The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Short week in the South Pacific

There is no tomorrow for the island nations of Samoa and Tokelau:

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 29, time in Samoa and Tokelau will leap forward to Dec. 31 — New Year's Eve. For Samoa's 186,000 citizens, and the 1,500 in Tokelau, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, will simply cease to exist.

[Samoan] Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi earlier said it would strengthen trade and economic links with Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

Being a day behind the region has meant that when it's dawn Sunday in Samoa, it's already dawn Monday in adjacent Tonga and nearly dawn Monday in nearby New Zealand, Australia and increasingly prominent east Asian trade partners such as China.

"In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we're losing out on two working days a week," Tuila'epa said in a statement. "While it's Friday here, it's Saturday in New Zealand, and when we're at church on Sunday, they're already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane."

The islands move from UTC-10:00 to UTC+14:00, and will therefore be the first places on earth to enter 2012.

Loan...repaid

No, not my student loan; my horological one. I might be alone here, but the return of standard time means I get the hour back that I loaned out in March. It also means I don't have to wake up before dawn any more—at least for a couple of weeks. Even Parker seems to like the "fall back." At least, he had the decency not to wake me up until 7:30am.

For most of the U.S. and Canada, today's was the earliest sunrise until February 28th. Unfortunately, today's sunset will the earliest since January 10th, as we enter the 12 or so weeks of afternoon gloom.

On the third hand (I missed my calling as an economist), Chicago's weather today is crisp and sunny, and Parker needs some walks.

Aurora forecast page

Apparently the aurora borealis came all the way down to the middle of the U.S. earlier this week. With a little probing, I found the University of Alaska aurora forecast page. Tonight, we probably won't see the aurorae in Chicago. But there's a huge sunspot right now, so possibly we'll see one later in the week.

Here's the self-updating NOAA map. The bright area shows the current aurora; the red line points to the sun.

Waking up in the dark

I'm not the only one watching sunrise times these days. Naomi the Nature Nerd also wishes we'd end Daylight Saving Time earlier:

I know that this weekend's Fall Back means I'll be coming home in the dark, instead. I'd rather just have longer days :) but given the latitude... If I have to choose, I'd choose to leave work at night, not arrive there at night!

At least this weekend won't be the latest sunrise ever in Chicago. That honor goes to 6 January 1974, when the U.S. went on Daylight Saving Time several months early in response to the 1973 oil crisis. That morning the sun rose in Chicago at 8:18.

This Saturday's sunrise will be the latest until 2016. Last year's November 6th sunrise, at 7:30am, was the latest since 1974 and will be the latest until 2021.

Of course, it could be worse. In Barrow, Alaska, the United States' northernmost city, the sun rises on Saturday at 11:37am. Barrow's latest sunrise will be November 19th, at 12:59pm—26 minutes before it sets again, not to return until January 23rd.

Perspective.

Correcting the record

Reader AT actually met Tom Shanks, the chief programmer behind the ACS Atlases, and corrects my understanding of how the ACS team put it together:

Contrary to what you assume in your post, Tom Shanks did not hack his atlas into an Apple II. ACS was rather professional in their IT. The worldwide city database with longitude and latitude they had licensed from on of the big atlas (map atlas) publishers, if I remember correctly Rand McNally. The timezone history data they had collected from numerous published sources..., and partly also from field research and grass root contributions by their own astrology service clients.

The reader also gave me the story about an ongoing effort to extend the tzinfo database, and the provenance of Astrolabe's alleged copyrights. (Note that this is the precise, legal meaning of "alleged:" in a civil complaint, just as in a criminal complaint, the parties "allege" each fact in their filings.) If the reader gives me permission, I'll post some of this information.

Analysis of Shanks' atlases against the tzinfo database

To better understand the facts behind Astrolabe’s stupid trolling quixotic lawsuit against the guys who coordinated the worldwide time-zone database (tzinfo), I bought copies of the Shanks Amercian and International atlases that Astrolabe claims to own. (I went through the secondary market, so I didn’t actually give Astrolabe any money.)

