Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 17th Sep, 2012

Emotional computing

Kate and I were wandering through the Canberra Centre a week or two ago and passed the new Apple Store on its opening day. And OMG the total losing fanboy idiocy of it was stunning. People queueing for their right to go in, people getting high-fives from Apple staff when entering, videoing themselves going in on iPads and whatever. It was such a great quantity of wankery - sad, self-indulgent narcissism - that both of us instinctively reacted to it by not wanting to be anywhere near it. It actually tarnished the whole experience by being so over-the-top.

Now, we know that Apple works very hard to maintain that emotion-steeped, intellect-free connection to their fanboys - even their programming howto videos come across more as marketing hype than real useful information. The amusing thing is that even there, in my opinion, they still outshine Linux zealots for pure fact-free, judgemental thinking. Linux zealots are much worse than Apple fanboys for telling everyone to convert to free open source software whenever someone complains about any other product, though, so that's kind of evened up. To go a step back from the great T-shirt slogan "No I Will Not Fix Your Computer", we need to stop trying to fix everyone else's problems, or assuming that we have to (or even can).

The really funny thing to me, in this competition of eagerness, is how Microsoft has really given up. The "Mac Vs PC" ads did wonders for that emotional image-based buy-in for Apple, but I wasn't really expecting Microsoft to embrace the image too. They have, though - Microsoft seems to be making no effort to be anything but conventional, slightly stuffy, older and prone to clumsiness. Worse, they've inspired the GNOME 3 developers: Microsoft started "reinventing" the Windows interface and throwing in pointless, ugly, hard to use changes to its Office suite about eighteen months before the GNOME developers started telling everyone that making things more difficult was the way of the future, as far as I can see.

Microsoft is also engaging in exactly the same tactics it used twenty years ago that got it in trouble with the US government. It's paying Intel and AMD a lot of money to create "Windows-Only Processors", on the amazingly naive notion that somehow the rest of the world a) can't read machine code, b) can't reverse engineer, and c) gives a toss, given that those processors are slower, more power hungry and less innovative than ARM processors these days. It's been waging this war on other operating systems via UEFI and presumably thinking that at some point the Linux community will just give up, rather than doing what it's done for the last 20 years and work a way around the problem. It keeps utterly failing to get any real traction with its phones and tablets. It's only now started to try and market a costly product that vaguely duplicates what you get for free with Google Docs.

Personally, I think this is due to Bill Gates leaving. I think he knew that Microsoft was heading toward a brick wall and it was just too big, stupid and uncoordinated to think to take its foot off the accelerator pedal. They've bled money in court cases, in DRM systems that no-one's wanted, in aborted projects (e.g. Pink) and just in sheer lack of anything new. Even that famed vendor lock in gradually erodes - look at how abysmally Vista did in the business world, even if you disregard the various organisations and government departments that are going with Linux on the desktop. And without someone with the fame, or even the charisma, of Gates, they're just hand-waving and hoping that someone cares about them.

Ultimately, I believe that free software won't "win" any more than Apple could "win" the phone market. It'll be part of the ecosystem. As more and more people learn of the advantages of using free, open source software, I think it will be more popular - really, it's problem in not reaching a wider audience has been obscurity rather than active oppression. And I think there's still the emotional attachment to free, open source software, but it's the same emotional attachment one has to science - it's cool and majestic but also based on principles we know and can see. The more Apple and Microsoft try to eliminate their competition, the more they lose the respect of their fans.

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Mon 23rd May, 2011

Dear Charles Stross

I agree with your idea of getting people to purchase a book if they want to donate to you, rather than bypassing the publisher. I'd rather buy the electronic copies, though, as I'm travelling and want to carry minimal weight and as I want publishers to get the messages that electronic distribution is going to make them more money than lumps of dead tree. So I thought I'd go online to try and buy some of your books.

Let me say that never have trued words been written than Cory Doctorow's introduction to "Makers":

There's a dangerous group of anti-copyright activists out there who pose a clear and present danger to the future of authors and publishing. They have no respect for property or laws. What's more, they're powerful and organized, and have the ears of lawmakers and the press.

I'm speaking, of course, of the legal departments at ebook publishers.

My first attempt to buy the books got all the way to the actual checkout before the website informed me that their lawyers had decided to conspire against them to prevent me from giving them my money: yes, I was not in some weird non-approved area of the internet. Still prepared to go on, I found an Australian store which would sell me Iron Sunrise and The Atrocity Archive as eBooks. Not my first choice - I had been aiming for Saturn's Children and The Family Trade - but that's OK, I enjoyed Halting State and friends (albeit weird ones that like the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) had enjoyed the Atrocity Archive. So I bought the books.

