Random Thoughts – Randocity!

The U.S. in Peril

Posted in economy, government, Health, politics, security by commorancy on March 19, 2020

book-burn-1920I really didn’t want to write this article, but it must be written. Unfortunately, the US (and probably other countries) have come to a crossroads. As they say, the truth will out…. and here it comes. Let’s explore.

Brutal Truth

These lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders have caused many, many small and medium businesses to shutter their doors and lay off staff. They’re not closed for only a few days, but for potentially weeks and possibly even a month or two.

Practically no business is prepared to run without income for weeks, let alone months. It’s no wonder, then, that business owners and operators are laying off so many of their workers. You can’t continue to hold onto staff when you can’t even pay your own business’s lease and bills. This is just the tip of this iceberg.

You just wait. It gets worse. Much, much worse.

Unemployment

It is theorized that as many as 20% may become unemployed due to COVID-19. I’d guess that this is a conservative estimate and it will go much, much higher than this. 99% of businesses in the US are considered small businesses. This is the highest failure group for an extended lockdown scenario.

JP Morgan Chase writes:

Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. The vast majority (88 percent) of employer firms have fewer than 20 employees, and nearly 40 percent of all enterprises have under $100k in revenue.

What does this mean for the US? This means that potentially 28.4 million businesses are at risk of permanent closure due to the COVID-19 crisis. That means potentially up to 568 million jobs are also at risk of loss due to COVID-19.

Some small businesses may be able to weather a few weeks of this storm, but not much after that. Again, this situation can (and likely will) get much worse the longer it lasts.

Survival and Economy

With up to 568 million people without jobs, this means that the economy will not only tank, it will implode. The stock market won’t even exist. There will be nothing left of the US economy.

I did say that this can get worse. Yes, it can. And… it can even go beyond this.

Apocolypse

This word is actually defined as “catastrophic change”… with the word catastrophic being the key word here.

Turning out this many people to unemployment means desperation. As people’s ability to feed, clothe and house their families and themselves dwindle, desperate actions will become necessary (at least for some). Once the newly turned Robinhood thugs turn out en-masse to shake down those who “have” to feed those who “haven’t”, it’s going to get ugly. Really, really ugly. In fact, COVID-19 will likely become the least of everyone’s worry.

It will then become mostly about survival of the fittest and who has the “necessary force” to get what is needed to survive.

We haven’t yet reached this level of desperation as people still have small stock of food, water and can live out their remaining rent, but our society is quickly coming to a turning point. Once rents can no longer be paid, food can no longer be bought and gas can no longer be afforded (or even found), the niceties of our former social world will come to a grinding halt. Then, desperation takes hold.

What will ensue is looting, gangs and these folks being forced to obtain food, water and shelter by force. The currency will no longer be the dollar, but the bullet or knife. Violence is in the US country population’s nature. When it becomes necessary to survive (and it will), then all bets are off.

Martial Law

Yes, the Government can roll its military through and declare martial law to attempt to stem the tide of the new age of lawlessness that will begin, but that can’t last. Eventually, the government itself will break down and fail to be of any use. Those in the military will be conflicted about where to take orders and, indeed, where if any place can they even use the money they are being paid.

If small businesses fail, what can you spend your money on? Will that money even be worth anything? Larger businesses like Target and Walmart may be able to last for a bit longer, but eventually the supply lines will dry up as the small business suppliers close. It will become a vicious cycle that won’t end until the country has entirely unraveled.

Making the hard Choice

The country is at a serious perilous crossroads. It can keep everything closed in order to stem the COVID-19 tide or it can immediately lift the lockdown and shelter-in-place orders and let businesses reopen to save what’s left of the economy.

With COVID-19, we may be forced to let the chips fall where they may. We can’t keep society closed forever. We can’t even keep it down for a few weeks. For the US to continue its way of existence, it must be unlocked and allowed to resume.

Yes, we need to be cautious and vigilant to avoid getting COVID-19, but we can’t let COVID-19 grind the US to a halt and, subsequently, to completely unravel the US’s entire way of life.

We have to consider what’s worse? Perhaps 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 or millions of deaths due to a bankrupt US economy leaving millions homeless? Without an economy, the US can’t survive as a country. Having a president preside over a dead country is like not having a president at all.

Believe me when I say that if the US is forced into martial law, it won’t be long before there’s bloodshed… and that won’t have anything to do with being infected with COVID-19.

