Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Could Quantum Mechanics Explain Intelligence?

In recent weeks, I've seen some remarkable research to show that at least something can travel faster than light. What that something is, we don't quite know yet. All we know so far is that we're onto something: a measure of entanglement.

Loosely explained, quantum entanglement indicates a connection between two particles where measurement of the state of one particle will indicate the state of the other. For example, if two particles are entangled, one particle will have up spin and the other particle will have down spin at the time that we observe or measure them. If we flip one of the particles, the other particle will seem to flip, too. Instantaneously, as if they are connected somehow.

Chinese scientists have measured the speed with which entangled particles respond to a manipulation of spin. That speed is estimated to have a lower bound of 10,000 times the speed of light. Even peer review has so far been unable to show any errors in the results of this experiment.

This is pretty amazing news. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics says that no useful information can actually be transferred by manipulating entangled particles. For now, anyway.

This experiment reminded me of another fascinating example of quantum mechanics at work. A few years ago, scientists at the University of Rochester figured out how to store an image of a letter on a single photon and retrieve it. This is also mind-blowing. The experiment shows that we haven't even touched the upper limits for storage density of information systems.

While these experiments are fascinating, there is a point here that is often missed about inquiries into the work of quantum mechanics  Take another example, the humble central processing unit of a computer, the CPU as we know it. The CPU relies entirely upon quantum mechanics to work. Quantum mechanics is not a science of certainty, it is a science of probabilities. One might then see a certain sense of irony that the discovery of quantum mechanics gave rise to all of the electronics we see and use today. quantum mechanics isn't just a science of probabilities, it is the best tool we have today to predict the behavior of particles at very small scales.

What makes quantum mechanics and the experiments noted above so interesting to me is this: the behavior of particles at very small scales observed in the lab is happening all the time in nature. The lab is used to create the environment that allows us to observe and measure it. Spooky Action, as Einstein called it and what we know now to be entanglement, is happening all the time. The storage of information on a photon is happening all the time. Spooky Action is at work all the time. We just don't see it every day.

I think that life depends on quantum mechanics  to the point that many life systems exploit quantum mechanics  Photosynthesis in plants relies on quantum mechanics to convert sunlight into stored energy. Our eyes exploit quantum mechanics to capture light as images that our brains interpret.

Have you ever been in a crowded room or say, a lunch room and had the feeling that someone is looking at you, then turned around to see that you were right? I think that's quantum mechanics at work. Entanglement probably allows us to feel someone looking at us even when we would have no other reason to believe anyone is looking.

What if quantum mechanics is what makes intelligent life possible? I think it does. The chemical processing of information in our brains doesn't even come close to explaining the speed of computation that we are capable of performing. But quantum mechanics could explain that speed, with room to spare. Intelligent beings, through no fault of their own in the process of evolution, could have figured out a way to exploit entanglement for information processing and storage.

Intuition, it seems, could just be entanglement at work. Imagine that.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

On the Relations of Inputs to Decisions of Fate

I'm a big fan of the GPL, aka, The General Public License. The license is used primarily to protect software, though I think it could be applied in many other cases where intellectual property requires protection. GPL is also known as copyleft, for it requires an interesting set of conditions to be met for the use and maintenance of any materials protected by it.

The Linux kernel is the most famous product protected by the GPL. The GPL is actually a rather complicated document, but it boils down to 4 freedoms and one condition that must be met to exercise those freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The GPL creates a completely voluntary system of software development. If you find software that you like that is covered under the GPL, you are free to choose if you want to partake in the 4 freedoms or not. It's entirely up to you.

What I find most fascinating about the GPL is this: Fortune 500 companies have paid programmers to write code that has been contributed to the Linux kernel, free of charge. 75% of the source code contributed to the Linux project is written by paid programmers. Why?

The answer, I think, relates well to the problem at hand we have found in our current economic condition here in the United States. The financial scandals of the last few years, particularly with the meltdown in September of 2008, show that a few men with enormous power, will make poorer decisions than the crowd can make. This article, is intended to show that the fate of any population is directly tied to the participation of its members in the determination of its fate. The quality and outcome of any decision is directly related to the proportion of the number of people providing input to the decisions.

I know, it's complicated, but lets see if we can boil it down by looking at a study in contrasts.

The Linux kernel is quite possibly the most successful collection of software ever devised.  It runs on just about every commercially available CPU (the little chip that runs your computer, your DVR, your phone and the fastest computers in the world). Linux supports more hardware than any other operating system in the world. It has the best C compiler in the world, the GCC. It is developed with software code written by thousands of programmers all over the world. The code is vetted by other programmers who have a vested interest in the success of the software. Participation in the project is completely voluntary.

