Friday, July 20, 2007

Another book?

I've often threatened to write a book about my time in industry, particularly the nearly seven years I spent in aerospace development. For an inkling of the kind of stories it might include, take a look at “Sarge, Is This Another Bug Hunt?" by Michael John Smith.

"The hardest thing about bug impact testing is dealing with the crickets. It was not too difficult modifying an air gun with top useful speed of three hundred miles per hour to operate at five to six hundred miles per hour. All it took was replacing the old solenoid valve with a larger one, upping the operating pressure from twenty or thirty psi. to one hundred and fifty psi., making Styrofoam sabots, developing a compressed Styrofoam wad for stopping up the chamber, and making custom tools for packing the chamber. All pretty standard stuff. And it is not as if the crickets are physically difficult to work with. They fit in the 1/4² barrel nicely. Their weight is not such that the gun has a hard time pushing them. They take special care to use, being delicate and all, but that is no big deal. No, the part I did not like was killing them. Even though they are just bugs and I put them out painlessly with cold before they knew what they were in for, I just did not like it. So I was not disappointed when it turned out that even at speeds in excess of five hundred and fifty miles per hour they do not damage an F-18 windshield. For that, I had to call in a stunt double...

Everyone has been under a lot of pressure over this bug thing. It is this month¹s big emergency. Even the head salesman for the F-18, Chuck Seagle, has come into to town to add his personal touch. Chuck is a Texan, and loud of it. The chemists have been getting a little tense lately. Fortunately for me, I just have a hard time taking bug impact testing seriously.

With crickets out of the running for bug damage simulation I had to cast about for a replacement. Obviously, the impact part of the bug damage (if any) is caused by hard bodied insects like flying beetles instead of soft bodied insects like crickets. I decided to try one of my very first ideas which I had discarded in favor of crickets. So on Monday morning on my way to work I opened up the Kellogg¹s Raisin Bran and sifted out five raisins. The way I figure it, raisins are squishy like a bug, but not bouncy like rubber or silly putty. They are not hard on the outside, but I did not have any Raisin-Nut-Flakes, so there you go. (Raisin-Nut-Flakes have raisins which are coated with chopped up nuts.) However, they do hold together a lot better than soft bodied insects.

I went to work with my raisins early in the day. My air gun is loaded at the breach end through a hole in the side of the barrel. To get fast shots I shove the projectile down into the barrel from the chamber, and then pack in compressed Styrofoam behind it. The Styrofoam holds back the in-rushing air just long enough to get really high pressure, then disintegrates and flows easily down the barrel. (Now don¹t go stealing my techniques. As someone pointed out, I am probably the only person in the world working on this problem right now, and I don¹t want to be scooped.)"

Thanks to my old colleagues Bernie and Wayne for the pointer. We didn't ever get round to firing bugs or raisins at our windscreen (and other structural) test pieces but we did fire a range of other things including hand-crafted hailstones in a variety of sizes...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Libertarian market extremism and health care in the US

Andrew Koppelman at Balkanization:

"I’m writing today in a foul mood, having learned from an old friend with whom I’ve recently reestablished contact that he is going to be moving to Canada because he’s quite ill, has no medical insurance, and will not receive the extended treatment he needs if he stays in the United States...

A frequent trope that the libertarians used, in our conversations, was the invocation of the terrible abuses that existed under Soviet communism. The idea that these exhaust the options on the table is weird. The following is an attempt to explain the weirdness.

Think about the question of treatment of illness – just on the individual level, as the individual decides what to do about his disease. One can imagine analogues to the communist and libertarian offering him advice. One advisor, let’s call him Dr. Frankenstein, suggests the following: “The problem with your body is that it operates by chance natural processes, without human direction. What you need to do is let me completely dismantle your body and put it together again in a completely different way, following a logic that I have carefully worked out, sitting here at my desk.” The other advisor, Christian Scientist, responds: “Your problem is that you haven’t got enough faith in the natural processes in your body. No intervention of any kind is appropriate, other than the prevention of basic physical trauma and starvation. Your body is a wonderfully self-regulating mechanism, which obviously takes care of itself most of the time without any medical intervention at all. It’s a mistake ever to try to interfere with its natural operation.”