First, an update. According to Thomas Eubanks of the IETF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken over Arthur Olson’s legal defense. Mazel tov. I expect to see a response to the complaint against him in a few weeks that includes a motion to dismiss which, I think, may be granted. (I’m thinking about drafting a response myself, just to exercise my legal muscles properly. Watch this space.)

Now to the main post. The Shanks books, rather than containing maps, contain pages and pages of tabular data showing three things:

  1. Names of first- and second-order administrative districts (e.g., states and counties);
  2. Latitudes and longitudes of cities and other named places within countries or states;
  3. Lists of the dates and times of time-zone changes for those named places.

The atlases dump this data to paper using a monospace typeface at 6-point size in what can be nothing other than 1990s-era printouts to some kind of publishing compositing software. This offers a clue to the “original works” claim that Astrolabe makes about the products.

Shanks certainly put a lot of work into these books, especially considering he first published them in 1978 and 1985. He must have spent hundreds of hours looking up and entering data on the thousands of locations in the tables.

For example, the American Atlas contains rows upon rows of data like this:

Chicago 16      1 41N51'00 87W39'00 5:50:36
Chicago Heights 16
                1 41N30'22 87W38'08 5:50:33
Chicago Lawn 16 1 41N47    87W43    5:50:52

I imagine Shanks looked up this data in reference books, then entered it into a home-grown flat-field database through a Vax terminal or on his Apple ][+. I hope he at least let the computer calculate the last column (the location’s offset from GMT), since it’s derived directly from the location’s longitude (the next-to-last column).

I imagine this because, in the early 1990s, I did something similar to study climate data. (Do you know how long it takes to enter 30 years of daily climate data by hand? No? You’re lucky.)

Back to Astrolabe’s complaint. In Count 4, Astrolabe claims ownership of “certain copyright-protected computer software programs and information contained therein…known as the ‘ACS Atlas,’ consisting of both the ‘ACS International Atlas,’ and the ‘ACS American Atlas,’ in the form of computer software program(s) and/or data bases, and in the form of electronic output and future electronic media from said programs....’ ” I infer from the complaint that the software reproduces the books in computer-searchable form, or perhaps contains the raw data that Shanks himself used to produce the books.

I’ll defer my main argument for a moment to speculate further on what parts of the tzinfo database could have copied the Shanks database.

In the tzinfo database, one of the files (zone.tab) contains latitudes and longitudes of locations in this form:

US	+415100-0873900	America/Chicago	Central Time
US	+375711-0864541	America/Indiana/Tell_City	Central Time - Indiana - Perry County
US	+411745-0863730	America/Indiana/Knox	Central Time - Indiana - Starke County

Nothing else in the tzinfo database comes as close to looking like data in the Shanks atlases. I don’t know where the tzinfo list came from, but I suspect it came from public sources like the Census Bureau.

The other possible copying comes from the lists of dates Shanks put together that look like this:

IL # 1
Before 11/18/1883  LMT
11/18/1883  12:00  CST
 3/31/1918  02:00  CWT
10/27/1918  02:00  CST

Here’s how the tzinfo database shows the same information:

# Rule	NAME	FROM	TO	TYPE	IN	ON	AT	SAVE	LETTER
Rule	Chicago	1920	only	-	Jun	13	2:00	1:00	D
Rule	Chicago	1920	1921	-	Oct	lastSun	2:00	0	S
Rule	Chicago	1921	only	-	Mar	lastSun	2:00	1:00	D
Rule	Chicago	1922	1966	-	Apr	lastSun	2:00	1:00	D
Rule	Chicago	1922	1954	-	Sep	lastSun	2:00	0	S
Rule	Chicago	1955	1966	-	Oct	lastSun	2:00	0	S
# Zone	NAME		GMTOFF	RULES	FORMAT	[UNTIL]
Zone America/Chicago	-5:50:36 -	LMT	1883 Nov 18 12:09:24
			-6:00	US	C%sT	1920
			-6:00	Chicago	C%sT	1936 Mar  1 2:00
			-5:00	-	EST	1936 Nov 15 2:00
			-6:00	Chicago	C%sT	1942
			-6:00	US	C%sT	1946
			-6:00	Chicago	C%sT	1967
			-6:00	US	C%sT

