Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror

Comment Re:Obsolete crypto shows problem of software paten (Score 2) 85 85

So what's your stance on RSA, one of the early software patents, which is still used everywhere?

I didn't try to articulate every problem with software patents, merely those illustrated by the just-overturned patent covering SSL using RC4. Note that RC4 itself is about 30 years old, and was developed by RSA security.

In any case, regarding the RSA cryptosystem itself, it was developed by several academics (independent of its previous, secret, invention GCHQ), and clearly it would have been developed and published even without the extra bonus of patent protection. It's important to remember that patents are a means to an end ("promot[ion] of Progress of Science and useful Arts") -- which is not to make money for inventors but to provide them an incentive to invent for the public good. In other words, a Patent is a way for the public to give up something (the natural possibility of making use of an invention you hear about) in return for a different advantage (getting the invention made in the first place). If inventors would invent even without the extra incentive, there is not need for the incentive.

Since practically all the value of inventiveness in the software business can be captured simply by writing the software (and, in cryptography especially, by ordinary academic incentives such as promotion, tenure and professional recognition), software patents don't help. Instead they hinder.

For a salient example consider the LZW patent. The algorithm was designed by two academics (Lempel and Ziv of the Technion). The main effect of the patent was to end the widespread use of .gif files (the GIF standard specified LZW compression), which dominated the early internet. Rather than knuckle under and pay licensing fees (and end free-software projects like Mozilla), the internet community developed PNG, an equivalent but patent-unencumbered compressed raster image format. Practically the whole internet switched to PNG -- showing that useful technology can be invented without the patent incentive, and that when there is no patent it is much more widely used for everyone's enjoyment.

PS: It is likely that the LZW patent was invalid (patenting an abstract algorithm), but nobody wanted to take the legal risk of going to course to invalidate it. This obnoxious patent has since expired.

Comment Obsolete crypto shows problem of software patents (Score 4, Insightful) 85 85

It's worth noting that there are known attacks against RC4 (especially SSL using RC4). While these aren't quite practical yet, it is clear that RC4 is obsolete, and that current programmers should choose other stream cyphers (AES). Even supposing the patent was legitimate, the technology it covers has become obsolete well within its lifetime.

This illustrates one of the key reasons software (that is, algorithms) shouldn't be patentable: the field moves so fast that 20-year patent protection isn't useful. Even supposing the authors of software need patent protection to recoup their "investment" in inventing the algorithm, 20-year protection is effectively an infinite term, since by the time the protection ends, the technology is obsolete.

As an aside, note that patenting a protocol (such as RC4) automatically ends its usefulness. Protocols are only useful if the other party to the communication can participate, and interoperability is very important in software. Patents are ill-suited for this. Copyright, on the other hand, works well: the code you write is protected, but anyone else can write their own code to implement the protocol and communicate with you.

Comment Not the CFAA, but possibly the FCC (Score 2) 138 138

Accessing an open WiFi connection using a repeater would not violate the CFAA -- the connection is open and your device would log on to it. You'd be using it the way it was intended. Of course, The DOJ claims that simply violating terms of service can make you a federal felon, but that's wrong. Read Prof. Orin Kerr's work for more on this

On the other hand, the FCC allows anyone to use the 900MHz band but tightly regulates what can be done there (for example, no "retransmission of .. signals emanating from ... radio station other than an amateur radio station", which likely does make this idea illegal. See 47 CFR Part 97.

Comment Re:Greeks surrender: no restructuring (Score 4, Insightful) 485 485

I agree with practically everything you say except the last bit.

First, the Greek wages-to-productivity ratio must fall, by a combination of (1) Government-sector wage cuts (already started); (2) productivity increases in the government sector by (a) insisting that government workers actually do their job (b) firing redundant government workers and (c) privatization and (3) wage reduction and productivity increases in the private sector – made possible by freeing labour laws.

However, raising taxes makes the wages-to-productivity ratio worse, because it increases the cost of hiring the worker without a corresponding cost to productivity, or equivalently increases deadweight losses. Instead, wage cuts in the private sector should be achieved by freeing the labour market (which is currently among the most restricted in Europe). In fact, workers need to be compensated for the wage cuts by tax cuts.

As an aside, tax cuts would also increase compliance, which is the key problem with the Tax system (far more important than the rates).

Regarding the source of problems, clearly they all stem from the behaviour of Greece (both the country and its people) and not of the creditors. Greece cooked its books before joining the Eurozone, and the Greek voters had ample opportunity to vote for free-market, better-government and smaller-government reforms in the years since.

