Fixing broken tractors, Ukranian style

Recently, the Motherboard blog on reported on the extreme measures some US farmers are having to take to fix their John Deere tractors, namely downloading cracked software hosted in countries like the Ukraine and Poland.

From the article:

Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.

“When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don’t have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it,” Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. “Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix].”

The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn’t be anything a farmer could do about it.

The article goes on to describe a license agreement John Deere forced farmers to sign in 2016 October, which not only forbids the farmers from doing their own repairs but includes a covenant not to sue John Deere for “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment …arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software” running on the embedded systems in the tractors or other equipment. Basically, John Deere is saying “if our tractor breaks, it’s your problem, not ours, for the length of time it’s out of action.”

If this sounds like pure lunacy to you, you’re not alone. I would go as far as to call this one-sided agreement unconscionable. No judge worth his or her salt would possibly uphold such a blatantly lopsided agreement, especially given some of the rather exorbitant rates charged by John Deere: the article mentions $230 plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out to a site and plug a connector into a USB port to “authorize” a repair done by an independent repair shop (which, of course, they could decline in theory). Given farms are by definition not going to be close to major cities or even larger towns where John Deere technicians are likely to live, a bill for such a service call could potentially cross the thousand-dollar mark.

So the farmers and independent repair shops say to hell with the license agreement and do the repairs in violation of it using cracked software from the Ukraine, Poland, and elsewhere. I can’t really blame them. And it’s possible that despite the license agreement, the repairs themselves may not be quite as unlawful as it first appears, though the acquisition of software intended for use only by “blessed” (i.e. authorized) John Deere technicians could still be against the letter of the law. In 2015 the Librarian of Congress approved an exemption to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) for land vehicles, which would include tractors and farm equipment. Curiously, around the time the exemption went into effect was when John Deere started requiring farmers to sign the license agreements.

One farmer modified his tractor to run on methane produced from pig manure, which I certainly applaud from an environmentalist standpoint. Who is John Deere to say that gasoline is a better fuel than the methane from pig shit (that would ordinarily be considered a waste product outright)? I would think most people (by which I mean non-stockholders in companies involved in the petroleum products trade) would agree that pig poop methane is a far better choice.

But the environmentalist side of me isn’t done. Toward the end of the story, there’s this quote:

“What happens in 20 years when there’s a new tractor out and John Deere doesn’t want to fix these anymore?” the farmer using Ukrainian software told me. “Are we supposed to throw the tractor in the garbage, or what?”

There’s one way to stop this, and it’s a “right to repair” law such as those already under consideration in five states: Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New York, with a similar bill targeted more precisely at farm equipment in the works in Wyoming. The bills are modeled after a similar law already passed in Massachusetts targeting motor vehicles (but unfortunately, not including farm equipment it would appear).

Not surprisingly, John Deere is one of the opponents of this legislation, along with companies like Apple, which I have already written about at length on this blog. Gee, I wonder why? Maybe they fear the loss of an income stream built on robbing farmers (or hapless iPhone owners)?

This situation the farmers find themselves in is a large part of the reason why I fight for computing freedom and limit the amount of non-free software I use (and specifically why I do not run Windows on my PC and will never buy any Apple hardware, including Beats headphones).

Taking chess into the courtroom: an out-of-bounds assertion of copyright on chess moves

This is a bit old, but the topic once again came up in conversation when I was chatting on FICS (

According to this blog post/press release, a US Federal judge denied monetary damages and a temporary restraining order sought by Agon (World Chess US, Inc. and World Chess Events Ltd.) against three different companies which run chess websites, including obviously the aforementioned (the other two sites, it appears, are and Essentially Agon claimed copyright over the actual moves of a chess game and thus the ability to control their broadcast. The ruling establishes once and for all that the moves of a chess game cannot be copyrighted; however, the commentary and analysis of a chess game can still be copyrighted as before.