Compare that to say, Windows. Windows is a proprietary operating system. The decisions about the fate of the operating system rest, ultimately with the CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. Hardly anyone outside the company will get to see all of the source code for Windows. Exceptions include various governments, and very close partners. For the vast majority of code and users, Windows is a "car with the hood welded shut".

Windows became a popular operating system in the mid-90s through a master stroke of marketing  genius, comprehensive and interlocking license agreements designed to shut out the competition and a giant load of deception. Starting in the 90s, Windows ate into server markets for UNIX and became the predominant operating system in businesses large and small for server and desktop systems.

Concurrently, Linux started out as project of serendipity for Linus Torvalds in 1991. Then he shared the source code with his friends. His friends wrote back with suggestions and source code to use. Eventually, as the collaboration grew, Linus licensed the code under the GPL as the perfect mechanism to help the project grow and to protect it from being taken private. The GPL keeps code out in the open for everyone to see.

The GPL provides the perfect balance of incentives to keep the software free, attract contributors and the freedom to use it as desired. To put it simply, you can modify the software all you want and use it internally in your own shop or home as you wish. But if you compile the source code, with modifications you made, to binary files (machine code your computer understands), you must make the source code available to anyone you distribute the binaries to. That is the hook.

None of these freedoms are available with Windows.

Where are they now?

In almost every respect, Windows is declining in market share and relevance. The majority of the internet is running Linux. Google, eBay, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and many other big companies are running Linux in their data centers. Why? Because they all have a say in how the software is used and developed. They recognize the value proposition of using free software and contributing to it. They also know that they could not run a profitable business using Microsoft software, paying for their licenses and trying to compete with Microsoft.

Google and IBM don't use Windows for many reasons, including security. Google was hacked a few years ago by Chinese operatives exploiting weaknesses in Windows. Now they don't allow Windows except for testing their web services for Windows users. IBM, having been screwed over by Microsoft after the joint development of Windows NT, has completely converted every desktop to Linux. IBM has a department dedicated to writing and contributing source code to Linux.

So what does this all have to do with our economy?

Some of you may recall the LIBOR scandal reported last year. Today there is word of a much bigger scandal, involving price fixing the world over. This is yet another case of a small group of people making decisions for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. This disparity in power and the collusion required to acquire it and maintain it is the problem.

When a small group of people make decisions that affect everyone else, we get the Great Recession. We get the Great Depression. We get Lesterland. We get very poor decisions for our (tax) money with virtually no accountability for failure. The quality and outcome of any decision that determines fate relies upon the quality of the inputs. As the proportion of people in a given population providing input to a decision respecting the fate of that population decreases, so do the prospects of that group as a whole.

Even those who stand to profit the most will suffer. How? Gated communities. Private armies and generators at home. Private schools. Isolation. Paranoia. Loss of interest in his fellow man.

Linux does not have that problem. The development process of Linux requires full transparency, full accountability. If something doesn't work, it's rejected, or replaced with something that works or works better. It is a democracy.

We could run our society according to the principles of the GPL and open source. Why not?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Patents are not a substitute for R&D

For the last few years, and continuing still, Apple has locked horns with Samsung in court. Why? Apple management believes that Android is a stolen product that mimics the iPhone, a creation of Steve Jobs. Jobs was well known for his desire to destroy Android, and promised nuclear war to that end.

Samsung, despite the lawsuits and Apple's attempt to stir up controversy around Samsung products, seems to be doing very well. Maybe that's because while Apple was suing and spending millions on PR to remind us how original their products are, Samsung has been innovating and creating products that customers want.

Since September of last year, Apple stock has fallen by about 1/3 while Samsung has continue to climb and is reporting strong profits year over year. This disparity represents the cost of rent-seeking on the part of Apple. When Apple is seeking rents, they're not focused on better products and customer satisfaction.

Apple has asserted many patents against Samsung in two different legal actions, patents that are best described as "idea" or "software" patents. The patent for a tablet in a rectangular shape with rounded corners? That's an idea. But because the USPTO issued this patent, Barnes and Noble cut one of the corners on their Nooks to work around the patent. Pretty innovative, huh?

Apple has many patents on user interface behavior that have sent many competitors searching for prior art because the USPTO didn't take the time to do it. Take the "bounce-back" patent asserted by Apple. This is a patent for the behavior of icons to visually bounce back when the scrolling has come to the end of the line. Or how about the "Swipe to Unlock" patent? This is a patent on programming a user interface to unlock when the user swipes his finger across the face of the display. Both of these are idea and software patents. They could be implemented in a million different ways, but because of the broad language of the patent claims, many competitors can be easily ensnared with a threat of litigation from Apple.

A review of Apple's stock price for the last year shows a steady climb leading up to the verdict in the first lawsuit against Samsung. In that verdict, Apple was awarded slightly more than $1 Billion, but due to procedural, and jury errors, the verdict has already been cut by more than a third. A new damages trial is imminent and there is more cutting likely to follow on appeal. Apple's stock price tracks nicely with those events.

