Return to Amsterdamse Bos

April 3rd, 2014

It’s been a while since I posted photos here. I’ve made a 180 since I wrote in 2011 that I probably won’t be a roller derby photographer. In fact, on Facebook my occupation is now listed as “Photographer at Roller Derby”.

Taking photography more seriously, however little, also makes it more difficult to post images, because I am no longer sharing interesting scenes but instead I am sharing interesting photos. There is a difference and the latter feels harder to live up to.

One exercise for aspiring amateur photographers is the 365 Days Project in which you try and take at least one picture of presentable quality each day. I don’t think it matters if you actually achieve that goal as long as you try. I started something like that last last year and below are some photos of the nearby Amsterdamse Bos that I took during the last months of 2013.

branko-20131002-01

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Patents held back the Wright brothers

March 22nd, 2014

A while back the threat of software patents hovered over Europe.

Patents are a legal instrument tied to inventions that let others stop you from using those inventions. Software patents let you do the same with bits of computer programs, which a lot of people disagreed with, since there are often just a few very obvious ways to solve programming problems and every computer program consists of thousands of such inventions, so every programmer would have been stopped dead in their tracks if software became patentable.

I was tangentially involved in the successful fight against software patents and one of the things that struck me then, and that strikes me even more now, was the argument that software patents were somehow special because they aren’t designed to protect the lone inventor. What’s remarkable about that argument is not so much the argument itself, but the suggestion that ‘regular’ patents do protect the lone inventor. All evidence suggests they don’t.

A couple of years back Maciej Ceglowsky explored how patents worked out for one of the major inventions of the twentieth century, the aeroplane. The American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were two bicycle makers who took a scientific approach to inventing an airplane (an idea who’s time had certainly come). They performed “wind-tunnel tests, [corrected] longstanding errors in aeronautical theory, and they systematically applied their experimental results in designing each subsequent version of their gliders and aircraft”. On 17 December 1903 they made the “first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight” (Wikipedia dixit).

Once they did that, Ceglowksi said, they closed up shop, headed for the patent office, and “stopped flying for two and a half years”. But rather than licensing their patents to airplane manufacturers the Wright brothers started to sue others they suspected had implemented their inventions. “[The] Wrights became so consumed with their lawsuits that they had no time or energy left for further work, essentially becoming the SCO of the early aviation age.”

For the Wright brothers, the patent struggle was a series of Pyrrhic victories. They wanted justice and credit, and ideally the freedom to pursue their research further. Instead they found themselves consumed by litigation, and forced to watch others catch up with and overtake their technical lead, particularly in Europe, where aeronautical research had strong state support. The endless legal battle over the airplane patent may even have contributed to Wilbur Wright’s early death – he came down with typhoid at an especially rough patch in the legal proceedings, and died at age 45. His brother Orville lived long enough to see the Wright company taken over by Curtiss in 1929, in the most bitter of ironies. Neither brother made any substantive contribution to aviation after 1908.

Of course, if anti-software patent-campaigners had gone into battle with the correct argument that patents in general are useless to anybody but judges, politicians, patent lawyers and the patent office, they would have lost. Special pleading ironically made sense in their case. By just targeting a new part of patent law that nobody was yet making any money off, they made sure their opposition had less to attack them with.

It makes me wonder though, if important innovation is truly stymied at all times by the patent system, wouldn’t it be time to kill off the patent system?

How the iPod disrupted the way we enjoy music

March 4th, 2014

A couple of weeks ago Roger Cicala of the Lens Rentals photo gear blog talked about technological disruption and how the mobile phone was an example of such disruptive technology in the world of photography. I posted a comment discussing other ways mobile phones are disruptive technology and thought it would perhaps be good to share that comment on my blog also. Here goes.

In the late 1990s I was an editor for a monthly computer magazine. One day a press release landed on my desk describing how IBM had invented the 1-inch hard drive. I remember thinking what a remarkable feat of engineering that was, but also wondering what somebody would use such a small hard drive for. At the time I assumed IBM had some sort of industrial use in mind. A couple of years passed and lo and behold, suddenly everybody in the world was walking around with iPods (using a slightly larger hard drive).

The story of personal audio started with another disruptive innovation about 100 years earlier. The invention of the record player was of a similar magnitude because it separated space and time. Before the invention of the gramophone you had to go to a specific place at a specific time to hear one of your favourite artists perform. With gramophones you could stay in and listen to the artist whenever you wanted.

The personal audio player (of which the iPod was one of the earliest) took this a step further and liberated you from your own house. All of a sudden you could carry almost your entire music collection with you wherever you wanted.

Ironically the personal audio player (PAP) and the miniature hard drive would soon part ways. Having helped take the personal audio revolution to the next level, the miniature hard drive was soon replaced by flash memory. The very first digital PAP, the Diamond Rio, already used flash but at the time you couldn’t store an entire record collection on the device. At some point people also started using their phones to take photos with, making an entire category of cameras obsolete.

Can you hire intelligent people from among the religious?

