. There is no one who can come before a judge and say, "Dave communicated to me that he agreed to abide by these terms." And in fact, I did not, even in my own thoughts, agree to any terms. How can that be a contract?

My final objection sounds legalistic, but I really intend it philosophically; that is, it is about abstract principles of human interaction rather than about legislated laws. This objection has to do with agency. Basically, the computer manufacturer is attempting to co-opt my computer to act as their agent in making a contract with me. There are two problems with this. First, it isn't clear to me that a device can act as an agent. Second (and more importantly), I did not give them permission to use my computer in this way. If my computer is actually acting as their agent, then they have appropriated for themselves the use of my property for their own purposes without my permission. That sounds a lot like theft. And in any case, I'm certainly entitled to put conditions on this service, so before they can go to court, using the testimony of my computer as their agent, I should be able to set terms on their use of my property and one of those terms would be that they can't use it as an agent against me in court.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

townhall's web design blows

The website design is getting more and more obnoxious every day. It has glaring colors, a bewildering layout, and a labyrinthine site structure. Who do they have designing that site, a tenth-grader?

Those things can be put down to abominable taste but their popup ads that defeat popup-blockers show more than just bad taste, they show a contempt for the customer. Popup blockers are a way for everyone to be happy. Advertisers want their ads to be prominent for most readers, but those who are more likely to be pissed off by a popup engaged by it can avoid the ads. Everyone wins, right? But NOOOOOOOOO. is perfectly happy trying to force their readers to see things that the reader has specifically tried to avoid seeing. You would think that sincere capitalists would be a little more concerned about what their customers want.

I used to read Townhall every day but now I seldom visit more than twice a month or so, just because I can't stand the site. I'm on the edge of removing Townhall from my Recommended Reading list (the one in the margin) which would mean that I don't visit at all. I love Townhall's content, but that site is by far the most annoying I visit. Other sites that have gone that way, I just stopped visiting, and Townhall is trying very hard to get into that category.