That hot mess establishes the specific rules Chicago used to change its clocks in the 1920s and 1950s where the rules differed from the general U.S. rules, then it sets out the dates and times that Chicago’s wall-clock rule sets changed from the beginning of standard time in 1883 through the last change in 1967. (The current rule set for Chicago are the “US” rules, defined elsewhere in the database.)

Shanks has a list, and the tzinfo database has the rules to create the list. Shanks also has an error that the tzinfo database corrects: the tzinfo database establishes that Chicago switched from local mean time (LMT) to standard time at 12:09:24, because Chicago is 9 minutes and 24 seconds ahead of the standard meridian for the time zone. Shanks puts the time at 12 noon, because his list shows the target time, not the trigger time, for the rule change.

Did the tzinfo project use Shanks to determine the rules for time changes? Yes, explicitly, though for highly-documented locations like Chicago the project participants cross-referenced Shanks with original sources, often correcting his errors. But "use" does not mean "copy;" I can use all the baseball statistics I want out of the newspaper without ever copying the newspaper. Data is not protected by copyright.

The tzinfo didn’t infringe on anyone’s copyright because Shanks created very little to protect. As I’ve previously explained, facts and data do not enjoy copyright protection in the United States. Only the expression of facts does. So if the tzinfo project had photocopied Shanks’ atlases, or republished the ACS software wholesale, then perhaps there would be an infringement. But I think I’ve shown a bit of why the tzinfo project hasn’t done anything actionable.

The Shanks atlases are like meticulously hand-copied illuminated codices from the 16th century, years after Gutenberg made his Bible and made hand-copying obsolete. I’m glad Shanks did the work; I’m sure he felt like he’d accomplished something huge. I really admire the work that went into it, while at the same time shaking my head at the wasted effort. Because since the late 1990s, all that data—latitudes, longitudes, place names—has been available for free from the Census Bureau and the CIA.[1] Before around 1998, you couldn’t just download the data through FTP for free; you had to write a letter to the appropriate agency and pay for it. But being U.S. government data, it was in the public domain, so once you’d paid for it, you could republish it in an easier-to-use form and recoup royalties.

In an era before the Census Bureau started dumping terabytes of data to the Internet, Shanks’ atlases would have been incredibly convenient sources of geographic and time-zone data. Today, they’re curiosities, monuments to exactly the kind of mental effort obviated by fast, cheap computers and the Internet.

Poor Shanks, all those data, thousands of rows of it, standing nakedly, and often erroneously, on page after page of tables in two massive volumes, apparently not knowing that he could have gotten it from the U.S. government—you have to admire that work ethic.

Astrolabe, for its part, has degenerated into exactly the kind of mental deficiency reviled by those of us who actually create software for a living. I eagerly await their much-deserved legal defeat in the next few months.

[1] Yes, the CIA publishes tons of free data, from their World Factbook to entire databases of geospatial information.

Edited at 20:58 UTC: Clarified the difference between "use" and "copying."

Simplified explanation of tzinfo mess

The AP has picked up the story about the tzinfo database moving to ICANN:

The organization in charge of the Internet's address system is taking over a database widely used by computers and websites to keep track of time zones around the world.

The transition to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, comes a week after the database was abruptly removed from a U.S. government server because of a federal lawsuit claiming copyright infringement.

Without this database and others like it, computers would display Greenwich Mean Time, or the time in London when it isn't on summer time. People would have to manually calculate local time when they schedule meetings or book flights.

Ah, I do love the popular press, trying to explain things. AP writer Anick Jesdanun generally did all right explaining the problem and the move, except the story has no information about the tzinfo community's response to the mess. (I'm just sad they didn't mention The Daily Parker.)

