Software Nerd

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Steve Jobs is well-liked and well-connected

Many people disliked Martha Stewart, so sending her to jail was an easy political choice. On the other hand, Steve Jobs has great press. He symbolizes the head-strong innovator; yet, he is viewed very differently from (say) Bill Gates. In the minds of many, Jobs wants to make good stuff, while Gates just wants to make money. So, the government decided to let Jobs go scot free in the Apple "options backdating" scheme.

No, the government should not be prosecuting Jobs, but nor should it be prosecuting other less well-connected CEOs. ( I blogged about this earlier ). The Financial Times (Apr 24th, 2007) reports that "Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, was warned in 2001 about the accounting implications of backdating stock options for top executives at the company, Apple’s former chief financial officer said on Tuesday."

It helps that ex-VP, Al Gore, is a member of Apple's board of directors.

Politicians love it to be this way; they love the discretion they have over the lives of businessmen. Behave, they say, or else. Is it any wonder one sees so many businesspeople pandering to politicians?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

SCOTUS rules on "partial birth abortion"

Here my quick summary of the recent court-case. I'm no lawyer nor a doctor, so if I've got some facts wrong, I welcome correction.

Background: In the U.S., about 91% of abortions are done in the first trimester. Most others (9%) are done in the second trimester when the fetus is not yet "viable". Third trimester abortions are extremely rare and many doctors require documentation showing genetic defects in the fetus before they will consider one. Forty (40) states in the U.S. have laws banning most post-viability abortions. Of the 1.6 million abortions performed in the U.S., only 100 were in the third-trimester. It's safe to say that one typically cannot get a third-trimester abortion in the U.S.

The bottom line here is that Congress decided to target abortions performed using one specific type of procedure, done in the second trimester, on "non-viable" fetuses. That tells one how much of a misnomer "partial birth abortion" really is.

Pretty early in pregnancy, the fetus starts to take on its final shape. A non-expert looking at a fetus would probably not be able to tell how developed it is. Since it is shaped so much like a baby, it's natural for a non-physician to react with disgust to the sight of something so similar to a baby begin destroyed. However, as Dr. Peikoff said, "A picture is not an Argument".

Second trimester abortions: There are various ways in which second-trimester abortions are performed, and almost any non-physician would find it bloody, yucky, and visually too similar to the killing of a child. (But, isn't that why God gave us our conceptual faculty -- lol?)

Some doctors inject something that kills the fetus. Since the vagina is not dilated enough, they then have to reach in an remove the fetus in parts.
Others, not wanting to use an injection, remove the fetus in parts, thereby killing it.
Some doctors use a procedure where they try to minimize the number of times they reach in to remove parts of the fetus. They maneuver in way that starts to extract the fetus intact and then kill it when it is partly visible. This is done by crushing the skull. They follow this procedure rather than part-by-part extraction in the belief that reaching into the uterus multiple times would increase the probability of puncturing the uterus, and might also increase the probability of leaving behind some of the fetal tissue inside the uterus. There do not appear to be scientific studies that have proven this, so this opinion of some doctors is contested.

The recent SCOTUS decision: Congress decided to ban that last procedure. The law was challenged and that led to the courts opinion called Gonzalez v. Carhart on April 18, 2007.

The majority opinion was written by Kennedy, and supported by Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas. Here's a summary (my comments in green):

  • The Act only restricted the last type of procedure
  • The court makes clear -- even if the statute did not -- that the other types of procedures are allowed. (That's a good part of the ruling.)
  • Kennedy also stresses that he does uphold a "health of the mother" provision in theory (while denying it in practice), but that unsettled medical opinion allows him to think that at most a very small number of women will have health issues with the use of the alternative.
  • Kennedy justifies the banning of one specific procedure by saying that the visibility of what is being done makes it worse. According to Kennedy, procedures where the destruction of the fetus happens outside of plain view are not prohibited, but the government is fine to prevent procedures where the destruction is done in plain view. He justifies this by saying that the latter can affect public perception of the medical profession and can appear too much like killing a viable child.
  • Kennedy also says that since medical opinion is divided, it is fine for Congress to use the Commerce clause to make the decision in its role as regulator of the medical profession.
(The entire reasoning is ridiculous rationalization.)

Thomas and Scalia, concur with the court's decision, but add two additional points:
  • they think Roe v. Wade was decided unconstitutionally (evidently, these two are the least concerned with the whole "personal freedoms" thing and can't find it in the constitution)
  • they do not need to use the Commerce clause argument as part of their reasoning (they're all for "economic freedom")

Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer dissent with the following arguments:
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists hold this type of procedure to be necessary and proper in some medical situations and physicians are trained in the procedure
  • In addition, the record shows that Congress did not actually carefully consider the medical evidence before "finding" that safer alternative were available
  • Further, many of the findings by Congress have been shown to be false (the majority opinion agreed with this opinion, but did not find it relevant)
  • Unlike Congress, the lower courts that heard challenges, concluded that the majority of the medical opinion was that the procedure was safer in some cases (e.g. for women who have who have uterine scarring, bleeding disorders, heart disease, or compromised immune systems).
  • The lower courts also found that physicians testifying against the procedure had slim authority for their opinions
  • The court is reversing a principle, by allowing a law that does not allow the woman's health to be taken into account
  • The law does not save a single fetus from destruction, so how can it be said to further the state's interest in life
  • The idea that a visible termination of the fetus is more brutal than one that is done inside the uterus is baseless
  • The majority opinion worries about women being depressed after an abortion, and pretends to protect them by reducing their choices and forcing them into riskier procedures
  • The majority opinion says that viability / non-viability makes no difference to legality, setting up a precedent for further legal attacks on abortions of non-viable fetuses, based on moral/ideological grounds
  • The majority says that the procedure is not required by a large number of women. That is not a legitimate way to decide legality. The real question is whether specific individual women, require this procedure in specific instances, as shown by the medical testimony (Should the court accept the principle that a law that violates only a few people's rights is constitutional?)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The SCOTUS delivered the Christian anti-choice groups a victory today, making a tiny hole in the "health of the woman" right offered by Roe v. Wade. Now, the Christians will try to enlarge that opening.

