Friday, May 31, 2013

Windows/Apple Duopoly vs the World

Linux adoption has surged worldwide. But you won't find it on desktop PCs in the US at your local Best Buy or Costco. Microsoft still has sweet agreements with OEMs, businesses and schools to keep using it there. But in the last few years, something very interesting has happened. Linux has routed around Microsoft, like damage, to phones and tablets. These mobile devices are becoming our new computers.

In the old days, Microsoft ruled the boot block on every hard drive on every new computer. Just ask BeOS. They pleaded with Microsoft to play nice and lost, eventually going bankrupt in the process. All they wanted was to co-exist with Windows, but Microsoft would have none of that.

Along came Linux. Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, take your pick. All of the major distributions figured out a way to dual boot with Windows. It's that collaboration thing again. If the world wants to dual boot with Windows, there is nothing that Microsoft can do to stop them. Eventually, open source developers are going to figure out a way to make it work. And they did.

So Microsoft maintains a hold on the new PC market. Along comes the mobile devices starting with Apple's iPhone and iPad. Apple did a fantastic marketing and customer service job to get their devices adopted and it worked. It's also worth noting that Apple's devices run on FreeBSD, a form of UNIX, but that's another article. Even Apple didn't see the locomotive that is Android, coming.

Android is an open source operating system. It's free for anyone to use and to adapt for their own business. When the first Android phone, the G1 came out, I got one as soon as I could do it. The G1, combined with Gmail, freed me from any need for a Windows box at home. No longer did I need to concern myself with syncing mail and contacts with my phone. That is done over the air.

The G1 was just the start. Android went from activating a few thousand phones a day a few years ago to far more than a million phones a day today. In every sense of the word, it is a commercial success. Android runs on Linux, and comprises more than 75% of the phone market. How did Microsoft miss that one?

On tablets, Apple was the first mover. Their iPad devices sold very well and were a commercial success. Microsoft was nowhere to be seen in the tablet space and both Apple and Microsoft missed the threat of Android. Android tablet sales are closing in on 60% market share and are starting to bite into Apple's share. How did Apple and Microsoft miss that one, too?

Apple and Microsoft both missed the server market, too. For years, Linux adoption has been rising in the server space. Google, eBay, Amazon, PayPal, you name it, they're all using it. Linux scales because it's free. There is no way that any of those companies could succeed running Windows. If they tried, Microsoft would just jack up cost of the license to take their business down. Or Microsoft would make it harder for competitors to write applications that run on Windows.

Linux is taking over because of the freedom it offers to businesses. People may wonder how Linux works in the economic sense. 75% of the code contributed to Linux is by paid programmers. Businesses who contribute to the Linux kernel code include IBM, Google, and even Microsoft. They all realize that Linux allows everyone to play on an even field. Linux has become the ultimate utility for computing.

Linux is constantly being improved, debugged and maintained by an enthusiastic horde of programmers working around the clock, worldwide. It now supports more hardware than any other operating system. It has a stable programming interface that is open for all to see. There are no secrets in Linux.

Linux market share is making a huge appearance in job postings. Many System Administrator job posts now require Linux experience. Pundits are saying that if you're in IT and you don't know Linux, you will become irrelevant in 5 years. Linux knowledge is becoming a requirement in most IT shops. How is it that most schools are not using Linux on the desktop in K-12 schools? Free promotions from Apple and Microsoft. Free as in beer, not free as in freedom.

Does anyone seriously believe that Microsoft or Apple can keep up with the rest of the world in computing? I don't.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Frustrations with local broadband

When it comes to Internet access, I don't know what's worse. Predatory pricing or very poor customer service? Which should I pick today?

After reading through the Community Broadband website, I'm getting the sense that I'm missing out on something. I'm missing out on how our community can build something great, but that companies like Comcast and Centurylink would like to prevent that from happening.

Comcast and Centurylink both have a couple of proxies happy to do their bidding: The Utah Taxpayers Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The UTA will crow about how wasteful it is for local governments to build network infrastructure as if Internet access were not some sort of utility. ISPs also have ALEC to help them write legislation custom to their needs.