As I said, I really dislike writing this article, but the outcome of what can become a very real possibility must be said. Right now, the president is basically saying, “everything’s going to be okay”, but that’s not reality. If these lockdowns continue beyond a week or two, much of our country’s way of life is doomed to vanish forever. Even Hollywood may never be able to recover from this… the biggest entertainment producer in the world will be lost. Without Hollywood and the music business, this country will plunge into a second dark age.

With all of that said, cities, counties and even the federal government needs to reconsider these lockdown actions pronto. Staying locked down for months will tailspin the US into unrecoverable territory. This will force many families into the streets without the means to obtain food, clothing or shelter. The homeless shelters will be forced to shutter because even they can’t afford to stay in business. Literally, the entire country will fall back to “the wild, wild west”. People will be forced to take matters into their own hands to survive.

Now, it is difficult to foresee exactly how all of this plays out, but no matter the sequence of events, the end result will be failure, death and loss of the US way of life. We will turn back into small communities together using local services. We will have to barter to live. The technology we so actively thrive on will cease to exist. The computers will still function, but the internet may effectively shut down as more and more businesses are forced to close. Even cell phones may become a thing of the past as lawlessness and anarchy begin driving survival. Even money may become worthless paper.

Alarmist?

This article may seem a bit alarmist. In part it may be, but it is also grounded in current lockdown reality and is based on where we are headed today, while still in the early stages of these lockdowns. Simply reviewing Twitter, you can already see just how many people have been furloughed or laid off due to COVID-19. This is just the tip of a very large iceberg. News articles show restaurants and other businesses with their doors shut and lights out.

Right now is a perilous time and our government leaders needs to weigh what’s coming if we remain on this course. If we don’t change our course now, there may not be any time left to change this downward spiral.

COVID-19 may, in fact, turn out to be the least of society’s worries. Our society isn’t currently prepared to live and work at home on a semi-permanent basis. It hasn’t ever considered or prepared financially for this eventuality. There are just no work-at-home jobs that pay enough to live. Most businesses can’t afford (nor are they willing) to begin paying people the salaries they were getting when they worked in a company office. I’m not even sure that companies can recover enough at this point to pay those former salaries anyway.

Tailspin

We only need to look at the stock market to understand the ramifications of business closures, layoffs and lockdowns. Clearly, people are selling because they know they will need that money to live. The stock market can’t handle this kind of mass sell off. But, it’s inevitable and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

This means way less investing overall and that means less investment capital for businesses to stay in business. Businesses will also need to recover any investments they currently have to pay their own bills also, which means more selling. And, unless this COVID-19 lockdown business is unlocked soon, there won’t be an economy left to save or investments worth holding.

Only the currently richest businesses may be able to weather this storm for any length of time, such as Apple and possibly Google. That is, those businesses with billions in the bank. That also depends on how worthless the dollar becomes. Even then, these rich companies will have to start trimming their own workforce or face a cash hemorrhage crisis.

This situation will likely also tumble salaries massively. It will tumble everything including home values, multifamily rent and even phone bills. Not only will it be a recession, it may become a depression forcing major deflation across the board. One might think deflation is a good thing, but it’s not. When few will be able to afford to pay for much, even at deflated prices, we’re in for a rough and violent road ahead.

Prevention?

Can this combined economic and societal tailspin be prevented? It depends entirely on our governmental leaders. If they can find ways to prop up the local economies while allowing businesses to reopen in safe and effective ways, then perhaps. Unfortunately, I doubt that propping up everything is possible. There are far too many people to attempt to prop up every man, woman and child in the nation. Even the measly $1000 grant from the government can’t possibly help to stem this quickly overflowing tide. The only thing it will do is, in fact, make the situation worse.

How can we reopen safely? That’s the million dollar question. The first thing that needs to happen is to find a way to disinfect people’s clothing and surfaces before they enter any large gathering. This way, when they touch any surfaces within, there’s no chance of leaving latent virus behind or picking one up. Second, we need near instant viral load testing. It doesn’t matter the virus. What matters is that the person has a high viral load of any kind. If a person is carrying a high viral load of any kind, they will be denied access to all social gatherings. It doesn’t matter if the virus is COVID-19, HIV, the flu or a simple cold. We can’t be specific here. Testing needs to be general because it’s too complicated to try to determine COVID-19 specifically. This will weed out super spreaders.

With any high viral load, you can’t fly, you can’t get on a bus and you can’t enter a restaurant, store or any other business. If you’re carrying a high viral load, an isolated medical transport will come to collect you and take you home where you must stay until you can be tested viral load free. If you’re found out and about a second time, you may be jailed. HIV positive people may be a problem in this. But, HIV is also a virus and it does count under viral load. It’s not necessarily spread as easily as COVID-19 appears to be, but it is spreadable.

