Apropos software patents

Apropos: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/business/supreme-court-seems-wary-of-a-software-patent-case.html

There are two ways software can be novel: it can be a new way to do something, whose embodiment is a software program, and it can be a new way to get a computer to do something (which itself isn’t necessarily novel).

In the first case, the computer might be a practical necessity, but the process must be novel even if it were performed by an army of accountants. In the second, the process could be mundane, but involved elements which no expert before knew (or could easily have known if they set their mind to it). In the latter case, the process itself is not properly patented, but the elements that make it novel.

Thoughts on “Value” of Inflation and Unemployment

Inflation is like overeating, whereas unemployment is like starvation. Obviously, the latter is worse. The best circumstance is that you have plenty of money, but put it to good use — eat well and exercise.

Unfortunately for the Fed, it controls the amount of money, but not the amount of exercise, which depends on how well trained the workforce is, what the incentives are to work, the state of the infrastructure, the state of the global economy (is there anyone to play with, or do I have to work out on my own?).

The focus on inflation is a symptom of the public’s lack of trust in government, and ultimately, their lack of trust in themselves.

Is Justice Roberts a Mystery?

I just read Linda Greenhouse’s article on John Roberts. My take is this: when justice Roberts was a youth, and some of his peers were wearing “question authority” pins, Roberts, were he the pin-wearing type, would have worn a “question lack of authority” pin.

He has upheld the authority of government whenever possible, and is very persnickety about questions of the standing necessary for plaintiffs to challenge its authority. He has upheld the right of people (shareholders) to authorize collectives (corporations) to speak on their behalf.

I think his reference to the duty of the court to find a law constitutional if there is any possible interpretation that doesn’t rule it out was not just a political calculation, but an expression of a strongly held principle.

Why don’t tornados dig holes?

It seems like we are off to another record year for tornados. When I see pictures of tornado devastated land, everything above ground is ripped up, but the ground itself is always pretty much intact.

If a tornado were to strike a desert, one would expect sand to be redistributed pretty extensively. Perhaps not actually creating holes very often, as that would require a counterintuitive overall lowering of entropy. But certainly sand dunes would not be in at all the same places once the tornado passed.

This doesn’t seem to happen in the areas where tornados actually strike. I suspect that the surface tension of the water in the rain-soaked ground binds it together so that it can’t be lifted (except as a very heavy, elastic whole). I wonder if architects have thought of taking advantage of this effect? Perhaps turf roofs together with vents designed to allow rapid pressure equalization would allow many more structures to remain standing….

Binocular Beauty or Do It Right the Second Time

I was taken to the dogshed by my lead developer the other day. We have been building a web service api, and a javascript analytics client, both at the same time. He’d been grumbling about the service interfaces for some time; I’d resisted changing them. Finally, I noticed he was getting more and more sullen. It turned out that he was not just annoyed but really upset about the interfaces.

Certainly, they could be improved. As he said, they were “RPC-style” interfaces, despite our stated goal of following REST principles. Indeed, I had cooked them up in 45 minutes one evening. They did support the client fairly succinctly, but would almost almost certainly break if we made any design changes, or tried to write a second application (which we will soon).

So I gave him the go ahead to rewrite the interface. He spent the day writing it anew along REST principles. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but I’m sure its much better; also, having created it, he’ll be much more productive writing the client.

So why did I drag my feet? Because I believe in Doing It Right (or putting in significant effort to get it right) the Second Time. Not the first time, and not the third. In particular, for an interface, thinking hard about what the best abstractions are is best done in conjunction with writing the 2nd client. Its often worth *not* doing for the first client, even if this means parts will have to be rewritten.

This isn’t a hard rule (note that I caved to my developer rather than argue). Also, for tasks you have already done before and know how to do, by all means do them right. But for new, exploratory work, it is nevertheless a good tenet. The intuition is the same as for pairwise testing and binocular vision. To tell the difference between phenomena and epi-phenomena often requires more than one perspective; much more rarely, for the main outlines at least, does it require more than two.

Socio-Economic Content In Sex-Ed

My older son’s school offers sex-ed in two tranches: at the end of fifth grade, and in seventh grade. The first part seems to have explained the biology fairly well, and let him at least talk about sex — so pretty good, I would say.

The school also has some policies regarding sexual behavior. For instance, certain types of clothing are not allowed, as they are deemed inappropriately erotic for young teenagers. Fine. But does the justification for this rule follow from anything they are taught in class? I would venture to say — almost certainly not.

And yet, would it be that difficult to add a bit of socio-economic (or cultural) content to sex-ed? It is not hard to grasp that, if monogamy and promiscuity are the extremes of human sexual strategy, they make uneasy neighbors. Also, we needn’t teach Freud (or not very much) to illuminate how social structure is built out of units — like couples and families — whose glue is often sexual relationships.

Tolerance is taught; but prudence seems to be only taught in terms of the dangers of unsafe sex, and the need to respect oneself and others. Nothing is said about why a social system (such as a school) might want to constrain even safe sex. Or, on the other hand, why a larger society might be more stable if its members follow diverse strategies. (Or individuals follow mixed strategies.)

Beyond economics, there is a great opportunity to teach how sex fits together with culture, but I don’t suppose that many schools will be wading into that soon. Nevertheless, for young minds starting to think not only about sex, but to think for themselves in general (though not necessarily at the same time as speaking — alas a difficult art), tools for thinking about their own sexuality on the basis of their biology are good. They should also be given tools to think about how their sexuality is part of how they relate to their community, and economics could provide a “neutral” framework for this discussion.