Both Frankenstein and Christian Scientist are, not to put too fine a point on it, insane. The person needs medical intervention. The hard question is what kind of intervention he needs. There are sane presumptions that bear a family resemblance to both of these crazies: one can think that illness is evidence that intervention is appropriate, and one can also notice that, given the body’s capacities for self-regulation, intervention can sometimes do more harm than good. But both of these presumptions must await empirical testing, and each can be convincingly refuted in particular cases.

The communist and the libertarian are both loony for similar reasons. Economies are, for the most part, self-regulating, and the desire to micromanage them is crazy for the same reasons that Frankenstein is crazy. But the libertarian is no better. Our free market in medical care has created a state of affairs in which a large chunk of our population is vulnerable to easily preventable diseases, and in which the United States has become uninhabitable for some of its citizens, as my friend’s case illustrates. The faith that the market will fix this is as daft as the faith that prayer will cure my appendicitis."

Calm rationality in the fight against terrorism

Brian Tamanaha has been discussing the war on terror with academics outside the US.

"Several related points stood out in these discussions:

First, everyone takes the threat of terrorism quite seriously, although a few remarked that on a relative scale there are perhaps greater threats.

Second, most people reject the notion that the fight against terrorism is properly characterized as a “war” (notwithstanding the above named conference). Rather, it is a significant threat to public safety, one which promises to be with us for some time.

Third, following from the second, there is a broad consensus that the response to terrorism should be conducted within standard legal mechanisms, much like any other kind of criminal proceeding, although particular accommodations might be necessary to handle classified information.

Fourth, the use of torture (or “alternative procedures”) in interrogation is unacceptable for moral, symbolic, and practical reasons.

Finally, the people who spoke obviously cherish and take pride in their legal traditions and legal principles, and have a strong conviction that these must not be sacrificed in the fight against terrorism.

We have much to learn from this more sober, but no less serious and determined response to the threat of terrorism. The several British speakers, all too aware of the manifest threat of terrorism, were especially impressive in their measured approach to the problem.

Our government's response to 9/11 was to come out with guns blazing and a "whatever it takes" attitude that too often saw the law as a hindrance. But the law is one of our great strengths. It is time to draw on this strength and normalize the fight against terrorism."

Well said.

Inmates Accused in Name Copyright Scheme

Only in the US?:

"What's in a name? How about a scheme to get out of prison? Four federal inmates were indicted Tuesday on allegations that they copyrighted their names, then demanded millions of dollars from prison officials for using the names without authorization."

Reminds me of Leo Stoller who claimed to have trademarked the word "stealth" and the phrase "freedom of expression" amongst others. On the latter, Kimbrew McLeod got there before him. Another guy with the surname Brilliant did likewise, copyrighting pithy phrases and aphorisms and deriving a tidy sum from sending nastygrams to people who innocently used these propertised collections of words threatening legal action unless they paid up. The one I remember off the top of my head is a publisher who paid him off relating to a TV presenter's autobiography "Everyone is entitled to my opinion.

Apparently these guys in prison went even further though, allegedly hiring someone to seize the warden's house and possessions and change the locks. Then when they thought their hired hand had completed his activities they told the warden he could have his house back if he let them out of prison. The craziness rating of IP stories is showing no signs of letting up.

Lee Strickland 1950 - 2007

Former CIA officer and professor of information policy, Lee Strickland died recently. Mary Minow of the Library Law Blog has this tribute:

"I thought I saw Lee Strickland out of the corner of my eye last week, a couple of times at the American Library Association conference in D.C. last week.

I know he was there, smiling, saying “I told you so,” when Foreign Intelligence Court Judge Royce Lamberth blasted the administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps. Lee was the only library school professor I know who had been a long time Senior Intelligence Officer for the CIA.