These actions are the only way we can protect citizens against COVID-19 and still operate society in some kind of normal fashion. Without some semblance of normality resuming quickly for our every day lives, there will be no hope of recovery for not only the economy, but for society in the US as a whole. When TV shows can’t film, when music performers can’t perform, when you can’t go to the movies, a restaurant or even an amusement park and when everyone is scared to even walk out their front door, society grinds to a halt… and that’s where we are now. Society has stopped dead in its tracks.

The things that the US is so known for can’t even be done. All business that revolves around those activities and linked to activities plus the activities secondarily and tertiarily linked will equally suffer. It’s a huge supply chain, with emphasis on the word ‘chain’. When one link breaks, the entire chain fails.

Unless we can figure out a way to kick our society back into gear, fix the chain and keep it going, we’re at the cusp of situation that is bad… very, very bad. So bad that it’s practically impossible to understand or predict just how bad it can really get. Though, we can most certainly guess.

Lawlessness

When there is a large contingent of the working force that becomes not only unemployed, but hungry and homeless, where do we go from here? As the saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” What that means is that many people will get desperate to feed, clothe, house and protect their families… and many will attempt to take matters into their own hands to make that a reality, using necessary force if needed. This means I’d expect gun violence and looting to drastically increase.

This lawlessness will drive the government into declaring martial law. Right now, we’re at the cusp. We are teetering on the precipice. But, it won’t take much for that edge to collapse and then society falls in. In fact, we’re currently on the verge of collapse.

Government, Survival, Society and Hard Choices

I urge the governmental leaders to reconsider these lockdowns. Instead, we need to find alternative workable solutions that allow businesses to resume normal operation while attempting to keep them safe from COVID-19.

If we can’t resume a semblance of normal societal operation, we will likely end up in bloodshed. We might even have anarchy on our hands. We could even have more deaths due to unemployment and a deep depression than from COVID-19.

Governments must weigh these risks carefully. COVID-19 is a known quantity. It will kill a number of people just because of what it is. But, attempting to protect every person from it may end up collapsing society as we know it. This collapse could very easily bring about unnecessary violence as people attempt to survive. A societal collapse could even bring about more death, violence and destruction than even COVID-19 and the Flu combined.

When people get desperate enough, they will break into houses, steal food, clothing and use it for shelter. They may even consider killing others to get what they need. They will break into stores and loot. They will break into stores to steal necessities. Is that where we want society? Is that what we want to see? Is that what the current government really wants for its people?

All told, the death toll from violent survivalists could actually kill more people than COVID-19. This risk must be weighed! Letting the virus run its natural course while allowing society to operate may be a better (and safer) choice than having to declare martial law, while attempting to lockdown an entire nation. There are simply not enough troops to do that, which will lead to an even worse outcome. This situation could even trigger a second civil war, except this time it will be between governmental forces and its out of work citizens.

If we let society collapse, all bets are off on how many deaths may occur… not necessarily directly because of COVID-19, but this virus may certainly contribute in some way to that death toll.

This is a serious decision that governmental leaders must consider and they must decide NOW. Complacence and apathy doesn’t work. Strong decisive change must be implemented quickly. It may not be happy news for some, but society can’t be ground to a halt for the 18 months (as some organizations have predicted) for COVID-19 to subside. The US can’t survive an 18 month lockdown. It can’t even survive a 1 month lockdown. We must craft an alternative solution. We must craft and implement that solution NOW, while there’s still time to bring us back from the precipice. There is no other choice.

↩︎

 

Amazon’s “Not Helpful” Button Missing?

Posted in Amazon, business, politics, reviews, shopping by commorancy on April 13, 2019

A Reddit user posts that the “Not Helpful” button is missing from Amazon’s reviews. Several other commenters had stated that the button was still there for them. Let’s explore.

Not Helpful is actually not helpful

Amazon has been undergoing changes to their older review system. The first was to remove their discussion boards. Because Reddit really does discussion boards better, there was really no need for Amazon to keep their own. As a result, Amazon Discussions disappeared.

In addition to the removal of Amazon Discussions, Amazon decided to revamp their review system to be more useful. I’d personally complained several times about the “Not Helpful” button.

Why is the “Not Helpful” button not helpful? Because the only thing that button ever did is “downvote” a review in Amazon’s relevance sort. This means that those reviews that received the most helpful votes with the least not helpful bubbled to the top of their relevance sort. Effectively, the “Not Helpful” button was only used as a way for users to move reviews down in the relevance sort.