During that time, observers have noted that Apple has been recycling their products and that they haven't produced anything revolutionary since Steve Jobs' death. It seems as if the company was relying almost completely on the leadership that Jobs provided as a source of innovative ideas. While that may be true, reliance upon intellectual property protection also played a factor.

Robert Hunt and James Bessen have provided well documented support for the contention that once a company acquires a sizable patent portfolio, patents tend to substitute for R&D. This is what has happened to Apple. During the last three years, Apple has become a significant, if not terrifying patent aggressor. During the same time, Samsung did not prosecute any high profile patent suits and was continually churning out new products.

As a result, Samsung's profits are not only higher, but over the last 3 years, their stock has continued to climb more than 50%. Shareholders have taken notice and the price of Apple stock reflects their concerns, while Samsung continues to attract investors for their technological savvy.

Samsung seems to understand a simple point about ideas:

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it." --- Thomas Jefferson

Better to create new ideas than to cling to the old, or to cling to government protection for an idea already disclosed. Of course, someone has noted that in recent years, very few revolutionary inventions have been built. It seems that we're all just really good iterators.

Samsung seems pretty happy with iteration, while Apple isn't quite as enthusiastic as it used to be, but remains, an iterator. Everything they've done is based on the work of someone else. They might be happier if they got over it and started iterating instead of litigating.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Provo Fiber

Google Fiber is coming to Provo, Utah. That is really great news for Provo. I've been there a few times and I like the town. It's much smaller than Salt Lake City, but there is still plenty to do around town. There is also a beautiful lake to visit from time to time right next to town. Salt Lake is not that far from Provo, so I can still hit Ikea and Costco if need be.

I'm actually thinking about moving to Provo for a number of reasons, but the big one is that when Google Fiber lights up, the business in the town will boom. Kinda like a gold rush, except that there is no limit to data transmissions since the technology keeps getting better. Just to give you an idea about the lack of limits, last year, someone set a new record (that has probably already been broken by now) for data transmission. They transmitted 25 terabits in a second using graphene optical modulators. The trend is that tech is only going to get better.

The deal between Google and Provo is similar to the one in Austin and Kansas City with one major difference. Provo already has a network and Google will buy it for $1. The city will continue to pay the bonds that were used to finance the build out. Google will maintain the network and provide 5mbs to every resident for free for 7 years. Anyone who wants Gigabit fiber will pay $70 month. There is a $300 hookup fee. That's it.

I know something of what can be done on a 20mbs connection. I have one. At least I will have one for about another day. Then I'm switching to Centurylink for a 5mbs connection. I'm just tired of playing the 'loyalty" game with Comcast. That is where they set me up on the promotion for 6 months and then I call as soon as our bill goes up to negotiate a new promotion.

This time, that game is not going to work. I"m on a two year promotion and the fees went up 25% in one year. Comcast is a private monopoly and acts like one. 

I know that I can stream video and audio on 5mbs and 20mbs per second. But on Gigabit, I haven't the slightest idea what kinds of applications are in store. I think that entire new industries will emerge with speeds like that.

What I can't fathom is why Comcast or any of the other ISPs want to prevent that kind of speed from becoming the norm. Maybe they're worried that there won't be any justification for their lofty prices or annual rate increases. Maybe, they won't be able to justify the astronomical salaries paid to the directors and the CEOs that makes a summer home in Spain a reality for them.

Google actually gets it. They understand the customer better than Comcast and Centurylink. They're not afraid to expose their business to competition because they know that will only make them a better company. Google is part of the Data Liberation Front, an organization dedicated to making it easy to get your data from whatever resource you use on Google properties. You have a blog? You can download all your articles in one nice tarball or zip file. Want your email backed up? Hook up Thunderbird with IMAP and you'll have everything.

I think that Google uses open standards to make it easier to innovate, but they also know that their customers could leave anytime they find something better offered by someone else. Maintaining awareness that their customers are not in some comfy lock-in due to technology is what drives Google to do better.

Sure, Google Fiber provides 1Gbs, and maybe for awhile, they'll be the only game in town in Provo at that speed. But they know that others are out there to provide the same speed if they want to compete against Google. Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon and Centurylink can all try if they want to. I doubt they will bother. There is so much customer antipathy towards the incumbents that even if the incumbents can meet or beat Google, customers may not want to go back.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ISP Tactics

I live in a sort of gray area when it comes to Internet service. I can get service from Comcast as fast as I want it. But they charge very high rates because they know that Centurylink, the other carrier in my neighborhood, can only provide 7mbs.