One result of this unfortunate alliance is the law known as the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act. This law is designed to prevent municipalities from building their own networks when incumbent service providers are reluctant to provide better service at better rates. It was first passed in Utah and has become a model for use in 19 other states to prevent the citizens from getting their work done.

So here I am, perched at the edge of our community network but relegated to substandard service from Comcast or Centurylink. This might not have been the case if Qwest, now Centurylink, hadn't sued the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency for use of the poles in my town. Get this, Qwest wanted to do discovery on more than 20,000 poles, one at a time.

Comcast delivers a great connection, but only for the price of that service plus phone service. If I get the TV service too, then they discount the cost of the Internet access again. Basically, they're really worried that they won't be able to finance a couple of summer homes for the members of the boards of directors if they can't charge what they want. Even if their prices rise faster than inflation. All told, if I used all of their services with a 25mbs connection, I'd be paying well over $100 a month.

Comcast does the loyalty department game to stay engaged with the customer. It works like this: start the customer off with a deep discount service. Then when the discount expires in 6 months, he will call and we'll keep tabs on what he's thinking of doing. I've played this for two years and I'm done. I went with Centurylink. I had no other choice.

Centurylink can offer a speed no faster than 5mbs. They guarantee 4mbs. Some days I get that, some days I don't. My modem is like Schroedinger's cat. I never really know what speed I get until I check on it. And if I check on it often enough, the speed goes up to max. If I miss a day or two, instead of reading 5.120mbs, it will be 4.x or even 3.x. What matters is that I have to spend time checking on my modem over and over again to make sure it's up.

I have service at a deep discount from Centurylink, too. But when the discount expires, I will be paying about the same price as Comcast for 1/4 of the speed. Centurylink and Comcast know what's going on. They can play tag team forever. And with the Utah Legislature at their beck and call, they won't have to worry for long about competition from municipal broadband.

I can tell you that at 4mbs per second or less, the World Wide Web is close to the World Wide Wait. Fat web-based applications run much slower. I often find myself looking at blank pages for a few seconds waiting for pages to load. This is what Comcast and Centurylink want. What else is there to think based on their behavior?

We are long past the time when the Internet is a luxury, merely a source of entertainment. Internet access is a necessity for work, public discourse and pretty much everything else online. It is a utility in the strictest sense of the term.

It is time to stop playing games and designate anyone and everyone who owns the pipes that carry the internet as common carriers. That would fix a large part of the problem.  Doing so would require  carriers to resell access to competitors at wholesale so that we can have real competition.

We also need to repeal ridiculous acts like the Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act. This law Prevents the citizens from pooling their resources together to build infrastructure that shouldn't be private in the first place. Japan proved that with their open access model for Internet access deployment.

Until we make these two basic changes, the world will pass us by on a network that routes around us like damage.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

OpenDocument Format gets traction

It appears that the OpenDocument Format (ODF) is gaining traction in Australia. This is good news. ODF is the file format supported by LibreOffice and OpenOffice, both of which are examples of free productivity software. There are proprietary programs that will support ODF, such as Oracle StarOffice and IBM Symphony, but they cost money. If you want to buy a new computer, but don't want to pay for Microsoft Office, LibreOffice is a very handy replacement.

Microsoft now supports ODF v1.1 and will likely support v.1.2 with Office 2013. Microsoft didn't provide this support willingly. They had to do it or they would be shut out of the government software business for office productivity applications.

Many governments across the world now use ODF as a standard document format to provide for interoperability across applications. What this means is that most office productivity applications will support ODF and allow you to exchange documents with other people, with, as Microsoft likes to put it, "full fidelity". "Fidelity" is something Microsoft likes to talk about when it comes to their Office Open XML file format, or, OOXML.

There are some interesting differences between ODF and OOXML. Whereas ODF is completely defined and documented, OOXML is not. Microsoft has inserted "binary blobs" into their format that allows Microsoft to keep some aspects of their document format secret while claiming it to be an open standard.