What ultimately came out of that was…

Abuse

With every system built, someone (or many someones) will find a way to abuse and game the system. The “Not Helpful” button became a target for abuse on Amazon. Instead of being used for the intended purpose of marking a review as not helpful, it became a target to screw with Amazon’s relevance sort and its “recommended” reviews for the product. For example, Amazon has two reviews it places into the top of its review area:

  1. Most Helpful
  2. Most Critical

These two reviews are at the very top above all other reviews. These are coveted positions. People want their review in that spot. To get another reviewer’s review out of either spot, a person (or many persons) would need to mark the review as “Not Helpful” (thus asking their friends to do this too). Over time, salty reviewers learned they could knock these reviews not only out of these two coveted spots, they could also lower their relevance scores and raise their own reviews up, potentially into these coveted positions.

As I said above, if there’s a way to game a system, people will find it and abuse it… and abuse the “Not Helpful” button they did. It took Amazon years to realize this problem, but it seems that Amazon finally understands this problem and has now removed “Not Helpful” from its interface.

Complaints

I’ve complained to Amazon several times over the years regarding the “Not Helpful” button. Not only did it not provide any actual helpful information to those reading reviews, the only thing it did is send high quality reviews to the bottom of the relevance list because of salty Amazon reviewers… people who just couldn’t stand to see a high quality review shown above their lower quality review. People figured out they could game the review system by getting their friends and coworkers to mark certain reviews “Not Helpful” and knock them down in the relevance list.

There was only one situation where “Not Helpful” didn’t have much of an effect. That was on Amazon Vine reviews. For whatever reason, if you’re part of Amazon Vine, pressing “Not Helpful” on Amazon Vine reviews didn’t do very much. I believe that Amazon intentionally weights Amazon Vine reviews much, much higher than a standard review. These reviews don’t get as much of a “ding” against them if someone presses “Not Helpful”. The Vine reviews always seem to get top placement in the relevance sort no matter what other people mark or say against them.

With regular reviews, the “Not Helpful” button just didn’t achieve what it was intended to achieve. It also didn’t give a review reader any useful information about that review. This button was only intended to help sort reviews with, supposedly, the most helpful at the top of the relevance sort. In fact, because users ended up gaming the “Not Helpful” button, the relevance sort actually ended up pointless as many of the best reviews actually ended up way down the relevance list.

I also complained about this problem to Amazon, but that complaint was also summarily ignored.

Amazon has Awoken

It’s taken years, but Amazon has finally realized the error of the “Not Helpful” button. Not only does Amazon no longer show “301 people out of 455 found this helpful”. Now Amazon simply shows “301 people found this helpful”. There was no reason to show the “Not Helpful” clickers… especially now that the “Not Helpful” button is gone.

If Amazon had forced the “Not Helpful” clickers to justify their click by requiring a comment on the review, that that would have actually been much more helpful. As review readers, we need to understand valid reasons why someone clicked “Not Helpful”. The only way to do that is by writing a comment. If a “Not Helpful” clicker chooses not to write a comment, then they don’t get their “Not Helpful” click counted. It’s only fair.

Unfortunately, that opens a whole new can of worms. Even if Amazon forced the “Not Helpful” clickers to write a comment, they could have written a garbage response and then deleted it just to get past that requirement. That’s also “Not Helpful”. It’s also a can of worms that Amazon couldn’t easily solve. They’re a retailer, not a technology company. Some efforts like this simply go over Amazon dev’s heads.

Instead, Amazon awoke and realized that it was simpler to remove the “Not Helpful” button and avoid the entire relevance engine gaming problem. It’s a very late fix in coming, but it’s still a much welcomed change. Gaming a review system is not the reason for that button’s existence. Reviews exist to inform potential buyers of problems they might encounter by purchasing that “thing” (whatever it is).

Review Snobs & Trolls

In any system that you create, there will be those “snobs” (and trolls) who believe that they know better about that system than anyone else. In reality, Amazon’s reviews are fair game in any way that they’re written. This includes pricing problems, listing problems, seller problems, shipping problems, customer service problems, packaging problems, purchasing problems and, yes, it also includes actual product problems.

A review should be about ANYTHING product related including Amazon’s handling of that product to you. Amazon doesn’t like reviewers (and it is now against Amazon’s terms and conditions) to write disparaging remarks against how Amazon handled the shipping, packaging and so forth of the items you purchase. Instead, if there’s a problem in the Amazon area, they don’t want that information in the review. Amazon wants you to contact their customer support team and lodge that complaint there, not write it in the review.