I called him years ago to ask about national security letters (NSLs), and he told me that if a library came to him with one, he’d likely recommend the library challenge it. So he would have been proud to hear Peter Chase and Barbara Bailey speak at the ALA conference June 24th, as they described their journey to do just that. They were served an NSL by the FBI, and told that they couldn’t tell anyone besides their lawyer about it. Not their colleagues, their staffs, not their families. They were not willing to turn over records without a court order, and they weren’t willing to stay gagged for eternity about their experience, particularly since Patriot Act Reauthorization hearings were happening, and people were saying that the FBI did not ask for library records.

Lee taught librarians about the inner workings of intelligence orders, and hopefully his teachings and writings helped the librarians and their lawyers in this ultimately successful quest.

I learned a lot from Lee, and he graciously (thankfully!) took on the lion’s share of the work in an article I coauthored with him and Tomas Lipinski, Patriot in the Library: Management Approaches When Demands for Information are Received from Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies, 30 J. of College and Univ. Law 2004 42pp. Karen, his wife, did much of the extensive research.

Lee wrote many many other articles on intelligence information, all a great contribution to the library community. I’m sad as can be that his voice is gone, especially now when we need his inside experience and generous spirit more than ever."

Joyce, Shloss and the freedom of scholars

Tim Cavanaugh of the LA Times had an interesting round up (way back ion early June) of the Carol Shloss v Stephen Joyce case.

"On Friday, a San Jose federal judge awarded attorney fees to a Stanford University English professor whose suit against the estate of James Joyce was settled recently. The awarding of fees in an out-of-court settlement, while not typical, is not unprecedented; and since settled cases don't establish legal precedent, this case is unlikely to become required reading at any law schools. But Carol Loeb Shloss' suit against the Joyce estate sheds light on an ironic, and maybe inevitable, trend in intellectual property: As copyright becomes harder to defend, many copyright holders are becoming less realistic about the limitations of their ownership.

Shloss' suit, which was launched by the Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project and argued by intellectual property expert Lawrence Lessig, charged the Joyce estate, (consisting of Stephen James Joyce, the author's grandson and sole living heir, and Sean Sweeney, a trustee), with unreasonably preventing Shloss from making fair use of the author's published works or quoting from Joyce family letters for her biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance In the Wake. It also charged the estate with a variety of copyright "misuses"—trying to prevent Shloss from using materials (such as medical records) whose copyright the estate did not own, intimidating the owners of the physical papers on which its copyrighted material is written and repeatedly refusing reasonable fair-use requests from others. It also took some steps to chip away at the presumed copyright on some of Joyce's published works...

Can we learn anything from this trip through the deep weeds of intellectual property? First, there may be a point here about the problems of endless copyright protection. Joyce's last novel was published in 1939, and much of this wrangling hinges on books that were written before many of our parents were born. If it's absurd to be arguing about these ancient works, how strange will it be in some futuristic, Jetsons-worthy era when somebody wants to do a smellivision version of SpongBob Sqarepants but the descendants of Viacom won't let that happen?

It also may be the case that estates are rarely the best or smartest stewards of literary works. Stephen Joyce, whatever his enemies in the Joyce scholarly community may think of him, is honestly committed to maintaining his grandfather's legacy. That doesn't mean he's especially smart in his efforts, which essentially amount to policing the culture for work he considers substandard. Adaptations and studies may be good, bad or indifferent (I have argued that almost all Joyce adaptations have been pretty lousy), but common sense dictates that even a sub-par adaptation generates more reader interest in the original work."

Music file-sharers get boost in top EU court

Via Reuters: Music file-sharers get boost in top EU court

"Telecoms companies in Europe are not required to hand over information on clients believed to be running music-sharing websites in civil cases, an adviser to the European Union's top court said on Wednesday.