The strategy of the anti-choice camp appears to be as follows:

Attack abortion frontally on the intellectual front, to make people think it is bad in some way; but, do not attack it frontally on the political front.
  • Politically, ...
    Target some subset of abortions that represents a small percentage of abortions, and which can be classified in a way that uses the intellectual case (see above) to push people into making an exception for that subset. So, for instance, target abortions by girls under 18 under the parental-notification pretext, or target certain procedures by calling them "partial birth" or by invoking the idea that they are more "cruel", or target abortions conducted by government hospitals
  • Make abortion an important aspect when deciding on political candidates. Even without changing the law on abortion, politicians have a lot of ways to change the laws on health and safety. So, for instance, a sympathetic politician can create law that specifies that facilities where abortions are performed should have certain physical characteristics that resemble a hospital. Doing so will put many clinics out of business. Also, such politicians can bring in laws like waiting periods, or mandatory counselling that make the process more tedious.

Check out this article by anti-choice professor Hadley Arkes, writing about why he hopes the SCOTUS would decide what it did decide today:
What the Court would be saying in effect is, “We are now in business to consider seriously, and to sustain, many plausible measures that impose real restrictions on abortion.” That would invite a flood of measures enacted by the states. They might be restrictions on abortion after the point of viability, for instance, or even earlier, with the first evidence of a beating heart. Or requirements that abortionists use a method more likely to yield the child alive. Or provisions that ban abortions on a child likely to be afflicted with disabilities, such as Down syndrome.

Each restriction would command the support of about 70 or 80 percent of the country, including many people who describe themselves as pro-choice. And step by step, the public would get used to these cardinal notions: that the freedom to order abortions, like any other kind of freedom, may be subject to plausible restrictions; that it is legitimate for legislatures to enact those restrictions; and that it is, in fact, possible for ordinary folk, with ordinary language, to deliberate about the grounds on which abortions could be said to be justified or unjustified.

Clearly, the Christians have a plan.

I strongly suggest that this is a good time for activism. Write your Congressmen telling them to reverse the law. Write your newspaper, protesting the law. If the Christians see no resistance, it will only embolden them.

If you have only a few minutes, at least send in this pre-written petition, asking for a separation of church and state. Even if it is not exactly how one would word it, your congressman will get the point: that you want the church to keep away from the state.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Trademarks and Keyword Advertising

I think companies who have a long-standing trademark have some type of case that others who adopt it in a domain name, in a way that can cause confusion, infringe on their IP. A lot depends on the details, but there's at least some prima-facie reason for a claim.

On the other hand, there's another objection that I don't buy: some companies claim that competitors' ads that show up on key-word searches are infringing on their trademark. For example: let's say I search for "Lexus" and Google displays ads for Mercedes and Hummer dealerships. How is that an infringement on Lexus's trademark?

Suppose one sees a Fidelity advertisement, that convinces one to save for retirement and makes one think they're a good firm. So, one goes to a financial adviser and asks to open an account with Fidelity, and he suggests going with Vanguard instead. How is that a violation of a trademark?

Yet, the legislators in Utah have decided that Internet users who search for a trademarked word should not be shown ads by their search engine. Here's the law. Read a critique of the law here, and a defense from the legislative sponsor here. (HT: Slashdot)

Monday, April 09, 2007

H-1 Visas oversubscribed on Day-2

The good news is that bright people want to come to the US. Every year, the "H-1" work permit quota or 65,000 people (mostly for skilled folk like software engineers) is filled up easily. Anticipating this, many firms that bring software engineers to the U.S. have tried to "game the system" with early applications -- in April, when the quota opens up for the year. Last year, over 65,000 applications were received in the first 2 months. With that experience, this year, the firms were all ready to file a host of applications of the very first day. By the second day of April 2007, the government had received over 100,000 applications.

The bad news is that the U.S. is stopping a whole lot of well qualified people from working here. These are not poor people who go on assistance. They're well paid folk, who -- if they stay -- tend to soon have family incomes almost twice the U.S. median.

There was a time when Indian programmers had few options. Now, however, every year sees more opportunities for technical people back home. Microsoft does a lot of work in India now, as do IBM India, and GE India, and SUN India, and HP India, and Dell India, or even companies like Goldman Sachs (India). Then, there are the local firms that have grown huge, like Infosys and Wipro.

The good news is that people will want to come to the U.S. next year too, and the next, and the next. The bad news is that it won't stay that way forever.

Aside: My pet peeve about the H-1 visa is that doctors cannot ordinarily use it to come to the U.S. to work. If the government is going to have a special category for skilled people that it thinks the economy needs, and if software developers are in that category, why are doctors excluded?

UPDATED (April 11th, 2007): I wanted to add a link to this by Thrutch. He points to a story about wage rate increases in emerging economies, and I can attest to that from what I hear from Indian friends. While salaries are still low in comparison to the US, the rate of wage-growth is much higher. It is not just inflation either; people can afford more stuff.