Tuesday, December 31, 2013

For Auld Lang Syne!

There is no better way to ring in the New Year than to sing Robert Burns' Scots-language poem, Auld Lang Syne.  Here, in all its ebullient and impenetrable glory, is the entire poem:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Chorus.- For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint stowp!
And surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak a cup o'kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,
Sin' auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin' auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

And there's a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.
Happy New Year!

Internet Architects

The December 31, 2013, edition of the New York Times, includes a fascinating interview with two of the original architects of the technical rules that allow the internet to function.  In the article, entitled Viewing Where the Internet Goes, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn discuss both how they designed rules to allow the internet to flourish and impingements on those rules that may threaten the future of internet freedom.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Robot Menagerie

Robots are on the rise.  Skynet is not yet self-aware, but the fact that even Google and Amazon have now decided to place big bets on them reflects the new robotic Zeitgeist.  Interestingly, rather than start entirely from scratch, the designs of many robots are being drawn directly from biology.  Boston Dynamics - a recent Google acquisition - exemplifies this trend.  Its robots include BigDog, LittleDog, Cheetah, and SandFlea.  One of the newest members of Boston Dynamics' mechanized menagerie is WildCat, featured in this video:  
Billions of years of evolution produced extant wild cats - superb runners, jumpers, climbers, and hunters.  Designers of robots are wise to draw upon the fruits of one of the most profoundly powerful forces ever discovered:  Charles Darwin's natural selection.  Perhaps designers will soon expand their efforts beyond the mere products of natural selection, and try to use natural selection itself to design new robots.  The writing of On the Origin of Robots by Means of Natural Selection has begun.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Copyrights And Copywrongs

The National Public Radio ("NPR") program, On The Media, rebroadcast one of its best 2013 episodes on December 29, 2013.  On The Media describes this episode, entitled "The Past, Present, and Future of Ownership," as follows:
A special hour, originally aired in March, on our changing understanding of ownership and how it is affected by the law. An author and professor who encourages creative writing through plagiarism, 3D printing, fan fiction & fair use, and the strange tale of who owns "The Happy Birthday Song."

Here is a podcast of the episode.
After listening to it, you may never again blithely click "Copy" on your computer.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Curious Incident Of The Copyright

On Valentine's Day, 2014, Leslie S. Klinger filed, not a love letter, but a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeking declaratory judgment
establishing that the public is entitled to copy the expression embodied in [many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's published stories chronicling the adventures of the inimitable Sherlock Holmes].
Specifically, in his motion for summary judgment, Klinger sought
a judicial determination that the [pre-1923] Sherlock Holmes [stories' expressive elements] are free for public use because the stories in which the elements were first introduced have entered the public domain.
The Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., ("Estate") owners of the copyrights in Sherlock Holmes, opposed this position, arguing, instead, that
because Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were continually developed throughout the entire Canon [of Sherlock Holmes stories], the copyright protecting the [post-1923 stories] should extend to the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters and story elements pertaining to those characters.
In resolving the dispute, Court granted summary judgment to Klinger with respect to pre-1923 expressive elements, but allowed the Estate to maintain its copyright control over later-published expressive elements.  Of course, the Estate's victory comes with a time limit because copyright protection lasts for "limited Times" that will continue to expire as the years pass.

Sherlock Holmes has now lifted one foot out of copyright, and will soon be standing squarely within the public domain.  It has taken much effort by Klinger to achieve this partial victory through the courts.  As Sherlock Holmes himself said in The Missing Three-Quarter,
There is so much red tape in these matters. However, I have no doubt that with a little delicacy and finesse the end may be attained.
Even without delicacy or finesse, time will soon see Sherlock Holmes entirely within the public domain.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Doctor Who Meets John Rawls

For the past half century, Doctor Who has been righting wrongs (or, at least, trying to do so) across endless expanses of space and time.  Regardless of which incarnations of the Doctor are your favorites - Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker are mine - the television series has entertained generations with more than just adventures, aliens, and acumen.  Doctor Who stories routinely rely on philosophical issues, from the logical to the metaphysical, as central drivers of the narrative.  The 50th Anniversary special, entitled The Day of the the Doctor, does this especially well.  Not only does it explore a variation of the Trolley Problem, more impressively, it imposes John Rawls' Original Position on two warring sides (that is, humans versus zygons) to force a peaceful resolution to their dispute.  As superb science fiction as it has ever been, Happy Anniversary, Doctor Who!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Catastrophocene