ODF is unencumbered by patents. It is a common format available to all who want to use, privately or commercially. The only requirement is that the resulting document conform to the standard. ODF was a standard set by hundreds of participants in an effort to create a standard that is enduring beyond centuries.

OOXML is encumbered by certain patents so that only Microsoft can use all the features maintain "fidelity" better than other users of OOXML. Microsoft is very concerned about competition on its home turf and prefers to establish an advantage for itself through a process called, Embrace, Extend, Extinguish. So while Microsoft does have an advantage with OOXML, governments have been reluctant to set OOXML as a standard document format for obvious reasons. They don't want to be dependent on a single vendor.

In 2007, the State of Massachusetts attempted to set ODF as a document standard for all documents. Microsoft took notice and embarked on a vicious and expensive campaign to prevent even one state from establishing an alternative to Microsoft Office.

There seems to be some cognitive dissonance evidenced by Microsoft's arrogance. Document standards must be free and open to protect the sovereignty of the state. For one, the state cannot be dictating that the citizens must buy a proprietary program to read and write documents produced by the government. Second, the state cannot be dependent upon a single vendor to get and retain access to the documents they create.

To put it simply, the argument over which document standard to use is about sovereignty. If the state must rely upon a single vendor to communicate to the people they serve, the state becomes subject to the whims of that vendor. This condition will place the sovereignty of the state at risk.

There is one more problem with Microsoft's idea that they should be the primary stakeholder in the document format used by the state: there is no intellectual property without the state. For decades, Microsoft maintained dominance through government use of their software. That dominance was protected by their secret and proprietary document formats, which in turn was protected by the state with copyrights and patents.

Governments around the world have come to realize the threat to their power that is posed by proprietary document formats. ODF thwarts that threat and provides a stable, safe and open file format for our documents. Open standards are necessary for any democracy to function. ODF, as governments worldwide have recognized, properly addresses that need.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


From time to time, I have exchanges with others in social networking that goes something like this:

ME: Seems like the United States is a place where every man for himself is the rule. Maybe we could learn something from Norway or Denmark, or even Germany.
Other guy: So you think we should be a socialist country?
Me: I think it's worth considering. At the height of the Second World War, F.A. Hayek wrote a book called "The Road To Serfdom" in which he noted that America had adopted the same policies as Germany did 30 years before the war. He asked a relevant question: so what are we fighting about again?
Other Guy: Take a look at those socialist countries. Do you ever buy anything from them?
Me: Maybe. Denmark is a net exporter with the US and so is Germany. Norway is also an net exporter to the United States, but not as consistently as the others. Denmark and Germany are both net exporters, yet they enjoy some of the highest standards of living in the world. I have a question for you: Do you ever buy anything from the United States?
Other Guy: Sure. The iPad, my Mac and my car.
Me: You know as well as I do that your electronics are made in a variety of countries in Southeast Asia. Your American car is rife with parts sourced from foreign and domestic countries. Can you name one thing you own that was entirely sourced and made here in the US? Just one?
Other Guy: I'll have to get back to you on that. Still, Americans can get as rich as they want. We still have it better here.
Me: You know that's a fantasy, right? I mean, do you really think the uber-wealthy are going to allow that kind of competition?
Other Guy: I don't know what you're talking about. Look, I gotta head back to the trailer park, the wife's expecting me.
Me: Ok.
Bernie Sanders has correctly noted that Denmark is a very socialist country, yet it's a net exporter. Germany is also characterized as a socialist country, and it is also a net exporter.

By now, you're probably wondering what all this has to do with technology. Quite a bit, actually. The United States seems to have reversed socialism so that income flows to the top rather than the bottom. With every advance in technology, the vast majority of the wealth created by each advance goes to the top. This has been characterized as the Conservative Nanny State.

