Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The World Needs a Common Language

I'm adding this blog post so that people can comment on the corresponding article if they wish.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The U of C Sucks

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. - Albert Einstein
I've only ever gone to one university, but I find it hard to believe all the other universities are this bad. If you've gone to another university, please comment: how much better is yours?

In high school, grade 12 was a peak for me in terms of my grades (94%) and what I learned (although, admittedly, I've forgotten the majority of it.) Then came the University of Calgary, and it was quite a shock.

Here's why the U of C sucks:
  1. The number of students per class is huge. Whereas in high school, classes had up to 30 students, some university classes have over 100 students. In first year, class sizes seem to range from about 45 to over 100; in fourth year, classes have 20 to about 70 students, averaging, say, 45. (Disclaimer: I never actually counted, but gee there's a lot.)

  2. In most classes, nothing but lecturing is used as a teaching method, and student-teacher communication is kept to a minimum. This makes it very difficult to learn things in class. It's worth noting that I almost never had to take notes in high school. In fact, it was very rare that I studied outside class time. Instead, I was able to learn by listening to the teacher, asking questions and by doing assignments, quizes and so forth. But in university, this is impossible for several reasons. In some classes, I spend so much time copying stuff from the chalkboard that I miss everything the instructor says (I can't write and listen at the same time.) Then, outside class time, I have to try to figure out what my notes actually mean.

  3. The school year is too short. In high school we got 10 months of class time at up to 6 hours per day. If you take 5 courses per semester at the U of C, you get only 8 months of classes at 5 hours per day, including labs, at which the professor is rarely present. Instead, we get "T.A.s", which are even worse at teaching than the professors, and often have worse English skills. Some T.A.s are indistinguishable from students, and thus hard-to-find in the lab room. They don't wear name tags or anything.

  4. Most university professors are poor teachers. (and even the good ones can't do their job properly, due to lack of class time.)

  5. The majority of the professors (in Engineering, anyway) have a strong foreign accent, which can be difficult to understand. 1st-year students are the hardest hit; out of my 11 first-year classes, only one or two professors sounded like native English speakers.

  6. In the Computer and Software Engineering programs (and, I suspect, also the Computer Science program), the curriculum teaches too little real-world knowledge; for example, the entire university offers only one web programming course, SENG 513, and less than 25 students are taking it right now (because it is only part of one program, Software Engineering). As far as I can tell, there are also no courses that teach the following important programming languages: Python, PHP, Perl, C#, or Lisp. In Engineering, they have an attitude that all programming languages are equivalent, so it doesn't matter which one is taught. This is false. Some courses even expect students to learn a language on their own! What in the world are we paying them for? That reminds me:

  7. If you want to get credit for a course without taking it (except for the exam), you have to pay full price. $500 for one exam? Gee, I wonder what the profit margins are!

  8. Assignments are too few and too difficult. In high school we were given many small assignments, which tested every aspect of our knowledge, and gave us enough practise to become confident in our knowledge and skills. In University, we are given a small number of very difficult assignments. These assignments usually don't cover the entire curriculum, and most of our knowledge and skills are not tested more than once. Instead, most of the work we put into assignments goes into pointless endeavors. For example, in an analog engineering class, we spend most of our time doing complex algebra, and punching long numbers into our calculators, when we should be learning the principles behind the math, and the formulas we are using. In courses that involve programming, we spend copious amounts of time on code-writing that is minimally related to the course material. Also, many professors create incredibly unclear assignments. Often assignments are self-contradicting and/or very vague and/or contain many spelling and grammar errors. One particularly aweful professor in this regard is Dr. Smith, who not only writes gibberish, but refuses to tell you what it means, or doesn't understand your questions--I never quite figured out which. He should be banned from making lab assignments.

  9. Mid-term and final exams usually don't cover all the course material; sometimes they cover just a small part of it. Often they are poorly planned, badly written and/or full of errors. Frequently students are asked to make corrections on an exam right before it starts, or in the middle, when some student is the first one to point out an error.

  10. Students are not normally informed of their final exam grade, and must pay $4 for a mere photocopy of their own exam. That adds up to $40 for 10 courses. Perhaps the university wants to discourage students from contesting the way their exams were graded?

  11. The university makes no effort to ensure that we retain the knowledge we've gained. I find that I've forgotten almost everything from the past three years. I think refresher courses ought to be mandatory, provided that a certain standard of quality is met. Which is not likely, of course.