The December 23 & 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker has the second in a series of articles about extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.  This article discusses the phonomenon of mass extinctions, including the current anthropogenic mass extinction event.  One of the most fascinating ideas Kolbert explores is what kind of fossil record our own civilization will leave behind for whatever posterity follows us.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Life Gets Simpler

In a new article, published in Nature on December 12, 2013, Williams et al. present evidence supporting the "Eocyte hypothesis" that the Tree of Life has only two branches (Bacteria and Archaea), not three (Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryota).  Their article, entitled "An archaeal origin of eukaryotes supports only two primary domains of life," situates the Eukaryota (organisms with cellular nuclei), for the most part, within the Archaea.  Here is the article's abstract:
The discovery of the Archaea and the proposal of the three-domains ‘universal’ tree, based on ribosomal RNA and core genes mainly involved in protein translation, catalysed new ideas for cellular evolution and eukaryotic origins. However, accumulating evidence suggests that the three-domains tree may be incorrect: evolutionary trees made using newer methods place eukaryotic core genes within the Archaea, supporting hypotheses in which an archaeon participated in eukaryotic origins by founding the host lineage for the mitochondrial endosymbiont. These results provide support for only two primary domains of life—Archaea and Bacteria—because eukaryotes arose through partnership between them.
Apparently, even evolutionary phylogenetics follows the ancient, familiar, and inviolable principle that two's company, but three's a crowd.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Leiter Side Of Religion

Philosopher, legal scholar, and blogger, Professor Brian Leiter, recently published a book on the law and philosophy of religion and conscience, entitled Why Tolerate Religion?  Here is a video of his November 19, 2013, lecture, "Why Tolerate Religion?," at the University of Chicago:
Here is a description of his book by its publisher, Princeton University Press:
In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues that the reasons have nothing to do with religion, and that Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections. He offers new insights into what makes a claim of conscience distinctively "religious," and draws on a wealth of examples from America, Europe, and elsewhere to highlight the important issues at stake. With philosophical acuity, legal insight, and wry humor, Leiter shows why our reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion but apply to all claims of conscience, and why a government committed to liberty of conscience is not required by the principle of toleration to grant exemptions to laws that promote the general welfare.
As modern societies become ever more diverse along the axes of religion and conscience, the need for incisive analysis of how the law should treat - and should or should not privilege - religious belief grows ever more urgent.  Leiter is an important voice in this debate.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Georges Cuvier - Father Of Extinction

The December 16, 2013, issue of The New Yorker has a fascinating article on extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.  It chronicles the "discovery" of extinction by the French biologist Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric "Georges" Cuvier.  Although extinction is now a distressingly common concept, in large part due to the current anthropogenic mass extinction event, the article discusses just how controversial an idea extinction was in the 18th Century.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Entrepreneurship is all the rage these days.  Everyone seems to want to found a company, though considerable empirical evidence suggest that fewer and fewer people actually do so.  In fact, the number of people claiming to have been entrepreneurs probably vastly exceeds the actual number of company founders.  Carefully scrutinize many biographies, webpages, and curricula vitae, and one is amazed by how flexible the definition of "entrepreneur" seems to have become.  This phenomenon demands a new moniker:  "pseudopreneur."  As I conceive it, a pseudopreneur is anyone whose claim to have founded a company is specious, silly, or just plain dishonest.  Pseudopreneurs are legion.  Spot them if you can.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Graecide: Life On The Vineyard

One of the best shows on radio, This American Life, recently rebroadcast a tragic story about the police killing of Tom The Turkey, a local avian celebrity on Martha's Vineyard.  I will not reveal the identities of the two wonderful people who tried to save Tom from the police because they are very close friends of mine.  I applaud their brave efforts to defend Tom.  Listen to Murder Most Fowl.