Ah, but the wily legal departments were ahead of me again - they had encrypted the books using some Adobe encryption thing that FBReader didn't understand. There is, it would seem, no way to decode these things with out an "approved" player, and Adobe do not support the Samsung Galaxy S yet.

So I did what any sane, computer literate person would do at this point: I found a copy of the books on the internet and downloaded them for free.

This is the fundamental equation that the legal departments have yet to figure out: broken versus working. We're happy to pay, but not for something that doesn't work - and I mean it has to work everywhere. Every-****ing-where. Because if it doesn't, you've just made people go and find it somewhere else that does. It may not even be for free on the internet, it may be from your competitor's site. But your customers will leave you if they can get it working somewhere else. Figuratively, I went to a store, gave them some money, they popped my book in a bag, swapped that bag for a bag exactly the same weight and size filled with confetti, and gave it back to me.

It's not even "expensive and broken" versus "free and working", because we've already established that I wanted to pay for the ebook. I want to support Charlie Stross, and I want to support a bookstore and a publisher that will sell me a book in electronic format. Cory Doctorow covers all the things I want to say about ebook licensing, restrictions, and that kind of stupidity in his introduction, so I won't bore you with them. But I don't want to take Cory's bargain and buy a printed book, making the publisher think that dead tree accretions are more popular than ebooks. I want an ebook that works.

So, given the choice of the unpalatable, the unwanted and not paying the author a cent, I will choose the unpalatable. I will buy what ebooks I can. If they are shackled with digital restrictions, I will find a free version and download it afterward. And I will find them, because they will be there. Hopefully, some day, the publishers will save me the trouble of fixing their mistakes.

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Sat 21st May, 2011

Shopping for Fail

I read an article recently about the increased competition regular shops - in particular Myers, David Jones, Harvey Norman, etc - are facing from internet retailers. Having recently bought a Kogan TV as a toe-in-the-water test of buying stuff I'd normally buy by walking up, trying the actual models out in store and then picking one, I was interested. In the article, some high-paid consultant gave the eager retailers lessons on what they should be doing to move into the digital age. Was this going to be the next wave of retailing?

Reading it, however, I felt no real surprise and only a sense of sadness. The idea is that for retail stores to push "the experience" rather than just the price. People would go to Myers to meet and hang around with the purchasing elite; you might sip champagne and hear string quartets play while discussing fashion and homewares with the staff and like-minded shoppers. The article listed this consultant as having helped Microsoft, Borders and other large corporations come into the internet era.

Really? Even Apple fanatics don't go to Mac shops to hang out with people who also purchase Apple equipment. As far as I can see, people going shopping would rather not meet any other shoppers in their perambulations through the store - they'd rather have staff who pop up when requested, disappear when ignored, and know enough to answer questions correctly. Shopping as a social experience is done with friends, not complete strangers; even for exclusive fashion stores the idea is to be seen and to enjoy the exclusiveness, not to sit around and chat with random people. The whole idea is absurd.

Now, admittedly, my experience with exclusive fashion stores is pretty much nil, and my method of shopping for most of these items is antithetical to any idea of socialising: I work out what I want, I go in, I look at all the available options, I choose what I want (if anything), I pay and I get out. I don't mind being at least polite in a store - if someone's obviously curious about an item that I have some experience with I'll happily answer their questions or even offering a bit of advice if someone has a question that I can help with. Even at computer fairs, where I have been known to wander around checking random prices without any intent to buy those things even in the near future, I don't tend to socialise. But I still think most people would agree that they don't want to have social interactions in a store that are irrelevant to what they're looking for.

And the thing that really gives this away as a stupid con is that it's really actually almost what the stores do already. Marketing for those stores has always emphasised the look, the fashion, the style - carrying the bag of a designer clothes store through the mall has always been a statement about your fashion sense and purchasing power as much as it has been to own the thing in the bag. This "new strategy" doesn't change their mode of business, it just puts a new marketing pitch on it.

So it's really doomed to fail also, because it fails to acknowledge why people are shopping online: for the price. They know what they want and now they want to find somewhere that can give them one as cheap as is reasonable. We haven't suddenly turned into a society of asocial bastard shoppers; we're actually sick and tired of greeters, salespeople that are in your face when you want to browse and never there when you have a question, demonstration devices that don't work or don't allow you to test the device fully, and the whole ghastly traffic / parking ticket / crush of people / bland muzak / endless tramping experience. I'd rather spend that two hours shopping online, in my own home, in my comfortable clothes, sitting down, listening to my own music. Experience? No amount of champagne, exclusive brands, new seasons catalogues and perfectly groomed, charming salespeople can outweigh all the awfulness of going shopping in a modern mall.

