Saturday, August 13, 2011

Christian by Redefinition

Do Christians not realize that they can't interpret the Bible whichever way they like? Take Michele Bachmann, for example:

What submission means to us, if that's what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, Godly man and a great father, and he respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other, and I've been so grateful that we've been able to build a home together.

She's referring to Colossians 3:18, where the key verb has variably been translated to "submit", "subject", and "place yourself under...authority". Any of the translations mean something very different than "respect", and Bachmann is either saying that these Bible translators are all wrong and that she knows the intention of God better, or that God has a vocabulary problem and says "submit" when He means "respect".

The obvious probability is that the Bible had been perverted in ways big and small to serve the interests of those who wrote it. That doesn't really affect its Big Meaning, but literalist Christians often have to go to these extreme stretches of mental gymnastics to face this. Instead of acknowledging that early Christians might just be sexist, they instead commit crimes against the English language.

On Expertise

Scott Adams makes an interesting point about being suspicious of people who appear certain in their knowledge or beliefs.

His mistake is confusing the experts who actually know their stuff from somebody who's merely sure. The world has become very complex, and we trust our lawyers to know the law on our behalf, our doctors to know our bodies on our behalf, and a lot of other experts to do their specialized jobs so that we don't have to try to understand it all. Modern society is a co-dependency of specialists, and what makes it all work is the trust inherent in delegation.

Now, even Einstein was famously wrong, and we are right to set up environments where experts can work without conflicts of interest, but in the end we trust the imperfect experts and make imperfect decisions, because they're still better than the layman's.

This fallacy has permeated everywhere. From politicians who label various scientists and institutions are "liberal" or "conservative", as if that's supposed to matter, to the anonymous Internet writer who has to start his sentences with "I hate Apple, but..." This is a noxious atmosphere in which political correctness of the worst form trumps actual expertise.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Software Patents

Here's the thing: if your company's strength is execution, then you don't need patents. In fact, you don't like patents. You want to be able to freely copy other people's ideas, execute better than they can, and come out on top.

However, if you believe in the strength of an Idea, then you need patents. Companies that are far more concerned about their reach than about money (such as Google, let's be blunt) will copy your idea. Google seems to have an internal sense of the extent of tasteful copying, and its engineers are certainly talented enough to innovate, but there are many other companies with neither the talent nor the shame.

I'm not talking about silly ideas like one-click purchase. What I'm saying is that if you think there are even a handful of great ideas in the past few decades that are worth protecting by not requiring its inventors to also be excellent executors in order to profit, then you need patents, and you're talking about patent reform, not its wholesale abolishment.

The current system clearly doesn't work. A software engineer is supposed to be familiar with most patents, at least those in his/her area of expertise, yet the sheer volume of granted patents makes this impractical. Since patents are not written in some rigid language (lawyerese is rigid by normal standards, but not at all by computer standards), it is not currently possible to use some tool to determine if your code infringes on any patents. Worse, trying to learn if you do infringe and failing to find anything can open you up to "treble damages" later in court, so the instructions I've been given at every job is to not look at all. This completes the failure of the patent system, because if I'm not allowed to look at other people's patents, I'm not "standing on the shoulder of giants" and so on.

Thus, starting from scratch, the system must have the following attributes:
  1. Patents must be few and far in between, at most 3-4 per month, so that professional software engineers can be expected to keep up.
  2. Patents must be effective long enough to give the inventor a significant market advantage, but not be so long as to stall progress. In the tech world, this is probably somewhere between 3 and 5 years.
  3. Due diligence must not be punished by extra fines. A well-meaning company must be able to document its patent search to show this.
This means a student is expected to know of as many as 240 valid patents upon graduation, and obviously many more expired but still useful ones.

Basically, I'd like a world in which a person with a great idea can make money without having to successfully run a business. I suspect these are very different skills not often found in the same person.


Apparently some faceless accountants just downgraded the the credit rating of the United States government. Frankly, that doesn't bother me too much. The US government hasn't exactly been a shining example of fiscal responsibility, not because it borrows a lot, but because of why it borrows. Going into debt for infrastructure investments and going into debt for wars are likely to have very different financial outcomes. This probably means that robotic institutional investors are no longer allowed to buy US debt, and probably means that interests would go up. That may not be such a bad thing in the long term: cheap credit is tempting, and we really ought to be more careful about going in to debt.

What truly worries me is that we're not investing in the future. As a nation we're tightening our belts and have lost hopes and dreams, as if we're merely waiting for death and hoping the money doesn't run out before then. The baby boomers might be forgiven for thinking this way, but it's time for the next generation to mentally take charge.