Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Bottom line on patents

Now that the EU parliament has stopped the legislation on software patents, it seems time to summarize what we have learned:

The whole problem arises because it is much easier to copy information than to produce it by other means. On the other hand, what's great about information is that you still have it if you give it to somebody else (this is the idea behind open source).

So, there are patents in the first place because you do not want to disfavour companies that do expensive research and development to companies that just save these costs by copying the results of this R&D. The state provides patent facilities because R&D is in it's interest.

The owner of the patent on the other hand should not use it to block progress and competition in the field. He should therefore sell licenses to the patent that reflect the R&D costs. Otherwise patent law would promote large companies and monopolies as these are more likely to be able to afford the costs of the administrative overhead of filing a patent.

Therefore in an ideal world the patent holder should be forced to sell licenses for a fair price that is at most some specific fraction of the realistic costs of the R&D that lead to the patent (and not the commercial value of the products derived from the patent). Furthermore, the fraction could geometrically depend on the number of licenses sold so far such that the 100th license to an idea is cheaper than the first and so on (with the idea that from license fees you could at most asymptotically gain a fixed multiple of your R&D investment).

This system would still promote R&D while stopping companies from exploiting their patents. Furthermore it would prevent trivial patents as those require hardly any R&D and are therefore cheap (probably, you should not be able to patent an idea for which the R&D costs were not significantly higher than the administrative costs of obtaining the patent).

Unfortunately, in the real world it is hard to measure the costs of R&D that a necessary to come up with a certain idea.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Geek girl

Ever worked out your geek code? Consider yourself a geek? Maybe you should reconsider, check out Jeri Ellsworth, especially the Stanford lecture!

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Spiegel online has example problems for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the international study comparing the problem solving abilities of pubils in different countries in which Germany featured in the lower ranks amongst other develloping countries.

Today, the individual results for the German federal states are published, Bavaria comes out first and the city states (Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen, curiously all places where I was at the uni for some time...) came out last.

However, this might not only be due to superiour schools in conservative, rural federal states but also due to selection: If you are the child of a blue collar worker, your chances of attending high school are six times higher in the city states than in Bavaria. Plus, bad results in these tests can be traced to socially challenge areas with high unemployment and high percentage of immigrants. And those just happen to be more common in the cities than in rural areas.

But what I really wanted to talk about, is the first math problem (for the link in German). My translation is:

The picture shows the footprints of a walking man. The step length P corresponds to the distance between the two most rear points of two successive footprints. For men the formula n/P=140 expresses the approximate relation between n and P, where

n = number of steps per minute

P = step length in meters

This is followed by two questions asking to solve for P in one example, one asks for the walker's speed in m/s and km/h given P.

OK, these questions can be solved with simple algebra. But what I am worried about: n/P = 140 looks really suspicous! Not the the units are lacking (so it's like an astronomer's formula where you are told that you have to insert luminosity in magnitudes and distances in parsec and velocities by quater nautical miles per week), but if they had inserted units, they would see that 140 is actually 140 steps^2/s/m. What is this? They are suggesting that people who make longer steps have a higher frequency of steps?!? C'mon this is at least slightly against my intuition.

But this is a math rather than a natural sciences question, so as long as there are numbers, it's probably ok...

PS: The English version is on page 9 of this pdf.