July 8, 2012

Seeking Upside: Why I Care About Intellectual Property (and a Recent Court Decision)

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Economics, Information Politics, Politics, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:54 am

I’ve long been a fan of open-source software. First of all, because you don’t have to pay for it, and who isn’t a fan of free? Second, even compared to closed-source free software, I prefer open, because I can rely on it. I might never look at the source code, but knowing that one can gives me some assurance that there isn’t anything bad (spyware, viruses) hiding and that I can continue using the software even if the original author stops providing upgrades or takes his business in a different direction.

Like a lot of other people in the technology industry, I aslo tend to see free software as something more than that, as a moral good, and intellectual property (IP) rights like a dangerous weapon that needs to be controlled. (With apologies to the NRA: “Patents and copyrights don’t kill innovation, patent and copyright holders do.”)

And after a lot of reflection on the matter, I’ve figured out why I feel this way: I have no personal upside. I don’t make money from IP rights. And on the downside, and I can lose money when others decide to exercise their IP rights. That doesn’t seem fair.

Here’s a thought experiment: If, like a songwriter represented by ASCAP, I got regular royalty checks for each line of code still in production that I’d written at some job years ago, would I feel differently? Or if I was guaranteed an on-screen credit and chance at an Oscar like a union technician in a Hollywood movie?

But I’m not complaining. I have a good job and make a decent living. If I stop working for my current employer, they own that work I’ve done, and that seems fair; I was reasonably paid for providing a service. But, while I’m not making money from licensing IP, I still have the downside of costs and risk of licensing it from others.

And writing software is, in my opinion, providing a service. Software has a pretty short half-life, and whether you hire developers to write software to use or to sell, you need to keep developers on the payroll to be valued as a software shop. No one is making money selling two-year-old software, at least not without ongoing investment in upgrades and support.

Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago came to basically the same conclusion recently:

Advances in software and other industries cost much less, he said, and the companies benefit tremendously from being first in the market with gadgets — a benefit they would still get if there were no software patents. “It’s not clear that we really need patents in most industries,” he said. “Also, devices like smartphones have thousands of component features, and they all receive legal protection. You just have this proliferation of patents,” Posner said. “It’s a problem.”

via Judge Posner: U.S. patent system out of sync – chicagotribune.com.

It was wonderful to see our legal system take this view, which I’d usually associate with underdog advocates who can’t actually afford a day in court.

I’m not against all forms of intellectual property or its strict enforcement. I don’t support piracy or counterfeiting; that’s legally and morally wrong and I think it’s unfortunate that the cause of online freedom sometimes gets mixed up in defending it. Nevertheless, I see IP as a modern policy construct, not in the same category as the biblical “thou shalt not steal.” A purpose of IP is to encourage investment in innovation by providing investors with a better return, and laws should be calibrated so they’re fair to all.

Perhaps I need to find a way to own some IP that can generate some returns. Then again, perhaps creating IP, not owning it, is more fun.


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June 5, 2012

More on Community and the Cloud

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 10:04 am

Is it ironic that I decided to go in person a “conference” about the “cloud”?

First, a personal bit: I like going to in-person, out of town conferences or meetings from time to time, and would like to do so far more than I actually do. While the cost of travel to learn some specific things are hard to justify either to myself or an employer, there is some hard-to-quantify change in perspective. I inevitably come home, not so much with new facts about the core subject, but with a new outlook that ends up proving very valuable. While I end up missing home by time I get back, I also find myself envying the people who get to do this stuff all the time (usually as evidenced by their live tweets about it).

So, attending the Jewish Futures Conference was as much as anything else about giving myself permission to go. I’m past thinking in terms of “maybe when I grow up I’ll get to…” because I’m already grown up. No one was going to “send” to me this so I just had to be entrepreneurial, get past my anxieties and go myself. And, it was manageable; it basically meant paying for a night in a hotel and an Amtrak ticket, and taking a couple days off work. Not cheap, but a lot cheaper than starting over in a second career (or technically, a return to my first career) in Jewish education just in the hope that somebody would spend $500 to “send” me to a conference!