  12. In many rooms, especially in the Engineering building, the chairs are small and uncomfortable, with tiny "desks" that are smaller than a single sheet of paper. The desk surfaces in SA 104 and 106 are tiny to the point of absurdity, at about half the size of a sheet of paper. If anything we need more desk space in university, not less.

  13. The grading systems are not standardized, and the university does not inform students how their grades were computed. As far as I know, there is no way to find out. Also, the U of C uses a stupid letter-based grading system. So the number grade computed by the professor is quantized to a letter, and then converted back to a number, the GPA. There are only 11 distinct passing grades: A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-. A lot of resolution is lost in this system, for no reason.

  14. Students have to deal directly with the bureaucracy. The departments themselves don't seem to communicate with each other, so you often have to go running around the university to different departments to get your questions answered. Also, many departments have limited business hours. For example, the Engineering Undergraduate office is only four days a week, 9AM to 4PM.

  15. Course descriptions are very poor; typically, only a couple of sentences are provided to describe each course. This makes it difficult to select electives (options). Shouldn't we be allowed access to complete syllabus information?

  16. The organization of the University's web sites are piss-poor. I say "sites", because every faculty (and some departments) has an entirely separate web site, with different visual appearance and different organization. The web sites I visit are the main web site (observe the "mystery meat" navigation), the engineering site and the Computer Science site. All of them are ripe for criticism, but the Engineering site is maintained particularly badly. Here's a challenge for you: find the course requirements to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Engineering. If you succeed, you did better than me. The only way I could find it was through Google, by inputting the a few names of courses in that program which I had already taken. Even Google can't be used to find some pages, because there are pages that are not linked to from anywhere else and thus missed by webcrawlers. I believe the 2005 course websites for CPSC 349 and ENCM 503 are examples of this. To be fair, the university does offers a one-stop-shop for the most crucial non-faculty-specific information: the infonet. On the other hand, much of that system goes down every night, and during busy periods you may be put on a waiting list. Update: I just discovered a service called "myUofC" which offers "single signon" for many different services. So that's good.

  17. A lot of information that ought to be on the web sites, isn't. For instance, there is no listing of the locations and phone numbers of staffs' offices.

  18. "Blackboard", a lame password-protected information store for students. The University is encouraging professors to use this system, which requires students input their username and passwords in order to access information such as course outlines, schedules and assignments. I presume this system is intended to protect the university's Intelectual Property--heaven forbid that a non-student should obtain educational materials online!--but it is inconvenient for students, who must always enter a password, and who cannot bookmark pages on the system.

  19. Communication between the university and students is poor and haphazard. Although the registrar's office keeps email addresses on file, for instance, some departments (e.g. Engineering Internship) will ask for e-mail addresses separately. Also, some important financial correspondence, it seems, only comes by email. For instance, during my Engineering internship, the university charges about $1,200 for the priveledge of being in the internship program. But it charges the student in installments, once per semester. I forgot that the university has two semesters during the summer, not just one. Thus, I didn't realize I'd been charged at the beginning of the second summer semester, and I didn't pay the bill. Because my payment was late, I was charged a $60 late fee. The university sent a reminder, but only by e-mail, to an account that I rarely looked at. Thus I got dinged $60 for a semester I barely knew existed. On an unrelated note, many emails are targetted poorly; 4th year students will receive some email pertaining to 1st-year courses and vice versa.

  20. Hey, what's with that $60 late fee anyway? I bet they'd charge you $60 even if your outstanding balance was only $60. Or $1.
By the way: this article explains that bad engineering education abounds in the U.S., too.

I want to also make a few comments about The Money.

Tuition is high. I expect this trait is common to most universities, but at the U of C, recent increases have been particularly bad: tuition is four times as high as it was in 1990. My living expenses are about equal to my tuition; foreign students must pay twice as much as me. But I've always said that I'd be willing to pay this much if the quality of education were proportionately high. It is not. I marvel how much money is going to the university, considering how little value students get for it.

I've had trouble finding numbers. Two numbers I want to focus on is the amount of government spending on "education" per full-time student (normalized to consider only students taking a normal full course load, which is 5 courses at the U of C), and tuition per full-time student (again, with 5 course per semester). I can get the second number from my own tuition bill, but unfortunately, the first number is hard to find. Here seems to say that students pay only 26% of the cost of their education, but that seems wrong. I recall seeing a figure of about 33% in a graph in high school, although that was six years ago.