The case was brought by a Spanish music and audiovisual association after telecoms provider Telefonica refused to hand over the names and addresses of its Internet clients suspected of running illegal file sharing sites."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Patent Is Worth Having, Right?

From the NYT: A Patent Is Worth Having, Right? Well, Maybe Not

"two researchers have analyzed data from 1976 to 1999, the most recent year with complete data. They found that starting in the late 1990s, publicly traded companies saw patent litigation costs outstrip patent profits. Specifically, they estimate that about $8.4 billion in global profits came directly from patents held by publicly traded United States companies in 1997, rising to about $9.3 billion in 1999, with two-thirds of the profits going to chemical and pharmaceutical companies. Domestic litigation costs alone, meanwhile, soared to $16 billion in 1999 from $8 billion in 1997."

HPANA cripplessite functionality to avoid spoilers

The Harry Potter Automatic News Aggregator site folks have decided to cripple the functionality of their own website in order to avoid spoilers of the 7th book in the series getting posted there.

"we've implemented a comprehensive set of protection policies for Deathly Hallows, which are now live.

Unfortunately they are rather strict and cripple much of the site's functionality, but we would like to err on the side of caution rather than convenience. As such, members who joined after July 1st, 2007 or who have less than 100 points will not be able to post in HPANA's forums at all, effective immediately. External images and links have been disabled until after the book release, and the Wizard Wire Service on HPANA's home page has been temporarily removed.

We hope these and other minor changes will help ensure a spoiler-free experience on the site for the next several days before the release of book 7. Following its publication, HPANA will close almost completely for approximately 48 hours.

Please don't hesitate to contact one of the moderators if you find something spoilery anywhere on the site.

Also note that any spoilers (scans of the book, chapter or plot summaries or elements) prior to its official release at 12:01 a.m. on July 21 will be removed and the poster's details, including IP address, will be forwarded to the Harry Potter publishers and JK Rowling's office. (Not to mention, banned from HPANA.)"

Harry Potter and the latest copyright case

Interested as I am in Harry Potter copyright cases (see for example chapter 3 of my book), I wasn't surprised to find one about the latest book (due out in a few days, midnight on the 21st to be precise). The publishers are trying to identify the person who allegedly scanned and posted some or all pages of the new book online. From AP via CNN:

"On Tuesday, digital images of what may be the entire text of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," including 36 chapters and a seven-page epilogue, were circulating among Web users. The book was apparently photographed as it lay on a carpet speckled with green and red, a hand at the bottom holding down the pages."

From the FT:

" Bloomsbury, Ms Rowling’s UK publishers, refused to confirm or deny that the download was genuine, saying: “People go to extraordinary lengths to copy these books and they have done it before.

“There are people who spend their lives doing nothing but copying the books and maybe this is what this is.”"

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Government threatens data sharing onslaught

Via Becky Hogge at ORG: Government threatens data sharing onslaught

"Prime minister Gordon Brown has included increased data sharing powers in three of the bills announced in his draft legislative programme – with one measure that would hand HM Revenue and Customs data to private firms...

Brown’s measures are included in planned legislation that is not focused on welfare or improving public services.

Instead, the draft legislative programme – a departure from the tradition of announcing government bills in the queen’s speech – includes increased data sharing powers in proposed new laws on terrorism, education and skills and the sale of student loans."

Monday, July 16, 2007

7 Ways To Ruin A Technological Revolution

I've just got round to listening to James Boyle's talk at Google, 7 Ways To Ruin A Technological Revolution. Astute and entertaining as ever he makes most of the key points about intellectual property policy in the space of little more than half an hour (followed by a Q&A session):

