Ars Technica feature on software patents

Timothy B. Lee reviews the current state of US software patenting on Ars Technica – lots of links.

I completely reject the idea of patenting anything abstract. I still need to think about where I stand on copyright – the arguments aren’t so straightforward.

I used to be against all forms of patent or copyright – I thought of them, and still do really, as consolidating power of the enterprising time-rich, money-rich, intellect-rich over those who aren’t.  The opportunity to profit financially from an idea and its actualisation by making it exclusive is not one I’ll ever support. However, in the context of the campaign for an academic boycott of Israelis – often justified with reference to particularly strong pressure to be gained from excluding Israeli scientists with their disproportionate inventiveness – I’ve come round to entertaining an idea of them as incidental protections for individuals and groups who might otherwise be taken from – plundered – at the same time as being grievously ostracised.

Cows prefer to be treated as individuals

My animal rights arguments have always been weak (in fact mostly expressed as inarticulate menu choices). Friends still feel comfortable looking at my Guardian supplement on the ill-treatment of pigs and remarking that the bacon on the front looks appetising. I had a bit of what Matt calls a sense of humour failure at that point because I find that nearly as difficult to swallow as I would the thin slivers of pig corpse many people like to eat.

I’d love to review animal sentience and look for an ethos of vegetarianism which takes on board nutritional concerns and doesn’t seek to stigmatise people who eat meat or other animal yields. For now I resort to the fall-back position of publishing stories about animals from the news.

There’s no shortage. In The Sun there is at least one animal story every day. There’s been Ass Hole, the immortal Chav Finch and the hub-cap donating bear. More problematically (“respect for life should start with a ship’s cat” – really, start with the ship’s cat?) Kilo, the murdered HMS Belfast cat and the swans eaten by clearly breadline Polish Olympics construction workers forced to camp out in winter. In The Sun, animals are mascots, curiosities, clowns, or bit-parts in a bigger story. This would be OK if that weren’t all they were.

When the Boeing Airbus which ended up in the Hudson ploughed into the flock of canada geese which sent it down, nobody (Update: see comments) seemed to notice that there had in fact been fatalities. In fact, it appeared for a while as if plans are being made to carry out a cull so that humans who catch planes near where geese live can fly at even lower risk.

Today BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme had a piece on the work of Newcastle University researcher Dr Catherine Bertenshaw (who has since become Catherine Douglas). She had published a paper in Anthrozoos on individualised relationships between farmers and cows, and how it improves milk yield. She had to stick up for her findings in conversation with a skeptic and I see from a scan of the web that he is not alone (so that’s scientific blogging is it?)  I can’t say for sure because I can’t get to the study, but people seem determined to misinterpret her findings.  I looked at the abstract and the only reference to names is in the context of a correlation, not a cause. I think got the impression she used names as a marker of individualisation of the human-animal relationship.

“A human’s attitude towards animals influences their behavior around animals, thus affecting the quality of the human-animal relationship (HAR). Many scientific studies have demonstrated that cattle’s fear-response to humans affects their productivity, behavior, and welfare. In the scientific literature thus far it is believed that fear of humans is the predominant relationship on dairy farms. Via a postal questionnaire, we gathered subjective information from 516 stock managers on reported indicators of the HAR and their opinions of the HAR on UK dairy farms. We found that only 21% of farmers believed that dairy cattle were fearful of humans. Respondents accepted that humans can have an impact on cattle temperament, as 48% of respondents attributed a cow’s docility to previous human contact and reasons given for poor milking temperament included previous negative experiences with humans (9%). Ninety percent of respondents thought cows had feelings, and 78% thought cows were intelligent. Higher heifer milk yields (≥ 200 liters) were found in herds where the stock manager thought it important to know every individual animal, although this was only a trend (p = 0.14). On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case (p < 0.001). As a person’s attitude is a good predictor of their behavior, these subjective reports suggest UK dairy farmers have a good quality of human-animal relationship with their animals. The pattern for improved milk yield and behavior based on increased human attention to the individual animal requires validation, but it is an encouraging finding based on reported opinions analyzed against objective production data in a survey of commercial farms.”