Assuming philanthopic donations are neglegible, the sum of these numbers indicates how much money the university should be spending on education for students. I emphasize "should", because I'm very skeptical that the university is really spending that much on education; I think the university is diverting a lot of funds from "education" to things like "research", which it considers more important. And it wouldn't surprise me if the executives could afford a new car every year.

Let's assume, for sake of argument, that tuition makes up 30% of total education-targetted funding. Based on my own tuition, a full yearly course load of 10 courses (over 8 months and 2 semesters) costs $5,220. That means the government is paying $12,810, for a total budget of $17,400 per year. This doesn't include textbooks, which can cost up to $1000 per year (though much of that can be reclaimed by re-selling the books.)

At this rate, the funding for just two students per class should be enough to pay the salaries of professors ($34,800 for 8 months' work, which extrapolates to $52,200 for a full years' work.) A couple more students would pay for the T.A.s. How, then, can one explain the enormous class sizes?

This is much greater than the funding to high schools. Again, I wasn't able to find a number, but here I find that grade 1-9 students get $4,453 per student from the government, and parents pay a couple hundred bucks on top of that. Certainly, I would expect that government funding per high-school student is well under $10,000. How can this huge cost difference be explained, considering that university education is worse?

I'm in my fourth year now, and you might wonder, if I hate the U of C so much, why I don't switch to another? I certainly would have liked to, but there are a couple of reasons I didn't.
  • For the first couple of years, I didn't know how to figure out what universities are good. It would sure suck to transfer somewhere else, only to find out it was just as bad! After two years I found out that Maclean's magazine does university rankings across Canada; Calgary is located in the "Medical Doctoral" section and ranks 14th out of 15. Rightfully so.
  • As far as I know, every university has a slightly different curriculum, and a different way in which topics are arranged into courses. I therefore expected that a significant portion of my credits could not be transferred to a new university.
  • I figured that universities would give less scholarships to out-of-towners.
  • Laziness. Moving across the country would be a lot of work, and considering how difficult it was to figure things out in the U of C's hopelessly disorganized bureaucracy, I didn't want to figure it all out again at another university.
Whew. I finally let it all out. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A new kind of trigonometry

Those of you who hate math: sorry if I'm alienating you.

I was pleasantly amazed to find that somebody had designed a new model of trigonometry, one that is more fundamental, and in many ways simpler, than traditional trigonometry. This "new trig", called Rational Trigonometry, involves no angles, no sin(), cos() or tan(), and shuns circles. Instead, calculations are done with ordinary algebra and involve "spreads" instead of "angles" and, rather than distance, "quadrance" (the square of distance) is emphasized. With R. Trig, many answers can be found by hand that require a calculator in traditional trig. I quite like this new trig, and I'm inclined to think it should be taught in high schools instead of traditional trig. The first chapter of a textbook about it is available on the web.

It's astounding, given how far math has come, that something so fundamental has taken this long to be developed. Basically, it seems like it just never occurred to anyone before. I certainly would never have thought of it, and I got 95% in grade 12 math. I guess it's a mindset you get into, when you believe it's a "solved problem": when you believe that, there's no chance you'll go looking for any other solution.

Incidentally, this form of trigonometry looks like it would be very useful for computer algorithms, particularly on portable hardware. Fast cosines (and other trig functions) normally require a floating-point unit, which PDAs, cell phones and portable game consoles often do not have. Rational Trigonometry replaces those trig functions with multiplication, division and the occasional square root, which less powerful hardware can handle much more easily.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Global Priorities

The media has a serious problem with presenting information in a useless format, with no context, no background information, and no way to understand numbers on a human level. "The deficit is now X billion dollars." "City infastructure spending will be increased X million dollars." "The U.S. Congress approved X billion more dollars for the Iraq war." No doubt some people scarcely notice the difference between "million" and "billion".

Ordinary mortals cannot take the isolated numbers scattered throughout thousands of news "stories" and put them together into a complete quantitative picture of the world. What do these numbers mean on a level humans can actually understand (e.g. per capita)? How do they relate to other statistics? And the most pressing question in my mind is, why doesn't the media put their numbers in a meaningful context?