The interesting thing was that not only did I not learn a lot of hard facts, but the conference was in and of itself pretty shallow. No one was going home equipped to fully cloudify (?) their organizations the next day. This is an important data point, though: there are a lot of people and leading organizations who think they need to start learning about the “cloud,” but they don’t quite know what they are going to do with it yet, and how it will affect their existing organization. It’s easy to be discouraged, working on your computer, thinking that “establishment” is ignoring you. On the other hand, these organizations were clearly looking for something from us, even if they aren’t ready to starting building it out, Silicon Valley style, like a “cloud” startup that’s just got it’s first big round of VC money. I literally found myself sitting beside the executive director of a 100+ year old organization trying to reinvent itself, who said she had recently been looking at the Open Siddur Project in her efforts to develop an online curriculum!

I had some other interesting conversations. In the first half, during Rabbi Laura Baum’s talk, I tweeted my table’s “idols” that they wanted to smash. The ideas of getting rid of hierarchy, membership, affliation was common them. I also met some folks who had been involved in online Jewish community even before me, in the early days of Shamash–we’re all waking in their footsteps.

I think everyone is worried about money. Before what my friends in finance call the “global financial crisis,” there were at least some organizations in the community that seemed permanent. Now nothing really seems solid. I’m not sure money to fund cloud projects is going to come from organizations just trying to survive, unless it will help their survival.

After dinner, I was sitting a table with two men who were second career Jewish professionals; one a rabbi and one a cantor. Sometimes I wonder if I am on that path, spending my free time going to events like this! 🙂 But for the foreseeable future, I like the independence that comes from being able to work on these issues without affecting my livelihood.

I also had discussion about “enhancing” rather than replacing existing community. This is exactly why I am drawn to projects like working with Jewish texts, which seems a natural fit for a digital cloud, and to communities that surround such projects; or to online communities that surround real-life communities as the “oneg all week.” Discussion of this would have actually made the conference deeper. While Rabbi Laura Baum and Patrick Aleph’s online synagogues are certainly interesting, the most profound changes will come from how people mix their on- and off-line community, and the extent to which those communities do and don’t inform each other–“bricks and clicks.”

After the event, I was fortunate (since NYC is a pretty lonely place when you have nothing else to do!) to be invited to a reunion over drinks of JESNA Lainer Interns alumni (or as I knew 17 years ago it, “Israel Interns”). It was some more interesting discussion with some people who care about these issues. Which ultimately is what they day was all about.

Finally, I’m glad I left New York City for Boston. Multiple mentions of Boston-area institutions like Brandeis, Harvard, and even a strangely interjected picture of Barry Schrage showed me that even if the Yankees, UJA-Federation, or JTS win in terms of numbers, the Red Sox, CJP, and Hebrew College have something special all their own!

June 3, 2012

Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:12 pm

Some of you might know I started another blog for my “Jewish tech” stuff. I wanted to share the latest post with you:

They say the Talmud is like a discussion among rabbis of different generations who could never have met. Well, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and venture capitalist Fred Wilson are both living, but I doubt they’ve met. But after reading a review of Steinsaltz’s new Hebrew/English Talmud, and then seeing this interview with Wilson about online content and the future of that business and copyright (20 minutes, worth watching), I’m imagining it in my head.

Keep reading: “Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Dream of Open Source Talmud?” on the JHacker blog..

March 9, 2012

Ki Tisa: Individual health insurance mandate and patient registration?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:29 am

For the past five years of my career I’ve worked on a patient registration system. It keeps track of millions of people for both clinical care and insurance reimbursement. So, when I started to practice my Torah reading for this week’s Ruach Shabbat Family Service (please come!), I couldn’t help thinking it sounded familiar:

When you take a headcount of the Israelites, to register them, for each man give a soul-payment to God to register them, that they will not get a plague by being registered. Those on the registry will give a half-shekel… (Exodus 30:12-13, my translation)

As Jews, we believe that every word in the Torah has meaning. (It better, since I have to basically memorize the cantillation of the reading! :)) I found a few things interesting.