On Today she also mentioned a relationship between cortisol (a fear hormone – the abstract says that fear is predominant in the relationship cows have with farmers) and lower milk yield. She sounded like a woman who had rapidly got used to being taken the piss out of. Good luck to her – she’ll need it. Even though her conclusions accept the established exploitation of cows by humans – they’re about productivity being linked to welfare – still it’s in many business’ interest to discredit her work, because it opens the animal sentience can of worms a little more. We know that the animals we farm are sentient individuals – each has their own likes and dislikes, experiences curiosity, boredom, fear.

And then there are the people like Jay Rayner who you get the impression would be happy if the animal welfare gains to date were revoked. He only started talking about nutrition when HFW etc started talking about welfare. He never appeared to worry much about protein before. Animal rights gains are retarded by people like him – I think like many he is uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance inherent ingranting some animal rights on the basis of capacity for suffering while ourselves retaining the right to have them killed for no good reason except a sense of entitlement over their bodies, and to breed, farm, kill, take and eat needlessly. There’s a big hole in that position.

Of course I can rant and rail against this all I want here but it’s entirely unconvincing – you have to do a lot of work to be able to make this case convincingly. As Catherine Douglas knows.

Meanwhile 10 billion individual lives were taken in the US last year – and that’s less than the number consumed.

More from the RSPCA.

Alex Renton is somebody who’s seen the hell and responds – “…stop eating pork. I couldn’t do that” – by buying a free range piglet and paying for it during the course of its life.

Lastly, because it occurs to me, I was talking with a vegan friend not long ago and she introduced me to the concept of vegansexual. She is single at the moment and looking, and she was telling me that she didn’t think that she could kiss somebody whose lips had been in contact with dead flesh, and who were themselves composed of dead flesh. I’d never thought of it that way, but when she put it like that… And I’d just finished reading Eternal Treblinka.

Remembering the Holocaust

Last year I took Jews for granted in my Holocaust commemoration, which I feel sorry about.

Update – see Kellie’s link list for proper Holocaust commemoration – I think mine below would make any survivor nervous and sad.

This year, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day is Stand Up To Hatred – of gay people, conservative Muslims, Jews, black people, disabled people, and other groups, no matter who is doing the hating. This is a great theme. HMD’s organiser Stephen Smith writes:

“If I have learned one thing on my journey into the causes and consequences of genocide, it is that genocide happens to specific groups, but has implications for us all. As Europeans we need to ground ourselves in the history of the Holocaust, and reflect on its implications. It is our problem after all. Then as human beings we need to apply the learning points to other genocides, and to the hatred that exists in our own communities. It is easy to look back. It is more difficult to look forward. It is even more difficult to look within.”

I agree, but the comments to that piece are Gaza, Gaza, Gaza. As if it were somehow wrong to commemorate the Holocaust when Israelis killed in Gaza. This diversion from the Holocaust didn’t happen because Israel was trying to hurt Hamas. We know this because the same type of what I take to be a form of Holocaust denial happened to a New Statesman piece on Kristallnacht back in the autumn. If you scroll to the bottom of that one you’ll find a statement that they had to turn comments off, and a link to the reasons.

Israel does something objectionable, and Jews catch it. Is it so hard to understand that Jews and Israelis are sometimes different things, although they sometimes they come in the same package?

So I also have a personal theme which is perhaps rather politically incorrect for Holocaust Educational Trust: Defend The Memory Of The Holocaust From Anti-Zionists. By Anti-Zionists, I mean the monomaniacal kind of anti-Zionist who would get rid of Israel at any cost, who realises that the Holocaust is the major reason for Israel’s establishment, and therefore hopes to roll back the years by neutralising the Holocaust as a justification for Israel’s existence. Tony Greenstein. Moshe Machover. David Duke. Most of Hamas. And so on.

