Archive for the ‘Technogeekery’ Category
WC has actually met John Warnock. He’s the co-founder of Adobe Systems. It was at one of the early MacWorld Expositions. He was co-presenting Adobe’s latest version of PostScript, the computer language for printing and graphics pioneered by Apple in the LaserWriter printers. Warnock was the CEO of Adobe then, and also one its primary programmers, Chief Technician and apparently the head of marketing. He was more than happy to help WC solve a thorny PostScript programming problem, and to talk about why PostScript was written in RPN (to differentiate it from InterPress, an earlier product he had developed at Xerox).
Warnock went on to become a zillionaire, as Adobe swallowed other startups and substituted acquisitions for creativity. Instead of writing its own desktop layout program, Adobe bought Aldus and acquired (and killed) PageMaker. Instead of developing its own long document software, Adobe acquired Frame Technology and FrameMaker (and killed it). You can see a pattern. WC remained annoyed for several years after Adobe killed FrameMaker for the Macintosh and GoLive, WC’s favorite web development program.
Instead of keeping its products affordable, and selling lots and lots of copies, Adobe raised the prices of its software to truly breath-taking, credit card-melting levels. An “unbundled” copy of the current version of Photoshop is now $700, more than the cost of a quite good computer.
Adobe didn’t stop there. Adobe pioneered software “bundling,” mixing together desirable products (PhotoShop, Illustrator) with its clunkers) and setting price points that coerced customers to pay more than they wanted and take stuff they didn’t want to get the stuff they did. It annoyed customers, especially individual users, but it made a ton of money for Adobe.
Adobe is now pioneering another “new” way to suck money out of its customers: subscription-based software licenses. You pay, say, $50 a month for the privilege of using some of Adobe’s products. The moment you stop paying, you lose the ability to use the product. Oh, it has a fancy name, “Creative Cloud,” but it’s really just a way to extort more money from its customer base.
Apparently, being a zillionaire isn’t enough any more. You have to be a multi-zillionaire.
You can read the
excuses explanations in a press release disguised as a news story, if you have a strong stomach. The piracy bugaboo gets dragged out. There are truly bizarre discussions of “episodic income,” as if that were a problem beyond the skills of financial planners.
Monthly licensing fees aren’t really new, of course. They go back to the bad old days of minicomputers, where you paid IBM through the nose for the privilege of running its poorly-performing software on hardware only it could sell you. Monthly licensing fees were a primary force leading to the microcomputer revolution. John Warnock and the greedy shirts at Adobe have already forgotten that.
It’s WC’s fond hope that, even as he writes this screed, smart young programmers – some of them recent Adobe employees – are writing the code for a newer and better Photoshop. You know. Like Warnock did. Before he became a greedy shirt.
WC is an Apple Fanboy, and has owned nothing but Macintosh computers since 1984. But at one point, in an effort to get decent internet service at his home from an internet service provider who only supported Windows, WC flirted with buying a Windows box.
So WC went into Best Buy some years ago and bought a Dell. It was still in the box as WC rolled it out to his car. It fell off the cart, so WC opened the box to see if everything was okay. The big box had a smaller box in it filled with bricks. WC turned around and went right back into the store. WC showed them the box of bricks. The Best Buy staff thanked WC for being honest and not taking a system that was better than what WC had paid for. They replaced it with two cinder blocks.
Okay, it’s not true, and the story is shamelessly stolen from WC’s buddy Tom Dillon. But it summarizes perfectly WC’s attitude towards the Windows operating system and the hardware it runs on.
Americans are terrible at judging risk. For example, some parents believe that vaccinations in children carries a risk of inducing autism in their children. The science is pretty clear that there is no evidence that exposure to anti-body stimulating vaccines during a child’s first two years creates a risk of developing autism. A study published this month in The Journal of Pediatrics is pretty clear.
To evaluate the association between autism and the level of immunologic stimulation received from vaccines administered during the first 2 years of life.
We analyzed data from a case-control study conducted in 3 managed care organizations (MCOs) of 256 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 752 control children matched on birth year, sex, and MCO. In addition to the broader category of ASD, we also evaluated autistic disorder and ASD with regression. ASD diagnoses were validated through standardized in-person evaluations. Exposure to total antibody-stimulating proteins and polysaccharides from vaccines was determined by summing the antigen content of each vaccine received, as obtained from immunization registries and medical records. Potential confounding factors were ascertained from parent interviews and medical charts. Conditional logistic regression was used to assess associations between ASD outcomes and exposure to antigens in selected time periods.
The aOR (95% CI) of ASD associated with each 25-unit increase in total antigen exposure was 0.999 (0.994-1.003) for cumulative exposure to age 3 months, 0.999 (0.997-1.001) for cumulative exposure to age 7 months, and 0.999 (0.998-1.001) for cumulative exposure to age 2 years. Similarly, no increased risk was found for autistic disorder or ASD with regression.
In this study of MCO members, increasing exposure to antibody-stimulating proteins and polysaccharides in vaccines during the first 2 years of life was not related to the risk of developing an ASD.
In fact, there are no credible scientific studies which document an autism risk with childhood vaccinations. Of course, not being vaccinated carries a risk of infection by childhood diseases that have a known fatality rate. Those known fatality rates are orders of magnitude higher than the minuscule chance of error in the new study.
So why do parents hesitate to vaccinate their kids?
Psychologist Paul Slovic, in a classic 1987 article, championed the idea of risk perception theory. The theory examines the particular approaches and biases people invent to interpret the amount of risk in their environment. Slovic’s article is heavy going, packed with psychological jargon. At the risk of simplification, WC would describe it this way: People tend to be intolerant of risks that they perceive as being uncontrollable, having catastrophic potential, having fatal consequences, or bearing an inequitable distribution of risks and benefits. The higher a hazard scores on these factors, the higher its perceived risk and the more people want to see the risk reduced, leading to calls for stricter regulation.