To put this in perspective, the typical engineer working for a high tech company is not necessarily deriving all of the financial gain from his innovations. His contract will usually require him to assign all intellectual property arising from his work to the company he works for. He may or may not get a bonus depending on how well the company executes on bringing the innovations to market.

For all others who did not make a direct contribution to the innovations sold by the company, they're out of luck. Their wages tend to stay flat, they are not likely to receive any stock options and they are less likely to receive a bonus. The most likely candidate for a bonus or stock option is the CEO, regardless of how well the company performs. This disconnect between pay and performance has been well documented by the New York Times. Noted economist, Dean Baker's new website, DirectorWatch will help to document this at the board level, too.

Consider: Socialism is taking money from the wealthiest of the population through heavy taxation and redistributing it to everyone else, regardless of their performance. Socialism is also embodied in the CEO and board member selection process in corporations. CEOs quite often are selected by their friends and buddies in corporate culture. CEOs often make six or seven figures even when they tank the company. Worse, when the CEO leaves, his severance pay is a lifetime of pay for the workers he supervises. The CEO and the board of directors often receive fantastic sums of compensation regardless of their performance. Members of the board earn on average $240,000 a year for just 4-8 meetings.

So while it is true that consumers receive tangible benefits of technology, they are often excluded from the financial benefits of technology when they participate in the manufacture of that technology. This is a problem and it is unsustainable. Why?

If you exclude ordinary workers from the fruits of their work, they cannot afford training to keep up on their trade or craft. Education is expensive, so most employees forgo the training or higher education to avoid the debt. This has the benefit of keeping wages down and tends to strand the employee, making it difficult for him to advance without taking on debt for education.

This barrier to education creates a skills gap that is so often complained of. Employers would rather hire foreign workers who have received the benefit of government subsidized education from a foreign government. This keeps taxes low for employers. Employers are getting very creative about externalizing costs. When they can't get skilled workers, and they don't want to pay for education here, they get them from somewhere else.

If they can't get them to come here, they take their manufacturing overseas, reducing domestic demand for the skills they say that they need. That reduces funding for the education required to acquire those skills. Eventually, the entire infrastructure for cultivating employees with the desired skills is gone. This might help to explain the strong dollar policy maintained by the Fed and the Treasury for more than 30 years.

The trends observed here are unsustainable. We cannot rely upon foreign governments to educate their workers so that they can work here forever. Eventually, we're going to have to find a way to create the workforce that we need here, and that means we're going to have to pay for it. Who has the money?

The Walton family owns about 30% of the wealth in this country alone. They're not going to spend their money to educate workers. That would increase their costs. More progressive taxation and a higher corporate tax with investment incentives may be required to finance the education of a workforce that can keep up with our foreign competitors. We've tried other ways to no avail (think Reagan Revolution). With $2 Trillion parked offshore, corporations have demonstrated their amazing skill at externalize their costs.

How long can this continue?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monsanto: the ultimate rent seeker

In over 400 cities across the world, thousands of people are protesting Monsanto. Why?

Monsanto owns 90% of the US seed market much to the detriment of the consumer. Monsanto's dominance of the seed market is not possible without tremendous assistance from state and federal governments. That assistance starts with seed patents that claim resistance to glyphosphate herbicide, aka, Round Up. The seeds sold by Monsanto are "Round Up Ready". As a patent owner, Monsanto is prone to rent-seeking behavior. Let's take a closer look.

Monsanto claims rights to the use of the seeds. In Bowman v Monsanto, the Supreme Court ruled that patent rights are not exhausted with the first sale of the seeds. A farmer named Bowman bought seeds with the patented genes intended for use as feed grain and planted them instead. Monsanto became aware of this use of the seeds and sued. This ruling means that you can't buy their seeds and plant them without buying a license to do so.

Monsanto has also sued and prevailed in court against farmers who had crops that happened to be pollinated by Round Up Ready crops. Organic farmers are suing Monsanto for contaminating their crops with the pollen. Monsanto is winning in the courts, again, to the detriment of the people.