Cnaan Liphchiz in Ha’aretz:

“The operation in Gaza put an end to the European taboo on equating Jews to Nazis. That message was one of the conclusions of the first international panel discussion on anti-Semitism following the Gaza invasion, which was held in Jerusalem Monday on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Speaking at the panel, which was part of the World Zionist Congress conference, Professor Dina Porat said, “the comparison has now become self-understood.”

When Israel acts aggressively, it is usual for a proportion of commentators to talk, as Suzanne Weiss does so disgracefully, of a Jewish-engineered “final solution”.  For many Jews, I think, the “lesson” of the Holocaust, if any, is existential vigilance: are the haters contained, are they getting stronger, will non-Jews understand the signs? Many Israelis are descended from parents and grandparents who decided that the answer to the latter two questions was no. For Israelis, this threat is incarnated as grads and qassams from Gaza backed with threats from the ayatollas.  For others, it blooms at the stimulus of boycott campaigns and the easy conflation of Jew, Zionist and Israeli.

One commenter on Stephen Smith’s piece (Arkasha, 27 Jan 09, 1:59pm):

“However, I notice far too many apologists for Israel get (deliberately?) hung up on things like what seems to incense you. Why don’t you face up to what Israel is doing, instead of complaining about the “nazi” business?”

S/he is wrong – “apologists for Israel” do not have to earn the right to complain about the “nazi” business by protesting Israel. The rest of us should stand against racism, including antisemitism, irrespective of the political belief of the person who benefits from that defence. That’s what anti-discrimination means. We don’t have to sympathise with them or cuddle them – we just have to recognise and defend them against the mental aberration which is hatred on racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation or eugenic lines.

And as a later commenter says (Anglophobia, 27 Jan 09, 2:12pm):

“The only reason people compare the Holocaust with Israel today is because Jews are a common factor. It’s meant to hurt and persuade. The intrinsic similarities are not deep. If the fight between Israel and the Palestinians were between Sunnis and Shias or between Indians and Pakistanis, but otherwise identical, nobody would drag up Buchenwald.”

I’m pretty certain that diminishing the importance of the Holocaust will goad Israelis further from the neck-sticking-out which peace-making requires, and will make Jews feel as if it’s open season again.

Far better to enumerate the reasons for Jews to take confidence that they have left the Holocaust far behind. A cheerful, very-English student of a solid progressive democrat bent told me not so long ago that Israel needed to realise that it had won the struggle for permanency as a state. He sent me the link to an IHT piece from early 2008, which I recommend.

(Don’t tell anybody – the bloke supports a single state, and many Israelis and Palestinians would think him a little crazy. I don’t accept his analysis that the West Bank settlements have irreversibly fused Israel with the Palestinian territories, and that any attempt at schism would kill the patient. It’s just one of those things that anti-Zionsits say but don’t explain.)

The message in the IHT piece – if only it can be supported convincingly – is certainly one which removes reasons for the occupation and also one which gives Jews some reason to think of the Holocaust in the same way that all of us hope to remember the Holocaust – not as something which could quite easily happen to Jews again but as something which happened to somebody else.

On which note, let me remember, wrapped up as I am in my own problems, not to forget all those terrorised, dead, dispossessed and displaced people:

Matt, the financial crisis and Ronan Point

Matt is an engineer (though not a terrorist). The other night when he was at the RSA listening to a pundit explain the financial crisis, something chinked with Ronan Point:

“This actually has a link to structural engineering where various previous failures, most famously in this country Ronan Point flats in East London,  mean that buildings are now design to avoid disproportionate or progressive collapse.  This means damage to a a small part of the structure should not lead to collapse of all or even a large part of the building.  Now obviously there are limits to this otherwise we would all live and work in concrete bunkers but there are other precautions taken to further protect vulnerable buildings which are exposed to greater levels of risk than normal.  It seems to me that the we could do with something like this type of approach when designing the new regulatory system for the financial sector, the regulation of structural design has not stopped innovation but has provided clear boundaries and guidance on what is acceptable.”