Slovic compares the risk of nuclear accidents with the risk of automobiles. Because, say, nuclear energy scores high in Slovic’s risk aversion criteria, people fear it, even though in these post-Chernobyl, post-Japanese tsunami days, death by automobiles is three or four orders of magnitude greater. Automobiles, by contrast, are more familiar, the risk seems both familiar and knowable. So a lower risk phenomenon (nuclear energy) actually induces much more fear than a higher risk activity (driving an automobile). The critical thing to understand about Slovic’s theory is that reassuring the public that nuclear energy is safe won’t reduce the perceived risk. At best, it nibbles away at just the fourth of the four factors.
Perhaps that’s what is happening with early childhood vaccinations. Granted that idiots like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN) contribute to the confusion with their ignorant prattle. Perhaps because autism is so scary, and science doesn’t understand well what causes it, and because it can be so devastating, the reaction is unthinking aversion. Like automobile drivers, they incorrectly assess the risk to their children of not getting vaccinations.
Slovic argues that risk assessment and management is a two-way street: just as the public should take experts’ assessments of risk into account, so should experts respect the various factors, from cultural to emotional, that result in the public’s perception of risk. But in a society where, reportedly, nearly half of Americans reject evolution, achieving the first “street” is going to be terribly difficult.
At a time when pertussis – whooping cough – is killing Alaska children, this is not an abstract issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a patent lawsuit Monday. As the SCOTUS considers whether to grant patent protection to isolated genes, perhaps it can also consider the consequences of granting patents.
You’ve probably never heard of MPHJ Technologies. But if you own a scanner, MPHJ Technologies thinks you owe it $1,000 for the privilege of using the scanner. Ars Technica has an excellent article on the latest legal leech on information technology.
Joe Mullin, the author of the piece, traces the history of the underlying patent claims and the over-the-top marketing scheme used by the anonymous owners of the patent claims to extort money from small businesses. A sample:
Mac Rust is one of a few lawyers who gets certain “territories” of the MPHJ patent scheme. A person who had a conversation with Rust in January about alleged violations of the MPHJ patents—I’ll call the source Mr. Smith—gave Ars a recording of his phone call. The recording was made with Rust’s knowledge.
In the call, the confused Mr. Smith starts out by telling Rust he can scarcely believe what is happening. “Just to reiterate, my home printer—if I scan to e-mail, it’s an option on my Hewlett-Packard printer—I do that, I owe you money?” asks Smith.
“If you said you hooked it up to the Internet, and in one button, you can scan and e-mail directly out—yes, you have violated the patent that we own,” says Rust.
That means millions of Americans owe Rust’s anonymous client money. But Smith seemed overly focused on his personal behavior, with his home printer. Individuals aren’t the intended target, Rust explains.
“We’ve been trying to do what we can to focus on businesses that have 10 or more employees,” says Rust. “But look, it’s not perfect. All our information is not exactly perfect. That’s why we send a letter to ask you certain questions.”
What Mullins described is the nation’s first patent troll franchise. He makes it sound like in various regions of the country shell businesses are set up and hire hungry – maybe desperate – intellectual property lawyers, who then receive a partial license of the claimed patent and attempt enforcement in that region. Doubtlessly for a suitable franchise fee. MPHJ still hasn’t filed any lawsuits, at least not that WC can find, but if this sick variation on MacDonalds is to work, that has to happen. Target companies have reported getting copies of “draft complaints” in the last several weeks.
WC has vanishingly low expectations of the current Congress. But patent reform is becoming increasingly urgent. As MPHJ Technologies is making clear.
In the Internet Age, all that stands between you and the seeming hordes of internet thieves is your password. Identity theft, drained bank accounts, maxed out credit cards and worse; the only thing that guards against those evil outcomes is the difficulty the crooks have in guessing your password. You’d think we would all give more thought and care to the creation and protection of our passwords. You’d be wrong.
In the last five years or so, password-guessing algorithms have been developed that have ferocious power. You can find algorithms on the web that can break any random nine letter password in a maximum of 5.5 hours. That’s a maximum, not an average.
But wait, you say. If I don’t get bank account password right on three tries, I’m locked out of trying for an hour. If I don’t get my Facebook password right, I’m challenged by a hard to read series of letter I have to type in to make another try. How, you ask, does a password-guessing algorithm get around that?
The answer, of course, is that the password-guess program is running behind the firewall. It’s attacking from the computer where the passwords are stored. Because they are stored in a highly encrypted file, there’s not much change the database of passwords can be cracked directly. But when it is the CPU talking directly to the CPU, the password-guessing program can make billions of guesses per second.
The problem is compounded because too many of us use the same password in multiple places. So when the thief gets your password to, say, Amazon they automatically get you password to all the other sites you use.
What to do?
Well, you could just live in a cave some where and not use the internet. It would be inconvenient, you’d miss a lot of cool stuff, but you’d be safe.
Or, you can follow WC’s handy rules for password security.
It’s all about password entropy, password security and using password tools.
Password entropy is a cryptography term for how hard something is to guess. It’s a combination of the length of the password (the number of characters), the number of characters that compose the password (the number of possible characters) and the ordering of the characters (the sequence of the characters). Password entropy is illustrated brilliantly by XKCD:
Length of a password is the easiest factor for a user to control. And, as Munroe shows, much more difficult to crack. So the first tip is to use random words, which are easier to remember, but use a strong of them, which is harder for a computer to guess. Maximize entropy by using a long password. Remember, the password-guessing program doesn’t know that you are only using lowercase, alphabetic letters. It’s throwing the full QWERTY keyboard at them. There’s a number of sites that can evaluate password strength. This one gives some pretty good detail (and demonstrates just how quickly computers can analyze these things).
The second tip is password security. Never use the same password twice, if you can possibly help it. And avoid variants. The password-guessing programs have figured out and been adjusted to handle the use of embedding the service name in your password. WC used to use “correct amazon battery staple” for Amazon and “correct facebook battery staple” for Facebook and so on. But once the algorithm has your password for one site, it’s trained to test the trick on other sites.
If you want to avoid having the bad guys get the keys to all of your on-line goodies, it’s important to use a different strong password for each secure website you use.
But, you say, how can I ever memorize and keep straight a dozen or more passwords. That’s the third tip. There are excellent password management tools out there. At the risk of sounding like an advertising slogan, there’s an app for that. Find one that works for you, that stores your database of passwords in an encrypted form with convenient links to the sites you want to access. And never, never use the password to your password storage application anywhere else on the web.