All the while, Monsanto is earning billions from its seeds with patent enforcement from the government. Without patent enforcement, Monsanto could not prevail in court, farmers would be free to use the seeds and that would wipe out any incentive for Monsanto to continue their research. On the other hand, if the seeds were not patented, a green field would open for innovation in seeds.

Unfortunately, all of this business has occurred without extensive, long-term field testing of the environmental impact of the seeds. In fact, Phil Angell, Director of Corporate Communications, Monsanto, was quoted by the New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998 as follows:
“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.... Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job”
There's something wrong when any company is unwilling to be accountable for the safety of its products. We might be able to trust the FDA, but as long as Monsanto can hold out the promise of a a very high-paying job to FDA employees, that might not happen. It is also interesting to see that a company with so much power is not willing to acknowledge any liability for the use of their products.

Rent-seeking tends to make the ends justify the means. Just ask Roy Blunt (R), Senator from Missouri. He defends the Monsanto Protection Act as necessary and objects to any effort to repeal it. He doesn't think that farmers should be held liable for seeds that were permitted to be grown in the first place.

If the seeds are safe, why the strenuous resistance to labeling? Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would allow states to determine if GMO foods should be labeled. Ironically, the biggest supporters of states rights, the GOP, rejected this bill. Apparently, the House and Senate GOP delegations do not think that states should have the right to regulate food grown in their own states. Notably, Hawaii disagrees.

The FDA, the EPA and our Congress seem to be following two principles: "Do nothing. Stay the course." Listening to the people is not included in their to-do list.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The evolution of music in the car

I speak for my own experience here, so feel free to compare your experience with mine. You may find something in my experience that you missed that you can try out. If you see something missing, let me know. I'd like to hear about it.

I remember the days of radio. Some people still listen to the radio in the car. I used to listen to commercial radio every day. I stopped listening to my own music in the car because I couldn't seem to get a good recording of my vinyl LPs to tape. So I listened to the radio.

My experience with commercial radio is to listen to music I don't like for about 30-40 minutes with a few commercials and DJ blather in between, only to find one or two songs in a set that I liked. The songs that I liked were often pretty old songs.

I also noticed that the commercials were doing something to my thinking that I didn't like. At some point in my life, I just decided I didn't want someone telling me what to do on the radio. So I switched to public radio. I found KCRW and KXLU (both of which are now streaming through the Internet). Morning Becomes Eclectic and Metropolis on KCRW turned me on to entirely new genres for me. KXLU seemed to play everything that was underground, that was fine with me as I was already bored to death with "hit radio".

So I got some relief from commercials there. But I still wanted to listen to my own music. When I got my first CD deck with a CD changer in my car, I was playing my CDs all the time. Every week, I'd change them out and listen to what I wanted. I rarely listened to the radio then.

Then I discovered that I could install a stereo that would play music from a USB drive. Now that was cool. I thought about an iPod, but I really don't like Apple. The market had been saturated with Apple only solutions, so when I found the USB drive solution, I was very happy.

Every week, I would fill up the drive with 1GB of music and drive away happily, playing my music. The stereo display would show me what was playing and I'd know if the song wasn't familiar to me. It remembered what I was playing when I turned the car off during the previous use and picked up where we left off. I could turn off the car, take the stick with me and then plug it back in. The closer, the feature I liked the most, is that losing a USB drive was not a big deal, so I could leave it in the car. Losing an iPod, that's a big deal.

I wasn't so lucky on my next car. The auto manufacturers have not been kind to aftermarket manufacturers, seeking to subvert the will of the car buyer from buying a stock radio and going to an aftermarket shop to install a CD deck of their choice. I could have had a CD changer, but they wanted $1100 for that. That is a lot of money for a changer.

I did find that there was a charger port and a sound port for music devices in my new car. So I tried different devices, but nothing really suited my needs. That changed when I got an Android phone. I found that I could pack music on the internal SD card and play from there. The stock music player left much to be desired.