Green comforts

Below is a list of things Matt and I own which are both environmentally friendly (based on the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle) and make life nicer or more convenient than it was before. I’m thinking about energy, materials and pollution including carbon dioxide.

But first, a lecture. A lot of people hold up their hands when confronted with imminent environmental catastrophe and tell themselves it’s up to the government to come up with population measures and legislation and its up to manufacturers to come up with better products. Many people reject the idea that they – little old them – have much of an obligation to look after the environment.

I don’t agree. I’d ask people who think that way to imagine themselves explaining their fatalistic position to somebody in the Maldives, or low-lying parts of Bangladesh, or to a Chinese worker newly arrived in the city from her old life as a subsistence farmer, or to their own children. For those of us who enjoy choice and who value markets, surely the question is an individual one – how can we live a good, comfortable life in such a way that everybody else could more or less have the same habits and pleasures as we have.

None of the suggestions below are puritan or hair shirt, but some may seem tiny, trivial, ridiculous, or futile. Don’t scoff  – I’d respond that we have to think this way to be able to look the people of the developing world in the eye and say that we’ve done all we could and that we kept them in mind. I reckon – especially where it’s no skin off our nose – that every little counts, both as an ethos and on a population level, where modest individual measures over time combine into vast savings.

Maybe we need a green lifehacker. I am far from perfectly green myself – I have a little technology habit and I’m wasteful with food. But here is my contribution.

Freeplay ‘Companion’ mini radio torch
Wireless, no batteries, dynamo-powered. You move your arm to wind it which is good for your pen-pushing arm. It is small, highly portable (hangable), shockproof, energy-efficient (a bit of winding goes a long way) and the sound quality is very good.  Move it between bathroom, kitchen and ironing board. Saves electricity, batteries and associated pollution, and the materials and space required to have a separate torch and radio.

Trevor Baylis weatherproof wind-up globe lantern
Same inventor as the ‘Companion’ but this is a wind-up lantern. Will hang or stand. Excellent for camping and power cuts. Oh, it’s discontinued – but there are others.

A sleeping bag with legs, arms, hood, unzippable hand holes and reinforced feet. I wear it now as I type. It is freezing outside and I am sitting in a room which is hard to heat but I’m cosy.  Sounds miserable to sit in the cold in a sleeping bag? Au contrair – my arms are cushioned on the desk, and I can sit in whatever position I like. I think of it as a padded jumpsuit. Conserves gas, reduces carbon and saves money. It’s not cheap but with gas at current prices, mine will pay for itself in less than a winter. I do admit though that if I had a house full of cold pinched children, I’d get on with the insulation and meanwhile crank up the heating. UPDATE: Matt came home and complained about the cold in the house. I (who’d been here on my own) hadn’t noticed because I spent the entire day working from home in my bag. Warm hands and apparently rosy cheeks.

Eco wash balls
Three small plastic cages filled with ceramic beads which substitute for washing power or liquid. Work  with ions. Really do work. You can wash without rinsing. If you like things perfumed you can add essential oil to the water. Saves time, water, noise, electricity and pollution.

Parachute shopping bags
(That brand is a bit fey but there are many others)
Large, light, strong shopping bags which wrap up easily into tiny pouches which fit into, or clip onto, the smallest handbag. Forget the stupid bulky cotton or jute ones. Shoulder bag varieties are available which keep your hands free. Saves materials and pollution.

Solid bars of shampoo from Lush
Solid bars of shampoo and conditioner, in particular. Cut to your required weight and wrapped in paper. No waste.  Many are vegan.  Saves packaging, nice to use  (try to get a bit with some rind and then stand the bar on the rind).