Does WC need to tell you to back the password vault up? Didn’t think so.
This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of quasars. Not the 50th anniversary of quasars; the objects themselves are unimaginably old. But it’s been fifty years since astronomer Maarten Schmidt figured it out.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, radio telescopes had identified objects in the sky that were very, very bright in the radio wave part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but apparently invisible as visible light. In 1960, one of those strong radio sources, 3C 48, was linked to a faint blue star. Using the 200 inch Mt. Palomar telescope, state of the art in the day, astronomers obtained the spectrum of that faint, blue “star.”
It didn’t match the spectrum of any known object in the sky. It was Maarten Schmidt who figured it out: the object was moving away from the earth at a significant fraction of light speed, and its spectrum was redshifted.
Basically, the effect is the same as the familiar Doppler Effect at a train crossing. As a high speed train approaches, the horn sounds higher; as it passes, the tone drops lower then if it were at rest. The velocity of the train affect the sound; the velocity of the quasar as it raced away from earth was affecting the color if its light.
The top line is from a star at rest with relation to the spectroscope. The following four lines show luminous objects at increasing velocities. In each line, the right-most spike, at 6552 Angstroms at rest, shifted to higher and higher frequencies. In the bottommost line, it has moved to 9225 Angstroms.
It was Maarten Schmidt’s insight that the Object EC 48 had a normal hydrogen spectrum shifted dramatically to the right; that it was moving away from us at great speed. And that insight came 50 year ago. In fact, 3C 48 wasn’t a star at all; it was an entire galaxy, so far away that it appeared star-like.
Since then, further research has determined just how amazing quasars really are. They are extraordinarily far away, some more then 29 billion lightyears distant. Which also means they are extraordinarily old; the oldest known objects in the universe, in fact. And they are astonishingly bright. Some quasars burn with thousands of times the energy of the entire Milky Way galaxy, and yet are only one or two light years across.
Current thinking has the quasars as super-massive black holes, consuming the galaxies that surround them. It’s the only energy source known to science that can produce sufficient power to explain what is observed. The brightest quasars are consuming galactic mass at the rate of about 600 earths per day.
Quasars had another effect, too: they made us realize the universe was an order of magnitude older and several orders of magnitude larger than we had known. From the Biblical center of the universe, a few thousand years old, humanity had receded to an infinitesimally tiny speck in an unimaginably vast universe, old beyond our powers to conceive. It’s another example of an astonishing revolution in WC’s own lifetime. Very cool.
One of the blogs WC reads regularly is Maria Popova’s highly regarded Brain Pickings. Unsurprisingly, WC enjoys the eclectic charter of her writing and admires her unashamed scholarship. WC mentions Popova because she recently tweeted out:
Done! I've just declared email bankruptcy on my inbox of (formerly) 7,487 unread emails & am implementing this system: http://t.co/kEi9lw0s
That’s one way of dealing with your email, WC supposes. A bit harsh to your correspondents, you’ll have to admit. The term isn’t original with Popova. It’s variously attributed to Lawrence Lessig (2004) and Dr. Sherry Turkle (2002).
That’s certainly one of the ways to deal with an overflowing email inbox, but it might not be the most honest. Or the safest. WC respectfully suggests there may be other, fairer and more prudent ways to manage the digital avalanche.
Can we start by forthrightly recognizing that the problem isn’t email. It’s you. To paraphrase Joe Kindler, the world’s obesity problem isn’t the fault of food, and the world’s debt problem isn’t the fault of money. Your email problems aren’t the fault of email as a communications system, and they’re probably not even the fault of the software tools you’re using. It’s easy to pick on email because it can’t fight back. But the real problem for most folks who feel their email is out of control is that they haven’t taken responsibility for figuring out why the problem exists for them and how to change their habits to address it. Managing email does require self-discipline, and an ability to prioritize and focus.
Email isn’t unique in this way; the same could be said of Twitter overload or Facebook overload, for example. But at least in the case of social networking services, you get to decide who will send you messages, and there’s no technological barrier (even if there is a psychological one) to “unfollowing” someone on Twitter or “unfriending” someone on Facebook. It’s just that with email, the solutions may be less obvious and the stakes may be somewhat higher.
Admittedly, changing email habits is hard, like changing your eating habits. How many people do you know who have tried one diet after another — with the very best intentions and perhaps even encouraging results — only to find that after weeks or months or years, they slip back into their old ways?
Email overload is not a trivial thing to deal with. But people have successfully and definitively dealt with it, and, at the risk of sounding like a cheesy self-help book, WC thinks you can, too. Before you can do that, however, you have to accept that you alone have the responsibility to make email work for you. If you’re waiting for the right app or service to come along and magically fix it for you, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re going to just let the stuff accumulate, unread and unmanaged, you’re going to end up like Maria Popova.
The system WC has used for more than 15 years works — for WC. The inbox rarely has more than a handful of unread messages in it, and it’s usually completely read when WC goes to bed. WC doesn’t feel anxious or overwhelmed by email, even though WC receives 200-300 messages every day. Many of them demand immediate action. WC’s law clients will sometimes send a second email an hour after the first, asking why WC hasn’t acted on their first message. Years ago, WC sat down and thought about the kinds of messages he receives and what he needed to do in order to dispose of them quickly and efficiently. Based on that, WC came up with a method that works for him.
1. Manage Spam. By some accounts, spam accounts for 97% of all email. In the digital arms race between spammers and spam control tools, the tools may currently have a slight advantage. But not unless you use them. Most email applications (Outlook, Mail) have built-in spam management tools. Learn how to use them and implement them. If you have a web-based email system (Yahoo, Gmail) study and implement the tools they provide. If you still get a lot of spam, take a look at third party spam management tools like C-Command’s excellent SpamSieve, which employs sophisticated tactics to separate the junk from the important stuff.
2. Opt Out. Pretty much every on-line purchase invites you to let them send you emails. It’s usually a little checkbox on the purchase screen, conveniently pre-checked. Root them out. If you are already getting advertisements from a site when you made a purchase, unsubscribe. Legitimate retailers always tell in the email how to unsubscribe.