Astrolabe responds

This morning The Daily Parker received a press release from Gary Christen, responding to my analyses of their lawsuit against the guys who maintain the Posix time zone database (here, here, and here).

Unfortunately for Christen, Astrolabe's response fails to rebut my central assertions. I said, essentially, they have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted by a Federal court (or, as one of my colleagues who actually practices law suggested, their complaint is actionable in itself). Their response doesn't make their original claim any stronger.

Christen seems at pains to make non-technical people feel better about the alarm we technical people raised regarding the likely effects of shutting down the tzinfo project. "Astrolabe has now done a careful reading of ... the various industry publications that broke this story on October 7," Christen claims, but if so it was a reading without comprehension. We technical folks got over our panic in about thirty seconds, in favor of outrage and scorn. And with their detailed, bullet-pointed release, Astrolabe systematically reinforces this writer's outrage and scorn.

Taking each of Christen's points in turn:

1. Astrolabe’s lawsuit is in no way intended to interfere with compilation of current time-zone information maintained by Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, or any other persons.

Read in the light most favoring the plaintiff, this is irrelevant. Read in the light of my office, it's false. Astrolabe's intent is irrelevant in any case; the tzinfo database contains historical and prospective time zone data because computers on occasion need to represent times and dates in the past. For that, and other technical reasons I'll get into in another post, "past" and "future" data can't be separated. Shutting down the tzinfo project shuts down the whole thing.

2. The aim of Astrolabe’s suit is only to enforce copyright protection for materials regarding historical time data prior to 2000. This does not affect current time-setting on computers, and it has little or no effect on the Unix computing world.

Taking the second sentence, time-setting isn't the issue; time display is; and if their suit survives a motion to dismiss (big "if"), it could have a crippling effect on time displays in the U.S. But the first sentence demonstrates nicely the fallacy of petitio principii (begging the question) concerning who owns the material in the first place.

3. The fact is that the historical time zone data compiled by ACS is protected by registered copyrights, first on its publication in book form as the American Atlas and the International Atlas, and later in electronic form as the ACS PC Atlas.

Gary, the data is not protected by copyright. Of course the books and the software are protected, which no one disputes. But the data—Gary, can't you understand the difference?

Let me try to help. Let's say the book has the sentence "In 1985, the U.S. passed a law that moved the first day of Daylight Saving Time from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday." The tzinfo database distills from that sentence the following entry: "Rule US 1987 2006 - Apr Sun>=1 2:00 1:00 D". Does the database entry look, maybe, a little different? Can you start to see how the fact and its expression have different forms? No? Sigh.

The question of whether the material is “copyrightable”: has already been decided by the U.S. Copyright Office in the affirmative.

NO, NO, NO, you crashing ignoramus. Wow, either you got astoundingly bad legal advice, or ignored the advice you got.

The Copyright Office does not decide whether a work presented for registration is protected; it simply registers the work. All creative works have presumptive copyright protection at the time of creation. Copyright registration provides legal benefits in the event of infringement. But the Copyright Office makes no determinations at all on the validity of the copyright claim.

But "the material" in the tzinfo database is not subject to copyright protection, as Judge O'Toole is going to make clear to you in short order.

4. Why is the material considered copyrightable? Many hold the mistaken belief that all databases are mere compilations of fact, and are therefore not subject to copyright. However, compiling the ACS database went far beyond gathering official government data. In 20th-century America, particularly in the Midwest, time standards were a chaotic patchwork of not only state and local ordinances, but even of different time observances in the same jurisdiction.

Gary, the information expressed in the tzinfo database "is...considered copyrightable" only by Astrolabe, not, in fact, by Title 17, U.S. Code. And as your attorney should have told you, it doesn't matter whether the authors crossed fields of broken glass barefoot and rinsed the blood off with lemon juice in an effort to find the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and time zones. Once the answer is out there, the facts are public domain. I can tell everyone I want that the answer is 42, and neither you nor the restless ghost of Douglas Adams can make a penny off me saying so.