The following is the sort of thing I'm talking about -- the sort of thing I never expect to see on the 6 o'clock news:

Global Spending Priorities: in $US billions:
Basic education for everyone in the world 6
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Water and sanitation for everyone in the world 9
Ice cream in Europe 11
Reproductive health for all women in the world 12
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world 13
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780
(Source) To the above I would add: U.S. spending on Iraq War, $78 billion per year ($195 billion / 2.5 years)

The topic of global priorities has been weighing on my mind recently, because I know they are all messed up, yet no one seems to notice. Everybody--reporters, politicians, and every kind of activist--likes to quote big scary numbers, without saying how they compare to all the other big scary numbers. Hunger activists know that enormous numbers of people are dying of malnutrition every day, and how much must be spent to put a dent in that problem. Water activists know how many people are getting sick from unsanitary water and how much might need to be spent to make a difference in that area. And Cancer activists know how many people are dying of cancer, though probably having no idea how much it will cost to find a cure. And Iraq debators on both sides know how much the U.S. spend on the war, and how many U.S. soldiers are dying (although the body count of 'liberated' civilians seems rather less well-known.)

Anyway, for some reason, these activists never get together and figure out what issues are in most dire need of solving. There are lots of people looking at a big picture, but very few looking at the biggest picture: the global priorities, the global proportions, the global disparities and this global disaster that we live in, but are largely unaware of.

I would like to see more global-scale comparisons between different issues. I hope you would, too.

P.S. Another problem with numbers in the media is that sources are often omitted. Sometimes I wonder how trustworthy the stated number are. Even knowing the source, reliability is difficult for an individual to determine. However, I have no solution to propose for that problem.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Shouldn't U.S. Soldiers Stay in Iraq?

I've been against the Iraq war from the beginning. And I'm not at all happy with the lies told by the administration, or how they've changed their story repeatedly: first Iraq is supposedly linked to Al-Qaeda, then it's got Weapons of Mass Destruction, and once it was publicly clear that it was all baloney, they switched to the story that they had invaded Iraq to "liberate" it.

I may not understand Bush's war-mongering, or why so many Americans buy into his story, but I'm also puzzled by the other side that wants to recall all American troops. From where I sit, that looks like a very bad idea. The U.S. invasion put Iraq in such a bad state that the U.S. troops might be the only thing between daily suicide bombings and all-out civil war. How can the troops leave when Iraq is not ready to stand up on it own? How can they leave before cleaning up the mess they made? I know, it isn't the soldiers' fault that they created this situation; the blame belongs with Bush & pals, and perhaps those in congress who voted for it. But that doesn't change the fact that far more people might die if they leave than if they stay.

If someone can explain to me why Iraq wouldn't devolve further if the troops left, please leave a comment. Otherwise, the U.S.--and by implication, its soldiers--has a moral responsibility to finish what it started. To carry through on its promise to create a free and prosperous Iraq. To ensure that Iraq is better off with the help of America than with the tyrrany of Saddam Hussein.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Limit Copyrights

Sept. 10: I've made several updates to this post in the past 2 days.
Consider this. Only 4% of all works continue to collect royalties after 20 years of copyright. Only 2% of all works continue to collect royalties after 56 years. If a work manages to collect revenue steadily for 95 years, then the present-time economic value of that revenue to the original author is equal to 99.8% of a perpetual term, assuming an interest rate of 7%. The 20 years of the 1998 extension make up 0.4% of that. A perpetual term would be unconstitutional. - Facts not challenged by the court in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

I said this in 1971, in the very first week of PG, that by the end of my lifetime you would be able to carry every word in the Library of Congress in one hand - but they will pass a law against it. I realized they would never let us have that much access to so much information. I never heard that they passed the copyright extension 5 years later. It was pretty much a secret, just as is the current one, unless the Supreme Court strikes it down. Only then will it make the news. - Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg

But this is a rich and complex stupidity, like a fine Margaux. I can only review a few flavours. - James Boyle
I've been troubled recently by copyright law, principally by the length of copyright terms. I know that copyright terms are too long--much too long. They are too long everywhere in the world, partially thanks to WIPO, the IP front group for IP businesses; but the U.S. in particular stands out an example of disturbing copyright policy, despite a constitutional clause that was intended to prevent this kind of abuse.

"Too long" doesn't even begin to describe it. Individual authors are granted copyright for their entire lives plus an entire extra lifetime of 70 years. More importantly, corporations get a similarly absurd term of 95 years (from the date of publication).

It seems inconceivable to me that this would have happened without big business lobbying for retroactive copyright protection. The original copyright law offered 14 years of protection, and only if the publisher officially registered the work. It also allowed a 14-year extension, but for most works, that extension was not used. Copyright has been extended at least four times since then. Although I don't recalling hearing specifically that all the various copyright extensions were applied retroactively, I just felt in my gut that it had to be the case. Why else would copyright be extended, but for lobbying by big business? And why would big business lobby, but for the sake of this year's bottom line? What business is concerned with its bottom line 95, 70, 50, 30, or even 20 years from now? For many or most businesses, I find it hard to believe that the fate of their intellectual property even 10 years after today holds a lot of interest.