The judge got this one right in throwing out the lawsuit and restraining order. Apparently, common sense was lacking at Agon, something I would hope has been rectified going forward. The current knowledge base of chess, backgammon, checkers, and other board games comes from the moves of all games played before under the same ruleset. (The rules of chess have changed over the centuries, with the most recent rule change regarding the actual play coming sometime in the 19th century, that being the elimination of a requirement that pawn promotions be to a piece already captured, e.g. allowing a second queen or third knight, rook, or bishop. See Wikipedia for more details.)

The article quotes an email from Yasser Seirawan, which I think says a lot about just how absurd Agon’s position was:

Chess event organizers have a monopoly on absolutely clear uncontestable copyrightable materials: They have all photography rights; all webcam rights (of the players in action over the board); all audio rights to their own online show; they have all post-game interview rights; including still photography, video and audio; press conference rights; they have all promotional rights that feature the players; they have merchandizing rights to the players’ images and likenesses; as well as other numerous rights.


[P]ossessing all these rights, what do they decide to do with their time and money? It really is crazy: They spend large sums to go after the one single right they do not have: Copyright of chess moves for a very, very small period of time. Why do they do this? To prevent others from promoting their event? It really is a self-inflicted injury that is plainly stupid. The chess moves of a chess game have been held to be in public domain for decades, even centuries. The recording of a chess move made is held to be a “fact.”


Today’s organizers accept that chess game notation falls into public domain but now they make a new argument: They have the copyrights to the chess moves during an event (only) and that immediately after the game is finished (not the event which is days and weeks long), only then do the moves of the games played fall into “public domain.” It is a staggering argument to make. In my view, it is just plain rubbish. How to argue that “ownership” is granted for hours or possibly even minutes? At which government agency should organizers “register” such “fleeting” ownership claims?

Indeed, the idea that one can claim only copyright over the live broadcast of an event is absurd. To be fair, the live broadcast rights to NFL football games are probably its most lucrative property, and the NFL (and AT&T, the owners of DirecTV) would much rather you buy the NFL Sunday Ticket package for you to follow an out of market team than set up a bootleg live feed from your friends in whatever city. (Actually, the NFL and AT&T would be just as happy if you went to a local sports bar that paid the commercial rate for NFL Sunday Ticket, but that’s another story…)

There is really no such income stream from the live broadcast of a chess game, match, or tournament. I hate to admit it, but chess is incredibly slow-moving (most of the time) compared to football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, MMA, boxing, and auto racing. For that matter, the pace of the game moves slower than even golf, which is hardly the biggest draw on television these days, though it still gets plenty of TV time. Even blitz chess is probably too highbrow for the large audiences that watch sports like football and basketball. Thankfully, for now, we have the Internet for the things too narrowly focused for the 500 channels of cable TV we were promised with the “information superhighway.”

The article ends with the following quote:

This year chess24 has now “won” legal battles in both Moscow and New York, but the only real winners in such situations are lawyers. The cases have eaten up a huge amount of time and money that could instead have been devoted to chess, while also damaging the most valuable commodity chess possesses – its positive image.

Attorneys (lawyers) do perform a valuable service for society. To say the least, I would probably not be here to write this blog post were it not for the services of attorneys over the years. I know a lot of people love to make jokes about lawyers and they are probably one of the least-respected professions in existence. It is easy to overlook the good that the good lawyers do, including those who take cases at no cost to the represented (“pro bono”, which literally means “for good” in Latin, referring to the greater good).

The attorneys defending the companies behind these three websites, and in a broader sense, the legal rights of the chess community to discuss and share the moves of high-level games in real time, did not work “pro bono”. Those companies had to pay the attorneys quite a bit of money–and that is money that could, and should, have been used for promoting the game of chess instead. I’m not sure who is responsible for contracting with Agon to be the promoter of chess events, whether it’s someone at FIDE or elsewhere, but this role should be rethought. I would like to see it required, as a condition of organizing future events, that Agon either repay the legal fees of the companies and individuals they sued, or donate an equivalent amount of its profits, adjusted for time value, to national chess federations and/or non-profit online chess-related websites/communities. Nowhere does make their legal bill totals public that I can see, but I can imagine the total going into six figures easily, if not surpassing the million-dollar (US) mark.