Loose-leaf tea
Saves on the pollution, energy and materials associated with manufacturing teabags. You can get the perfect strength tea cup by cup. The leaves sink to the bottom, are no more hassled to get rid of than a teabag, and compost readily.

Fruit cases from Lakeland Plastics
Bicuspid apple-sized case for soft fruit which inflates like an armband and closes with velcro. May make the difference between your soft fruit rotting at home or getting crushed in your bag, and you getting your five a day.

Lock & lock boxes
There are long-lasting sandwich-sized ones which not only keep the sandwich components in position but also prevent them from getting crushed in your bag. The locks and rubber seal keep liquids from leaking. They are microwaveable. Save on wasteful foil, cellophane, and sandwich bags.

Reusing the bags which come with junk mail and newspapers
Open carefully and you have a free, clear freezer bag or sandwich bag which was going in the bin anyway. Good if you have a child who might forget to bring home a lunchbox.

Sigg bottle
Light, aluminium bottle for water or other fluids. Stable – does not photodegrade and leach dodgy chemicals into your water. No more purchasing bottled water – saves money, plastic, energy and pollution.

The above represent savings (money, hassle or time) for most people. I can’t think why we wouldn’t start with them immediately. Maybe you have some reasons?

Maybe you have some suggestions? Maybe you know of a green lifehacker site? Something like this? Let me know.

Update: Read Peggy

Sustainable information & communication technologies in higher education

There’s a whole web site on this JISC-funded eco-computing project, including a small, but you would hope growing, page of resources – and most importantly, a newly minted report. That is now on my e-reader (my e-reader, an iRex Iliad, has very poor power-management). From the executive summary, I’m excerpting stuff on personal computing, but it also covers management and sector bodies:

“ICT in UK further and higher education has a large environmental footprint

However, the benefits of ICT are partially offset by ‘hidden’ environmental, and, on occasion, social costs.
A scaling up of findings at the University of Sheffield, Lowestoft College and City College, Norwich,
suggests that UK universities and colleges as a whole:

* Utilise nearly 1,470,000 computers, 250,000 printers and 240,000 servers
* Will have ICT-related electricity bills of around £116m in 2009, and
* Are indirectly emitting over 500,000t of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from this electricity use

The production, and disposal, of ICT equipment also involves the release of many hazardous substances;
consumes large quantities of energy and water; generates large amounts of waste; and sometimes involves
dangerous and exploitative working practices (discarded computers from UK universities have been seen,
for example, at unsafe recycling sites in Africa).

There is a growing consensus amongst experts, leading ICT suppliers and policy makers, that the
combination of rapid ICT growth and negative environmental impacts of the kind described, make current
ICT practices and trajectories unsustainable. Several studies have suggested that ICT is already responsible
for 2% of global carbon emissions, and that its relative share will increase further.”

But we love computing. We must compute.

“This study estimates that personal computing accounts for around 50% of ICT-related electricity
consumption in universities and colleges. Much of this is wasted, because many devices: are energy
inefficient; are often left switched on when not in use (eg at night or in holiday periods), or in more active
states than they need to be for much of the time; are considerably under-utilised even when they are in
use; and are often more powerful than is required for the activities they are undertaking.”

What can we do?

“A strategic approach to personal computing is required to reduce this wastage, and to meet student and
staff needs in the most cost-effective and sustainable way possible. This requires a cross-functional team
bringing together (at least) IT staff, users, and energy or environmental managers, and chaired by a
relatively senior manager. Key elements of their work will be: auditing of the computing footprint within
the institution; defining user needs and matching appropriately; seriously examining low impact alternatives
(such as thin client); and building awareness and support amongst users. Actions are also needed to:

* Purchase appropriate hardware and software, and especially models which are – at a minimum –
* Energy Star 4.0 compliant, and preferably exceed its requirements considerably
* Reduce energy consumption, for example, by increased powering down of devices, and
* Increase longevity through extending refresh cycles, and avoiding software-induced replacement