Nevertheless, for the sake of this article, I've endevoured to find confirmation that copyright extensions have generally been retroactive, and have confirmed that all four copyright extensions (1831 through 1998) were retroactive. The last two copyright extensions (1976 and 1998) were the most extreme, together adding 39 years to the terms of commercial works published between 1923 and 1976. Notice this chilling effect: a frozen public domain. No more works will lapse into the public domain until the thaw begins on January 1, 2019. Project Gutenberg, the non-profit digitization project, won't get much new business for quite some time.

This Cnet article states that the Supreme Court voted 7-2 against Larry Lessig's constitutional challenge to Orrin Hatch's copyright extension act of 1998. This bill is also known as the "Mickey Mouse" bill because its lobbyists/funders included Disney, whose copyright on the very first mickey mouse cartoon (1928) was to expire in 5 years. And it passed without much fanfare. For the sake of a very, very few works that were still making royalties, works from 1923 onward were suddenly locked up for 20 more years. And if I live a normal lifespan, this blog entry will be legally copy-protected until the year 2130, unless I take steps to prevent it.

The court's decision is sad, because the challenge is quite valid. The intention of the constitution seems clear enough:
Section 8 (powers of congress), Clause 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;
Now, most people focus on the "limited times" part: of course, 95 years is technically a "limited time". So is a thousand years, or a million. Where do we draw the line? Most people think 95 years is too long; I think it's rediculously long. But congress obviously thinks 95 or more years is "limited". Still, I prefer to focus on the "promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts" part. Legally, it seems that this is held to mean, "to promote the creation of new inventions and creative works". But how can anyone argue that retroactive copyright extension can promote the creation of new works? It's absurd! If a company is still making money from the predecessors of the predecessors of the predecessors of its current employees, would that not reduce, not increase, the financial pressure to create new works? And if the Beatles were still around, and were still making a living from their first songs, why would they feel a financial need to write new songs?

Common sense says no. How about scientific evidence? Is there even any anecdotal evidence? I'd bet good money that all the copyright extensions that have been made were done without any solid studies or other evidence to justify them.

More to the point: does a retroactive extension affect the author's original decision to create the work? Is congress somehow sending an encouragement for more creativity into the past? Of course not. The fact is, retroactive extension does nothing to encourage creation of works, past or present.

Well, actually, I can think of one single argument. Consider what happens if you reduce the cost of canned soup in the store. Can this affect sales of carrots? The short answer is yes, because increased soup sales can result in decrease sales of all other foods, insofar as consumers don't eat more. If copyright was 15 years--which I think is sufficient--then as of now, all works from 1989 backward could be made freely (or at low cost) available on the internet, and reprints of books could be made available at lower costs. These would indeed compete with new works for people's attention, and maybe, just maybe, people would choose to watch more old movies, listen to more old music and read more old books. Hence decreasing the demand for new ones, hence, maybe, reducing the rate of creation.

Constitutionally, this could be a valid, if disgusting, argument: that we should encourage the creation of new works by suppressing the old ones.

Still, I find it hard to believe that works that are, say, 40 years old or more could have a serious impact on demand for new works: stuff that old is mainly of historical interest, and among the public, history is a small niche compared to the new and glitzy. The "threat" posed by works even 20 years old does not seem excessive. Clearly, the industry that lobbied for all these copyright extensions doesn't place a lot of value on old works: only 4% of all copyrighted (commercial) works are commercially available after 20 years. (according to James Boyle.)

But if the the demand for new works were to decrease, who made the decision? If that happened, it would be the result of the people, rediscovering millions of books and songs, and thousands of movies, that today are mostly ignored, either because these works are not available at all (except used copies), or becase their commercial prices are too high to compete effectively with new commercial works. The people would vote with their feet. And if the people indeed choose to do this, why should Congress--and the other legislatures of the world--stop them? If the people did this, it would clearly be what they want. Why should a legislature go against the will of the people in this matter? Remember: 4% after 20 years. If the content producers were willing to release the remaining 96% into the public domain, I would be a lot happier. But almost universally, this has not happened. Some companies have been known to defend their copyrights long after they have stopped caring about them. And so, old content remains locked up. For nearly a century.