If you do place such a remark in the product review, your review is not likely to be published. Even Amazon is getting its own snobbery into its own review system. However, so long as you follow Amazon’s own snobbery rules regarding its review system, you’ll be fine.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be fine against the Amazon review trolls…er, snobs. These are the folks who feel the need to either report the review or leave a nasty comment regarding the content of the review. I’ve read many reviews that are not only articulate, but also have quite valid comments regarding the product. The reviews are quite apropos and definitely relevant. Yet, there’s inevitably some review snob who believes the review didn’t live up to their own snobby ideas about what a review should contain. To those folks I ask, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?”

Too many of these review snobs still exist on Amazon. As a blog writer, I typically write long, but concise reviews of products I purchase from Amazon. Many people don’t seem to like my longish reviews. Instead of refuting any of what I’m saying, they pick out one tiny little thing (a thing that makes no sense when taken out of context) and then write a complaint comment (and when the “Not Helpful” button existed, they would also press it). I could even swear that there were the same people trolling my reviews and intentionally marking them as “Not Helpful” so they can keep their reviews high in the relevance area.

Considering the length of my reviews, the depth and detail at which I discuss the product(s), how it works and my dissatisfaction with whatever parts didn’t work, they ignored all of that and focused on their own out-of-context remark. These are the very definition of “Review Snobs”. These are the folks who do not belong on Amazon and definitely need to have their review comment ability revoked. If Amazon offered a user blocking system, I’d have blocked these folks ages ago. If I could delete their comments from my review, I’d have done so. In fact, I have intentionally deleted my review and reposted it to get rid of some awkward and stupid comments.

It’s entirely a waste of my time to justify what I wrote in my review to some random “review snob” just because they feel the need to intentionally take something out of context. The review is there. Read it, understand it, learn from it. Don’t argue with me about some perceived injustice in my review that simply isn’t there.

Fan Boys & Girls

Unfortunately, far too many people are fans.. well, “fanatic” is more the correct word. And with fanatics comes fanatical behavior. That’s exactly what you get on Amazon. If I review the latest Britney Spears album and give it two stars and a rather scathing review, I guarantee some of these fanatical fans will come out of the woodwork to justify how “great” that album is… and how could I give it two stars?

Don’t question someone else’s opinion. With music and movie reviews, it’s all subjective opinion. You either like it or you don’t. Don’t come to someone else’s review and try to sway them to your belief system. That’s not how Amazon’s reviews work. Amazon’s reviews are always intended to be a mix of both high rated and low rated reviews. The intent is to allow people to state the things they liked and didn’t like about that “thing”. Trying to sway everyone to raise their rating isn’t the point of the review system. In fact, I’d like it if Amazon would let reviewers disable comments on reviews.

I should also mention that, in the case of Britney, instead of just talking about the beats or her singing abilities, I also discuss the production quality, the recording quality and even how the music was mastered. These fall under what I consider objective criteria. An album is professionally produced or it isn’t. An album is professionally mixed and mastered or it isn’t. An album is cohesive track to track or it isn’t. There’s lots of objective criteria about an album that can be heard in the tracks. Sure, the songs themselves are subjective, but the production of the album is most definitely chock full of objective criteria which is easily described.

With other products, like foods or kitchen gadgets or even toys, you can judge these by objective standards, also. For a gadget like a can opener, you have to ask, “Does it open a can?” Then you ask, “Was it easy to open the can?” Some can openers just work, others are a hassle. If the can opener breaks after the second use, then objectively the product was poorly constructed. These are all bits of information that should make its way into a product review. With a kitchen gadget, you have fewer fanboys and fangirls waiting out there for your review. For the latest Britney Spears album or the latest EA video game, you have lots of fanboys and fangirls waiting with baited-breath for those reviews to appear so they can be torn down.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a one star or five star review, these fanboys and fangirls will tear down anything. If it’s a one star review, it’ll be torn down because “nothing they like is ever one star”. If it’s a five star review, it’ll be torn down as “Fake”. Even something as simple as not having the “Verified Purchase” next to it is enough to mark a review as fake.

Verified Purchase

Amazon marks purchases made directly with Amazon as “Verified Purchase”. This signifies that the purchase was made through Amazon. Yet, Amazon allows you to review any product without having purchased it from Amazon.

For example, you can purchase the Amazon Dot, Amazon Kindle and other Amazon electronics from Best Buy, Target and other retailers. Yet, if you leave a review on Amazon having purchased these from a brick-and-mortar store (other than Amazon), you won’t get the “Verified Purchase” label. However, the review snobs come out of the woodwork without this label making it one of the first comments on a review. They claim you didn’t actually purchase the item at all. So then you’re reviewing without having purchased? I call BS on that. Are these people so stupid to think that Amazon is the only place where you can buy an Echo Dot or Kindle?