5. Why did the ACS compilers bother to undertake this effort?

Having moved from petitio principii we move now to argumentum ad misericordiam, an argument to pity. No one cares whether you are curing cancer, leading us to eternal salvation, or as you suggested in your press release, you guys "are money-seeking parasites on society," all that matters right now is the nature of the material you claim to own.

6. Why is Astrolabe suing to defend this copyright? ... Astrolabe inherited the obligation to pay royalties on the Atlas to Michelsen’s widow and to the other principal compilers, who are now at retirement-age.

Oh my heavens, save the widows and orphans! It's irrelevant to your lawsuit, but it does fill me with emotion. Unfortunately, the emotion is disgust.

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things, this lawsuit reduces the market for your book. The tzinfo database not only exhorts people to buy the books (thus creating the onerous obligation for you to give a few of your hard-inherited dollars back to the family of the guy who wrote them) but gives expression to the data the books contain such that the entire world can benefit from it. Given that computer software engineers, being logical sorts, generally avoid bunkum, the tzinfo database creates a market for the books that would never have otherwise heard of them.

Contrary to the accusations that it is trolling for dollars, it is not filing this suit in pursuit of vast amounts of cash. In the astrology world, there are no vast amounts of cash. The suit was filed in order to make Astrolabe’s concerns known to Mssrs. Olson and Eggert having not received a satisfactory reply to earlier phone calls and letters. Astrolabe has no wish to cripple the database on which Unix, Linux, Java and other computing depends.

Obviously you're not interested in money, because you would have named the U.S. government and the University of California as defendants if you were. (By the way, you need a new lawyer, or you need to listen to the one you have. Since Olson and Eggert maintained the tzinfo database in their official capacities as employees of those institutions, their employers will be joined in the suit eventually, and now you're up against a lot of really good attorneys. Good luck.)

But wait—you filed a Federal lawsuit to make a point? Because Olson and Eggert ignored your calls as any reasonable person would when some crank claims ownership of historical facts? And didn't you write earlier—right there, in the first bullet point—that you "in no way intended to interfere with compilation of current time-zone information maintained by Mssrs. Olson and Eggert?"

Finally, your conclusion:

In filing this suit, Astrolabe has touched the hot buttons on a number of highly emotional issues. One issue is the long-held right of people to receive money for their labors vs. the newer values of open sourcing, wiki and the other forms of the free information exchange that have made the internet so great.

No, you've touched on a well-settled legal issue. The people who labored on the work you're attacking didn't ask for compensation; they donated their time and efforts to the tzinfo project. Also, you, Gary, didn't provide any labor at all. You bought the rights at a bankruptcy sale. Think on what that says about your concerns for the widows and orphans, not to mention your noble purpose in filing this suit. Will you give all the cash flows from the sale of the ACS books directly to the creator's estate? No? Why not?

Another is the clash of paradigms between a mechanistic one unfriendly to astrology and a newer (and older) one that recognizes that the universe is far more mysterious than we thought.

The only reason people think it at all interesting you lot are astrologers is simply that it suggests you refuse to accept evidence as a way of understanding the world. If you want to live in your demon-haunted world and fleece people with similar beliefs, that's your right as Americans.

But filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court inserts you into the reality-based community in ways I don't think you understand. Preach ignorance all you want; just not in Federal court.

Finally, I have to call out for special derision this bit:

[I]n answer to those whose outrage is increased by the fact that astrologers are the plaintiffs, we can only say that these detractors are uninformed. Uncritical recipients of the opinions of those who are higher in status than they are, they have obviously never experienced the power of astrology for themselves. Why astrology works is still a mystery, but as the prevailing paradigm morphs from 19th-century mechanism into one that has to embrace all the new things we are finding out about the universe, perhaps we will soon have a plausible explanation. Anyway, to those who know that astrology is bunkum and its practitioners are money-seeking parasites on society, all we can say is try to be a bit humbler and accept that the universe is far more mysterious than you imagine.