The 5 supreme court justices, by the way, did not focus on the above argument. Regarding the sheer length of copyright terms, they basically decided it wasn't the court's business to decide upon any particular time limit. Regarding the issue of retroactivity, a key argument in favor seemed to be that because all previous extensions were retroactive, and given that retroactivity had never had a court challenge before, it was a tradition, and this traditional-ness somehow makes it constitutional. And somehow, the court was almost entirely blind to the issue of the public interest, which I'm sure the framers of the constitution had in mind. Langvardt & Langvardt make the case that the court's worries about practical effects of striking down the law (effects on existing contracts based on the law, and on possible future challenges to the prior 1976 extension act) overwhelmed all other considerations and precluded them from performing a thorough analysis of the issues. I wonder also whether they were afraid to appear to be performing "judicial activism". As Justice Ginsberg stated, “[t]he wisdom of Congress’s action . . . is not within our province to second guess.” Still, the dissenting opinions gave me some hope that there is some reason left in the court. Both Justices Breyer and Stevens provided strong rebukes to the majority, and the two had interestingly different approaches in their arguments--proving that there's more than one way to skin this cat.

In summary, while I believe U.S. copyright terms exceeding about 40 or 50 years should be considered unconstitutional--and all retroactive extensions are unconstitutional--I believe copyright terms beyond about 30 years are unreasonable, because they are contrary to the will of the people--or at least, would be, if the people gave serious thought to such matters, or better yet, if they got the chance to see what life would be life without onerous copyright laws. Imagine, for instance, if you could use Google to search and view all the books ever published that are more than 20 years old. Google's trying to do something like that, but what it provides is severely limited by copyright. Or, imagine if you could purchase the book collection on DVD-ROM (or Blu-Ray DVD, if there is not enough storage space on the former.)

Update: Google's limited use of copyrighted books has drawn the ire (in the form of a lawsuit) of the Author's Guild, which, as publisher Tim O'Reilly says, is unfortunate.

Many countries have no constitutionally implied limits on copyright, but the limits dictated by reason and morality--yes, I believe it's a moral issue--remain.

Unfortunately, copyright, and other IP laws, have been ignored far and wide by the public. And, sadly, the modern world has never had the chance to see the effects of a short copyright term. But I hope that, in some small way, I can raise awareness of the issue.

P.S.: I am not a lawyer, so, while the recent copyright extensions are clearly against the spirit of section 8.8, I must admit, I see a possible loophole in the matter. It looks like Section 8's purpose is to lay down the powers of the Federal government, as opposed to the State governments, such that any powers not granted to the federal government are granted to state governments. Thus, for example, a state government could (or should be able to) institute an infinite-length copyright law. The constitution does not actually say that all "securing" laws must be limited in time, nor that they must promote the progress of science or useful arts; no, it merely delineates the federal government's power. So in my mind this raises the question of whether the federal government is allowed to enact a law that is beyond its section 8 powers, if such a law is not opposed by any of the states; indeed, so far as I know, no IP law has been challenged by a state government. The purpose of the section is apparently to give all unspecified powers to the states; but if no state ever challenges a power the federal government has claimed, then why should any court even consider its constitutionality? Indeed, why shouldn't Federal laws to have force in any matter wherein a given state government has made no decision? After all, as far as I can see, the constitution does not say that the Federal Government cannot make laws outside the domains delineated in section 8. Anyway, I don't know the answer--that's why I'm asking.

Update: the tenth amendment states
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Note that it does not say "to the States exclusively", but that's probably how it is interpreted.

P.P.S. The constitution mentions authors/writings and inventors/discoveries, but not audio or video or fonts or databases. Of course, it could not be expected to, given the time it was written. But I wonder just how it happened that the constitution came to apply to all of these things implicitly.

P.P.P.S. Actually, I'm inclined to think the constitution was written a bit carelessly--didn't the framers realise that lawyerswould be its principal examiners, and that arbitrary court decisions would set almost permanent precedents in place? Well, never mind. Rant over.

Miscellaneous bonus links: I hereby declare that this article shall revert to the public domain after ten years (January 1, 2016). The copyright of derived works shall also revert after ten years. Again, without the preceding declaration, my copyright would be expected to last until 2130. Please note that it is extremely rare for any author to declare a copyright term limitation, including myself. I mean, adding terms to everything is just tedius.
Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Fight Poverty - International Day of Action

Just for fun, here are some statistics. Today I went to Calgary's event for the International Day of Action to Help Make Poverty History, but the turnout was very disappointing. The heavy rain was a factor, but apparently there were some problems getting the word out, so only about 40 people showed up. I hope it isn't indicative of a city that doesn't care about the issue. After Live 8, I would expect a lot of momentum to remain. Oh yeah, and the white "make poverty history" bands were too big.