Electronic printing and copying accounts for at least 10–16% of ICT-related electricity consumption, and
survey respondents were printing an average 224 sheets a week, or 10,000 annually. This sums to well over £1m of printing and copying costs in larger universities. Volumes, costs and environmental impacts are
generally rising, and ‘out of control’ in some institutions. No more than half of those responding to the
SusteIT survey were undertaking any of three key measures for sustainable printing: replacing single with
multifunctional devices; setting duplex (double-sided) printing as a default; and use of 100% recycled paper.
Other measures to reduce the energy consumption and environmental impacts of printing and copying

* Document and print management, including: development of a green printing strategy; maximising
* print substitution; effective document management; consolidation of devices; and building user
* support
* Purchasing appropriate equipment: involving careful definition of basic equipment needs, using
* relevant procurement standards, and assessing vendor commitment to sustainability
* Reducing energy consumption: by enabling and using power management, and by switching
* equipment off to a greater degree; and
* Reducing paper and consumables usage: by purchasing recycled and/or lighter weight paper,
* encouraging more paper efficient printing, and other means

There’s more to the executive summary too. Read the whole thing. And the growing interest in video conferencing is worth special attention. I think it’s positive in the grand scheme of things (i.e. environmentally), but the social ramifications of ‘working from home’ are bigger than we imagine. Well-being is the thing to keep in mind.

If there was a left

Visionary guest post on the Israel-Palestine conflict by Jimmy Bradshaw on Harry’s Place.

I would add that if there was a left it would care about contemporary events which affect people in Darfur, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Congo, and other even worse attended corners of the world, as intensely as it cares about what happens in Gaza. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting is a revelation.

Or maybe the intensity of feeling would correspond at least roughly to the severity of the suffering. Now, when Gazans need advocates, you get the sense that the anti-Israel left lost their vim a long time ago. For most, attacking Israel has become, as Alinsky put it, “a ritualistic commitment“. This is not true for a proportion of Jewish anti-Zionists, who ratchet up the desperation with shrill references to the lessons (yuck!) of the Holocaust which in my opinion do violence to its memory. See Ruth Tenne (ht Kellie) and Gerald Kaufman.

Why do they feel it so acutely when Jews stop being victims?

50 Years and 5 days of Motown

I think you really have to know hard graft to appreciate what Motown meant to the factory workers of Detroit on a Friday and Saturday night.

So I’m quite sheepish to admit that everything about it moves me except most of the music. One exception is Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, which really does. Passing over the soft spot I harbour for the Rhythm of the Night by Debarge, here’s Steveland:

Time’s top ten Motown performances, with added YouTube, and an audio slideshow of the top five Motunes.

Supporters of Palestine?

Not in any positive sense. What have they achieved?

Viewing the conflict wrong. See Harry’s Place and Engage for (give or take) the three weeks previous to this date for the particulars. Nothing they do seems to have any impact on the occupation. But there are nasty side-effects.

Expressing themselves, but with futility. Is it this futility and outrage combined which leads to terrorising Jews?

It’s hard to know how to respond. Where does this go next?

It’s instant gratification. It’s like Twitter for music lovers. As well as tweeting, you also blip. There’s a great deal of music in their library. So I blipped.

Smash It Up, by The Damned

How To Fight Loneliness, by Wilco

Rattled By The Rush, by Pavement

A Certain Someone, by The Sundays

Been Caught Stealing, by Jane’s Addiction

and then Pets by Porno For Pyros

How Soon Is Now, by The Smiths

Harold and Joe, a rare late gem by The Cure.

And then I thought of you and set up a new account, fleshisgrass, and so lost the small but growing amount of kudos I’d accumulated.

Posted How Soon Is Now again. Couldn’t find any King of the Slums so made a quick lunge for Janie Jones by The Clash, had a little jump around to warm myself up (Matt is unhere) and went to bed.

Maybe see you on there?