That said, the original creditors (eurozone banks) who lend to Greece until 2010 knew all this full well and decided to extend the credit anyway. The earned the interest rates they demanded, and should now have to eat the losses when, following the crisis and resulting economic contraction, Greece can't pay back. These banks may have had to suffer, but lending to sovereigns carries default risk (just like lending to private entities carries bankruptcy risk).

What you are ignoring, however, is that the people of Europe were not creditors before their governments decided to take on the debt in 2010 (giving the banks a 50% haircut). Since the governments of Europe voluntarily decided to make public what previously was debt to private entities, they shouldn't now be able to turn around and claim that the taxpayers of Europe will suffer unfairly if the debt isn't paid. If the taxpayers were concerned about non-payments and didn't want to go into the debt vulture hedge-fund business they could have left the bad loans with the banks who made them originally.

I personally thing that. beyond being against the EU treaties, the bailouts of Greece, Spain and Italy were also ill-conceived and morally wrong. But having gone into the sovereign loans business the EU can't complain about facing default risk.

Comment Credibility is key (Score 5, Interesting) 485 485

Indeed, whether Syriza would implement the reforms is the most important question. Varoufakis was very vocal about the need for the reforms, but he has been forced out (by the EU !). The left-left wing of Syriza is opposed. It's not clear what the majority would do, and like you I would have preferred to see some reforms passed in February and March while the negotiations were ongoing.

However, some of the reforms Germany is asking for (higher taxes, pension cuts) cause me to doubt their bona fides here. The main problem is taxes in Greece is non-payment and the informal economy. Raising taxes is likely to exacerbate this problem by increasing the motivation to evade the higher taxes. Lowering taxes and simplifying the tax system is far more likely to raise more revenue.

Similarly, the main problem with government pensions is early retirement. The solution should therefore be to raise the retirement age for those currently working, which in the long term resolve the problems without creating short-term pain. The German solution (cut pensions now) means asking current pensioners who have no prospect of other sources of income and cannot choose to go back to the jobs they retired from to help repay the national debt.

Comment Think of bankruptcy (Score 1) 485 485

Imagine you're a corporation (which in a lot of ways governments are kind of like). Now, imagine you get a new CEO who wants to get out of existing contracts because he didn't contract for them and doesn't want to pay them. Too damned bad. You don't get to go "waaah, we can't afford this so we want a do-over".

In fact, corporations get exactly that when the file for bankruptcy. a procedure designed exactly to restructure their debt. It's true that sometimes this means the company is liquidated entirely, with the assets used to pay the creditors, but often what results is a bankruptcy plan in which (1) the company is reformed (2) the debt is cut to something manageable in order to keep the company going.

Here's an alternate explanation: If Germany starts forgiving debts for everybody, then the Germans are paying for someone else's prosperity, and asking Germans to pay for that is like a mugging, but on a large scale and in slow motion. That would be completely irresponsible to German taxpayers who work hard and don't get to retire early.

Recall that Germany didn't make the original loans at all. The original loans were made by private banks (many of them German). So if Greece had defaulted in 2008 or 2010, the citizens of Germany would have not been on the hook for anything. But in 2010 the government of Germany decided to act like a predatory debt hedge fund: by forcing the first bailout on Greece, they effectively bought the debt from the banks, probably on the idea that they could force Greece to pay better than the banks. Once Germany took over the loans (which it didn't have to), it took over the risk Greece would default. German workers have only their government to blame for taking over the debt -- not the Greek workers or the current government of Greece, neither of which who had any say in the original loans.

Second, it is agreed by the Greek government (at least, it was repeatedly stated by Varoufakis before he was forced out) that Greece needed serious reforms, including raising the retirement age. For Varoufakis the point of an additional loan would have been to bridge Greece while the reforms took effect, noting that they have already achieved a primary surplus. But cutting existing pensions to pay back the government of Germany makes no sense. Basically, German bankers made bad loans, German taxpayers decided to save the bankers, and now Greek pensioners are being asked to help the much wealthier German taxpayers recover money on a bad loan gamble.

Comment Re:Greeks surrender: no restructuring (Score 5, Insightful) 485 485

What was the Greek government thinking? that the EU will just give more money without asking for more responsible measures. Meanwhile the European Central Bank maintains a freeze on emergency liquidity assistance. Tsipras had a popular mandate to say NO, he said yes. Game over!

No -- the Greek government was thinking that they (Greece) needed to implement serious reforms, and that they have already achieved primary surplus. However, given the state of their economy the would never be able to pay back most of the debt. So what they needed was (1) forgiveness ("restructuring") for a big chunk of the debt (2) a bridge loan until the reforms kick in and the economy recovers enough. Some of the loans would be eventually paid, but much shouldn't be (and the lenders should have known better).