To appease customers, Comcast has a set of promotions to keep their customers in line. I have the Performance Internet Plan bundled with phone service. This plan provides speeds up to 20mbs down and 4mbs up. The cost of my internet service at the start of the promotion was $59.99. Now it is $74.99. For customers who are adding this service to their homes, the rate for the first six months is $19.99. The fine print reveals the following:

"After first 6 months, monthly service charge goes to $34.99 for months 7-12. After 12 months, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular charges apply. Comcast’s current monthly service charge for Performance ranges from $42.95 to $62.95..."

Notice that they don't even quote a definite rate after the promotion has expired. Why not? Do they really want to keep the customer ignorant of the true costs? Maybe they're hoping that the customer doesn't read the invoice and simply rests assured that a set amount will be deducted from his bank account at regular intervals.

As you can see, Comcast doesn't really care about their loyal customers. New customers get better rates. New customers get the red carpet. Old customers? Pfff! They're charging me $74 just for internet and phone service with the promotion. According to the CSR I spoke with, if standard rates were applied, I'd be paying well over $110 a month for both phone and internet service.

I could drop down to the lowest rate and save some money. What's there? For $29.99, I get 3mbs down and 768kbs up. Nice. The lowest tier doesn't even qualify as broadband these days and guarantees that anyone who wants to stream movies on Netflix will up the plan to a much higher rate.

There is more to the strategy than meets the eye. A review of the plans offered by Centurylink illustrate an interesting dovetail. Centurylink offers 7mbs at my address for a very reasonable rate. But there is nothing higher. It's like there is a tacit agreement between Comcast and Centurylink to not compete across established territories. Perhaps the return of the ISP mafia is at hand.

That isn't the kicker, though. UTOPIA, a municipal broadband consortium, had just stopped building a block and a half away from my house before I moved in - dashing any hopes of getting connected. They might have built more had it not been for a a lawsuit filed by Qwest (now Centurylink) to stop UTOPIA from hanging their fiber on the telephone poles. That was an expensive lawsuit designed to stall UTOPIA long enough for the local incumbents to assess and control the situation.

I no longer wish to reward Comcast or Centurylink for their monopolistic behavior. Yes I would like the faster speeds, but as of tomorrow, I'm going to be hooking up to Centurylink. In a free market, I wouldn't have to choose between two monopolists, but who said the Internet service market is free?

We could have a free market if any company that owns the wires is designated as a common carrier and must resell use of their pipes at wholesale to competitors. That's why I say that net neutrality is a ruse.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Changing of the guard

Today I read in the Wall Street Journal that IBM is reporting a drop in revenue as well as selling off some more of its business. Microsoft has reported zero growth for its Windows business. Oracle has reported a small dip in revenues as well. Even Apple has seen a precipitous decline of its stock value by at least 1/3rd since last September.

In contrast, Google is reporting 31% income growth. Other online companies are reporting growth as well. Why?

This blog was written in Blogger, an online service. The operating system I use on this computer is Ubuntu, a free software alternative to Windows. Sure, the computer came with a Windows license, but I wanted a choice. I'm writing this blog article in Chrome, a free browser that runs on all consumer operating systems. All of it is free, much of it is free as in freedom. The online companies are running their businesses on free software, too. Linux, Apache, Javascript, Python. They are also using free protocols, TCP/IP, HTTP, and many other open standards.

That is what the old guard is missing. The old guard, loaded up to the eyeballs with name recognition, experience and know-how, are not moving fast enough to keep up with the disrupters. The disrupters are companies like Google, eBay, Facebook, and Twitter. They don't make their money selling software in a box with a license that hardly anyone ever reads.

The disrupters make their money by selling something people now want. Software that consumers never have to update. Software that is free. Service that is second to none.

I note also, that there is one other thing that the old guard has to fend off the disrupters: patents. Tens of thousands of patents. God only knows how many patents they actually own as the USPTO has been operating at or near a 90% patent application approval rate for a few years now. The old guard has been applying for patents on any idea that happens to pass the lips of someone in a product planning meeting.

The patent fight hasn't met much success. Oracle sued Google over Android for patent infringement and came away empty handed. Apple has two lawsuits against Samsung in progress and is still waiting for "their" money after years of litigation.

The anomaly among the old guard is Microsoft. Microsoft doesn't like litigation. They've worked hard to settle most lawsuits, usually under a non-disclosure agreement to protect the identity of their patents. Who knows what would happen if all 265 of the patents claimed by Microsoft to be infringed by Linux were known? Why, Linux and free software developers might write around them!

Microsoft has found a way to create a revenue stream from Android that is estimated to be around $100 million a year. Why did they do this? Microsoft almost completely missed the smartphone market with their own operating system. The efforts from Redmond have netted agreements from nearly every Android device maker except, Motorola Mobility, now owned by Google. Microsoft has shown zero willingness to sue Google directly. I wonder why.