My advice, for free (because it's the internet), to those stores is simple.

Sell the things that people want to buy from a real store. Then make the experience of buying in a store as easy and practical - I won't say enjoyable - for your customers as possible.

Seriously, most of it flows naturally from there. Don't bother with selling DVDs at Myers when they're already cheaper at JB Hifi and cheaper still online. The entire mall, from the entrances and parking spots to the locations of the toilets and price of the coffe, is part of the experience - don't decorate up to your front door and leave the rest as a hollow, concrete wasteland. Emphasise how safe it is to shop in a store, how the customers details and credit card information is secure. For the things that you do specialise in, make sure your range is good. For some things you can probably allow people a cheaper price if they don't buy one in the store but have your mail-order section post it to them (after all, that one hasn't been sitting in your valuable shop space). Make it easy for people to buy stuff from you online, too - use the technology where it works rather than avoiding it.

And make sure your staff enjoy their work. Putting pressure on them to sell a certain amount every $time_period makes them desperate, and customers can spot this three quarters of a league off in heavy fog. Avoid the cliched, inappropriate Americocentric selling techniques and manner of the eighties and nineties. You should see your staff as people to get involved in the whole process, rather than cloned droids with no personality.

I don't want retailers to die off. I think having a physical shop front to go and try things at is a useful thing: there are plenty of things that I want to try out or try on, or have a knowledgeable person on hand to ask questions about. And for things like warranty claims, purchasing compatible accessories, and finding out new brands or types, a shop front is much more convenient than an internet retailer. But I've bought things through the internet - I would have never thought I would have bought online: TVs, perfumes, fruit and veg (can't find a link, because it was long ago in Brisbane), even peppermints, as well as all the things we now buy and take for granted will be available on the internet - computer parts, books, CDs, and all sorts of neat gadgets. I've bought these things at shop fronts, too, so it doesn't have to be the death-knell of the retail industry.

And what's the next thing? What happens after the internet makes getting almost anything you want available easily from almost anywhere? I see a long process of things gradually getting easier to find, marketplaces consolidating, and drop-shipping mega-sites becoming more comprehensive, but that just increases the existing players. Where we pay money for formatted, compiled data - books, videos, music, etc. - it'll be distributed directly to you via the internet; these things will get more available and cheaper as competition and opening up of markets gradually overcome the idiocy of digital restrictions and market segmentation.

And the end, really, is the post-scarcity society: where you can have anything made available for you at close to zero cost, and the work you do participating in the society is valued enough to pay for that cost. Which is really the digital economy applied to physical things, because practically speaking we already have a system to distribute copies of data throughout the world at near enough to zero cost. Post-scarcity will happen - in some things it can be said to already be here - it's just a question of when.

To reuse Linus's quote: we don't aim to be the death of retail stores. That will be a totally unintended side-effect.

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Tue 27th Nov, 2007

Hate is a fallacy

Having read Murray Cumming's slating of Jeff Waugh and Jeff's reply, I feel little actual attachment to the debate over the GNOME elections, whatever they are. And Jeff and I have had several, well, fights over various issues, mainly on IRC. So I can't say that I'm Jeff's best buddy or that I owe him anything.

But to me this is a classic example of Poisoning the well. Ordinarily I would say "oh well, keep on going", as everyone will have to anyway. But Murray's invective has gone way beyond mere reporting of facts and has headed straight into the mire of overblown, hyperbolic personal opinion. He doesn't give any actual examples of the behaviour he deplores, he grossly mischaracterises any disorders Jeff may suffer from, and his attack has all the hallmarks of something designed not to inform but to slander. Jeff says that Murray is entitled to his opinions, and even invokes Voltaire to say that they can be aired publically. But, to my mind, Murray is only entitled to state fact, something that, while hinted at, seems to be somewhat absent from his diatribe. I'd take that one step further and say that even the facts should be presented in an orderly way in a proper forum - posting up email conversations or IRC logs is not only airing one's dirty laundry in public but a misuse of what might have been private correspondence.

As John Howard found out in this recent election, with the Liberal party's many attempts at mud-slinging, such as criticising Kevin Rudd's wife Therese Rein's business dealings and the botched attempt to link the Labor party with radical Islamists and the Bali bombings, sometimes mud splatters back. Jeff's no saint, and I think he acknowledges that. But Murray's attempt at painting him as Bill Gates incarnate now seems more fanatic and irrational than Jeff might have ever been. Interestingly, Murray is not running for a post in this year's elections, but that to me doesn't clear him of much.

If this were in a newspaper Jeff could easily sue for libel. In the blogosphere, with the parties being in different countries and with an object that is both intangible and unpaid, we just have to settle it the old-fashioned way - by everyone just moving on. Murray's comments will stand in the record and he, as well as Jeff, will be judged by them.