If Agon is unwilling to do this, then they need to be replaced with promoters who actually give a tinker’s damn about the right thing to do. If we do not hold Agon accountable for trampling on our rights as chess fans and players, then they are free to do it again and again at their leisure, which is completely unacceptable.

Superstition and the safe landing of Flight 666 to HEL on Friday the 13th

Okay, so this is already a bit old (I intended to wrap this up around January 25th, and really, really let it slip), but it still deserves a short piece on it. Incidentally, I think the research I did on this one is worth the wait.

Ordinarily an airline flight is nowhere near being a newsworthy event. Planes take off and land successfully on an average of more than one per second around the world–over 100,000 flights according to this blog post by Gunner Garfors. The only times a flight is newsworthy are when one or two people wind up being the only passengers on the plane, or when a flight is affected by an incident (which need not be an outright “crash” to qualify as newsworthy).

This flight, however, made the news for an entirely different reason. It was Flight 666, which Christians regard as “the number of the beast”, destined for the airport in Helsinki, Finland, airport code HEL. And it took place this past January 13, which was Friday the 13th. Despite just about every superstition saying something would go wrong, nothing did.

Of course, that raises a lot of questions about just how seriously one should take superstitions. There aren’t that many superstitions that I have ever taken that seriously, and certainly the least of them would be 666 being the “number of the beast”. Friday the 13th has only been a truly bad day for me once out of the 72 times it has come up on the calendar since I was born (and most would say it was my own damn fault, but I won’t get into that here). When I travel, I don’t fly (the last time I got on a plane was about 10 years ago and the security procedures have gotten ridiculous), and I think Greyhound schedule numbers all have four digits (though whether they intentionally avoid any ending in or containing 666 is up for debate). Even then, I wouldn’t have any issues boarding a flight 666 even on Friday the 13th. (One of the few airline flights I took, if I remember correctly, was on a Friday the 13th, and I lived to tell about it.)

If only it were that simple. We don’t even know for sure if 666 is the real “number of the beast.” According to this Wikipedia article some early manuscripts have 616 for the “number of the beast” instead of 666. Would this make June 16 the unluckiest (or most devilish) day of the year? Should it have been flight 616 to HEL that we should have been keeping an eye on?

I did search for any record of any airline’s flight 666 or flight 616 crashing or having any type of incident, whether on Friday the 13th or not. So far I have not come up with anything. A Wikipedia article I consulted shows four flights ending in 13 having incidents; I did not check to see if this is within statistical norms but I suspect it is. Given the number of airline incidents over the years, it would be difficult to find all incidents that have ever occurred on a Friday the 13th, regardless of flight number. If there’s enough interest, I’m willing to dig deeper. If someone has already researched this, I’d love to know about it and do a followup post on the topic.

Amending the ECPA: 2017 technology versus 1986 law

From the about-damned-time department:

TechCrunch recently reported that a long-needed update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) has passed the House of Representatives, a good sign that the bill may actually be signed into law this year.

Unfortunately, the roadblock to passing this bill in 2016 was that the Senate wanted to water down the bill, crippling the gain in privacy that is the whole reason why the bill exists. It is only common sense, in the era of providers like Gmail offering quotas that are effectively infinite thus allowing people to keep everything, that email is just as protected from warrantless searches as any other personal electronic data.

I can’t think of a good reason why emails over 180 days old should be legally obtainable with just a subpoena instead of an actual warrant. This is one reason I have not kept emails on other servers for anything approaching the 180 days in the ECPA. (Interestingly, the other big reason is space: I currently only have emails going back to 2016 November 22 and later, and I’m at 76% quota used. As much as I get right now, I could not keep 180 days’ worth of email on the server I’m using if I wanted to.)