February 9th, 2014

A Facebook friend regularly points out the evils of religion, although strangely enough only brown religions seem to deserve her scorn. (She vehemently denies that there are any racist motives behind her selection.)

Islam-baiting is of course a fireproof way of working the more enlightened members of your scene into a rage, so when she recently announced that she would never hire a religious person for her company because she only wants smart employees (a type of discrimination that leads to prison sentences in the Netherlands, or would if the Justice Department weren’t such a hive of bigotry itself) the expected debate ensued.

One person flippantly noted that the OP was right to use her syllogism because ‘the religious are rarely intelligent‘. I figured he was bluffing and did some research myself.

Is intelligence rare among the religious?

A lot of recent articles on the internet point to a paper called “Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations” by Richard Lynn et al. It is a bit of dubious paper because it lives behind an Elsevier pay-wall, meaning it gets less public scrutiny than an accessible paper would. Many people appear to have looked at it though, so I decided to take the risk (motivated especially by a free copy floating around on the web).

First we must determine what is meant by religion and intelligence. The study above looks at a great number of other studies into the subject, and many of those determine religiosity by asking people how religious they consider themselves to be.

In the same studies intelligence is often defined by looking at the IQ of subjects. I take it that you are aware of the downsides of using IQ to measure intelligence (if not, look at the wiki). The thing is of course that you need to have some sort of unit of measurement and in many cases IQ will just have to do. The racist bias of IQ was acknowledged in a sideways fashion in the study when it pointed out that religious identification is going to be stronger in countries where the church plays a large social and cultural role. In other words, your numbers are going to be skewed no matter what and ‘needs further study’.

The commenter on Facebook used the word intelligence as a binary word; one is either intelligent or not. I had to guess what he meant, and I went with Lynn et al’s definition of ‘intelligence elites’, which they defined as ‘scientists’. In other words, an intelligent person is somebody above a certain level of intelligence.

So here is what I replied on Facebook:

A negative correlation exists between religiosity and intelligence. [...] Lynn et al [...] quote a number of US studies from which it appears that almost 40% of all American scientists believe in Jehova. Is that rare?

The negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence is on average 6 IQ points. There are also strong differences between the intelligences of peoples. The Dutch have an average IQ of 100 and 40% of the population is not religious. In Singapore the average IQ is 106 and 13% of the population is not religious. Next time the OP has to hire someone, I suggest—assuming she cares about her company—she hire from among the religious people of Singapore.

As I was writing this blog entry, I had to go back and forth between my translation and the article I’ve been referencing and noticed that the 40% number was from a study from 1921. Later studies had much lower rates of religiosity among scientists, although you could still argue that these didn’t make a religious scientist a rare creature. Also, those studies looked at “eminent scientists” which, assuming there is some objective manner to determine eminence, is yet a higher bar to cross. Even then in 2006 31% of the Fellows of the Royal Society identified themselves as either religious or uncertain.

On the liberation of the postal market

February 2nd, 2014

Until 2009 a single company (formerly state owned) had a monopoly on the Dutch snail mail market, to be precise on the delivery of letters and packages lighter than 50 grams. This was widely considered a bad idea and in that year the liberal party managed to get a new postal law passed that made it possible for other companies to deliver mail.

I was one of the fans of the law for all the obvious reasons. Monopolies are a bad thing that damage markets. As it turns out I should have paid more attention to my own blog; when I wrote in 2006 about “the most costly factor: personnel”. Liberating the postal market has led to price competition, which is good, but it has also led to many more companies trying to get a piece of the ever shrinking pie of snail mail. Where there used to be one postman per neighbourhood (usually somebody who had walked that beat for years and was both trustworthy and knowledgeable), now there are many more (often part-timers plucked from a pool where the most important skill is being cheap).

The decreased turnover as a result of a lower mail volume combined and of the higher cost of delivering that same volume had to be compensated somehow, and it would seem that the mail companies simply slashed the salaries of the delivery personnel. Since then the press is rife with stories about postage workers dumping mail in canals, stealing packages, going on strikes and so on.

My suggestion to remedy this situation would be one of two. Either nationalize the expensive part, the delivery (and let the companies buy delivery at a fixed price), or grant the mail companies unique access to neighbourhoods (say: at most three companies operating a neighbourhood). The latter would be not dissimilar to what the government of Iceland did to prevent overfishing. Iceland introduced quotas, making it so that fishing boats would no longer all compete for the same fish.

Newspapers like trolls

January 27th, 2014

OK, so this is not a well thought-out hypothesis and if you prodded a little I’d probably admit that I do not believe in this, but still: newspapers adore trolls.

Here’s what I observed. In the early days of letting people comment online underneath newspaper articles (was this when the papers feared they had to compete with blogs?), a lot of the time you could respond pseudonymously. Then after some time the papers would force you to register and log in. They said this was to stem the tide of trolls. Except this can hardly be true; trolls play a bigger part in online newspaper comment sections than ever before.

Maybe, you’ll say, this is just human nature. Maybe everybody acts like a pig when they can hide behind a mask. The thing is, I know enough blogs that run a tight ship in their comments sections, making sure discussions stay on topic and insult-free. Unlike the aforementioned newspapers these blogs are run by amateurs with much less disposable time.

Your second argument could be that just because newspapers haven’t figured out how to stop trolls, doesn’t mean they like them. So I need a second hypothesis to answer this: newspapers benefit from trolls (and that is why they like them). If you have trolls, it means you are going to get angry retorts. Trolls are very effective in letting people stay longer at a newspaper’s website which in turn means that people are exposed for a longer time to newspapers’ advertisements.

Cory Doctorow says: no more inCaps!

January 6th, 2014

Cory Doctorow wants to stop using weirdly spelled brand names:

This year, I resolve to minimize my use of incaps when writing about commercial products and companies. An incap changes a word into a logo, and has no place in journalism or commentary — it’s branding activity that colonizes everyday communications. It’s free advertising.

So: “Iphone,” not “iPhone” and “Paypal,” not “PayPal.”

When I was blogging for Teleread (or is it: TeleRead?) I did the same. In fact, I may have even normalized my spelling of brand names back in the 1990s when I was an editor for c’t (marvel at the irony).

At some point I gave up the practice for reasons I cannot quite remember, but it may simply have been because iPhone is actually easier to read than Iphone, and once you give up the latter it becomes increasingly difficult to defend other instances of normalized capitalization.

Doctorow has got a list of exceptions that weaken the effect he’s after, but at least it will be him who determines which companies will get freebies and which won’t.

Do we prefer our biomass as gorgeous reef or as Australians?

January 5th, 2014

A footnote from Maciej Ceglowski’s post on the Australian rain forrest:

Farmers and fishermen in Australia test the limits of human empathy. While I was in Cairns, for example, controversy ranged around the recent extension of the Great Barrier Reef marine park, opponents arguing that the expanded ban on fishing would harm the Cairns fishing industry, and proponents arguing that that was the whole goddamn point. If it were up to Australian farmers and fishermen, the Great Barrier Reef would be processed into bags of fish meal, the fish meal spread as fertilizer on land obtained by clearing the remaining rainforest, the fertilized land used to grow sugar, and the sugar used as raw material for some of the least appetizing desserts in the world. The fundamental question is this: do we prefer our biomass in the form of gorgeous reef and rain forest ecosystems, or Australians?

Athletes and the gay-hating Russian Olympics

January 2nd, 2014

Imagine you and some friends went to the best club in town and the doorman said one of your friends couldn’t come in because of him being gay. You would probably all walk away. By saying that your friends are not welcome the club is also making a statement about you. Maybe some of you would return later regardless, because, hey, the best club in town!, and some of you would boycott the club until it became inclusive.

That’s sort of the position I gather many of the Olympic athletes find themselves in when they consider the persecution of gays in Russia. Except that the comparison is not as good as it could be. Now imagine that you and your friends go to the exclusive club, but this time as members of an obscure band—you’re there on invitation. Just playing at that club will ensure publicity. Even though the manager knows your lead guitarist is gay, you guys still get to play there, in front of an audience that is either completely straight or pretends to be. What would you do? What will the athletes do?

This to me makes the opening ceremony of this year’s games the most interesting part of the event. I wonder what the consequences would be for an athlete if they added a little rainbow to their attire.

(Anyway, Olympic boycotts in the past, the much publicized ones that is, have revolved not so much about what athletes thought of states but mostly about what states thought of each other, and not necessarily what a visiting state though about the organizing state either. In 1956 the Dutch Olympic Committee boycotted the Australian Games not because of what Australia had done but, get this, because of the situation in Hungary.)

Copyright and the monetization of science is killing off the history of computing

December 19th, 2013

Why do computer programmers start counting at 0 rather than 1? (As in, why do they count 0, 1, 2, 3 etcetera rather than 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on?)

Apparently there’s a lot of lore out there that tries to explain the why, but one Mike Hoye decided to actually find out. He found the answer.

A thing he also discovered is that a lot of research is hidden behind pay-walls. Which is nice if you’re a rich university, but which is bad for society:

Part of the problem is access to the historical record, of course. I was in favor of Open Access publication before, but writing this up has cemented it: if you’re on the outside edge of academia, $20/paper for any research that doesn’t have a business case and a deep-pocketed backer is completely untenable, and speculative or historic research that might require reading dozens of papers to shed some light on longstanding questions is basically impossible. There might have been a time when this was OK and everyone who had access to or cared about computers was already an IEEE/ACM member, but right now the IEEE – both as a knowledge repository and a social network – is a single point of a lot of silent failure. “$20 for a forty-year-old research paper” is functionally indistinguishable from “gone”.

Having legitimate access to what lies behind a pay-wall does not always help. Earlier this year well-known computer programmer Aaron Swartz, who was responsible for a number of technologies you are using for free this very second, killed himself after being indicted for accessing documents that he had every right to access. The public prosecutor had asked the court to lock him up for 50 years. I still don’t understand that story, I will have to look into it further one day.

Hoye in the meantime was “reduced to emailing retirees to ask them what they remember from a lifetime ago because I can’t afford to read the source material.”