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Mon 23rd Jul, 2007

Free as in choice

A little while ago I had an energetic debate on IRC with a couple of people about the nature of choice in relation to F/LOSS. It stemmed from my rather scathing comments on the colour of the Software Freedom Day 2007 T-shirt, and in particular my questioning how the choice of colour was made - which seems to be have by committee fiat without any actual community input or choice at all.

I should just clarify at this juncture that by 'community input or choice', above, I do not mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, and somehow we will source T-shirts of that precise colour'. Nor do I mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, we then offer the entire gamut up for people to vote on in a two-stage election process that is democratically fair and representative across the entire world.' If Pia had given us a choice of four colours and anyone who wanted could vote on them, then that would be just dandy. It is the complete absence of any community involvement that I am annoyed at (besides, of course, the colour). I certainly never heard of any attempt to involve the community in this, though I wait in hope. But this is somewhat beside the point of this post.

On IRC, one of the well-known people on the #linux-aus channel on FreeNode, presumably thinking e was defending this unilateral decision on T-shirt colour, made the statement, "Open Source is not about choice". And, technically, this is true: nowhere in the Open Source Initiative definition, the Free Software Foundation's definition of Free Software, or the Wikipedia entry on F/LOSS does it actually use the word "choice" in the definition. Likewise, the key theme of the debate on IRC was that "too much choice is bad" - that making a new user pick between the hundreds of Linux distributions will lead to choice 'paralysis' and therefore the user would instead stay with their old, comfortable, familiar, expensive, proprietary, locked-in solution rather than have to make a pick based on a dozen factors including the exact license used, what window managers were offered and the software packaging method used by default.

All of which I totally agree on.

But this to me is misrepresenting the issue. To me, the fact that choice does not appear in the definitions is akin to the fact that a chemical definition of air would not need to include the statement "essential to human life". Air is not defined solely by its breathability by humans, and FLOSS is not defined as being solely an alternative to proprietary, for-money software. Likewise, air is not defined in terms of people choosing which air to breathe, and FLOSS is not defined in terms of people choosing amongst the variety of FLOSS offerings. But to say, therefore, that FLOSS is not about choice is akin, to me, therefore as being like saying "air is not about breathability". While pedantically true, it completely misses the point of what FLOSS offers the community.

And, ultimately, we look at the industry itself and see the real truth of this statement. With GNU/Linux, you have the ability to choose every level and every component of your operating system, from the kernel up; distros exist to provide pre-packaged 'known good' sets of software, but at every level these choices can be overridden by the user. The whole philosophy of user choice permeates the entire process of open source software creation and use, and the whole community supports your ability to choose what you run and how you run it. The efforts open source developers go to to provide users with a open, no-cost alternative to a proprietary product, or support for hardware on open, no-cost platforms, is legendary. While I'm walking close to that dangerous ground of quoting The Castle and saying "It's just the vibe of the thing", I believe that choice is an essential, integral and desirable part of F/LOSS development and use - that it is basically a emergent property of the definitions. And people are obviously choosing F/LOSS software and operating systems, despite any theoretical danger that they might be put off by the notion of choice.

Contrast this to the typical offerings of the proprietary software world. With Microsoft or Apple, the culture of not giving the user a choice goes beyond their simple offerings, in themselves designed to offer the user one window manager, one file system, one desktop, one browser, one suite of applications. They also lock the user into paying for their operating system in the future, lock the user into buying their own products rather than competing ones, and lock other companies out of competing with the software they offer through a variety of means fair and foul. Microsoft is legendary for ignoring or perverting standards simply to lock users into using Microsoft products, for hiding abilities in their operating system to make competitors products inferior to their own, and for abusing their own power in the desktop market to increase their server marketshare. And for a developer, the whole proprietary software industry is about secrecy - learning from each-others code is a matter of patents, licensing deals, lawsuits, agressive headhunting and infringements. Forget about trying to learn how to do something well based on someone else's code, or even trying to implement something that you've seen someone else do.

Look at the Four Freedoms, or the Open Source Definition. What's the point of all that freedom if you don't have choice? How do you run a program if the choice is denied you? What if the company dictated the purpose of you using it rather than you choosing your purpose for using the software? How do you study the source code if that choice is denied you? How do you redistribute copies, or improve the program, if you can't choose to? The very questions are absurd. You can basically replace 'freedom' with 'choice' throughout the definition and it makes perfect sense.