  • The making of IP policy is disproportionately driven by emotive appeals by wealthy artists and industries. WIPO has no economists or empiricists on the payroll and policymakers worldview, shaped by IP maximalist lobbyists dictates that errors can only be made in one direction - over protection. (He relates an amusing conversation with a staff member of one of the collecting societies where on asking about whether singing in the shower should be monetised, he was told "That's just a problem of monitoring.")
  • There is a complete failure to recognise the reality that every creator's inputs are someone else's outputs. The focus is only on protecting the outputs
  • Whenever technology is factored into the debate the entire focus is on the negative effects of the technology - the ability to copy easily leading to piracy, rather than the vast new cheap distribution networks and markets it opens up.
  • We are very bad in the West at understanding the benefits of openness
  • We ignore creativeness that does not involve property rights - if Tim Berners-Lee was trying to release the Web as a set of open protocols today he'd be considered a complete nutcase. We ignore the benefits of technologies like the web and the end to end Net. So the computer as a general purpose machine becomes a bad thing and we have to move to controlled or trusted systems
  • For IP maximalists it is important for policy to be made internationally. It helps keep the NGOs out and then harmonisation upwards can be managed sequentially. Germany has life plus seventy copyright term then the rest of the EU harmonises up. Then US harmonises up to match EU. Mexico is now on life plus 100 years... Also in almost every international IP treaty, rights are mandatory and exceptions optional
  • It is important that opponents fail to engage with the political process and there is no community like the techno-geeks for that. James reckons we bring self marginalisation to the level of an Olympic sport, which is really hard to do given we have all the good arguments on our side. Apathy on the part of geeks is incredibly useful to maximalists - geeks say that law is stupid and therefore deny that reality. Not a good tactic for getting politicos on your side
James reckons one of the good things he does now is turn out graduates who know by rote: "IF that were illegal, Google would be illegal."

As usual with his talks there are a number of priceless one-liners too.

"I was talking to the French senate about the Internet... They were against it." One of the French politicians was very indignant when he was finished and lambasted him about reducing such a sacred thing as creative culture to the realm of property. He fiercely told James: "There are two points - it has nothing to do with money and the author must get paid!"

On patents he singles out the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for particular criticism for ignoring the test of non-obviousness - due to their misunderstanding of the technologies - in considering whether to uphold patent claims, especially in the area of genetic engineering and computer software. HE suggests their ignorance of biology is down to treating it as "chemistry with longer molecules" and since none of the biotech stuff was around when they were at school in the 1960s then it must be complicated; which has led to a whole load of things getting patent protection that high school students now do as a matter of routine. He also reckons the Supreme court don't like the federal circuit appeal court because they have an 'uncanny ability to piss them off by saying things like: "they will probably defer to us because we are the specialists"'; and that he expects SCOTUS to dish out "several ritual canings of the court of appeals for the federal circuit in the next three years." Apparently they nearly did in the recent Metaboli case but chose to dodge the issue of whether you could patent the idea of having a thesis, testing it in the world, figuring out whether the results confirmed or denied it etc. Jamie's fear is that in dishing out their lesson to the appeals court SCOTUS will pick on arcane little things rather than the substantive stuff they really need to tackle.

In the Q&A he accepts the point that gathering and analysing empirical evidence in order to determine where the IP balance point should be is a really difficult task. OR it would be an enormously difficult question for people of good will at least. Luckily for him the boundaries of IP are actually so far out that he can come up with a number of decent empirical arguments e.g. when extending copyright terms don't extend them for dead people - no matter how much more incentive you provide the dead person is unlikely to create any more. Secondly despite harmonisation moves there is often a time delay in one jurisdiction catching up with a parallel one. So on the EU database directive which covers an IP right not available in the US the database markets in the EU and US can be compared. On every measure the US market out performs the EU market since the database protection was brought into force in the EU.

Also "Ninety-something % of all Western culture produced in the last 100 years is (a) under copyright and (b) has no identifiable copyright owner" So it is all locked up and providing no benefit. It would be more efficient to pay Disney and the like corporate welfare out of tax revenues to keep all the films they want to keep copyrighted forever and let all the rest pass into the public domain after 25 years. Just give the content companies corporate welfare directly because that is what they are getting from the IP system as currently constituted anyway but "at the cost of destroying access to 20th century culture in any fixed form."

Great stuff.