What the EU wants instead is (1) the pipe dream of Greece paying back everything and (2) higher taxes and lower pensions now to help this repayment. In other words, for the EU the goal of any reforms is not to get Greece back on its feet but to extract money from it to pay back the loans.

So, the question was not on whether reforms were needed before any further loans (which was universally agreed upon), but rather on the goals. What Greece capitulated was not on agreeing to the reforms, but on accepting that notion that they will try to pay back loans despite knowing full well that they will never be able to afford to.

Comment Not quite (Score 2, Insightful) 485 485

Some important caveats:

  1. "Greece" is not a unitary person here -- the governments changed over time. You can't blame the debt on the current government (which didn't contract for it). The people of Greece are partially to blame (for voting for the wrong governments).
  2. Greece didn't just want extra money. What they finally recognized (at least, Varoufakis did) is the need for serious structural reforms: improving tax collection, raising the retirement age, reducing the public sector, actually providing government services, reducing red tape, and accompanying the cuts to government with tax cuts. If the economy returns to growth then it would quickly be able to afford current spending levels. An extra loan would needed as a bridge, but the key are the reforms not the loan.
  3. What the EU (Germany, that is) is insisting on is very different: they wants the bad debt paid back via higher taxes. But Greece can't possibly afford to pay those debts, and higher taxes will just further damage the Greek economy.

I conclude Germany is destroying Greece to ensure that Spain and Italy toe the line from now on.

Comment Usual assymetry (Score 1) 69 69

The Library of Congress being about preserving the cultural heritage of the US, it was an odd choice in the first place to give the Librarian of Congress a national regulatory function.

The real problem is the asymmetry: the costs of over-regulation are born by the public as a whole, but in very small increments. The notional costs of under-regulation will be born by obvious "aggrieved parties" with deep lobbying muscle. There's also the usual problem that assumes that the "stakeholders" in any copyright debate are just the people who stand to gain from extending copyright protection, but not the general public who enjoys the fruit of the copyright regime.

Comment Competition is key (Score 5, Insightful) 76 76

Can anyone explain why Jeff Bezos is doing the same thing that SpaceX is already doing ?

Why is GM doing the same thing that Ford is doing? As long as there is a market for space launches, competition will align the incentives better than other arrangements. We'll get to see more different approaches tried, and find out what's best. Costs will generally go down.

If competition takes root, then in 30 years a suborbital ticket would be affordable to many of us.

Comment Burden of proof (Score 5, Insightful) 140 140

Beyond the privacy problem, a key issue here is the problem of false positives. The system claims a 96% accuracy in detecting people in passenger seats, which is a huge error rate for sending people fines. A policeman can actually stop you and look in the car, which they have to do before writing a ticket.

The problem is that such fines are expensive to contest (you have to take time off work, show up to court etc). Many people will just pay. This is not a criminal prosecution situation where "presumption of innocence" in the legal sense is relevant, but the principle applies here too: you should hold the government to a high standard of proof here.

Comment Computers matter in chess (Score 5, Informative) 237 237

The progress of computers in both power and miniaturization has had a strong effect on chess. The biggest effect is the end of the practice of adjourning tournament games. It used to be that games which ran long would be adjourned to the next day, but once overnight analysis by computer became a serious possibility (displacing overnight analysis by each player), the practice became pointless and now tournament games run continuously until they end.

The challenge of miniature devices both for chess analysis and for communication with analysis occurring elsewhere can't be so easily met by changing the rules, but diligent policing will help. Stricter no-cellphones-in-the-playing area policies would have to be implemented.

Comment Why should they decide (Score 1) 216 216

I am not going to discuss whether CS should or shouldn't be a "core" subject in the schools. Rather, I am much more disturbed by the idea that Congress, in D.C., wants to decide the "core" subjects for every school system in the US.

First and foremost, regulating education is not a function entrusted to the Federal Government. It is a quintessential State issue. It is not the kind of problem (unlike, say, national defence or immigration) which must be solved at the national level.

I think that many people believes most states are "getting it wrong" on education (say, here, by not mandating enough CS classes), so they are hoping the Feds will fix it. But the states making bad choices ought not to be, on its own, a source of power for Congress. Some people imagine that, once Congress takes over, it'll be easier to get things right, since there'll be only one decision-making body not many, but this ignores the massive lobbying that will take over once convincing Congress suffices to influence the whole country. It is much easier for interest groups to dominate Congress than to dominate each State and school district separately.

"It might help if we ran the MBA's out of Washington." -- Admiral Grace Hopper

Working...