The old guard may think they can win the game with patents, but the technology industry is catching on to the game. The USPTO is taking a beating in the press for its willingness to issue so many patents for ideas rather than inventions. They are starting to work with technology industries to address their concerns and that could help to clean up the mess they created.

The first mover advantage goes to the people who execute their ideas and do it well. Shareholders have noticed and stock values agree. Anyone hoping for their patents to rescue them and their old guard business model is resting on a false hope.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Musings in Costco

I'm an early shopper. I like to get Costco as the doors open to avoid the crowds. I do this because I like ample parking, short lines and to avoid the poor man who says, "please don't hit me with your cart, I've already been hit 3 times."

Costco represents a sort of irony of the human condition to me. Although I enjoy shopping there, it reminds of the fragility of the mind in so many ways. In Costco, we don't just buy something for today, we buy a big box of it to keep it in stock. So if I buy an 8-pack of Black Pearl Olives, I have enough, right?

An interesting thing happens to my mind when I've bought enough of anything. I have no desire to buy any more. When I look in my pantry and see that I have enough, I don't go looking for something else to buy. I don't tell myself that I need to stock up for the post-apocalypse.

Yet, when I first walk into Costco, I am confronted with giant TVs. Tee-Vees. I remember when 47" tee-vees were cool.  Even at 47 inches, I marveled at the fact that it was nearly impossible to find a cathode ray tube tee-vee that big. But jeez! A 47-inch screen? Where am I going to put that? Well, I knew damn well where I was going to put it. Would I ever find time to watch it? I did buy one, but not at Costco.

That was a few years ago. Today, the largest tee-vee on display at Costco is 80 inches. 80! That's a diagonal measurement of course, but who cares? That's man-cave kit! I sometimes wonder about the physics of how to make the screen responsive to the inputs so that one side of the screen doesn't move faster than the rest. I mean, we're talking about light-speed, right?

So as I look at the mental gymnastics one must achieve to walk through Costco, I have to wonder. On the one hand, I can look at products on the shelf and make a mental note about it as I pass by..."Olives. Yup. Got plenty of those." But then I'm still thinking of the tee-vee. "Holy shee-it! 80 inches! Where am I going to put that thing? I'll never be able to talk my wife into getting one of those!...Besides, I've already got a 42" tee-vee. Sigh."

For many people, the mind has almost zero defense against the suggestion of buying a giant tee-vee. It is the ultimate eye-candy for the mind. For some of us, we can take solace in knowing that we have enough mayonaise or Tobasco sauce or paper towels since we got a big box of that a few weeks ago. But that 80-inch tee-vee? Where's my American Express card?

A few years ago during the Christmas shopping season, as I walked through the doors at Costco, I began to notice this irony. I'm surrounded by shiny stuff, textiles, kitchen gadgets and big screen tee-vees, a perfectly set miasma of suggestions and pleas to "BUY ME!!!". Then I noticed that Wall-E was playing on the tee-vees. That is irony.

If you don't know the story of Wall-E, you need to see it to really get a sense of what I'm talking about. Wall-E is the story of a semi-conscious robot in the post-apocalypse. Wall-E is set at some time in the distant future when Earth has become a full-on desert planet, where blues and greens have disappeared after humans have exhausted every resource needed to sustain life.

The moment I saw Wall-E playing on a giant tee-vee at Costco, I knew that buying another tee-vee or some other doo-dad isn't going to make me feel any better than I already feel now. I already have enough.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Precipitous Fall of Apple Stock

Dean Baker notes with interest that Apples stock has had a precipitous decline since September of last year. While his article is well informed about the fact that Apple can't seem to find a place to invest its money, I think there is another factor that is at work against the value of Apple stock: patent aggression.

Apple has become an incredibly vexatious patent aggressor. The decline seems to have started around the time that Apple was able to fool a jury into thinking that it deserved a $1B damages award from Samsung for alleged patent infringements.

The litigation has highlighted the trivial nature of the patents in question. For example, there is one design patent for a tablet in the shape of a rectangle with rounded corners. Yes, Apple is fighting over that. Apple has also seen the damages award cut by more than $400 million by the judge due to errors made by the jury. The verdict might not have gone so far in favor of Apple had it not been for a jury foreman who wasn't completely forthcoming about his history with Samsung prior to selection for jury duty. A new damages trial is likely.

The most interesting aspect of the first suit against Samsung (yes, there is more than one) is Apple's insistence that Samsung be ordered to pay damages on patents that already have preliminary USPTO rulings of invalidity. Apple is hoping that they can get damages for infringements on patents that are very like to see final rulings of invalidity. How fair is that?

Apple is engaged in a desperate nuclear war against Samsung, one of the largest phone makers in the world, and Android, which now comprises more than 75% of the mobile phone market. I think that astute shareholders are aware of Apple's litigation tactics and can see that Apple can't compete against foreign companies without US government assistance.