Anticipating the debating hand-wave from the "open source is not about choice" people, I would simply say that while it is trivial to create situations where one might choose to break the Open Source Definition, or the Principles of Free Software - for example, proposing that I can choose to write software that discriminates against a group of people and release it under an open source license - this is in fact a red herring. It's akin to proposing that, because people break the speed limit, that speed limits can't be used to increase road safety. Choosing to break the license doesn't imply that the license is wrong.

We should still want the freedom and right to to choose, even though we can make bad choices or can get presented with too many choices at times.

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Thu 28th Sep, 2006

How to succeed without really trying

After the CLUG meeting tonight, as I walked with Blaz trying (and failing) to catch up with someone who doesn't want to be mentioned on this blog, I had a realisation. Microsoft, in 31 years of its existance, has got to earning over 44 Billion US dollars a year by lying, cheating, and a huge swathe of unsavoury, antisocial and illegal business practices. In under a third of that time, Google has come to earning 6 Billion a year, while "doing no evil" and providing a service that just did exactly what people wanted.

Who says the good can't get ahead?

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Mon 14th Aug, 2006

Where are you when we need you, Richard Feynman?

Working at the ANU has its perks. You get a pipe to the internet so big that you can download an ISO image of a Linux distribution faster than you can burn it to a CD. You get to work in a place where the gardens are large and well cared for, and often you have a great view over them as you work. Especially in the research labs, you get great flexibility with when you work during the day. And (for me) it's close enough to ride to, so I can get a little more exercise.

There's a downside, though - you work in an academic environment. Now, scientists hold themselves up as a model of rationality and reasonability. It's all about peer review, open publication, and building on the work on others. No-one's idea has any more weight than anyone else's unless it can be proven. Scientists say they abhor professions like marketing, where the only important things is spin and image and branding. Scientists are always happy to be proved wrong, often by newcomers to the field, because if the new theory holds up then the great cause of Science is advanced.

This, I'm here to tell you, is absolute crap. Scientists are the cliqueiest[1] people in the campus, and they've built a heirarchy of students, lecturers, professors, deans and chancellors to prove it. The indoctrination starts early, with undergrads being given the cold shoulder by many senior academics who only want to work with more prestigious PhD students. You don't write a paper if your professor doesn't already think it's a good idea. Who gets to sit on what boards, and what weight there opinions are given, is a closely guarded privelege - most of these are invitation only. No-one asks too many questions when the Dean of Science, who gets to approve research grants to do with bioinformatics, sits on the board of a Biotech company. It's "perks for the heads" all the way.

If you need any further proof, ask yourself why some journals are given more credence than others. Yes, they have higher standards of publication, but those are only applied to newcomers - reviewers know better than to question too closely the work of the established names in the field. In order to publish, you have to sign an agreement that you're not getting anyone else to publish the work as well - so if you get rejected and decide later to get your paper published in a 'lesser' journal, you've just wasted six months of review process from the first journal. This makes no sense if the aim of Science is to publish the truth. Who reviews what for which journal is another closely-held, fiercely competitive status credit: a reviewer for "Nature" holds great power and prestige and knows it. The idea of a journal that just takes any paper regardless of who else is publishing it is actively laughed at.

Reviewers themselves often work anonymously - which, if you think about it, makes no sense in a field which says it doesn't have any ego to puncture. Often, your paper is being reviewed by people who not only have an opposite theory to support but are getting a lot of money in funding and lecture talks and corporate sponsorship from it. You can bet that they don't hold back the criticism. The amount of planning we've gone through to present some of our ideas, which are pretty radical breaks from the established conventional areas of research in molecular biology, is phenomenal - simply because a reviewer that doesn't think we're on the "right track" (i.e. their own track) and will just dismiss it out of hand as being "technically flawed". Good luck publishing when that happens.

(Maybe I should state here that this is stuff that I've picked up from working with the people here. I haven't experienced any of it directly, thank Buddha. But you can tell the signs are there.)

The more I look at the Open Source software development model, the more I wonder how much we've gone down that path. What cults of personality are their already? Whose opinions do we listen to merely because they're that person rather than because their technical analysis is correct? This is especially damaging in areas where the person has no technical experience - me giving opinions on correct kernel module design, for instance. Why, to pick a favourite bugbear of mine, do so many people say "Oh, but you've got to have two GUI systems to get competition" but they don't support the same principle for having two Linux kernels, or two networking stacks, or two slightly-incompatible versions of the OpenGL standard? How can we make sure we value ideas and principles and tests rather than opinions and preferences and whims?

[1]: hey, I just discovered another four-consecutive-vowel word!

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Fri 7th Jul, 2006

Make The Move - work in progress

This is now almost two weeks old, but I think it probably deserves something in the Heads-Up department to keep other people on the Planet Linux blogosphere amused, if nothing else.