The ECPA is now over three decades old. Its effective date of 1986 October 21 predates widespread public access to the Internet by almost a full decade. The laws which amended it did nothing to amend the 180 day subpoena rule, which is ass-backwards and patently devoid of sense. Even if it did make sense in late 1986, the world has changed a lot in the three decades since. For example: in 1986 UUCP and FidoNet were the predominant forms of exchanging email (unless one was emailing someone on the same BBS that one was dialed into), and today, both are extinct for practical purposes with the impending death of analog telephone lines (though FidoNet still technically exists, most of its traffic now goes across the Internet). The sooner we can get a law that is tuned to the reality of living in 2017 with a connection to the Internet, the better.

Will the real amateur golfer status, please stand up?

How I missed this when it was relatively recent news is beyond me. But, better late than never. And it happens to fit in very well with the Pac Pro league post that just went up. I don’t usually write about golf, but this was too good not to pass up.

Golf Digest published this story back in 2011 October about the recent change to amateur status by the USGA (US Golf Association) and R&A (which originally stood for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, but which is now a separate agency responsible for just the golf rules outside of the US and Mexico). The crux of the change is that amateur golfers can enter into a relationship with a sponsor or agent in relation to their future status as a professional golfer without losing their amateur status, provided the golfer receives no financial gain while still an amateur. Quoting the article:

In a move that surprised some purists but appeared to be a nod to the current realities facing elite amateur golfers, the gameʼs two governing bodies changed Rule 2-2 of the RAS, effective Jan. 1, 2012, to allow amateurs to enter into a contract and/or an agreement with a third party—which can include a professional agent or sponsor—solely in relation to the golferʼs future as a professional, provided the golfer does not obtain any financial gain, directly or indirectly, while still an amateur. This was accompanied by a similar allowance to amateurs to sign contracts with national golf unions and associations.

And here’s where it gets hairy. Quoting the article again:

However, NCAA Bylaw 12.3, titled “Use of Agents,” states the following:

12.3.1 General Rule. An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she ever has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport. Further, an agency contract not specifically limited in writing to a sport or particular sports shall be deemed applicable to all sports, and the individual shall be ineligible to participate in any sport. Representation for Future Negotiations. An individual shall be ineligible per Bylaw 12.3.1 if he or she enters into a verbal or written
agreement with an agent for representation in future professional sports negotiations that are to take place after the individual has completed his or her eligibility in that sport.

(Rough translation: “We don’t give a damn what the USGA or R&A say, our rule is: get an agent, lose your eligibility.”)

The story goes on to say that this rule change basically legitimizes what has already been happening, and puts it out of the open instead of making it a back-room, under-the-table affair. It was originally an R&A rule change, but again quoting the story:

It might not have been what USGA officials desired, but to be a good partner they went along with it.

Since this story broke (or possibly before), the USGA has prepared a chart detailing the differences. The rule change appears to still be current as of 2017 according to this chart. The chart does help in understanding exactly what the NCAA allows versus what the USGA allows, and it is interesting to note that the NCAA policy is not always the more restrictive one.

Anyway, I don’t blame the USGA for this. The story as written criticizes the USGA and R&A for relaxing the rules. I really don’t think the blame belongs on the USGA and R&A though. I would blame the NCAA for not keeping its rules up to what is currently considered amateur status by a higher authority (the USGA and/or R&A in this case). Of course, the whole reason they are so strict goes back to the reason the NCAA started the “student-athlete” classification to begin with: not wanting to pay worker’s compensation for players injured while playing college sports. This despite the multi-billion-dollar revenue total from college athletics. The schools, either with the NCAA’s help or individually, should be able to afford the medical expenses of injured players. If it’s that expensive to pay for hurt football players that bring the schools millions of dollars, maybe it’s too expensive to even have a football program to begin with.

Do college golfers get hurt often enough that they should get caught up in this awful dragnet? I would hope not. Maybe we need something like Pac Pro for golf as well. Or at the very least, some kind of an amateur golfing program aimed at college-age players separate from the schools so the NCAA can’t get their gooey fingers all over it and mess it up, and do things strictly by the USGA’s definition of amateur status.

(Note: the story may not display correctly in Firefox, for reasons I am unable to figure out.)