The reason for donation is to avoid a plague. Today, spirituality complements modern medicine, but ancients really believed religious acts could cure physical illness–pre-modern religious leaders were sometimes even keepers of herbal remedies, etc. This sounds a lot like health insurance.

They are only asked for a half shekel. “Half” here has always meant to me that people are not asked to pay their share. There are other campaigns (such as to build the Temple, that we read a few weeks ago) where some give less and some give more, but the half shekel is the same for everyone. Thus, there is value to being a taxpayer even if you take more than you pay in. In modern terms, yes, liberals, some people need public assistance, and yes, conservatives, everyone should be responsible for paying something.

A more subtle point I notice from my IT experience is the focus on individual registrations rather than a count, which are not the same. In a small group, you know each person as an individual and you can count them. In a simple business, you can ignore people’s uniqueness–treat them “as a number,” as we say–because you only care about the totals. Treating each person as a valuable, unique individual and scaling that up to a population of thousands or millions is hard. Often, the techniques for counting totals are at odds with the techniques for counting individuals. In a database, it’s technically easy to retrieve one record or count all records if your data set is small. But, when you have millions of records, you need specialized, separate techniques for “transactional” and “analytic” processing.

Taking this to a higher level, I think perhaps the core Judeo-Christian value (not that Jews and Christians have exactly the sample values) is the value of the individual. It’s interesting that in English we can say that each person “counts,” and yet means, davka, that we are not simply counting them, but recognizing individuality. In healthcare, although we could probably do more with population-based measures, we tend to treat each case as individual. In the synagogue, although we worry about membership numbers, each person gets a chance to go the bimah as a bar mitzvah because we treat each person as an individual.

January 1, 2012

Honesty about Modesty

Filed under: Israel, Judaism — marcstober @ 12:14 pm

Many of you have probably seen the Israeli news story about eight year old Na’ama Margolese being called a “whore” and spat on walking past a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue on her way to school. In case you haven’t, it’s on YouTube with subtitles. (I’d also recommend reading how “they messed with the wrong crowd” for some interesting background.)

Two images are stuck in my mind from the video. The first is of a woman covered up almost Taliban style.

And the second is of Na’ama’s mother, Hadassah, dressed attractively in a sweater, boots, and skirt that meet her own standards of tzniut (modesty). She looks like she could fit in among the women I pass walking home from their Modern Orthodox synagogue down the street from my Conservative one. And here’s the honesty part: I can see how she would be a little bit distracting.

But what I think is totally messed up is to think there is anything at all wrong with that. Certainly that doesn’t make her deserve to be called a “whore.”

Caring about how one looks and noticing how other people look is a hard-wired part of being human. The value of Judaism is that it provides a way to sanctify the human experience. The rabbis long ago recognized that the yetzer ha-ra–the temptation to do bad–was not something that can be just covered up but a part of life that we can try to turn to good.

In secular culture the message sometimes seems that only a woman who can look like a supermodel is attractive, and only a guy who sleeps with a lot of supermodels in accomplished. But Jews believe every individual deserves respect: “If you have saved one life, you have saved the world.” And so, in my community, as in many other non-Haredi communities, we have norms where every woman gets to be beautiful, every bar mitzvah boy funny, every grandfather wise, and every child give his parents something to kvell over (be proud of). For example, Mayim Bialik, who is both an Orthodox Jew and TV star, recently blogged about finding a dress for an important Hollywood party that looked good and was still respectful. Doing Jewish stuff means there are ways for men and women to interact that don’t require cheating or hurting anyone or acting irresponsibly. Not that every Jewish community is perfect (we’re still only human after all!) but on the whole, I think Judaism has survived because it has a lot of wisdom about how to cope with human nature.

Maybe some men really can’t deal with seeing a woman on the street. But then it’s them who should be staying off the sidewalk.