I heard an interesting slogan at the event: "Solidarity, Not Charity". I strongly agree that the governments of our first world nations need to get involved in this. A small percentage of citizens donating a few bucks a year has not and will not end poverty. The problem is just too big for that; not only does the entire first world need to increase its spending on foreign aid, but foreign and domestic policies need to change, to mitigate factors that keep "developing countries" from actually developing.

For example, consider the agricultural subsidies first world governments grant to farmers. In poor countries, farmers generally don't get subsidies; furthermore, they generally can't afford large farm equipment, so they cannot reach efficiency levels of the first world. It seems to me that first-world nations offer subsidies in order to help farmers compete in the international market; but the net effect is keeping farmers in poor nations poor. First world governments should collectively agree to drop their local subsidies to help end poverty.

Update: This story suggests the effects of subsidy are more complicated than they seem. To Crypticity: I'm not sure what to make of it either.

Meaningless Words

I was raised as a Mormon, and to this day I'm still looking for a testimony of the church.

I have often felt confused about the meaning of certain words and phrases used in religion--words like "holy", "sacred", and "atonement". Recently I decided that my lack of understanding was no fault of my own, but had a logical explanation.

What does "abject" mean? Until today, I had seen this word used in only one context: "abject poverty". Somehow I feel that "abject poverty" means either "extreme poverty" or "undeniable poverty", but how can I be sure? It's logical that I cannot. We learn the meaning words by seeing them in a variety of contexts. We naturally develop ideas about what words mean, like I have done with "abject"; but we need to see words in multiple contexts, and see them compared and contrasted to other words, in order to build a clear picture of their meaning. Therefore, I cannot have a clear idea about the meaning of "abject" if its only incarnation is "abject poverty", or "sill" if its only incarnation is "windowsill".

It is the same with religious words. The words "sacred" and "holy" are associated with other words, like "spiritual" and "divine" (try Google Sets for more examples), and I know some examples of "sacred" and "holy" things: baptism, the Holy Bible, holy lands, sacred oil, a sacred building, a sacred ordinance. Clearly, "holy" and "sacred" have something do with religion and God. But what, exactly? Do these words mean nothing more than "God related"? If you look in the dictionary, there are so many definitions that "God related" sums it up pretty well. Yet this definition is unsatisfying to me, because in my church I have seen sacredness or holyness used as a justification for action or inaction. Why is it good to go to a temple? Among other reasons, because it is a "sacred place". Why should we not engage in masturbation? or tatooing? Because "our bodies are sacred". But with the meaning of these words being so vague, I find them unconvincing as a justification for anything. Should the Jews have invaded Palestine because it was a "holy land"? Should terrorists kill people because there is supposedly a "holy war" going on?

And what is the difference between "holy" and "sacred"? Why are some things sacred and others holy? If someone declared "this object is holy because blank, but it is not sacred because blank", I could begin to see the difference. But since no one ever contrasts them, I cannot see the difference. And indeed, if no one knows the difference, then effectively there is no difference. But if a difference was known when the scriptures were written, then we have lost a source of understanding for the scriptures. I often wonder how much knowledge we have lost. Incidentally, Esperanto uses one word, "sankta", for both "sacred" and "holy". I guess the designer didn't know the difference either.

The atonement is the sacrifice Jesus made, and may include both what happened in the garden of Gethsemanie and upon the cross. So what do "atone" and "atonement" mean? Since these words are defined by one act in all of history, I question whether they have any meaning beyond merely that of a name, like "Wall Street" or "Henry" or "Jesus". Yet that would make ideas like an "infinite atonement" just as meaningless as "infinite Henry". How can one understand words so ill-defined as this?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Just Lost $3000

Well, in a way, I lost it a long time ago.

I hate doing my taxes. Those forms are absolutely baffling to me. In the year 2000, the first year I made more than a neglegible amount of money, I worked for six months before starting school. In that time, my employer took $4,500 in taxes (26%). When tax time came, I picked up the tax forms, and spent some hours studying the so-called "guide" book, which is actually, I have decided, the government's way of suffocating people under a mountain of mysterious financial terminology. Eventually I gave up trying to figure out what it all meant, knowing that if the government owes you money, you don't get penalized for being late.