3. Talk to Your Friends. WC has well-meaning friends who insist on forwarding him jokes, urban legends, political outrages and cute photos of puppies and kittens. Tell them to stop. You can do it politely, at least the first time. If they don’t stop, study the rules for your email application or web-based email system on blacklisting individuals.
4. Use Auto Replies. Those clients who check every hour to see if you’ve gotten their email? When WC is working on a long project that doesn’t permit interruptions, he’ll set up an auto-reply. It’s the tool you use on vacation to tell your correspondents you’re out. You can write a response that you just leave up for a few hours, too. It might take a minute to write and enable it, but if it saves you 20 interruptions, you’re way ahead.
5. Handle the Easy Stuff Immediately. If a message can be answered in a 30 second reply, do so immediately. Reading it again later wastes time. This takes some self-discipline, but the sense of progress is palpable.
6. Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize. WC’s email application allows WC to attach priorities to messages with a single keystroke as he reads them. You may have a similar feature, or you may have to create one using a mail filing system. This skimming process allows you to review without having to reply, but makes the most efficient use of the time it takes to read.
7. Consider Using Multiple Accounts. Wait, you say, my problem is too many emails and you want me to create a channel for more? Yes, but intelligently. WC has an address for his photography business he uses for nothing else; an address he uses for social correspondence; an address for his law practice; even an address for email involving Wickersham’s Conscience. If you are careful about not distributing the wrong addresses, you get an automatic sorting system. WC knows that email in the WC account is never urgent. Sometimes you will have to ask someone to use a different address. And, again, it requires some self-discipline to avoid using a business account for a social purpose.
8. Dealing Sensibly with Mailing Lists. WC subscribes to a few mailing lists, ranging from Terry Pratchett to Macintosh computers to hot topics in geology. Use a different address (Gmail addresses are free, after all) for mailing lists, and exercise self-dispcipline and don’t read them until you have completed the important stuff.
Learning to use these tools to manage email may involve things that feel painful. It may be painful.
Perhaps you’ll have to follow all of WC’s suggestions, or none of them. That’s not for WC to say. You get to decide what your actual goal is. Maybe having an empty inbox is irrelevant to you and it’s not a good measure of whether you’re in control of your email. But in any case, if your current approach isn’t working for you, the one thing you mustn’t do is shift the blame to email as a medium or to an imperfect email app. If you have too much email, it’s your problem; own up to it and set out to manage it.
WC wrote about challenges facing experimental physics back in November 2011; there were some indications that physics might be moving into the a paradigm shift, a kind of scientific revolution that periodically rattles accepted theories. WC will briefly revisit those issues then a note a new, possibly issue that has arisen.
There were four observational results not easily addressed by current theories of physics back in November 2011.
First, there was the discovery over the last decade that dark matter and dark energy constitute something like 96% of the apparent mass of the universe, but we can’t see or interact with the dark stuff. Physics hasn’t found a way out of that conundrum yet, although there are some aspects of string theory that are interesting. So mark that one as unresolved.
Second, there is the observation that the universe is not only still expanding, but the rate of expansion is accelerating. Some form of dark energy is making the universe get larger faster. The word “strange” seems so inadequate in this context. No progress there, either.
Third, the Higgs Boson was found, lurking in the statistical weeds, so to speak, as WC reported earlier. The discovery was a triumph for high energy physics and hight speed computing. Too bad it happened in Europe at the CERN instead of at the abandoned superconducting supercollider in the United States. But regardless of patriotism, it was a massive triumph for the predictive power of science and the theories of quantum chromodynamics.
And lastly, those neutrinos that were thought to have exceed the speed of light, the universal speed limit? Turns out to be observational error. Probably.
Which takes us to the newest conundrum. Protons, of course, are part of what makes up the stuff a the center of every atom. The simplest atom is a hydrogen atom: just one proton and one electron. The structure of a hydrogen atom was thought to be pretty well understood. Among the things known was the apparent diameter of a proton, about 0.88 femtometers. A femtometer, for those who are still following along, is 10 to the -15 power meters – 0.0000000000000001 meters. Very, very tiny indeed.
A team led by Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute created a different kind of hydrogen atom. They substituted a muon for the electron in a single hydrogen atom. A muon is in the same elementary particle family as an electron, and has the same electrical charge, but it weighs 207 times as much as an electron. This was a tricky business, because a muon decays to a smorgasbord of elementary particles and energy in just two-millionths of a second. But before that happened, the Scherrer Institute folks measured the diameter of the proton in their cobbled together muonic hydrogen atom.
And it was different. Not a lot different, 0.84 femtometers, but different.
There is no theory of physics to account for the difference. It doesn’t seem to be experimental error, and the difference is statistically significant.
Now quantum physics is famously weird, and the Pauli Exclusionary Principle teaches us to be careful about what we think we observe in the quantum realm. But even for quantum physics, this is seriously strange.
Most serious theoretical physicists will tell you that the most thrilling thing they can do is prove a theory is wrong. The next few years of physics could be thrilling.
Patent trolls are leeches on the economics of technological growth. They contribute nothing to technology, suck the economic blood from their victims, and are difficult to eradicate. Especially in some of the swamps of the internet. WC has criticized these miserable parasites before. But, for once, there’s a bit of good news in the Patent Troll Wars.
Before we look at the good news, WC will try to answer a question from a couple of correspondents last year: why should you care about patent trolls? There are two parts to the answer: first, the settlements they attempt to extort from victims add to the cost of doing business. If a patent troll extorts a settlement under which they get 1% of every transaction on Amazon,for example, that royalty comes out of your pocket. Second, it’s corrupt. In a very real sense, victims of patent trolls are paying protection money to avoid the expense of litigation. Extortion dressed up as intellectual property rights is still extortion, and still corrupt.
Which takes WC to Soverain Software v. NewEgg. Soverain bought three patents that had been handed through a series of transactions. While Soverain’s web page makes it look like a real company with real products, in fact it is a patent troll and has done nothing but extort money from on-line retailers under color of those three patents over the last decade. Because the three patents at issue purported to grant patent protection for digital shopping carts, the place where you virtually store your digital purchases before checking out. Soverain’s business model, if the phrase can be stretched that far, was to demand payment from anyone using a virtual shopping cart. It extorted a reported $40 million from Amazon.com. It had lawsuits going against dozens of other retailers, including Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Home Depot, RadioShack, and Kohl’s. Ars Technica has a nice chart summarizing some of those lawsuits.