When Apple can let go of their patents and get interested in creating new products again, I surmise that investors will take interest. Until then, Apple is likely to follow the prophecy of Steve Jobs who vowed to destroy Android with every dollar at his disposal, without actually destroying Android.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Favorite Blog - Groklaw

For more than ten years now, I've been reading Groklaw.net. I can't remember how I found it. I just know that when I read the first article and laughed, I was in the right place. Anyone who can talk about court cases, technology and make a great joke in passing is alright. That someone would be Pamela Jones, the woman who started it all back in 2003.

Groklaw started out as a blog for the simple purpose of following the intricacies of the SCO v. IBM lawsuit. The first article, "SCO Falls Downstairs, Hitting its Head on Every Step", shows the enormity of what The SCO Group was attempting to perpetrate upon the Linux Community. But it is also a great example of the dedication to accuracy and patience that the Linux Community and Pamela Jones have for their work. All that with a sense of humor and irreverence.

The Linux Community rallied behind Groklaw to chase down every unsealed filing in that lawsuit and convert it to text for all to see. They located references all over the web to dispute the claims in the filings and the complaint itself. Volunteers went to the courthouse to witness the proceedings. If there was ever a more cordial opponent (or ally, depending on your perspective) in any proceeding, you'd find it in Groklaw.

Their enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation is contagious. It makes for a very readable blog and the comments to their articles are no exception. Over the years, they have built an archive of legal papers and proceedings that are hard to match anywhere else. Except maybe the Library of Congress, where they are now archived.

As the SCO lawsuits wound down and it became clear that despite their claims to contrary, they did not own the copyrights to UNIX, the Linux Community found other adversaries to follow: Microsoft, Nokia, Apple, and a variety of patent trolls.

Pamela Jones is no longer a regular writer there, getting a well-deserved rest from such a tremendous undertaking. A task that required unrelenting perseverance in pursuit of the goal: to get Linux in the the free and clear of any adversary. Groklaw is now overseen by Mark Webbink, among many others. Some of you may remember that Webbink was the first General Counsel to Red Hat.

I continue to read this blog on a daily basis to see what new legal news is afoot. Groklaw has provided excellent coverage of the Apple v. Samsung lawsuits and the Oracle v. Google lawsuit over Android. The coverage you see there will go well beyond what the mainstream press will let on to you. Groklaw also covers the patent troll controversies and continues to work toward the elimination of software patents in all their forms so that free software remains free for all.

That's just a sample of what I like about Groklaw.

Monday, April 15, 2013

We're still talking about Gitmo?

I can't believe we're still talking about Gitmo. The New York Times has released a letter from an inmate who's been there since 2002, has never been charged with a crime and has never had a trial. What a miscarriage of justice.

How could it be that in the second term of office, President Obama has not shut Gitmo down? Maybe he'd really like to shut it down, maybe not. I used to wonder if the mess left behind by George Bush was so bad that there was no way it could be shut down in a single term of presidency.

It may be that Obama doesn't have a choice but to keep it open. There is not enough information available to the public to find out. I'm reminded of the song, "We Won't Get Fooled Again", where we learn that the new boss is the same as the old boss.

Could it be that no matter who we put into office, they will always answer to someone else besides the voters? Will that ever change?

I think it could. Larry Lessig's video shows us a way how to do it.

From Gitmo to the financial meltdown to the LIBOR scandal and on and on, we see a long string of abuses intended to deprive the common man of his security and to subvert his pursuit of happiness. When the terms of the debate and the players who can participate are dictated by 0.05% of the population, we're going to have trouble.

Consider the fortunes of America as we became dependent on proprietary software from Microsoft. Microsoft took this dependency and forced its will upon us. Then along comes free software like Linux. First we get a choice in servers and the servers now run the vast majority of the Internet. Now they're running the vast majority of the mobile phones.

How did this happen? Because the number of people involved in the decision of which software to use was effectively removed from the hands of a very small group of people in a single corporation. The inputs for that decision has been distributed all over the world. And when the number of people participating in a decision making process increases, so do their fortunes improve. As they decrease, so too, their fortunes.

We've solved the problem on the software side. In less than a decade, Microsoft will be reduced to irrelevancy because people will notice, desire and pursue the freedom they get by directing their inputs into free software. By the same token, people will, when presented with the alternative to the current system, seek a form of government that gives them more voice in the determination of their fate.

Gitmo is what happens when a tiny slice of the American population gets to decide the terms and conditions of political discourse. Gitmo is just a start as long as the condition persists. The condition is fatal and progressive.