Well, I put it off, and put it off, and put it off again, until ... well, until now. Now I have found out that the government won't process returns more than three years old. I estimate I would have got about $3,000 back.

This is even worse than the time when I accidently left $440 in an envelope on a desk in one of my classes. But that's another story.

"Aggregator" software

For awhile now I've been hearing about RSS and Atom "feeds". These thingies, which are stored on web sites such as this one, are machine-readable summaries of "articles" - blog entries, news stories, and other articles. If you know how, you can "subscribe" to a bunch of these Atom and/or RSS feeds, and thereby get a list of new articles from many different sources delivered to one window on your computer. This is called "aggregation".

Trouble is, while I kept hearing about RSS/Atom itself, I never heard of any particular software or web site that would let me do this "aggregation". So finally I went searching for info.

Wikipedia has a software list, (and here's another) but doesn't have any information to help you choose between the dozens of programs. This article at wired has good reviews, but it's old. I've been unable to find any good, recent software reviews, but this one's okay and here's another.

If you read several blogs, aggregation software (or a web site) is a must-have. Once you have it, you can keep track of what dozens or hundreds of people are saying on their blogs. Sadly, I haven't found any desktop software that I like so far.

Feeds in NetVibes: If you haven't tried NetVibes, you should. Anyway, you can add a feed by following these steps:
  • At my blog, right click on the "Blog Feed" link and choose "Copy Link Location"
  • At NetVibes, Click "Add content" in the left corner, then click "Add my feed"
  • Paste the address and click Add.
Feeds in Firefox: (updated Dec. 29) Just today I found out that Firefox provides an easy way to use blog feeds. When you visit a blog, a "feed" icon () appears on the right side of the address bar. Click it for the option to make a "Live Bookmark", which is a group of bookmarks that is automatically updated to contain the current contents of the blog feed. You can choose to put the group on the Bookmarks Toolbar, or among the regular bookmarks.

By the way, from a technical standpoint, Atom is generally better than RSS (it was created as a response to limitations of RSS.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

New Blog

I've been using the blog feature at, a place for posting all manner of free content. Unfortunately, their server is constantly going down. For safety I've switched to, and I plan to repost all my blog entries here.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Dear online music industry: get your act together

I've decided to refuse to put up with the music industry's B.S. If they want my money, they'll have to get their act together.

  1. I won't buy an entire album just for the sake of one song. Ever. Well, maybe at a garage sale.
  2. I will not pay unreasonable prices. I will only pay top dollar for songs I really like; for other songs, I won't pay much more than one dollar. I would suggest a quality-based system. For one dollar you'd get the medium quality: 112 or 128 kbps VBR MP3 (96 or 112 kbps OGG); for two dollars, you'd get any quality you like in any format you'd like (160 to 320 kbps MPG/OGG, or master-quality FLAC format). Furthermore, the music vendor should allow you do download more than one copy of the song in different formats. That way, for instance, you could download a lower quality version for your flash player (in order to maximize the number of songs on the device) than for your surround sound system.
  3. I will not buy music with DRM. I want to transfer music between different computers (home and work and laptop), play it with the program of my choice (not just some special program that can handle the DRM), play it from the cheap portable player in my pocket (not some special model designed for the DRM), play it in the car MP3 CD player, or even stream it off the internet from a private server. I do not want to degrade quality via transcoding, nor go to the trouble of looking for cracking tools. I also want to be able to apply arbitrary filters such as karaoke voice-removers and pitch shifters, which are sometimes incompatible with DRM systems. I do not want to deal with the possibility that the encryption keys will be lost if I reformat my hard drive. In short: if I am paying them for music, I deserve to play it whereever I want, however I want. If this is too much to ask, then my money is too much to ask. The solution is dead simple: offer music in MP3 and/or OGG format.
  4. I will not buy music that I have never heard. I know, I know, lots of people buy music they've never heard, but I simply refuse. Websites that sell music must offer preview versions (streaming by default, but one should also be able to do a permanent download, for offline listening). There are various ways they could do this, such as to offer
  • The first half of the song at high quality.
  • The entire song at low quality.
  • The first half of the song at high quality, the rest at low quality.
  • Medium-quality songs with some whiney DJ messing up the beginning and end.
  • The whole song at high quality, with an ad for Viagra stuck right in the middle.
See also:
"American copyright law is biased against citizens" - Diesel Sweeties