High-tech and the rights to your body

A friend’s post alerted me to the potential overreach of copyright and commercial law when it comes to the human body. The particular post was about tattoo artists who tried to make money of sport professionals who had integrated the tattoos into their professional persona: The company who had bought the tattoo artists’ designs claims that the copyright to the art extends to the performances of professionals showing the art. Hence they wanted money for any performance, here as part of the professionals appearing in video games.

It is easy to extend this to high-tech. The consequences could be dire, if the enhanced human body would become subject to overreaching intellectual property rights held by companies. Imagine a pacemaker for your heart that has only been licensed to you and you lack the necessary data and rights to make it work over time. I’m sure some company will come up with a pacemaker that needs to get a license key every year or so from the company’s license server. Would the company let the person die, if he or she fails to pay the annual license fee? In case you wonder whether anyone would accept such a pacemaker into their heart (pun intended): Just imagine being poor enough to not be able to pay for the medical procedure. Or imagine requiring a particularly innovative pacemaker function that only this one manufacturer offers and you can’t pay for the perpetual license.

If this seems far-fetched, you should note that this is already happening in other contexts. For example, John Deere, a leading manufacturer of tractors and other farming equipment is only leasing its tractors and the software to farmers. John Deere argues that farmers don’t own the tractor and its data any longer, John Deere remains the owner. As a consequence, all data from the farmers’ tractors is planned to end up in John Deere data centers and farmers who don’t keep paying might be cut of their equipment and its data.

The Internet and interconnectedness is making it happen. It is indeed time to clarify ownership and limits of ownership, in particular when it comes to the human body and its rights. Indeed an interesting time for lawyers (and everyone else).

Software is Eating the World auf Deutsch

My university is preparing a bid for a major (fairly broad) German computer science conference. We are wondering how one would translate Marc Andreesen’s diktum “software is eating the world” into German. Software verschlingt die Welt? Naja. Vorschläge gern gesehen, Kommentare auch.

Should Cars be Programmed to Make Life or Death Decisions?

With self-driving cars in our near future, I’ve seen more and more articles about the moral dilemma of what the car should do when faced with an impossible decision, for example, to either kill a grandmother or drive into a flock of children. In my mind, the pundits are getting it all wrong; the underlying assumption that humans can abdicate responsibility to machines and the car’s behavior must be predictable is plain wrong.

Here is how one pundit explains the problem:

Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

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Only German Financial Websites….

One of those cultural things: German financial services websites (but then: all of them) will remind you upon logging in that you did not properly log out last session. Streamlining social behavior at its best, even if it makes little sense. At least it is a good example localized semantics for an HCI course.

Should Children Learn to Code?

According to the WordPress summary of my site, the most popular post in 2014 was “Should You Learn to Code?”, beating out the perennial favorite “The Single-Vendor Commercial Open Source Business Model”. Obviously, the broader the interest, the more readers.

This morning I read about the call by a German politician to introduce mandatory programming courses into elementary (primary) school. The idea is that being able to program is such a basic culture technique these days that kids should learn it early on.

In my prior piece on learning to code, I answered mostly in the negative. If you are an adult and don’t aim for a career in programming, don’t bother. With children, the story is quite different: I agree that children should learn to program, but as a boost to early acquisition of abstraction skills, and not for programming skills in themselves.

Let me explain.

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First Thoughts on the 20 Year Anniversary of the Design Patterns Book (a.k.a. GoF Book)

Addison Wesley is going to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Design Patterns a.k.a. Gang-of-Four book. For this, they reached out to the community and asked for contributions. Here are the questions they asked, suggesting we ask (and answer) our own ones as well:

  1. How has Design Patterns affected you and your career?
  2. How has it changed how you think about software development?
  3. Do you have specific recollections of the book’s release?
  4. How do you use design patterns today?
  5. Which Patterns should be retired?
  6. Which new Patterns should be added?

I’ll provide my answers to questions 1-4 here and I’ll answer questions 5-6 in separate follow-on posts later.

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Should You Learn to Code?

The U.S. president Barack Obama wants to learn programming and so does former New York City major Michael Bloomberg. Germany’s chancelor Angela Merkel does not, but reports tell us that her cell phone connection was spied on by the U.S.A. As long as it doesn’t turn out to specifically have been Barrack Obama’s code which cracked Angela Merkel’s cell phone, I’ll stay out of politics and focus on the question: Should you learn to code?

The short answer: No. Don’t waste your time.

The long answer: It depends on your age and your goals.

The confusion arises from different goals you might have for learning how to program. I see the following possible reasons one might want to learn coding:

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World Views Are Not Data Inconsistencies

I’m at Wikimania 2013, listening in on the WikiData session. WikiData is the Wikimedia Foundation’s attempt to go beyond prose in Wikipedia pages and provide a reference data source. An obvious problem is that any such data source needs an underlying model of the world, and that sometimes it is not only hard to gain consensus on that model, sometimes it is impossible. Basically, different world-views are simply incompatible. When asked about this fundamental problem, the audience was told that such inconsistencies are handled using multi-valued properties. Ignoring for a second, that world-views cannot be reduced to individual properties, my major point here is that world-views are not inconsistencies in the data. Different world-views are real and justified, and there will never be only one world view. The moment we all agree on one world-view, we have become the borg.

Update: Daniel Kinzler corrected me that this must be a misunderstanding: WikiData can handle multiple world views well by way of multi-valued properties.

On the Technology Behind the Wikipedia Sexism Debate on “American Women Novelists”

The English Wikipedia is currently embroiled in a debate on sexism (local copy), because of classifying female American novelists as “American Women Novelists” while leaving male American novelists in the more general category “American Novelists”, suggesting a subordinate role of female novelists. I find this debate regrettable for the apparent sexism but also interesting for the technology underlying such changes, which I would like to focus on here.

With technology, I mean bureaucratic practices, conceptual modeling of the world and Wikipedia content, and software tools to support changes to those models.

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The One Publisher to Boycott @ReedElsevierHQ

If there is one for-profit publisher to boycott, it is Elsevier. Here is the proof. My university, the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg, just published a list of the most expensive journals it is subscribed to. 19 out of 20 are Elsevier journals (page in German). My university’s library is in a negotiation stale-mate with Elsevier, which is not budging on the price of these journals. This is for research papers delivered to Elsevier for free, reviewed and edited for free, all by the scientific community.

I ask you not to submit your research work to Elsevier journals. I ask you not even to cite papers from Elsevier journals unless you absolutely have to. Please. In the name of science, scientific freedom, and equal access for all to research publications.

Thank you for fighting the good fight!

elsevier