NewEgg is a successful on-line computer hardware and software store. It uses digital shopping carts, just like almost every other on-line digital store. Soverain claimed the use infringed on its three patents. Soverain demanded $34 million and a 1% royalty on all sales. But NewEgg’s corporate policy is to never, ever pay money to a patent troll.
NewEgg forced Soverain to trial. The jury returned a mixed verdict but, critically, the trial judge wouldn’t let the jury consider NewEgg’s claims. The jury didn’t get to decide if, as NewEgg claimed, the three patents were invalid as obvious and prior art. If the patents were invalid, then Soverain had no claim for infringement. NewEgg appealed.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit – the primary appellate court for intellectual property cases – rejected all of Soverain’s claims, and determined all three of its patents were invalid. NewEgg doesn’t owe Soverain a dime.
What made Soverain especially objectionable was that it was at least partially owned by lawyers, including Katherine Wolanyk, a former Latham & Watkins attorney who was a co-founder and partial owner of Soverain. WC finds it distasteful when lawyers live down to the world’s expectations.
Serious props to NewEgg for fighting the good fight, and congratulations on winning. For more information, read Ars Technica’s fine article.
Can we all agree the rules are stupid?
We are all made to shut down our digital toys before they close the door on our passenger jet. Never mind that a hearing aid probably generates more radio interference. Never mind that the pilot is using an iPad for checklists, navigation and probably texting his or her spouse. Never mind that most passengers can already recite the silly flight attendant sermon.
It’s absolutely true that the FAA hasn’t advanced a single credible reason for the prohibition on their use below 10,000 feet. Seriously, if they interfere with navigation then flying through the clouds at 10,000 feet is counterindicated. If you think WC is being harsh, read Nick Bilton’s essay in the New York Times.
But it’s still the rule.
It is utterly uncivil, supremely selfish, for one clod to continue chat on his or her cell phone, or play solitaire, or listen to tunes, while the other 120 passengers wait.
And egocentric, egoistic, egomaniacal, egotistic, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-concerned, self-interested, self-involved, self-seeking, self-serving, pompous, conceited, narcissistic, self-affected, self-applauding, self-conceited, self-concentered, self-indulgent, self-loving, stuck-up and vainglorious.
Does the jerk think his conversation with his brother is so important that it justifies annoying and inconveniencing everyone else of the aircraft. Is it really that important? It’s not about the illogic of the rules. We agree they are stupid. It’s about recognizing that you telephone conversation, your game, your tunes just might not be the most important thing on the aircraft.
Yes, we need to change the rule. The FAA has announced it will study the issue. But it hasn’t announced a time frame for a decision.
But can we bring a degree of civility to air travel in the meantime?
WC’s brother gave Mrs. WC a telephoto lens attachment for the her iPhone. This is a photo of the back of the box.
Sure, WC’s Chinese is even worse than this English, but then WC doesn’t try to market goods in China with Babblefish translations.
Linn Nygaard is an Amazon UK customer. Or at least she was. She travels a lot and had a lot of books on her Kindle, purchased from Amazon. Suddenly, her Kindle was wiped and her account was closed. She sent an e-mail to Amazon, asking for help. This was the answer:
Dear Linn Nygaard,
My name is Michael Murphy and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk. One of our mandates is to address the most acute account and order problems, and in this capacity your account and orders have been brought to my attention.
We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been cancelled.
Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.
Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.
You may direct any questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your attention to this email.
Executive Customer Relations
But Nygaard only had one account at Amazon. Surely there was some mistake. Amazon simply refused to explain. Her purchased digital books were gone. Her Amazon account was closed. And she could not get any explanation.
WC has a substantial number of books in his home. Some few have purchased from Amazon. Can you imagine Amazon breaking into WC’s house to “repossess” books because WC broke some rule in Amazon’s pages-long contract? Neither can WC. But Amazon feels free to reach into your home and erase books you have purchased from your Kindle. Without warning. Refusing to explain why.
Suddenly, those old-fashioned paper-based books are looking a lot more attractive.
Now Nygaard may or may not have broken Amazon’s rules. There may or may not have been an “abuse of policies.” There’s so much fine print in the average End User license Agreement (“EULA) that it’s impossible not to violate some clause or other, as Cory Doctorow notes. Or it might be that Nygaard has done nothing at all. We don’t know because Amazon won’t say. WC joins other bloggers in inviting Amazon to explain. But so far it hasn’t.
The blogosphere has been all over this issue. There’s been considerable backlash against Amazon.
Which may be why suddenly, without notice, Ms. Nygaard’s books were restored to her Kindle. Afterwards, Ms. Nygaard received a telephone call, purportedly from Amazon. “I hadn’t heard anything from Amazon about this, except that I got a very strange phone earlier from someone with a hidden number,” she said. “They claimed that they worked in Amazon.co.uk and would give me a new Kindle, but they would not talk to me about my account.”
And no apology.
So WC will stay with his old-fashioned, clunky books. WC’s technogeek friends mock him for being old fashioned. But at least the books won’t vanish at some giant corporation’s whim. Without notice or explanation. With no right to appeal.
NB. WC sent an email to Amazon asking for comment on this post. There’s been no response.
Patents are supposed to encourage innovation and we’re starting to be in a world where they might start to stifle innovation. Governments may need to look at the patent system and see if those laws need to be modified because I don’t think some of these battles are healthy for society.
- Jeff Bevos, President and CEO, Amazon
When Jeff Bevos, who asserted a dubious patent himself on Amazon’s “one-click” web purchasing tool starts to worry that the patent system is broken, you know the problem has to be serious. It is.
“Patent assertion entities” (PAEs), or sometimes “non-practicing entities” (NPEs) are the politically correct term for patent trolls.. The PAE business model focuses not on developing or commercializing patented inventions but on buying and asserting patents, often against firms that have already begun using the claimed technology after developing it independently, unaware of the PAE patent.