We aren't pissed at you because you're astrologers; we're pissed at you because you're stupid. Speaking only for myself, precisely my ability to think critically and my refusal to accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence (from anyone regardless of status) lead me to conclude that this lawsuit is the work of children, who have neither the comprehension, the logic, nor the humility to realize their error in misusing the legal process in their tantrum. I don't wish you harm; I don't care whether your business succeeds or fails; but I do wish upon you and your attorney a Rule 11 dismissal with sanctions so harsh they're recorded in the stars for generations to come.

The hidden truth about astrology software

After the shocking disappearance of the Olson time zone database yesterday (described here and here), some things have become clearer overnight.

o The wonderful land of Oz has stepped up. Robert Elz, an Australian computer scientist who has actively supported the tzinfo project throughout, has revived the time zone mailing list maintained at the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). My, but the list was active overnight, with dozens of people volunteering to host the database, move it to non-U.S. servers, and continue to research and develop it.

o The current database is available from an Australian site at ftp://munnari.oz.au/pub/tzdata2011k.tar.gz. (This is the version running on Weather Now.)

o Astrolabe, Inc., the mom-and-pop Cape Cod outfit responsible for this insanity, has a suddenly-popular Facebook page upon which hundreds of people have expressed themselves. (I wonder if the company will figure out how to disallow wall postings? Oopsi.)

o Software developer Curtis Manwaring, CEO of Zodiasoft Technologies in Las Vegas, claims that he and Astrolabe have had a running fight for years about ownership of various software implementations of time zone data. Says Manwaring:

Gary Christen (CEO of Astrolabe) tried to hire me on three separate occasions and I refused. When Astrolabe obtained the ACS Atlas (when ACS went bankrupt in July 2008), I was concerned that I wouldn't have an atlas for my software anymore. The last time that they tried to hire me, the ACS Atlas became leverage to coerce me into working for them because I had no guarantee that they would give me access to the ACS Atlas. When I refused the last time, I managed to obtain a verbal agreement that I would send my customers to them for a special discount on the ACS Atlas and was relieved for a while. But over the next several months, my customers started complaining about the run around they were getting on the special deal that Gary promised my customers. Eventually one of my customers said that he thought that Astrolabe was trying to make me look bad and disadvantage my business by making it difficult to obtain the stand alone version of the ACS Atlas which is required by my software (but not Solar Fire which has the ACS Atlas bound with it). He was so fed up with the run around Astrolabe gave him that he formatted a database of latitudes and longitudes for me and asked me to add it to my software. That got me back on the issue of researching time zones after which I found the Olson time zone database. I subsequently found from the Olson sources that the ACS data was extremely unreliable, much more than I previously thought.

Note to Curtis, Gary, and everyone else involved in this nonsense: there's a difference between software, which enjoys copyright protection, and data, which does not. This is established, black-letter law in the U.S. (and in most other countries). The fact that both of you produce products that use the same data does not in itself constitute copyright infringement.

What this sounds like—and I'm sorry, Curtis, but you're in it up to your neck—is that you're both amateurs, and your narcissistic dispute has started claiming innocent lives. Arthur Olson and Paul Eggert were trying to help people, as part of the open, collaborative effort we in the software community like to call "open collaboration."

Now, I write software for money, and in fact I have a time zone factory written in .NET, that reads and parses the entire tzinfo database so you can use it in .NET applications. (Send me an email if you want to license it!)

But here's the thing: I know it's a lot less expensive for someone to license my tzinfo parser than to roll their own. Like, two or three orders of magnitude less expensive. And if someone else writes a better parser, they might take my customers away—but that's not copyright infringement (unless they actually use the same C# code or documentation), that's creation.

Speaking of professional software development, I have to start billing now. I'm glad Robert Elz has stepped up, along the dozens of other volunteers, to keep this hidden but vital software project going.