Chris Smart (one of the men behind Kororaa), Rod Peters from the Canberra PC Users Group, and myself, gave a presentation at the CLUG meeting on the 22nd of June about an idea which grew out of a Programming SIG meeting on the 8th. Chris had the slogan "Make The Move" in his head as a promotional piece to get people to move from proprietary, closed-source operating systems to open, open-source ones like Linux, and we brainstormed for most of the session about how to get the word out, how to make it easy for people new to Linux to learn about it and get the most out if it. So we gave a presentation about this basic idea, talking about the various ways to get people interested and the ideas we had in mind to go beyond simple installfests to real promotion and after-'market' support and so forth. It's a deliberate, although light-hearted and hopefully enjoyable, attempt to augment the normally unashamedly technical CLUG meetings with a time and place where people new to Linux can still get together and Get Stuff Working.

(Rant about people who criticise me for not doing enough in front of the entire meeting, and then completely and magnificently fail to do anything, deleted. You hear me frothing at the mouth too much anyway.)

As part of this, Chris registered and put a wiki on it to start gathering ideas and stuff. And I've gradually, in between all the other things I've been doing, been putting text and ideas up on the wiki.

The idea is that is a storehouse of ideas and material to promote Linux in your area, and each LUG would customise it for their own methods and name. "LUV presents Make The Move", "SLUG presents", etc. etc. We're not really trying to duplicate other work such as ASK-OSS, Edubuntu, or many of the other efforts that I haven't time to think of right now. It's more a way for Linux Users Groups to get into the community.

That's the plan, anyway. Enjoy.

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Tue 11th Apr, 2006

Patent #666 - System And Method Of The Beast

I read Paul Graham's article on Software Patents. It's got a lot of good points and it discusses its ideas well. I definitely agree with him when he says that there's nothing special about a computer executing an algorithm and a Babbage Differential Engine executing the same algorithm in cogs and cams and rods and steam. But I do think that he's not actually correct on a few points.

Firstly, I disagree with him when he says that there's nothing special about an algorithm that makes it different from a device which implements that algorithm. Pretending that the 1800s was a backward time when people thought that algorithsm were special because they could be executed in people's heads is just Victorian fancy. There are two key differences: the most obvious is that the mechanism that's implementing an algorithm like the Sieve of Eratosthenes is often your brain, which is a general-purpose computing device. To say that your brain is a device which implements the Sieve of Eratosthenes is to get the cart before the horse. The other difference is that some algorithms, like the Sieve of Eratosthenes, are actually impossible to implement completely. You can make a program that carries out the Sieve of Eratosthenes on an array of numbers, but only the human mind (so far) can carry the concept that this applies to the infinity of whole numbers, something that's impossible to actually make out of paper and wheels and cogs. So an algorithm is (sometimes) a different thing from the thing that implements it.

Patents were devised in a time of increasing invention - the Industrial Revolution. They protected an invention - a type of razor or a better mousetrap or a combine harvester - from another company merely disassembling it, casting moulds from the parts, making up new parts and fitting it all back together again; it was (and still is) far cheaper to copy than to invent. Patents gave the inventor a limited time to make money to pay back their time spent perfecting the original device. And it would protect against a few easy tricks: making a few minor changes which didn't affect the workings.

In that, Paul Graham is right: what the patent actually does is to try encompass all the minor variations so that the original idea is protected. These ideas were, and still are, often areas where many years of research can go into their conception, development, testing and packaging. It shouldn't matter if you implement the algorithm in steel or wood or brass, six foot tall or three inches, in C or Java: the work you put in was in developing the algorithm, and the mechanism is relatively irrelevant.

But there's two big differences between software and hardware. The obvious is that to try and build a mechanism that could implement CSS in rods and levers and mechanical switches would require most of a room, would require a large steam engine to power, would make a lot of noise and would be almost impossible to maintain. Software is faster, cheaper, smaller, uses less power, easier to maintain and upgrade and is far more reliable. The other difference, which the RIAA and MPAA and BSAA would rather people forget, is that you can copy software with almost no effort, without harming the original, and the new copy does exactly what the old one did. It's the epitome of 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life.' - you can teach him without losing your own fish, too (relatively speaking).

Paul does point out that we're now at the stage where it takes a startup as long to receive a patent for the technology that they want to protect as to either succeed or fail as a company. But while it may be that some startups are made out of an experienced professional (software) engineer, a good idea, and an open field, and a patent flows forth naturally, this is not where all the patents come from. Most patents come from big organisations like Microsoft and IBM, who can afford to amortise the cost of expensive patent preparation across their organisation and against their existing money. Ironically, these patents are better defended - it's the small start-ups with patents in a new field which get bought up and scrapped for their patents by the patent trolls.