Patent trolls generated at least $29 billion in revenues from defendants and licensees in 2011, a 400 percent increase over $7 billion in 2005. The costs to those defendants and licensees are deadweight, with less than 25 percent flowing to support innovation and at least that much going towards legal fees. Critics assert that they undermine the purposes of patent law – promoting innovation by providing incentives to invest in development and commercialization of inventions – and unnecessarily injure companies that play a vital role in the American economy.
The patent troll business model looks a lot like the classic shakedown:
According to one empirical study, [patent trolls] lose 92 percent of merits judgments, but few cases make it that far. The vast majority end in settlements because litigation is risky, costly, and disruptive for defendants, and PAEs often offer to settle for amounts well below litigation costs to make the business decision to settle an obvious one.
Patent troll claims are dramatically increasing. In contrast, patent claims by operating companies, companies that actually use the patents involved, are in decline.
Patent troll cases rarely got to trial; overwhelmingly, they settle early. And that’s because they set the settlement price below the cost of litigation. They are classic nuisance suits, except that if you are trying yo develop a business plan to attract venture capital, these lawsuits are an absolute nightmare.
And, in fact, when you scratch down into the data, that’s pretty much the case. In a study by Lex Machina, Inc., published in the Social Science Research Network, it found:
A random sample of 500 cases from 2007-‐2011 suggests that the impact of patent monetization entities on patent litigation is both dramatic and growing across time. We note in particular that lawsuits filed by patent monetizers have increased from 22 percent of the cases filed to almost 40 percent of the cases filed, and that the increase has occurred in only five years.
We also note that of the five litigants who filed the most patent infringement claims in the period covered by the data, four were monetizers and only one was an operating company. On the opposite end of the spectrum, universities barely registered on the scale, filing only 0.2 percent of the lawsuits in our sample.
Finally, the data also show that cases filed by patent monetization entities were unlikely to advance very far in the trial process and generally settled early in the litigation. The numbers of cases of any type proceeding to final disposition are small, however, making reliable conclusions impossible to draw.
Granted the Congress is dysfunctional to the point of absurdity, but this should be an issue where both liberals and neocons can both be enthusiastic and accomplish a bit of good. Reform is badly needed before the patent trolls bring American innovation to its knees. It needs to be done sometime. Why not now?
Legend has it that in Judge Roy Bean‘s courtroom everyone was entitled to a trial before they were hung. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Congress has dispensed entirely with the matter of a trial and moved straight to the hanging. And the rate of digital hangings in increasing at a prodigious rate.
The DMCA Title II allows copyright holders or their agents to demand that web content that infringes on their copyrights be removed, so called “takedown notices.” In the case of content hosts (like your internet service provider) and search engines (like Google or Bing), they can avoid liability by removing the content or removing the link to the content, a so-called “safe harbor.” There are statutory procedures for counter demands that content be restored, as well. And the form of all of these notices is also mandated by statute.
But this is the digital age, and before you could say “Microsoft” a whole crowd of digital rent-a-cops had sprung up, in the business of hiring themselves out to find and slap down copyright infringement. The copyright rent-a-cops wrote software to troll the Intertubes, looking for suspicious activity, and completely automated the process of sending takedown notices. The results were predictable.
Google tracks the number of takedown notices it receives each week. Here’s the chart as of October 9, 2012:
Since mid-year, there has been an explosion in the number of takedown notices. Google alone has had 6.9 million in the past month. And this explosion in copyright infringement claims has occurred at a time when even the RIAA admits illegal copying is declining.
Now the practical effect of this is that it is impossible for Google or anyone else to evaluate the merits of a takedown notice. The burden shifts to the target of the notice, who must make a counter demand. So if one of these attack dogs sends Google a takedown notice on your web site, claiming your content infringes on their copyright, whether or not the claim is true, Google, to protect itself, may well remove your site from its search results. You can make your own demand back to Google, but Google, to stay in the “safe harbor,” has to wait ten days to see if the internet rent-a-cops do anything in response before it can return your site to good standing. If the copyright claimant sends a takedown notice to your ISP, you’re not only out of the search engines; your web site doesn’t have a digital existence.
That’s what WC meant by skipping from the accusation to the hanging, without troubling with a trial along the way.
Now all of that would be bad enough if the copyright rent-a-cops were careful about their takedown demands but, apparently, they get paid for the number of tickets issued, not the number of people caught speeding. Their algorithms for detecting copyright violations are laughably bad.
Let’s do a case study. Let’s pick, say, Microsoft’s impending Windows 8 operating system. There are beta versions out there, distributed by WC’s good friends in Redmond. Microsoft hired one of these internet bullies, called Marketly, LLC (and owned by a former MS employee) to make certain that there weren’t any unauthorized copies of Windows 8 Out There. Marketly’s idiot algorithms decided there were. It sent 5 million takedown notices to Google in one year. Alleged infringers included AMC Theatres, BBC, Buzzfeed, CNN, HuffPo, TechCrunch, RealClearPolitics, Rotten Tomatoes, ScienceDirect, Washington Post, Wikipedia and even the U.S. Government. Marketly even demanded on several occasions that Google censor Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing. Of course, none of those sites were using or running Windows 8; Marketly’s search algorithm was a piece of crap and reported millions of bogus positives.
Because Google’s own mechanisms for dealing with takedown notices are themselves highly automated, many of these completely innocent sites were kicked out of Google without anyone, you know, thinking “I wonder if the BBC is really sharing illegal copies of Windows 8?”
What’s worse, Google’s processing rules are mostly confidential, so we don’t even know what the threshold for enforcement action is. One notice? Ten? Who knows. Google doesn’t care. Takedown notices to Google on Google-owned sites like YouTube get special, secret treatment.
But what a great way to derail your competition, huh? Flood Google with false claims of copyright infringement and they’re kicked out of the world’s biggest search engine. If you get caught, just blame faulty programming.
The “guilty until proven innocent” approach, vulture capitalism and sloppy programming have created a toxic, dangerous situation on the Intertubes. It’s too much to hope that our do-nothing Congress would understand, let alone act, on the problem. But it’s all we’ve got.