I’ve purchased many items from retail stores, including Echo Dots without purchasing it through Amazon. That doesn’t make my purchase or review any less valid. Sure, I should leave a comment on Best Buy’s site if I buy it there, but I also have an obligation to leave a comment on Amazon’s site for any Amazon-made product I purchase. Even if it’s not an Amazon product, Amazon purchasers need to know what they might be in for if they purchase the product through Amazon and it’s particularly bad.

Amazon Reviews

To come full circle, I’m happy to see that Amazon has finally done away with the useless, unnecessary and abuse-worthy “Not Helpful” button. It had no place in Amazon’s review system and served no purpose other than to allow review snobs to game the review system. That’s not a user’s call. Amazon should be the call of which reviews get moved to the top of the pile and which don’t. The “Helpful” button should only be one in many metrics used to move a review to the top of the relevance list.

If you don’t like a review, leave a comment and leave it at that. Not marking a review as “Helpful” is the same as formerly marking a review as “Not Helpful”. Simply avoid the review entirely if you don’t like what was written or leave a constructive comment on why you think the review is misguided.

Review systems, including the one at Amazon, are there to let you read a user’s experience and make a determination whether that product fits with your needs. It’s not there for you to argue with the review author over some perceived injustice. If you don’t like what was said, write your own review… or write a blog article.. or report the review to Amazon. Amazon doesn’t need review snobs running around trying to sway review authors into someone else’s way of thinking. Simply give that idea up. You can’t sway a review author’s mind with a few sentences in a comment.

↩︎

Patent Trolls or why software patents should be abolished!

Posted in business, free enterprise, politics by commorancy on May 21, 2011

The patent system was originally designed to provide exclusive rights for invented ideas to inventors. But, there used to be a catch, the idea must lead to a real world tangible device. The patent system was also conceived long before computers existed. So, at the time when the patent system was conceived, it was designed as a way for inventors to retain exclusive control over their ideas for tangible devices without other people stealing or profiting from those ideas.

The patent system is enforced by the legal system. It is sanctioned by governments (specifically in the US, by the US Patent Office – USPTO and the legislative system) to protect said individuals’ patents from use by others who serve to profit from those previously ‘patented’ ideas. So, enforcing a patent involves suing an alleged infringer and then having a court of law rule whether the alleged infringer has, in fact, infringed. It is, then, the burden of proof of the patent holder to prove infringement.  And, of course, it ties up the legal system to resolve this dispute.

Tangible vs Intangible Devices

The patent system was conceived at a time when the ultimate outcome of a patent idea was to produce a tangible physical good. That is, something that ultimately exists in the real world like a pen, a toaster, a drill, a telephone or a light bulb. The patented idea itself is not tangible, but the idea described within the patent should ultimately produce a tangible real world item if actually built. This is why ideas that lead to intangible things were never allowed to be patented and are only allowed to be copyrighted or trademarked.

Fast forward to when the first computers came into existence (30s-60s). Then later, the 70s when the US Patent Office began granting software patents en masse (although, the first software patent was apparently granted in 1966). Software, unfortunately, is not a tangible thing and, for the most part, is simply a set of ideas expressed through a ‘programming language’ with finite constructs. Modern programming languages, specifically, are designed to have limited constructs to produce a structured code. That is, an application that follows a specific set of pre-built rules to basically take data in and present data out (in specific unique ways).  Ultimately, that’s what a program does, take data in, process it and spit data out in a new way.

Software Design Limits

Because modern programming languages have limited constructs from which to build an application and which are further constrained by such limits as application programming interface (API) frameworks, operating system function calls, hardware limitations and other such constraints, writing an application becomes an exercise in compromise. That is, you must compromise programming flexibility for the ease and speed of using someone else’s API framework. Of course, you can write anything you want from scratch if you really want, but most people choose to use pre-existing frameworks to speed the development process.  Using external frameworks also reduce time to completion of a project. At the same time, including third party API systems is not without its share of coding and legal issues. Programmatically speaking, using a third party API opens up your code to security problems and puts implicit trust into that API that it’s ‘doing the right thing’. Clearly, the functionality derived from the external framework may outweigh the security dangers present within the framework. From a legal perspective, you also don’t know what legal traps your application may fall into as a result of using someone else’s API framework. If they used code within the framework that is legally questionable, that will also bring your application into question because you used that framework inside your app (unless, of course, it’s using a SOAP/REST internet framework).