December 6, 2011

Introducing Siddur Ruach Shabbat: Temple Emanuel’s New Family Service Prayerbook

Filed under: Judaism, Newton, Prayer — marcstober @ 9:23 pm

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

This Saturday morning at Temple Emanuel’s lay-led Ruach Shabbat family service we’ll be unveiling our new prayer book, Siddur Ruach Shabbat. The product of over a year of collaboration between the synagogue’s volunteers and professional staff, the book aims to be “just right” by capturing the spirituality of a traditional Shabbat morning service and making it accessible to all. It also features 40 full color illustrations by the children of Temple Emanuel.

The book features a number of innovations to make it easy to understand and use:

  • Only the prayers needed for a regular Shabbat morning service are included, so there is no getting lost flipping pages.
  • Every prayer begins on a new page with English, Hebrew, and transliterated titles.
  • All prayers (except the silent Amidah) have transliterations.
  • Key phrases are bold.
  • And more…

As editor-in-chief my goal was to share with my fellow TE families and the Jewish world what I found so meaningful about Shabbat morning prayer. The book was a truly collaborative effort, from the first draft produced by committee Vice Chair David Goldstone, to the extensive editorial work by committee Chair Pamela Weinfeld, to substantive input from Religious School Director Ilene Beckman, Hazzan Sheini Daniel Nesson, Rabbi Michelle Robinson, and others. It may have taken longer than we thought but the result was far better than expected.

For now the only place to see the whole finished book is at Ruach Shabbat Family Services this Saturday at 10:45 a.m. in Temple Emanuel’s lower level activity room, and monthly thereafter. Please join us! For more information contact me at marcstober@gmail.com, Pam Weinfeld at drpamw@dermandskincare.com, or Wayne Goldstein at wgoldstein@templeemanuel.com.

October 7, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street Will Fail

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Social Justice — marcstober @ 5:01 am

It’s a mistake to conflate size with evilness and blame everything on “corporations.”

When people complain that mandated health care is bad for small business, no one points out that what they’re really saying is “I’d rather keep my profits than give my employees health care like a larger business would.” No one is complaining about small independent mortgage brokers who pushed through bad deals while flying under the radar of any attempt at corporate responsibility. No one complains about nonprofits who think their good works are an excuse for exploiting employees and cheating vendors.

Not that all (or even most) people and organizations in the above categories are to blame. But the ones that are, are certainly happy to see you blame “corporations.”

I think the problem is the way things like government debt or “socialized medicine” get talked about public debate now as if they’re axiomatically bad, instead of inherently bad things like intolerance, sickness, or war, that government policy is after all a tool to prevent.

In a nation of 300 million people, you can’t simply blame the fact that there are institutions large enough to feed, employ, and serve lots of us. It is going to take some really big farms, and really big banks. Something is wrong with the state of the social contract, if we ever had one, I’ll admit: you should be able to go to school, play by the rules, and not get tossed aside. But while some big organizations and their leaders are part of the problem, we also shouldn’t toss aside people and organizations that can be part of the solution. And we need big solutions.

September 9, 2011

Adonai Tz’va’ot: The Lord of “Hosts”?

Filed under: Judaism, Prayer — marcstober @ 12:49 pm

For the Family Service Siddur I wanted a translation for “Adonai Tzeva’ot” that people wouldn’t need an English dictionary to understand like the venerable yet archaic “Lord of Hosts.” Siddur Sim Shalom actually leaves it untranslated, so I posted a question for the creative people in the OpenSiddur Facebook Group:

Anyone have a favorite translation for “Adonai Tzevaot” in the Kedushah? “Hosts” always makes me think of the person who takes you to a table at a restaurant.

After getting responses from Aharon Varady and Shmueli Gonzales as well as posing a few alternatives to my daughter, Hannah, as a representative of the target age the latest draft has:

Holy, holy, holy is the God of heavenly forces.

This made me really think about this peak moment of the service, and how it represents the fullness of God in three ways: as a force throughout the universe, as something not here but “up there” (mim’komo=”His place”), and specifically as God of Israeli (Elohayich tziyon).

I think perhaps the important thing you are saying is that while צְבָאוֹת (tz’va’ot, tzevaot) literally means “armies,” the reference is to forces of the universe being imagined as armies, as opposed to the human armies of nations.