And this is what makes patents, especially software patents, such a bad idea. Not because the original intention of patents is bad, but because the whole system no longer protects the small garage inventor against the depredations of large companies, patent-troll or otherwise. It's now designed for big business, and all the patent reform proposed in the USA (under the banner of being good for small patents) is actually designed to make it easier for big companies to get more patents and protect the ones it has, and harder for a small company to protect itself against patent infringement by big business. Instead of having to actually front up in court, Microsoft will simply get its lawyers to label the patent infringement suit as a 'harrassment' suit and thus cost the small company even more. Fair? I think not.

This leads me back to where Paul doesn't seem to be looking at the same world that I see. He says, "I doubt Microsoft would ever be that stupid," (to attacking Linux on patent grounds). He thinks that good hackers care a lot about matters of principle, and "if a company starts misbehaving, smart people won't work there." This explains why Microsoft is probably the largest single hirer of programmers throughout the globe? Or are they not the smart ones? Or are they the unprincipled ones, writing viruses by night to infect the very operating system they work on by day. (You know, that'd explain a lot... :-)

No, sorry, Microsoft has been a corporate and industry bully for most of its corporate existence. It's systematically abused so many parts of the legal system, the ethics and morals of doing business, and the financial system, that you have to start listing them by category, or by decade. And all that time it's had programmers working for it; these programmers have been smart, well educated and at the very least on some fringe of the hacker culture. They'll be copying MP3 files and downloading movies and distributing copies of Windows, despite Microsoft's corporate statements against these practices. They're just trying to make a buck from doing what they love: cutting code; and they probably either buy the corporate line that Microsoft really does do what's best for everyone, or they just rationalise it: they're not responsible for what Microsoft Corporation does.

Paul leaves off another reason that I can think of that patents don't seem to matter much in software: that software patents haven't been allowed to exist up until very recently. I see it as somewhat ironic: when computers were big things and only big companies could afford them, the one thing that made a computer valuable (software) couldn't be patented. Now that patenting an algorithm can net you billions because millions are using computers everywhere, we no longer need to have big organisations with corporate dress policies in order to create top-quality, award-winning, faster-than-everyone- else-by-a-country-mile software. The Open Source Software movement is giving away not only software like OpenOffice, Gaim, Gimp and Inkscape; it's giving away algorithms like Ogg Vorbis and Theora. It's coming up with new ideas like Van Jacobsen's Modest Proposal at LCA 2006, or his solution to TCP/IP congestion in the 1990s, or new technologies like BitTorrent. Patents? Open Source don't need no steenkin' patents to survive. And, from Paul's description, it would seem that startup ventures don't need a patent before they can actually start doing something.

As Paul points out, the idea of protecting the inventor is only half the issue with patents. Thereafter, on the public record, you have information about how to do something better. Even before the patent 'expires' and allows people to use the idea directly, people can look at ideas and see what other people have done. They may come up with a better way to solve that problem, leapfrogging the old idea entirely. Paul talks about corporate knowledge, and secrecy within the corporation - as well as the "need to know" problem, the old idea of "Job Security Code" is relevant here.

I suppose I agree with his conclusion: that we can't just discard the patent system. Maybe we can ignore them, if as Paul says the only actual use of a software patent seems to be as a bargaining chip when being acquired. But the idea of having an entire, expensive system that is ignored for its actual original intended use seems absurd. By the time most of these patents expire and the world is free to use them, they'll be either ubiquitous or useless. And if they're primarily there to get big businesses to share that which they would otherwise keep secret, maybe we need a bit of a better mechanism than one which allows patent trolls to exist at all.

As an aside, I'd say that there's two other methods that big companies can employ to get rid of patent trolls, besides the one that Paul suggests. They both centre on removing the only mechanism by which patent trolling companies can exist: money. One is to fight them outright in the courts: get patents thrown out, sue them for deliberate harrassment, tie them up in legal battles like the one Microsoft threw at the DoJ (and at every other competitor that opposed them). The other is the whack-a-mole principle: create a lot of sock-puppet startups that look like they're abusing the patent troll's patents but then conveniently fold up or disappear as soon as the lawyers get near the final round. By the time the patent troll company has paid all its expensive staff for achieving nothing, they won't have anything left to fight the remaining battles. What happens to their precious assets then is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Duck And Cover, People!

When Pia makes an announcement for people to stop bringing their personal problems to the developer's table, my guilty instinct makes me wonder what I've done wrong. I hope nothing that I've written has made her say that; I feel too new to this blogging thing to be sure of my conduct. So I'm left wondering what's happened, and the gossip in me wants to hear the gory details... :-/

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Thu 6th Apr, 2006

What does 'Free' mean, again?