With all that said, embedding frameworks in your app severely constricts your ability to control what your program is doing. Worse, though, if you are using a high level programming language like C, C++, Objective C, C# or any other high level language, you are limited by that programming language’s built-in construct. So, even if you choose to code everything from scratch, it’s very likely you could write code substantially similar to something that someone else has already written. Because high level languages have limited constructs, there are only so many ways to build an application that, for example, extracts data from a database. So, you have to follow the same conventions as everyone else to accomplish this same task.

Software Patents are bad

Because of these limited high level language constructs, there is a high probability that someone writing an application will write code that has already been written hundreds of times before. And note, that’s not an accident. That happens because do()while, for() and while() loops as well as if conditionals area always used in the same way. Worse, you can’t deviate from these language constructs because they are always the same in pretty much any language.  If these constructs didn’t exist, you couldn’t easily make decisions within your code (ie, if X is greater than 3, do this, else do that).

Why are software patents bad? Simply, because languages are written with such limited programming concepts, the probability to reinvent something that has already been invented is far too high. Unlike devising a real world idea where the probability someone could come up with that same exact idea is likely near zero, writing software using language constructs the probability is far higher than 70% that someone could design the same (or substantially similar) code, idea or construct. And. that high probability is strictly because of the limits and constructs imposed by the high level language.

Yet, the USPTO has decided to allow and grant software patents knowing the probabilities of creating substantially similar ideas within the software world is that high. Yes, probabilities should play a part in whether or not to grant patents.

Probabilities

Probability in idea creation is (and should always be considered) how likely someone is to create something substantially similar to someone else. Probability should always be relevant in granting patents. Patents need to be unique and individual. That is, a patent should be granted based on something that multiple people could not devise, guess, build or otherwise conceive accidentally. Because real world tangible items are constrained only by the elements here on Earth, this effectively makes inventions using Earth elements pretty much infinite (at least for all intents and purposes). Because software code uses a much smaller number of constructs that limit and constrain programming efforts, that smaller set increases the chances and the probabilities that someone can create something similar.  In fact, it increases probabilities by orders of magnitudes. I’m sure an expert on statistics and probabilities could even come up with real world probability numbers between element based inventions and software code based inventions. Suffice it to say, even without this analysis, it’s quite clear that it’s far too easy for someone to devise something substantially similar in software without even really trying.

Software patents are bad, revisited

Basically, it’s far too easy for someone to devise something someone else has already conceived using software. On top of this, the USPTO has seen fit to grant software patents that are way too obvious anyway. That is, they’ve granted patents to software ideas that are similarly as common place as cotton, strawberries, a nail and yarn. Worse, because of these completely obvious patents, patent trolls (people who do nothing but patent without the intent of producing anything) game the system and produce completely obvious patents. This action has created a land mine situation for the software industry.  This is especially bad because it’s virtually impossible to search for existing patents before writing software.

So, as a software developer, you never know when you might step on one of these land mines and get a ‘cease and desist’ notification from a patent troll. That is, someone who has patented some tiny little thing that’s completely obvious, yet your application takes advantage of that thing somewhere because you just happened upon one of the easy to build constructs in a language. Yet, patents should only be granted based on an idea that someone cannot easily create by sheer accident. Yet, here we are.

Ideas now patented

Worse, software is not and has never been tangible. That is, software doesn’t and cannot exist in the real world. Yes, software exists on real world devices, but that software itself is just a series of bits in a storage device. It is not real and will never be real or ever see the light of day. That is, software is just an idea. An idea with a structured format. It is not real and will never have a real tangible physical shape, like a toaster. We will never be able to have tactile interaction with software. Hardware, yes, is tactile. Software, no. The software’s running code itself cannot stimulate any of our five senses: not sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.. Someone might argue, well software does produce visual and audible interaction. Yes, the output of the software produces these interactions. That is, the software processes the input data and produces output data. The input and output data has sight and sound interaction. You still aren’t seeing or hearing the software code doing the processing. That’s under the hood and cannot be experienced by our five senses. For this reason, software is strictly an idea, a construct. It is not a tangible good.

Patents are a form of personal law

That is, the owner of the patent now has a legal ‘law’ that they need to personally enforce.  That is, that patent number gives them the right to take anyone to court to enforce their ‘law’ err.. patent.  No entity in government should be allowed to grant personal law.  Especially not for intangible things.  I can understand granting patents on tangible items (a specialty hair clip, a curling iron, a new type of pen, etc).  That makes sense and it’s easy to see infringement as you can see and touch the fake.  It takes effort, time and money to produce such a tangible item. Software patents require nothing.  Just an application to the USPTO, a payment and then wait for it to be granted.  After the patent has been granted, take people to court, win and wait for royalties.  This is wrong.