Indeed I would say that imagining God as the master of gravity, black holes, quantum physics, and other mysteries of the physical universe very much fits in with my own theology and seem analogous to how it was formerly used by people who looked at starts but didn’t have the Hubble Space Telescope. (Or NOVA on PBS.)

Which brings me back for “forces” as translation which could mean physical forces like gravity, as well as being a direct modern PC translation for army as in “Israeli Defense Forces.”

Note: The image above was drawn by Hannah and illustrates the page across from this passage in the Siddur.

July 6, 2011

Fun With Hebrew Fonts: Liturgical Use of Meteg

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 7:00 am

For the Family Service Siddur I’m editing, we set the Hebrew text in Times New Roman1 using Microsoft Word, because this was a volunteer project and we all had that software available, and because that font is actually quite nice at rendering Hebrew with vowels as needed for liturgy.

A reviewer noticed an error in Mah Tovu:

The quamats2 that should be under the resh is under the kaf. It’s not a typo; I had typed the letters correctly: kaf , shva , resh , qamats , meteg .

I realized the issue was with the meteg. (In liturgy, meteg is used to indicate the stressed syllable, particularly when it’s not the last syllable, which is usually stressed in Hebrew.) Without the meteg, the vowel is centered below the “point” of the resh, not the center of the letter:

So far, so good; this contributes to the readability of the letters. The problem is that Times New Roman shifts vowels to the right when followed by meteg. This is okay if the vowel starts off below the center of the letter:

But when the vowel is centered under right edge of the letter to start with, it ends up appearing under the previous letter, incorrectly. For example, the font Cardo doesn’t shift the vowel when a meteg is added, which I think is better:

It’s worth noting that not all Hebrew fonts even include meteg, which is not used in modern Hebrew.
I solved the problem using the overstrike feature of Word’s equation editor:

To reproduce this:

  1. Press ctrl-F9 to insert the special equation editor brackets.
  2. Paste in the following: eq \o(רָ,ˌ)

Note that the character used here is actually the Unicode MODIFIER LETTER LOW VERTICAL LINE character (hex 02CC), because Hebrew points without a consonant are rendered with a dotted circle by the software. I think this character is used as a phonetic symbol to indicate stress anyway, so it’s not inappropriate. However, I consider this a work-around; in a perfect world, I’d like to have an accurate digital text that renders into print without pretending it’s an equation.

Hope someone finds this helpful or at least interesting!


1This would be version 5.01 of Times New Roman from Microsoft. I’m pretty sure the original 1930’s version of the font for the London Times didn’t include Hebrew!

2I am not a not usually fan of the letter “q” in Hebrew transliterations, but I am using the standard Unicode names of Hebrew characters.

March 22, 2011

Reflections on Japan, Itamar, and some events closer to home

Filed under: Israel, Metaphysics, Newton — marcstober @ 5:27 pm

Two of the top news stories of the past few weeks have been about the earthquake and subsequent nuclear accident in Japan, and the murder of a family in Itamar, Israel. Both are a tragic human loss. I’m not sure which is more challenging to understand.

I can’t begin to comprehend having your home and family washed out to sea, to be left on the shore without food, medicine, or electricity. Or, to live with the danger of invisible radioactive fallout. But this doesn’t shatter my worldview. We live in a universe formed by supernovas and plate tectonics, awash with cosmic radiation, where the basic laws of physics mean that we need to use energy sources that can sometimes be deadly. To me, the miracle is not that the universe was created with Man at the center in Copernican style, but that we so improbably thrive when it wasn’t.

On the scale of universe, tragedy in a single household in Itamar shouldn’t seem like much, but I find it even harder to understand. Bad stuff happens, and people get angry, but ultimately, we find a way to share a small planet. Or so I like to think, which is why breaking into a house just to murder an unknown family with children is something I just can’t comprehend.

Then again, just this week, we heard helicopters and learned the State Police were searching for the perpetrator of shooting at a store here in Newton. No one was hurt, but it was bizarre that it wasn’t attempted armed robbery as much as pure intentional violence.

Yet we survive.

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