Nov. 27th, 2013 01:33 am
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

The company making GoldieBlox used a reworded version of the Beastie Boys song Girls in a sales ad. Upon being contacted by the band (presumably a direct or veiled legal threat, since the band has a strict policy of not licensing any of their songs for commercial purposes), the GoldieBlox company went to federal court to get a judge to declare preemptively that their version was a parody, and thus permitted as a fair use exception to copyright law and outside the control of the song’s original creators.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an article on the matter that comes down staunchly on the GoldieBlox side, based on four main points: GoldieBlox didn’t copy more elements of the song than they needed to, they changed enough to make a legitimately new creative work, the band has already made all the money they’re going to off the original song, and no one will get the two versions confused.

The majority of the Senators and Representatives directly pushing SOPA and PIPA — bills ostensibly aimed at preventing wholesale digital copying of commercial media — had unattributed, uncompensated, copyright-infringing background images on their Twitter home pages or official campaign websites.

In 2008, artist Matthan Heiselt designed stickers for the board game Dominion that let it be played using wooden poker chips instead of its native cards. Game designer David Sirlin used Heiselt’s component choice and graphic design as a starting point for a Dominion-style game he subsequently created and sold commercially.

Here are some of Matthan’s chips:

Here are some of David’s:

Sirlin admits to starting from Heiselt’s work, but when confronted with accusations of outright copying, Sirlin responded that only one of Puzzle Strike’s five chip types — Actions — bears a strong resemblance to its analogous type in the Dominion chips. The rest either don’t look like their analogs or don’t have analogs. So those aren’t copies.

And all chip designs, including the look-alike Actions, went through dozens of iterations over weeks of live playtesting. Effort went into confirming that the graphic design was good, as well as tuning it to the finest detail — effort that Heiselt probably didn’t expend when he put his layouts together originally. So even the copies aren’t just copies.

Finally the only graphical elements Sirlin claims he took from the Action chip layout were A) using an icon of a circle to represent drawing an extra chip, B) using an icon of an arrow to represent taking an extra action, and C) putting the chip’s title in a ribbon-shaped banner. The first two concepts are so basic, so obvious, that criticizing someone for using them just because Heiselt used them first is “sad”, and the third element is something that Heiselt himself copied from Dominion’s original card layout. So even the not-just-copies aren’t copies of anything that took thought, effort, skill, or originality to create in the first place.

Patents in the U.S. were originally limited to 14 years. So were copyrights. The idea in both cases was to balance two goals:

  • Incentivize creators to create by making sure no one else benefits from them risking their time, money, and effort devising new ways to make things or new things to make.
  • Get the general public benefiting A.S.A.P. from building off the works of others.
(Oddly, the second aspect has strong proponents on both the far right and the far left.) Most practical applications of IP law I run into these days drift into one of those dimensions. The fundamental idea that, when you make something, it’s yours because you made it fades into the background as an idealistic afterthought.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

I live in the Seattle area, but my family is all on the East Coast. When I was home for Christmas, my ten year old niece waxed eloquent about the things her school was in the midst of teaching her about “the Western Region of the United States”. Or, rather, that’s what she did once she’d struggled to recall whether Washington State is in the “west” or the “northwest”, vacillated, then declared it irrelevant because I’d also lived in California for years, and that was clearly West.

Now that my status of “a Person who Currently or At One Time Lived in the Western Region” was firmly established, she posed me a question to which she already knew the astounding answer: what was the most popular breakfast in that part of the country? I pondered briefly and suggested that it might be huevos rancheros or something unsurprising like pancakes, but that I didn’t know for sure.

“It’s eggs and cactus!”

I told her I’d never heard of such a thing while I lived in California, and that, yes, some parts of some cacti are edible, but take it from me, it’s not a common or tasty enough ingredient to make “eggs and cactus” the most popular single breakfast food over an entire multistate area. (A bit of research after the fact shows that, yes, nopales con huevos is a real dish, and it’s trended upward since I moved to Washington, but I also browsed a half-dozen Google hits on “most popular breakfast” and I didn’t see the word “cactus” once.)

“No. It’s eggs and cactus.”

I pointed out again that I’d lived in the part of the country she was learning about and my personal experience didn’t match what she was telling me. I asked her how she got this particular fact. She muttered something about that’s what her teammate said and promptly changed the subject, so I presume this particular assignment involved research partners, and that her partner did a quick random search, wrote down the first thing she found, and now it’s a Fact because she read it somewhere, just like all the other Facts she reads about. And there is No Way my niece is going to do Extra Work! to double-check things and then even more EXTRA WORK!!! looking up the real right answers because that’s what her teammate was supposed to do, and anyway her teammate did look it up and it’s not my niece’s fault if the teammate got it wrong!

But that’s what you have to do with news in the real world: double-check it.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about how huge tax rates fixed our economy in previous dire times. There’s been lots of other talk about how they weren’t as high as some people lead us to believe. So I actually looked at some historical tax brackets via and .

I learned a thing or two along the way.

  • The IRS has PDFs of tax forms online going all the way back to 1913 (plus one from 1864).
  • We got the concept of the standard deduction from France.
  • The Form 1040 instructions were only four pages long in 1945.
  • Tax rates aren’t the only thing that matters. Where brackets start and stop is just as important.
    • Raw bracket info doesn’t tell the whole story. There are often complications that must be taken into account if you want to determine your exact tax rate.
    • In 1989, there were officially only two tax brackets: 15% and 28%. But there was also a surtax on a midrange portion of the 28% bracket. As your income climbed into this sub-bracket, the surtax eventually canceled out the amount you “saved” by paying only 15% in the low bracket. The net effect was that, if you earned enough, you effectively paid a flat tax of 28% on everything.
    • In 1945, there was an extra rule that you could never owe more than 90% of your total income, so eventually you got so far into the 94% bracket that you hit a breakpoint and your marginal rate dropped back to 90%.
  • You don’t get to count deductions before calculating Social Security or Medicare taxes. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t already know this.
  • Generating good charts is hard. Doing it with the wrong tools is even harder. ( Actually, I already knew this, but got reminded of it in a big way.)

