Help Stop Software Patents

No Software Patents

As someone who writes software for a living, I can tell you that the concept of patents on software needs a serious revision at a minimum and may be completely useless for the purposes the Founders of the USA intended, quite early in the Constitution: Article 1, Section 8–“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”.

The key bit for software patents is the rationale: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” which provided a test for such laws: do they, in fact, help progress? I’m prepared to even accept that non-obvious fundamental algorithms might be patentable, such as the infamous LZW patent.

The problem is that more and more patents look like’s even-more-infamous one-click patent, in which the ability to remember who you are on a Web site and click a single button to order and ship to the address on record was considered non-obvious and something that needed to be protected for 17 years.

Bullshit. Given those requirements, which aren’t exactly genius-level, I could come up with half-a-dozen ways to implement it, all of which would infringe on’s patent–and I’m not going to shatter records with my programming ability any time soon. Fortunately it’s not actually that bad–most people aren’t stupid enough to let strangers who come to the computer behind them commit them to buying anything.

Nonetheless, if you combine the two: the obviousness of the patent with the unenforced-until-the-last-hour nature of the LZW patent, you create a dangerous situation. Say I create a nifty feature for our content management platform that happens to infringe on a patent for, say, making widgets turn green when you click a form button. It’s pretty trivial behavior. Now say there’s some law firm collecting patents out there who are waiting until years into the patent to make sure that as many people as possible are infringing before they announce that anyone using it will have to not pay to continue to use the feature but will also have to pay them back royalties. Microsoft can fight this, as they have deep pockets (and, if the company threatening them actually makes stuff, they can counter-threaten with their own patent horde).

But what about small companies who do most of the innovation in software? We don’t have that choice. Not only will we not be able to fight it, but we don’t have patents of our own (not worth it, and we give our code away anyway, being paid instead for implementation and customization). And if it’s a law firm that has no products, our having patents would be no defense: they don’t make anything so they can’t be infringing.

That has a distinct chilling effect on innovation, and harms the progress of science and useful arts. Remember, lawyers don’t actually make anything, and the service they provide is always a cost.

Until this is all cleared up, it’s best that software patents be eliminated altogether. This is still possible in Europe, and if Europe stops them it will put pressure on the US to reform their ways. So I urge you to support this organization and link to it if you have a blog or Web site:

No Software Patents

You can read from better programmers than I why this is a very bad and dangerous idea, from the perspective of your standard of living. Even if you don’t use computers directly, the people you buy from or interact with do.

How to Stop Me from Ever Using Tables for Layout Again

If I get what I ask for, I will never use another table for layout purposes ever. I swear on your grave (this is to align the incentives properly). I want a CSS 3-column layout that does all of the following:

  1. Puts the content div first.
  2. Allows the content div to expand.
  3. Is fluid (i.e., if the browser window expands, so does the width of the page).
  4. Allows me to fix the width of the outside columns.
  5. Has a header and footer that expand the width of the content plus two columns.
  6. There must be no space among the columns or between the columns and the header or footer.
  7. I must be able to specify different background colors for the header, the footer, and each of the three columns.
  8. It must not rely on images to make the effect occur (bandwidth, people–plus I need to be able to edit this sucker without Photoshop).
  9. It must be pixel-perfect on IE 5.5+, Safari 1.0+, and Mozilla 1.0+ (and associated browsers using that version of Gecko).
  10. It must be legible in IE 5.x for Mac.
  11. The content of each column must align to the top at least.
  12. The column background colors must extend to the bottom of the page.
  13. Oh, and one more thing: it must not matter which column is longest.

That’s it. That is trivial to do with a single table (styled, of course, with CSS), but I’ve been searching several resources and I can’t find one that does all of that. Remember, the solution must hit each and every one of those points or I just can’t replicate the designs I get in Photoshop, and asking me to get the designer to change or the project manager to understand or the client to accept limitations does no good–trust me, I’ve tried.

I don’t even require that I be able to vertically center or bottom-align the content. Top-aligned is fine. It doesn’t have to work in Netscape 4.x. It doesn’t have to work in IE 5.0. I can give all that up in return for giving up the necessity of left-to-right ordering of tables plus their misleading semantics.

They’re Sorry, but I Feel Better

As a guy who creates Web sites for a living and has occasionally had his chops gently busted about quality control, things like this strangely make me feel better. This is what I saw when I tried to go to just now:


Sometimes even Amazon frickin’ .com has bad days.

Another Thing I Could Use in CSS: a Replacement for valign=”bottom”

block-align: bottom

Just a way to make sure that block-level items are glued to the bottom of their containing element, however high that element may or may not be. That would solve me having to stick in tables with valign="bottom".

All I found during my Google search before deciding that profitability was the better part of discretion and discretion was the better part of standards compliance were a bunch of forums with people asking, “how do I do this?” and other people saying, “it should work this way,” and still other people saying, “Except in $BROWSER.”

Let’s Assume…

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Red and Blue really are inalterable and opposed. It’s not a wise or accurate assumption, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume just that. What could Democrats do?

Grant McCracken has had a series of posts giving Democrats advice from a semi-disinterested Canadian’s point of view. It’s probably worth a read, left or right. He wants a conversation to really argue sincerely down to first principles in order to build respect for one another. He hopes it isn’t so that there are only a few fundamental, inarguable differences. Free markets can achieve social justice goals, or gay marriage can strengthen families overall.

But pretend for a moment he’s utterly wrong, and there’s no compromise possible on these first principles, but given the shared history and sheer annoyance of it all, you rule out total war or secession (or just giving in, buying a plaid flannel shirt and learning who Michael Waltrip is). What would be a political strategy for Red staters and Blue staters to both get what they want, assuming they still want to live in the same country?