It is up to us to make a change. Where do we go from here?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Freedom of rasbmc on Pi

I have a Samsung Blue-Ray DVD player that supports 3-D playback. The Samsung player supports a wide range of apps, notably, Pandora and Netflix, both of which have a dedicated button on the remote control. If I bought a DVD player that plays DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, why is there no DVD button? Why do I need to navigate a series of menus just to play a DVD?

Who knows? Maybe Samsung could only get the rights to the content at Netflix and Pandora if they committed to dedicating a button on the remote control. This could be the technological equivalent of a quid pro quo.

I noticed something else about the Samsung DVD player. No support for the Linux Ext4 file system. Seems odd considering that a) Samsung is a huge supporter of Linux and is a Platinum member of the Linux foundation and; b) Samsung uses the Linux kernel in this particular DVD player. I asked them about it on their Facebook page and they suggested that I call their support line to get help. Look, this is stuff that should just work for dummies like me.

Now I could probably figure out how to root my DVD player with a few minutes searching on Google. But why fight a vendor who doesn't really want me to do that, anyway?

Instead, I bought a $35 computer called the Rasberry Pi. I also bought an SD card, a powered USB hub, an HDMI cable and spent hours working with various distributions of XBMC to settle on the rasbmc. Sure, the total came out to more than $85 - the cost of the DVD player that I now struggle with. It will total something like $20 more once I can convince my wife that we need to get a wireless N adapter for the rasbmc.

Nevertheless, there is a certain satisfaction in learning how to get this thing working the way I wanted it to. I tested a fair number of distributions, and discovered which one I liked the best. I learned that documentation isn't always complete so I had to improvise. For example, I needed the password for the pi user set up on the rasbmc machine. Why? The password listed in the documentation doesn't work. I tried many times to get it to work to no avail. A quick search revealed that I could blank that password with a simple edit to the /etc/shadow file. (A word to the unwary: if anyone should get physical access to your file system, even on Linux, kiss your security goodbye.)

Once I got that figured out, I did a little digging to review rsync and sync the files from my media collection to the rasbmc. My next plan is to write a bash script that will do this automatically and eliminate the orphaned files and directories on the player that no longer match the source directory on the source machine after I clean up my collection. Rsync is tons of fun.

I also found that if I want to stream 720p video, I will need a wireless N network adapter. Then I can get that clean picture I've come to expect on our TV. I like YouTube and though there is a YouTube app on the DVD Player, the rasbmc app blows the Samsung app away. I want the freedom. If I pick up a little Python, I can learn how to improve the app and share that with the community. That just doesn't happen on the Samsung DVD player.

There is also a Pandora App, but I haven't gotten that to work yet. I think there is still some work to do on it. I also found the Internet Archive for both video and audio works that you probably aren't going to find on *any* DVD player.

It's important to keep in mind that the copyright holders get to determine which technology can play their content and on terms they desire. That's why Samsung and any other DVD or Blu-Ray machine manufacturer is so constrained and confined. The copyright holders want a captive audience for their content. Sure, you could get something that just works, but you may miss out on certain freedoms.

The rasbmc has no such limitations and we're free to use it as is or modify it as we see fit. Or we can use another device that limits our freedoms. The choice is ours to make.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why I chose Linux over Windows

I don't use Windows at home anymore. I use Linux now. Though there are many reasons why I use Linux, I would like to share some of my experience in the hopes that others may benefit from it, even if they never make the switch to Linux.

I use Linux to exercise my freedom of choice in operating systems. Although I purchased my computer with Windows installed, I felt compelled to image my new computer so that I could restore the original condition later. You know, just in case I ever wanted to sell it to someone else later. They just might want to use Windows.

Free software is not just free as in beer. It's free as in freedom. Free software can make a perfect, compressed image of my hard disk and store it as a set of files. Once the image has been made, I'm free to blow away Windows and install Linux. To image my hard disk, I used Clonezilla and stored my hard disk image on a high capacity USB drive.

My first choice is Ubuntu Linux. I've been using Ubuntu instead of Windows since 2007 and never looked back. I've tried a fair number of distributions and after finding the others wanting, I settled on Ubuntu. Even Ubuntu Server is my preferred server, but I digress. I've tried KDE, Gnome 2.x and Gnome Shell to name a few desktops. They all have their merits, but my choice is Gnome Shell (3.0) for its minimalist simplicity.

Gnome allows me to press the Windows key (ha ha) and type one or two characters to run the program of choice. It has very easy desktop management and for those who know something about javascript, it's very customizable, even if you don't know javascript. I don't really need to hop up my desktop and make it do all sorts of fancy stuff. There is enough eye candy in Gnome Shell in stock configuration to keep it appealing.

I need to get some work done, so I use Chrome as my browser of choice. Google holds periodic contests to see if anyone can crack it. They even release their latest updates a few days before the contest just to clean up and see if anyone can find something that has been overlooked. It's the best browser I've ever used and I have no plans to change.