In 1986, WC purchased an early product for the Macintosh called Thunder. It was simply amazing; it could detect spelling errors as you typed and, if you pressed a key sequence, it popped up a dialog that let you select the right word and pasted it in, all without taking your hands off the keyboard. The whole business of a mouse was still new, but as John Dvorak had observed, “A mouse is a great tool for anyone with three hands.”
What was especially cool was that you only needed one dictionary; Thunder worked in all of your programs. It was there when you needed it, unobtrusive and helpful.
Thunder, and its many upgrades since to the current Spellcatcher X 10.4, was the product of Evan Gross, a wizard programmer and interface genius. Gross nurtured and improved Spellcatcher across 25 years, adding a thesaurus, a glossary feature, multi-lingual support, additional specialized dictionaries and other wonderful features. WC has sung the praises of Spellcatcher before and won’t do so again here, but it is one of the handful of programs that WC has encountered which just works, all the time, just as it should.
WC met Evan Gross half a dozen times, generally at MacWorld Expositions in San Francisco, where he tirelessly demoed his program, listened to problems and offered solutions, and gave programming advice to anyone – including WC – who asked. He was patient, polite and charming. When WC had a rare problem with Spellcatcher, usually resulting from an operating system upgrade, Gross unfailingly responded quickly and helpfully. His company, Rainmaker Research (two men and a Jack Russell Terrier) would be on WC’s short list of great software companies.
But we have lost his genius. Evan Gross died suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of June. WC has no idea the cause of death, but Gross was just 52 years old. WC offers his belated sympathies to Gross’s family, friends and co-workers. And to all of those Spellcatcher users out there, orphaned now.
A sad, sad loss. Smart folks will go to Rainmaker‘s web site and buy Spellcatcher before it vanishes forever.
There has been a quiet revolution in genetic science over the last two years, resulting in a landslide of new papers and a profoundly different understanding of how DNA works. The new understanding may be as important as Watson and Crick’s explanation of the structure of the DNA molecule back in 1953.
There are two parts to the new discoveries. The first involves the “junk DNA” in the long strands of molecules that make up chromosones. It’s long been known that the DNA molecules encode genes, the inherited traits the define an organism. But there were long series of “dark matter,” non-encoding, non-gene between the genes themselves on the spiral staircase of the DNA molecule.
The “dark matter” was dismissed as “junk DNA” and largely ignored. Science focused on the genes.
That turns out to have been an error. All that “dark matter” turns out to be a nearly unbelievably complex series of switches that regulate when and how the genes are expressed in an organism. There are as many as a million “switches” in that dark matter that regulate the behavior of the 21,000 genes in the human genome. Instead of only five to ten percent of human DNA being used, essentially all of it is being used.
Many genetic diseases turn out to be errors in these switches, not errors in the genes themselves. Diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease now seem to result from switching errors, not problems with the genes. So it may be that treatments can be developed that address the switches, and not the genes.
The complexity of the genetic switching system in the “dark matter” is daunting. The effort to sort out the complexity is at ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements. ENCODE is the work product of some 440 scientists from 32 labs around the world.
The second part of the new discoveries involves that describe how ten feet of DNA molecules – 23 chromosome pairs – get packed into a cell nucleus that is one hundredth of a millimeter in diameter. While we think of the DNA molecule as the spiral staircase shown in the illustration, in fact it is folded and packed unbelievably tightly. It’s called “fractal globule” packing, and the information content is trillions of times higher than the most advanced computer chip. The cells separate the most active genes into their own special neighborhood, to make it easier for proteins and other regulators to reach them.
The folding places the genes affected by specific genetic switches in close proximity to the genes, even though if you were to straighten out the DNA molecule they might be quite far apart. There’s some suggestion that individual cells specialize by how the DNA is folded. The DNA can easily unfold and refold during gene activation, gene repression and cell replication. So the mystery of how cells specialize to perform the myriad tasks they do may be a matter of selective folding and “dark matter” directing the specialization.
There are going to be a boatload of papers published over the next few months that begin to untangle this complex process. We may be on the eve of solving a lot of longstanding puzzles, and finding cures to some intractable diseases.
The hacker group Antisec has posted a list of 1 million Unique Device Identifiers (UDIDs) from a file of more than 12 million that Antisec claims to have hacked from an FBI laptop. You have to wade throuogh a lot of wind to reach the bag, but here’s the heart of Antisec’s claim:
During the second week of March 2012, a Dell Vostro notebook, used by
Supervisor Special Agent Christopher K. Stangl from FBI Regional Cyber Action
Team and New York FBI Office Evidence Response Team was breached using the
AtomicReferenceArray vulnerability on Java, during the shell session some files
were downloaded from his Desktop folder one of them with the name of
“NCFTA_iOS_devices_intel.csv” turned to be a list of 12,367,232 Apple iOS
devices including Unique Device Identifiers (UDID), user names, name of device,
type of device, Apple Push Notification Service tokens, zipcodes, cellphone
numbers, addresses, etc. the personal details fields referring to people
appears many times empty leaving the whole list incompleted on many parts. no
other file on the same folder makes mention about this list or its purpose.
The FBI, by the way, denies any of this occurred. Do you trust the FBI? Or have we reached the point in our culture where we believe a bunch of unknown hackers (“a semiliterate digital delinquent with serious anger management issues,” according to Robert Cringely) more than we believe the FBI?
WC isn’t sure the FBI is smart enough to even know it has been hacked.
Assuming the claims are true, WC has some questions.
First, why does the FBI have personal information about more than 12 million iPhone and iPad users? It’s true that Apple formerly tolerated iOS app developers collecting that information, but how did it get into the hands of the FBI? And why is the FBI keeping it?
Second, assuming that there is a lawful purpose for collecting and holding that information, what in the world is it doing on an unprotected, unsecure laptop computer? WC encrypts his clients’ data on his laptop, and, with all respect to the clients, it’s a lot less important than 12 million citizens’ personal information.
Third, why was an FBI laptop susceptible to a fairly primitive exploit like the AtomicReferencArray Java vulnerability. For that matter, why is Java even implemented on an FBI laptop? Especially one that holds megabytes of personal information.