Pascal Klein notes the mixed reception to Linux from a bystander. I think you're right, Pascal, on the various reasons why 'free software' sounds like 'free phone' or 'free dinner' to most people. Indeed, 'free software' does still mean that there are some hidden terms and conditions: you have to be moderately competent at knowing about computer hardware and software, you have to know how to get help, and you have to be prepared to find out the hard way sometimes. I like to compare it to riding a bike: it may require a bit of training and you need a bit more safety equipment than before, but you can do a lot more and things that were long and tedious are now quick and fun.

(As an aside, I tend to play on people's paranoia at the point where they say "but can it save in Word format?" and so forth. I ask them if they trust Microsoft to always allow you to open your documents, and if they think it's possible that they would do something that means that you'd have to pay them more money to continue working. Or ask them if they like DVD Region encoding. This segues nicely into the freedom to access your stuff, when you want, how you want, which is what people want more than the flashy interface or noble principles or buzzwords.)

Pascal's comment on political parties delivering on their promises is also great food for thought. One thing that is determinedly ignored by the USA, Australia and Great Britain (und so weiter) is that the 'terrorists' are not doing their terrible deeds because they hate Democracy. They're doing it because they think that this is their way of highlighting their cause: in Osama bin Laden's case, it's the cause of a people that have been continually bashed to and fro by the USA and Israel. In my opinion, it's like fucking for virginity (to use the phrase), but I can understand the sentiment.

A long time ago, a guy who I would no longer call a friend was criticising the Aboriginal people in a community he'd heard of. They'd trashed the cars they'd been given, their houses were pigsties, and their children were badly clothed, underfed and uneducated. "They don't deserve any help at all!", this redneck declaimed. I tried to point out that all these 'gifts' may have been useless to them, or (worse) been tied to doing what the Government wanted; their rejection was the only form of social protest these people had, since they were in the middle of nowhere. This idea didn't get through, as you can imagine.

The Government, aided and abetted by the media, is happy portraying all Muslims as raving fanatics who want to convert everyone to Islam or death. It does so for the same reason that it calls people 'intellectuals'; 'the cafe latte set'; 'the chattering classes': to make us call us 'us' and them 'them'. The fact that there are raving fanatics who want the above dichotomy doesn't help set the balance straight. I'd say that any Government that tells you 'x' is 'evil' is as evil as they claim 'x' to be.

I promise not to rant on Politics so much any more...

(How appropriate: "Walking On Sunshine" by Katrina And The Waves just started playing on XMMS...)

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Wed 22nd Mar, 2006

Another Great Leap Forward for Stupidity and Ignorance

Kim Beazley is now proposing to censor all home internet connections unless one specifically opts out, apparently because there are stupid people on the internet that haven't the know-how to set up a firewall and teach their children about responsible internet usage. Because, let's face it: the internet is veritably awash with feelthy, feelthy stuff. You can't go to Wikipedia, Google or Yahoo these days without being bombarded with ads that make goatse look like a model of human interaction.

Yeah, right. The truth is that Beazley, in a desperate bid to find a platform that he can criticise Howard on, is beating the pornography drum good and hard (ooh, the double entendre!). The truth is that it's just as easy to find bad role models in our own homes as it is by being sent links to or whatever. Tackle the social, moral and ethical issues before you tackle the technology. Most internet filters don't work, most children know how to get around the ones that even pretend to work, and if you're just assuming that this filtering is going to replace a balanced and responsible view on how to treat other people, you're kidding yourself.

I'm not denying that there are people who don't know how to protect their children from internet problems. I set up a computer for a friend in Melbourne that, when I returned in three months, had been comprehensively rooted by her ten-year-old son trying to download all sorts of questionable software from dodgy sites. I installed ZoneAlarm. He found that he could just get what he wanted by clicking 'Allow' on every alert it popped up. I wasn't in a position to either teach him what to trust and what not to, or to just take it all away and say "you only use the internet with me to help you". And his mother, nice though she is, was never going to be able to keep up. So maybe I'm part of the problem and not the solution.

And I am definitely a Labour supporter. I just think they've gone off the rails. Labour in Australia are more Liberal than the Nationals, in Labour's misguided attempt to appeal to the majority of Australians who think that Labour is blue-collar and that they're white collar. To my shame, I know blue-collar people who vote Liberal because they think that Labour isn't offering what they want. Liberal isn't, but because they feel betrayed, they've changed sides. And Howard does have an excellent line in Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt coupled with We Offer What You Want that would make Microsoft proud. It's hard not to buy into the bullshit sometimes.

Enough ranting. On with the working.

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