I also have a fair number of tools I can run within Chrome and they're all in the cloud. From word processing to blogging, to spreadsheets - I can get to my documents wherever I happen to be. I do all my email in the cloud, too.

Sure, it's easy to worry about privacy, but Google has been quite circumspect about my privacy and has even raised serious challenges to the the notorious National Security Letters that are so loved by Homeland Security. I'm very comfortable with the trade of privacy for applications that just run and run well, with Google. Their ads are inconspicuous, their applications work great and their search is beyond compare.

When I want to work on files that exist on my hard drive, then there is LibreOffice. I use it for journaling, writing occasional snail mail correspondence, spreadsheets and some flowcharts.

For personal finance, there is GNUCash. Free software, free to use, compatible with most banks for downloading transactions and perfectly capable of managing the finances of multi-million dollar companies. For me, it's just right for what I need to do.

Sometimes I do a little image processing with the GNU Image Manipulation Program (the GIMP). For example, I made a vision board with the Gimp and used it as a desktop background for my machine. Very cool.

I have a choice of music player for fun. Rhythmbox and Amarok are the most popular and Banshee has a significant following, too. They all can play from the hard disk or stream music. They are also compatible with iPods and the like as well as Android. BTW, I'm not much of a gamer, so I'm probably not the best person to ask. There is a Steam client for Ubuntu, so if you're a gamer, you might want to check that out.

On the command line, there are thousands of tools to use for managing your files. The Linux bash shell contains the basic tools for managing a file system: ls, cp, mkdir, and rm, to name a few. But what really makes life fun with Linux are tools like rsync, to synchronize directories; grep for finding text in files, and; ssh for connecting to remote systems that are running Linux or UNIX.

I can even write simple programs for getting stuff done using bash scripting. I write my scripts with a deceptively simple text editor called vim. In fact, I use a script to keep track of all my favorite programs in the event that I have to re-install my operating system for an upgrade. Every time I find a program I like, I add it to this script as "apt-get install -y ". Then when I need to put all my favorite programs on a new install, I run this script and the programs are all installed automatically. 

For server builds, I like to run the history command and redirect output to a file. Then I can edit the resulting file in vim to create a new script that will configure the machine the way I want for the next build. BTW, vim is great for improving typing accuracy.

Anyway, I could go on, but that is enough for now. If you find that a term is unfamiliar and you want to learn more, use that term in a search on your search engine of choice. Feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more, too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Patently Obvious

The US Patent system has been revered in our country as an institution that protects the small business inventor and provides incentives for bringing innovations to market. In recent years, the US Patent system, and the US Patent Office have been subjected to greatly increased scrutiny and criticism. What exactly is the catalyst for so much furor over the patent system and its administration?

One point of criticism is the huge backlog of patents that have yet to be processed by the USPTO. At one point, the backlog was more than 700,000 patents as of 2009. The backlog is considerably lower now, due to new procedures at the patent office. According to an article by Mike Masnick at TechDirt, the backlog reduction has little to do with higher quality patents and a greater rate of rejection. In fact, the USPTO has lowered their standards to facilitate the approval of a greater number of patents.

Masnick says that there are few if any incentives for patent examiners to reject patents. Worse, there seems to be no such thing as a truly final rejection of a patent application - applications are routinely re-submitted in the hopes of wearing the examiners down. In 2001, the approval rate was close to 100%. In 2009, it was about 90%. There is no doubt that many of these patents are vague, overly broad and harmful to downstream innovation.

It seems that the USPTO has become a rubber stamp, approving patent applications rather than taking up the fight to defend their rejections.

In America, we have 3 branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. During the 20th century, American government relied more and more upon administrative agencies and did so for a good reason. Administrative agencies keep the courts clear so that citizens could get justice without resorting to legal process. Unfortunately, our USPTO has decided that rejecting patents is not worth the fight, deferring to the courts to figure out if a patent is valid or infringed.

There is a problem with that. The rules of evidence in patent law are tilted so far in favor of patent holders, that there is more incentive to settle a patent suit than to fight it. Worse, there are so many patents that it's expensive to do a search of patents before you embark on creating a new product. And here's the kicker: patents are intentionally written in broad, vague language to ensnare as many infringers as possible.

It has often been said that government regulation can be bad for the economy. Maybe so, but I don't see anyone identifying patents as a form of regulation. Jefferson is said to have reluctantly approved of the idea of those "embarrassing monopolies" known as patents. He said that a patent system is fine as long as patents are approve rarely and only with very good reason.

It is time to recognize patents as a form of private regulation enforced by government. Considering the success of free software and other forms of collaboration, it seems that the cost of patents are not worth the incentives they provide to innovate. Given the rate of innovation where people freely collaborate together, I think its time we abolished patents.