All software patents should be immediately abolished and invalidated

Why?

  • Software patents only serve corporations in money making ventures. Yet, software patents really serve to bog down the legal system with unnecessary actions.
  • Software patents stifle innovation due to ‘land mines’. Many would-be developers steer clear of writing any code for fear of the legal traps.
  • Software patents are granted based on probabilities far too high that someone will produce something similar based on limited high level language constructs
  • Because software language constructs are, by comparison, much smaller in number when compared to Earth elements (when inventing real world ideas), probabilities say it’s too easy to recreate something substantially similar to someone else in software.
  • Software is intangible and cannot expose itself as anything tangible (which goes against the original idea of patents in the first place)
  • Software patents will reach critical mass.  Eventually, the only people left writing code will be large corporations who can afford to defend against legal traps.
  • Software patents are now being granted without regards to obviousness.

As a result, all software patents, past and present, should be immediately invalidated.  If we continue this path of software patents, a critical mass will eventually exist such that writing software will become such a legal landmine that developers will simply stop developing.  I believe we’ve already seen the beginnings of this. Eventually, the only people left who can afford to develop software will be large corporations with deep pockets.  Effectively, software patents will stifle innovation to the point that small developers will no longer be able to legally defend against the Patent Trolls and large corporations seeking to make money off ‘licensing’. The patent system needs to go back to a time when the only patents granted were patents describing tangible physical goods. Patents that do not describe tangible physical goods should be considered ideas and dumped under copyright law only.

Business and Politics don’t mix

Posted in business, politics by commorancy on August 19, 2010

As Target and Best Buy have so aptly found out, donating large sums of money to political candidates can backfire. I know why companies wish to donate. They want to be able to call in the candidate on local reform when necessary. The issue, though, is that while this may be the goal, the candidate may not stand for what your customers do… especially if you are a retailer. Retailers must sell to the public. The public are the people who support the retailers. However, when these same businesses choose to contribute to (aka endorse) candidates who may have agendas that a vocal part of your buying public opposes, then your company can get into hot water. And yes, Target and Best Buy have found this out the hard way.

Target And Best Buy

Both of these companies contributed over $100,000 that ended up supporting advertising for a local Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who opposes gay marriage and who advocates violence towards gays. While that wasn’t the crux of that candidate’s platform, it was a the part of it that caught the wrong attention from these donations. This set off a firestorm of negative publicity for both of these companies. Gay activists are now calling for boycotts of these stores.

This is cause and effect. This is why companies have no business contributing funds that go to specific candidates. In fact, companies have no business in politics. Yes, I know they want to have hip-pocket legislation, but at the same time, these companies also need to understand the direct relationship of any direct candidate donation to the bottom line. It’s very likely that Target and Best Buy have spent more than their donations in managing this publicity nightmare. This issue also proves that if a company feels the need to donate to politics, they need to do it directly to each local democratic or republican top level coffer. That way, the money is spread out among the candidates rather than going to a single candidate. Even still, politics is a sticky wicket and any contribution may backfire.

Oil and Water

Business and Politics don’t mix and this situation is the prime example of why. If companies want to contribute to political causes, they must understand the negative outcome of those decisions and weigh it carefully against the cost of a PR fallout. Worse, it could alienate customers whom you depend on for your bottom line. Being in business is already difficult enough without making such huge mistakes.

If company executives feel they must have hip-pocket legislation at their fingertips, then they need to find other ways to do it… like, for example, lobby groups. Send these groups to Washington like everyone else and get legislation made in a more generic way.. not by endorsing specific local candidates where their political agenda might conflict with the buying public.

Could be any cause involved..

Note that any donation could have gone to support some other problematic issue. So, any direct political candidate donation is not a good idea for any company.

So, how does Target and Best Buy deal with this issue? Well, clearly it’ll be difficult to get that money back. It’ll also be difficult for them to weather this storm. The best idea is to, obviously, issue a sincere apology regarding the donation. State that they didn’t understand the candidate’s platform and state that they won’t do this again. But, the deed is already done. Of course, a statement that they won’t do it again is probably a lie. It’s only a matter of time before they donate to some other cause that may get them into hot water again.

Companies like this never learn and are destined to make the same mistakes. As a consumer, you need to make your choices about whether you want the money you spend at those companies to go to supporting those causes. Just something to think about.

%d bloggers like this: