Archive for March, 2010

Gene Patents held invalid in US

Gene Patents held invalid in US

A judge in the US has ruled that human gene patents are invalid, apparently on the basis that the extraction of a gene is not an invention or discovery.   As this is a district court ruling, expect appeals. The patents the subject of the litigation were for breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.  There was a kerfuffle about these in Australia a year or two back, the upshot of which was that (if I remember correctly??) they were licensed royalty free in Australia by the holder of the exclusive rights over the patent rights here.   Invalid in the US doesn’t mean invalid in Australia, but it may take pressure off Australia going down the wrong track in awarding patents.

See ACLU Press Release for more.

42 and the inadequacy of Wikipedia

42 and the inadequacy of Wikipedia

I wanted to know the page or chapter reference of 42 (actually, I now notice, ‘Forty-two’) in HHGTTG.

Do you think I could find it?

No, of course not, so I looked on Wikipedia.  Wikipedia explains it in detail but omits the one citation which is necessary (it does, not entirely unhelpfully, cite the book, but that still leaves 159 pages to scan).

For those who care, I gave up and scanned through the book.  It took a little longer b/c I assumed it would be in an italicised section from the Guide.  It isn’t.  It’s page 135, at the end of chapter 27.

Dealing with OOo’s braindead context sensitive toolbars

Dealing with OOo’s braindead context sensitive toolbars

[Update 1 March 2012: Verion 3.5 of LibreOffice is still, apparently, brain damaged in that it still has these stupid context sensitive toolbars but they pop up at the bottom in my new install, so it doesn't cause the text to reflow.  Haven't fully checked whether they can be turned off anywhere.]

[Update: Link to bug report at bottom of article]

Someone at OOo decided that context sensitivity of toolbars was a good idea.  I disagree (and have lodged bug reports), but the OOo people prefer to agree to disagree on this issue.  What happens with context senstivity is that when OOo senses you are doing something which might need a specific toolbar, it pops it up for you.  Equally, if it thinks you aren’t it will remove that toolbar for you (how kind).

So imagine this situation:  you have a document which includes some numbering.  You’d like to add numbering to a currently unnumbered paragraph.  So, you click on the paragraph and then go up to the numbering toolbar.  In the split second it’s taken you to click and move, OOo has realised you’ve just clicked on an unnumbered paragraph – so you mustn’t want the numbering any more.  Just as you’re about to click the button on the numbering toolbar to add numbering, ‘poof!’ it disappears.    Similarly if you’re scrolling through a document with both numbered and unnumbered paragraphs it constantly redraws the screen adding and removing the toolbar (and offsetting and un-offsetting the text as a result).

This behaviour cannot be overridden.  If you would like to have, say, the numbering toolbar persist, that’s your bad luck.  Just because you might have pinned the numbering toolbar somewhere doesn’t mean anything.  OOo will take control of it and turn it on and off (usually when you least expect it).

Whatever one might think of context sensitivity of the toolbars (and frankly I don’t see the point) the failure to support an override of this behaviour is particularly egregious. So far as I can tell, there is no way to vary this psychotic behaviour of the toolbar, one must simply grin and bear it.  However, one is not completely without redress.  The UI Nazis haven’t completely had their way with OOo.  The solution to this <cough> ”feature” lies in the buttons – all of them – and their removal.  I have done it and I am greatly relieved.  The toolbar still flashes on and off in its impotent stupidity constantly as I edit my documents.  No longer, however, do I have to put up with it moving my text about while it fulfills its destiny.  Now relegated to a few small pixels the numbering toolbar appears anonymously beside my other toolbars, and disappears equally so.  So much so that I hardly even notice it happening, although once in a while it catches my eye.  Like just a few moments before I started this.

[for Planet LA's benefit, the title displayed in planet comes from the title on this screen shot I took.  The real title is replicated in the first line of the post.]

[OOo Bug reports:  "Context Sensitivity is one of OO's key features, thus this behaviour will NOT be changed at all."

And Issue 59706]

Disgruntled Lego Customer

Disgruntled Lego Customer

The process of acquiring a Mindstorms robot kit has left an extremely bad taste in my mouth.  Lego apparently has something of a reputation for openness with the Mindstorms Kit (although the programming software is both closed and won’t run on Linux – and you’re not licensed to develop commercial applications with it).  However, they do not seem to have a reputation for free trade.  Pricing for the kit on Amazon equated to about AU$330 delivered (Amazon have just sent me an email suggesting I buy it from them based on my earlier searching – which has set off this post).  This compares very favourably to local pricing of AU$450 (not delivered).   Or, it would compare favourably if someone was willing to ship one to me from overseas.  While there are a couple of small places that will, they don’t have the volume, so shipping costs are very high.  Amazon claims “warranty issues” as the reason.  For a bunch of plastic which runs off AA batteries, and for which an identical product is sold here?  GMAB – I call baloney.  I can only assume that distributors have been heavied by Lego.  This reeks of market segmentation.

In rough terms,  for every two sets an Australian school can buy,  a US school can buy three.  Yet another example of how copyright hobbles innovation in this country.

Update: I’m not being particularly critical of Amazon (except perhaps for sending me an email asking me to buy a product that it has already refused to ship to me) because a number of suppliers wouldn’t ship it (including from Singapore and Hong Kong) – this might not have been obvious from the post.  It would be nice if this was all just a coincidence

The Patent War of All Against All

The Patent War of All Against All

“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII, paragraph 8

Glyn Moody has written a post about a system called U-Prove.  Glyn notes that the software is being licensed under a BSD licence and notes that is a good thing, but then observes that there is a patent encumbrance on the code, and indicates this is a bad thing.    In a comment, Sam Ramji refers off to this article of mine, kindly remarking it is a ‘good post’.

The essence of Glyn’s argument is that the OSP does not preserve the freedom of free software, so it is not sufficient.  Sam appears to be adopting my comments to the effect that it’s hard to single out one company for the patent blame game.

In the context of free software patents are problematic.  In the ideal world patents on software wouldn’t exist and there wouldn’t be a problem.  However, they do exist.  Moreover, part of the reason they exist is because of a variation of mutually assured destruction – many businesses believe they need to acquire patents in order to defend against other patents.*  Jonathan Schwartz sets out some of the sad, tawdry circumstances in which this logic plays out here.

I think it is a non trivial problem to find wording which preserves just the defensive potential of patents (which, is actually their offensive potential limited to specific circumstances of exercise)  while preserving freedom when licensing software.  Some of the more detailed free software licences attempt this.   It is, I think, a more difficult problem to craft such wording to apply to standards – because standards purport to be agreed by some collection of people, while freedom requires that everyone be permitted to pursue their own goals.   Thus, any ‘promise’ or ‘covenant’** which is limited to an agreed specification must necessarily be inconsistent with freedom in a way qualitatively different to a patent clause in an open source licence.   Moreover, any wording which applies to a particular version of a specification will be inconsistent with the evolution of that specification.  In short, promises made in relation to specifications are likely to always be problematic (the best to hope for is a disclaimer  – per W3C).

Therefore, if the words themselves are likely inadequate, the issue of who is saying the words, and what one can reasonably read into them becomes much more important.  In the OSP post that Sam refers to I explicitly reference  another, earlier, article on the OSP which calls this issue out.  With this in mind, I note that Microsoft has recently chosen to specifically draw out the Linux/open source angle in its cross licensing deals with Amazon[3] and IO Data[4].  It didn’t need to, but presumably chose to.  It seems reasonable to conclude this is signaling.  These are grounds that would justify a reasonable person finding the OSP inadequate.

If Microsoft wants people like Glyn to trust them, they should perhaps incline against, rather than toward making the will to contend by battle [...] sufficiently known.

Notes:

* This, by the way, is much the same argument used by Hobbes in favour of the need for a common power to counter the war of all against all (hence the quote above).  In this case however the common power (parliament) rather than saving us from a state of war of all against all has plunged some of us into a version of it.

** (I distrust these words – if it is a licence why not call it that, but perhaps they are US terms of art?)

[3] ‘said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel, in the news release. “Microsoft’s patent portfolio is the largest and strongest in the software industry, and this agreement demonstrates … our ability to reach pragmatic solutions to IP issues regardless of whether proprietary or open source software is involved.”  The press release is here, it doesn’t fall over itself as much as the IO Data one below.

[4] ‘...said David Kaefer, Microsoft general manager of intellectual property, in a statement announcing the latest deal. “Microsoft has a strong track record of collaboration with companies running Linux-based offerings, and this agreement is a reflection of our commitment to partner with industry leaders around the world.” In fact, on Microsoft’s press release page (at 12 March 2010) the call out comprises of the words:  “I-O Data customers will receive patent covenants for their use of devices running Linux and related open source software.”  The press release is at pains to refer to it.

Free Software is Principled

Free Software is Principled

I recall, several years back now, being in some sort of forum somewhere arguing over the implementation of anti-circumvention legislation in Australia.  I recall Rusty Russell talking about ghostscript’s [?] handling of pdf documents at the time and how it respected restrictions settings in the pdf documents.  That is, despite being able to ignore them, ghostscript’s authors decided to respect them.   In practice that would mean that most ghostscript users would also respect those settings.

By way of contrast, today, looking for information about pdf to text conversion tools I came across closed source software whose primary purpose is apparently to remove restrictions from pdf files.  In my experience free software is typically more principled than its closed source counterparts – perhaps stupidly so.

The Onion: Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text

The Onion: Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text

‘…”Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”‘

Story here


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