Continue reading

Not Getting It, Dutch Edition

Well, perhaps I spoke too soon, it looks like some of the Dutch have taken to vigilante action against Muslims and Muslim institutions in Holland. I’d even go so far as to remind them that except for some very sporadic incidents (including the murder of a Sikh, not even a Muslim) that were quickly prosecuted, the aftermath of 9/11/01 in the US where nearly 3000 of us were killed was not very violent.

Remember, wait until you figure out what country may have been involved, and send your military over to do the hurtin’. Then whallop one or two others you noticed on the way in that you never liked anyway. That’s the New European/Transatlantic civilized way. Sigh.

USPS Gets Attack of Clue

OK, it’s well-known that I’m not a fan of the (indirectly) government-subsidized U.S. Postal Service, but they warmed the cockles of my libertarian heart this week.

Apparently an indie/electronica band used the name Postal Service, and the usual protection-money types (lawyers) sent the usual unthinking trademark infringement notice. Then, things got weird:

[T]his week the United States Postal Service – the real one, as in stamps and letters – signed an agreement with Sub Pop granting a free license to use the name in exchange for working to promote using the mail. Future copies of the album and the group’s follow-up work will have a notice about the trademark, while the federal Postal Service will sell the band’s CDs on its Web site, potentially earning a profit. The band may do some television commercials for the post office.

I just have to ask. Has someone at the USPS been reading the Cluetrain Manifesto? Have the last remaining pro-free-market Republicans somehow been shuffled off to administrative jobs there, much like out-of-favor Communists were sent by Stalin to “count trees” in Siberia? Did Joan Baez quit her blackface routine long enough to spike the tea there, trying to one-up Grace Slick?

Whatever it is, it’s working. Although Postal Service (the band) still has an uphill battle with convincing me to use snail mail for anything other than, say, a cheap way to send books around. But seriously, guys, keep it up. With this attitude you will survive when Congress removes your monopoly.

The Dutch Get It

Regardless of who I voted for in Debacle 2004, I still support the idea of fighting back against Islamic terror. My objections are objections over tactics more than the goal. The Dutch of Old Europe are now getting what the difference is: it’s not us versus them, it’s free speech versus Islamicism.

In short, a Dutch director who made a film about the treatment of women under current Islamic traditions was apparently killed for criticizing the way Islam is practiced by much of the umma. His family wanted people to make noise in support of free speech rather than a silent vigil. That’s exactly the right response.

Sadly, this is something that Bush doesn’t get. I’m not convinced Kerry does either, but he at least has made better noises about it so far. But I don’t forget that we are indeed fighting for freedom, and that the most important part of the whole battle is remaining true to that freedom even when it seems tempting to weaken.

You feel me, Ashcroft?

Countries Versus States

I’ve been meaning for some time to explore the myth and reality of national boundaries, and a post over at Cafe Hayek has prompted me to bring out a piece of it.

Don Boudreaux takes on Samuelson on immigration, and points out that there’s nothing about transnational migration that is different in principle from intranational migration. In other words, there’s nothing you can say about immigration of foreigners that doesn’t apply to Mississippians:

Consider California. It is completely open to people from Mississippi. California’s median household income is a whopping 54% higher than is Mississippi’s. […] Californians enjoy environmental and social amenities — beautiful beaches, snow-capped mountains, fabulous weather, big and exciting cities, professional sports franchises — that Mississippians lack. And yet, despite being free to move to California en masse, Mississippians don’t do so. Nor do West Virginians, or Arkansans, or Alabamians.

The reason is that prices and other economic data govern immigration. Most significantly, immigrants must rent or buy living quarters, and each must find remunerative employment (or live with family members). As demand for living quarters increases, rents and real-estate prices rise — putting a natural economic (and non-coercive) break on immigration. Likewise with job opportunities: if the supply of labor rises and thereby lowers employee pay in those jobs experiencing especially rapid increases in labor supply, the urge to immigrate will be dampened.

You can broaden the argument: any interaction between countries that is governed primarily by non-political forces is going to behave much the same way as interactions between regions inside a country. There’s nothing magical about a country-to-country boundary: you have different political rules among U.S. states, yet the District of Columbia (not even a state) has never emptied out , infested the commonwealth of Virginia, and TOOK AHR JAHRBS.

Similarly, jobs moving from New York to South Carolina are, from the point of view of New Yorkers, identical to those same jobs moving to China. The only difference is that federal taxes are recouped on the (lower) wages paid to South Carolinians but not to Chinese workers. Everything else is the same, except the likely racial makeup of the replacement workers–which provides a hint about the fundamental revulsion people feel about offshoring. Corporate profits are still taxed, and any consumption taxes on the product or service are still collected. Since most of the government services that immediately affect New Yorkers come from state and local taxes rather than federal money, the South Carolina relocation is nearly identical to the Chinese case (and since I once lived in South Carolina, I can tell you the factory workers are equally likely to spend their newfound wealth on a vacation to New York City).

There is only one thing that distinguishes trans-national relations from trans-locality relations: the lack of an authoritative governing legal structure. This makes it harder to sue someone in Bangladesh for negligence. Anything else, up to and including armed conflict, can occur equally between localities within a country. The Sudan is proof of that. Just because New York and New Jersey rarely come to physical violence over their disagreements doesn’t mean intra-national fighting doesn’t occur. You could equally give the example of the U.S. and Canada to “prove” that fighting between nations doesn’t occur.

So the only times that your thinking about borders between countries should differ from your thinking about borders between localities is when the lack of a supra-national governing body (and no, the U.N. doesn’t count) makes some fundamental difference. The more you think about it, the less you’ll find that applies.