There’s no easy way to test if your information is among the million UDIDs released, let alone the other 11.3 million that Antisec claims to have. And with more than 80 million iDevices out there, the odds that your iPhone are among those exposed is relatively low.
But that’s going to be small consolation if Antisec’s hack – and Antisec isn’t composed completely of “good guys” – results in identity theft.
In the meantime, WC looks forward to the FBI’s explanation as this sorts itself out…
The quintesessential “shaggy dog story” is in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (Chapter 53), where he is told by his buddies to go and listen to the great story Jim Blaine tells about his grandfather’s ram. Twain does, and listens to increasingly incoherent and tenuously linked yarns, until Blaine passes out from the corn likker.
“I learned then that Jim Blaine’s peculiarity was that whenever he reached a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep him from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather’s old ram—and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another, till his whisky got the best of him and he fell asleep. What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather’s old ram is a dark mystery to this day, for nobody has ever yet found out.”
The planet is wearing out. It’s a disaster novel. Overcrowding, terrorism, resource depletion, catastrophic class struggles, secret cabals. There are even mini-chapters between chapters categorizing all the ways humanity can come to a disastrous end. And then the plot thread is abandoned.
But one ultra-wealthy character is rescued from his own criminal stupidity by a pod of uplifted dolphins. Shades of Brin’s Uplift series! But the the dolphins, the rich brat and plot thread are all abandoned.
The wife of one man who (re)discovered one of the mysterious digital glass bottles is chased through a Chinese city by hordes of mysterious men. She and her baby are rescued and hide in a Shanghai Disneyland. And then the plot thread is abandoned.
Ostensibly, it’s a story for First Contact between man and an alien species, except it turns out not to be the first, not by a long shot, and it turns out to not involve actual physical contact. Ostensibly, it’s an explanation why attempts to detect radio signals from other intelligent life – the Fermi Paradox – have been unsuccessful. It’s because the preferred manner of communication is the high-tech equivalent of a message in a bottle, not broadcasts. Except it’s more like a virus infection, and the messages, the memes, in the high-tech bottles are contagions. Sort of like Brin’s plot threads, only one “message bottle” in a million may reach someone and cause an “infection.” But it’s a doozy.
So it’s a Dire Alien Menace story, too. Except that other digital message bottles warn against the D.A.M. The Big Confrontation, with one digital message bottle set against another? That’s never described. The plot thread is abandoned. Instead, the story jumps ahead a decade or two, to the Asteroid Belt, where apparently still earlier versions of the D.A.M. are still duking it out, with lasers, no less, and some of our plucky characters are caught in the cross-fire.
And then the scene shifts again, this time to a noble venture to “cure” all those unfortunate alien species of the contagion represented by the D.A.M. Except that plot thread, too, gets abandoned, along with the reader, for a gravity-lens-powered telescope.
Oddly, Jim Blaine’s grandfather’s old ram doesn’t actually appear in Existence, but the rest Blaine’s sins as a storyteller are fully present. The novel is a shaggy mess of a story. Great ideas – including some recycled concepts from Brin’s controversial Transparent Society – but if you are looking for anything like a plot, expect repeated disappointments. Brin can and has written very good novels. Award winning novels. This isn’t one of them.
Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
Well, at the very least it means that physics hasn’t been barking at the moon the last 40 years or more, that quantum particle science is right.
The good folks at PHD Comics made an animation featuring American particle physicist Daniel Whiteson back in November 2011 that explains what this is all about.
Since that little clip was made, the gigantic particle accelerator at CERN has likely confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, the little blip of data that Dr. Whiteson describes. It’s a pretty big deal, and not just because we are spared the ugly sight of quantum physics crashing down around our ears.
It’s also a triumph for science as a methodology. Science – specifically, Dr. Robert Higgs and several others – predicted the existence of the subatomic particle. More importantly, in 1966 Higgs said, “This is what it will “look” like, this is how it will decay and this is what the decay products will look like.” Those predictions allowed tests to me made to see if the predictions could be confirmed. To use the precise term, the predictions were falsifiable, they could be proven true or false. This is what science is, and how it differs from superstition.
The honor of discovery could have gone to the United States. The U.S. started to build a superconducting supercollider, the instrument required to generate the energies required to perform these tests. But Congress abandoned the U.S.’s project in 1993, ceding the ground to the international effort at CERN.
But that’s a battle long since lost. This week is a triumph for theoretical quantum chromodynamics. Our understanding of the universe is just a little better. Science has a possible path to understanding other puzzles, including dark matter and dark energy.
Oh, and Stephen Hawking is $100 poorer. He had a bet that the Higgs Boson wouldn’t be found.
WC is an Apple fanboy. WC owned an Apple II+, a Lisa computer, the first Macintosh computer in Fairbanks and has had an all-Mac office since 1988. WC has watched the rising and falling and rising fortunes of Apple across all those years. And remembers vividly when Apple was roadkill, left for dead on the side of the information highway.
Today, it’s a different story. This is the fifth anniversary of the iPhone – the first units shipped on June 29, 2007. And the iPhone is one of the most successful products in history. In just five years, Apple has sold 250 million iPhones. While doing so, Apple has generated revenues of $150 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – in just five years. Total revenue from just from iPhone sales at Apple exceeds all revenue at Microsoft, its former rival. A single product that didn’t exist five years ago is now bigger than the 30-year old company that was once considered so all-powerful that the government intervened to try to break it up.
The iPhone generates massive profits for Apple. The iPhone business generates something like $30 billion of profit per year. That’s more profit than just about any other business on the planet. It’s more profit than General Electric makes. It’s more profit than Microsoft makes. It’s more profit than Google makes. It’s more profit than Walmart makes. It’s almost as much profit as Exxon-Mobil generates. It’s made Apple the most valuable and the most profitable company on the planet.
On the positive side, along the way, Apple has created a whole new industry: Apps. There are some 635,000 apps for the iPhone and iPad available through iTunes. A mind-boggling number. There is, indeed, an App for that, and just about everything else. Thousands of programmers live very well writing apps for the iPhone.
Congratulations to Apple. Happy Birthday to the iPhone. Get ready for Apple’s next amazing product, which will — excuse me, WC has to take a call…