How deep the rabbit hole goes

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they're created, it's impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that's involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy's law says that they simply shouldn't possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it's impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

That is also why it's so hard for technologists and non-technologists to communicate together: technologists know too much about too many layers and non-technologists know too little about too few layers to be able to establish effective direct communication. The gap is so large that it's not even possible any more to have a single person be an intermediate between those two groups, and that's why e.g. we end up with those convoluted technical support call centers and their multiple tiers. Without such deep support structures, you end up with the frustrating situation that we see when end users have access to a bug database that is directly used by engineers: neither the end users nor the engineers get the information that they need to accomplish their goals.

I had this article open in a browser tab for weeks and finally read it. I can't even remember how I found it anymore, but I enjoyed it.

Finally, last but not least, that is why our patent system is broken: technology has done such an amazing job at hiding its complexity that the people regulating and running the patent system are barely even aware of the complexity of what they're regulating and running.

 

People writing technical patents don't make life easy on the USPTO (have you ever tried to read a software patent?), but the point above still holds. The poor person at teh USPTO trying to figure out whether to approve a technology patent probably doesn't have enough domain knowledge to determine what they're approving and why.

There should be a Tumblr, incidentally, where people take long, complicated, verbose technology patents and translate them into a single paragraph of human readable prose.

Patents and Magic

Chris Jones' article in Esquire about Teller and magic and idea theft is fantastic. I'm skeptical of the value of software patents on innovation, but in the person of Jim Steinmeyer, Jones makes a case that "patent" infringement in magic has had a depressive effect on magic trick innovation or R&D.

Steinmeyer is a magic trick inventor. He comes up with ideas for magic tricks, then sells them to magicians like David Copperfield to perform. He's like a screenwriter, but for magic. Few people realize how many magicians like David Blaine purchase the ideas for the tricks they perform. Steinmeyer even has the equivalent of production designers (like Bill Smith) to build the contraptions for his tricks. I imagine Steinmeyer with a warehouse like the one in The Prestige, just brimming to the ceilings with coffins, tanks, saws, top hats, and cages. The overlap between magic and movies shouldn't be surprising; both are performance arts, and movies are a form of a long con.

According to Steinmeyer, patent theft has taken its toll on the economic viability of his trade.

At least another thousand magicians have bought knockoffs built by a man in Indiana, and a guy in Sicily, and a team of reverse engineers in China.

"Things are just out of control," Smith says. "It's the world, and it's getting worse. There have always been thieves in magic, but thievery has never been so bad as it is now. The biggest shame is, guys like Jim — Jim is retreating. I'm sure he has tons of other good ideas, but he's not making them, because it's not worth it. He's writing books instead."

"Invention is all fuzzy, sloppy stuff," Steinmeyer says. "I have patents, and I have had patents that have expired. Everything has a limited lifetime. But when a person can't make a living by coming up with new material, that's when you have to wonder about the system. I would say that over the last few years, the last ten years, it's a net zero. I'm putting as much money into it as I'm getting out."

The article does say Steinmeyer has never sued someone who has stolen one of his tricks, so maybe his economic argument is just supposition. There are other considerations, though. A cruel irony with magic is that suing someone over one of your patented magic tricks may mean revealing how the trick is done in court, "making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it."

But the article has more of note than a dive into the world of patents as it applies to magic. It is canny about magic. For example:

The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical.

That's something my brother James and I learned every time we purchased a magic trick off of Penguin Magic and realized how it was done. As with sausage, it's best not to tour the factory.

And then there's the time the article spends with Teller. Among non-magicians, Teller is a person often cited as an inspiration because he's an obsessive artist. He's perhaps the most well-known high priest of the craft and upholder of the magic's unwritten code.

There's a story in there about a long con Teller constructed around a short story called "Enoch Soames." It could only ever be performed once. And the description of a magic trick called Honor System that's less an illusion than a test of faith.

Oh, just go read it.

Why does copyright continue to exist?

Or, as Tim Parks asks in the New York Review of Books, does copyright matter? A good overview of the history of copyright, and some of its implications. Of particular interest is speculation on what would happen if copyright didn't exist.

One sees here the difference from the music industry: unable to police their copyright on CDs, musicians nevertheless go on writing songs and can enjoy the feedback and hopefully some income from performing them to an appreciative public; if the songs happen to catch on through the internet then the musicians can enjoy notoriety and expect bigger concerts, if not a huge income from selling albums. But there is no such performative context for the prose thriller, or even the great American novel. Without the prospect of money, the author would have to think very hard what it is he really wants to write and how he plans to engage with an eventual community of readers whose appreciation, if not cash, must suffice to give him the gratification and encouragement he seeks. In short, you wouldn’t launch blindly into a major novel, as so many young writers do, simply because novels are the form that command attention and promise an income.

There is no real performative context for television and movies, either. Leave aside the heated and emotional debate about piracy and how we should value the arts. Parks concludes that copyright exists because we enjoy long-form fiction, and so copyright continues to be pushed down the road to shelter that art form.

Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form. If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.

So by continuing to buy novels, we continue to extend the life of copyright. How does that loop work, exactly?

Does the same mechanism fuel the continued existence of the broken patent system in technology? Are we, as consumers of lots of patented technologies, complicit? Is our spending funding, indirectly, a powerful lobby? That may be an unintended side effect of our economic and political systems, that the collective well being of society as a whole is undermined by the concentrated will of special interests who, perversely, are funded by the purchase choices of the same people who will be hurt the most. Patent law could just be a glitch in the tech industry's economic matrix.