Oh, yeah. I made charts. Here and here:

So what do these charts mean?

Probably very little. Let me explain.

For starters, why did I pick the years I did? Well, I picked 2012 because it’s current. I picked 1989 because so many recent tax arguments refer to the Reagan era. I picked 1945 because it’s one of those famous “taxes right after WWII went up to 90%” years.

Those are lousy reasons if you’re trying to come to a trustworthy conclusion about something. I could have picked three other sample years and created different implications about how things are, or how they’ve changed, or what taxes would look like if they were done “right”. Actually, the very fact that I only compare three sample years instead of five, or eight, or a long continuous series provides bias with another ton of leeway to creep in, whether I intend it or not.

Second, there’s too much information I don’t convey. The graphs cover only federal income and payroll taxes. They don’t cover sales taxes. They don’t cover taxes on capital gains. They don’t cover state & municipal taxes (and with good reason: that would add at least two orders of magnitude more work).

The graphs also assume you take the default standard deduction. No one who makes significant amounts of money does that. They itemize and get bigger exemptions. More importantly, what kinds of things could be written off has changed significantly over the decades. Unless you are a financial historian, I bet you have nowhere near an accurate idea how much taxable income a person from 1945 would have as a result of taking home a million dollar paycheck.

the A-B-Cs

Mar. 21st, 2013 12:12 am
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Claim: The subjects of biology, chemistry, and physics tend to be taught in that specific order in American high schools, and have been for over a century, as a result of one of the earliest national education standardization efforts: the Report of the Committee [of Ten] on Secondary School Studies, 1892.

Several official-sounding sources make this claim, including Wikipedia. And there’s a lot of present-day dissatisfaction with that subject order, often coupled with claims that there was no reason or a bad reason for it to begin with. I’ve heard speculation that the subjects were ordered that way because the Committee members all squabbled over putting their own favored topics first, which forced the chairman to arrange things in arbitrary order just to finish the report. I’ve heard one fellow with a Ph.D. and over a decade of teaching experience claim the chairman put them in alphabetical order because he couldn’t think of anything better.

Is any of this true? Well, you could always read the report, I suppose. Or, alternately, you could wait for someone to summarize it for you…

The experts on the Committee were divided into nine broad disciplines. One discipline was the “hard sciences” (my term): chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Another was biology: botany, zoology, and physiology. Initially, each group conferred in isolation and submitted a suggested list of class subjects by year for its discipline alone. Looking at just science subjects, they proposed this:

1st year:
2nd year:
just Botany or just Zoology - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
Astronomy - ⅓ yr, 5 hrs/wk
3rd year:
Chemistry - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
4th year:
Physics - 1 yr, 5 hrs/wk
Meteorology - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Geology or Physical Geography - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Anatomy, Physiology, & Hygiene - ½ yr, 5 hrs/wk

So it seems there is a definite genesis of the biology-chemistry-physics order in that first draft. The base claim is plausible, then. Next question: did they have a logical reason for that order? As it happens, yes.

The biology team put botany/zoology early because everything else in that discipline depended on them. The team didn’t intentionally position any of their subjects before or after subjects in other disciplines. They fell where they fell. For the hard sciences, the report explicitly says that every single team member thought it was more logical to teach physics before chemistry, but all members except one nonetheless recommended chemistry first to allow students more time to learn the greater amounts of math that physics requires.

Now, I’m not a master educator, so I don’t know if those are great reasons in this day and age. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not. I do know that the claims of alphabetization are total bunk.

Aaaaaand that’s the end of it, right?

Not quite.

The plan above was just the first draft. After the Committee compiled these separate team recommendations, it discovered some problems, like the fact there were no recommended science classes for the first year, and how there were only 22 hours of class a week for 9th grade but 35-38 for other grades. So the Committee convened as a whole and rearranged their recommendations into something more reasonable. Now the science portion of the plan looked like this:

1st year:
General Geography (i.e. Physical + Political) - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
2nd year:
Botany or Zoology - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
3rd year:
Physics - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
Astronomy - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
Meteorology - ½ yr, 3 hrs/wk
4th year:
Chemistry - 1 yr, 4 hrs/wk
Geology or Physical Geography - ½ yr, 4 hrs/wk
Anatomy, Physiology, & Hygiene - ½ yr, 4 hrs/wk

Notice how physics slid earlier? The hard sciences team re-thought things and decided they wanted physics taught before (or at least alongside) all the half-year earth and space subjects in 11th and 12th grade.

This plan, since it was more refined, is the one that schools should have been using as a guideline (though I don’t know how many did). As you can see, it went biology-physics-chemistry.

The Committee cautioned that it was still a guide, not an exact plan, and that they didn’t expect any school to match it perfectly. Then they went even further and offered four sample specific course plans depending on how many foreign languages the student intended to learn. These plans all slide physics even earlier, to 10th grade, for a few reasons: so kids who drop out halfway through high school still get more basic science; so students can compare different science fields earlier and more side-by-side, which helps them make better career choices; and so students in the more “classical” tracks can wait until 11th grade to make their final decision on whether to learn Latin and Greek or just Latin.

So now we have biology and physics tied for first and chemistry second.

The moral of the story is this: the real proper order for things is read, then talk. More Ph.D.’s should learn that way.


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