While I was waiting for the stock music player to catch up, I found WinAmp for Android and played streaming music from stations I know and love: Groove Salad, Zone Drone, Cryosleep and Blue Mars. WinAmp had problems making the transition from Wi-fi at home to the cellular network, so I looked around and found Tune-in. That is a very solid music player for Internet radio.

Although I still like Tune-in, I noticed something new for me at the time. Pandora. I tried Pandora at work, then found the Pandora app for Android. But I still wasn't playing my own music, thinking that the stock music app was lagging behind everyone else.

When I found Google Play, I thought I might not want to upload all of my music to the cloud. After much consideration, I gave it a try. Google is very good about supporting Linux, so there was a Linux client I could install to scan my library, upload the music and then play it back through my browser if I wanted to. A few interesting points here: it's free and, it's based on the number of tracks, not the amount of space used in the cloud. That's nice because a few of my songs are more than an hour long. And I like to use FLAC for ripping CDs.

Now I can listen to my music anytime, anywhere. I can use my phone or any browser on any computer. I use Chrome because it just works better than any other browser out there. I use Google Play on my phone when I'm in the car. This method does use the data plan and with daily use, the maximum of 2GB can be reached. But it seems to be the best solution.

Notice the trend in my experience. All solutions eventually lead to streaming music, even for my own music. Streaming music is a wild fantasy for music lovers. The downside is being dependent on a network connection. In a city, this is fine, in the boonies, not so good.

What is your experience of the evolution of music playback in the car? Similar to mine or different? How so? Feel free to share you experience with solutions that worked for you.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A negative feedback loop

As our economy becomes more and more automated, the economic benefits from that automation fail more often than not, to reach the middle class. In addition to that, over the years, we've seen enormous efforts to protect the upper classes from real competition from everyone else.

According to the most recent report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, 
"Cash flow remains strong for corporations, but weak for households. Since the latter accounts for about 70% of the economy, it is difficult to envision a strong economic recovery until wages and employment begin to move in the same direction as customer satisfaction."
Household spending is 70% of the economy. Yet, most of the gains in our economy are being funneled into corporate profits. That means stockholders, board directors and CEOs are getting access to that capital, diverting it from the people would spend it to keep the economy moving. If they were creating jobs, we'd know about it now, wouldn't we?

Most of the gains from automation are quickly recouped by the corporations that buy the equipment or software giving rise to automation. They are not passed on to the employees who design, build and maintain the equipment used to automate business processes. In fact, 96% of the increase in GDP has gone to the top 10% earners in the country over the last 30 years (think Ronald Reagan, Republican Revolution). Even conservative newspapers are reporting on inequality in America. According to the CIA, inequality in America is greater than in Pakistan or the Ivory Coast. We're worse than a Third World country and we risk becoming one if the current trend continues.

The cycle seems to work like this:

  • Cut taxes on the highest earners.
  • Allow the highest earners to buy laws that protect them from competition.
  • The highest earners make decisions that affect everyone negatively except themselves.
  • When the decisions are shown to fail for everyone else, then they blame everyone else.
  • Use available capital to lobby for more protection and concentrate more capital.

As incomes rise for executives, very strong downward pressure is placed on wages for everyone else. This is what has been going on for at least the last 30 years. No matter how much more the middle class manages to produce, the gains from the increases in production will be quickly vacuumed up by the upper class. Whether we're writing software, creating robots, or finding some novel way to get more work done, the middle class is often not rewarded for the increase in efficiency.

The reward? Jobs are sent overseas and upper class jobs are provided with more protection. For example, doctors are quite often protected from "free trade" agreements. They can use their considerable clout to preserve their average $178,000 a year earnings. 80% of orthopedic surgeons earn more than $400,000 a year. Why are they protected when the middle class is left to fend for itself against the rest of the world?

This is a negative feedback loop. As wages stagnate, purchasing power declines against inflation. This increases demand for lower prices, so then our wonderful MBAs look for ways to cut costs by sending more jobs overseas. This reduces or eliminates the infrastructure available to manufacture goods here. It also removes our opportunity for innovation to reduce costs here.

This cycle erodes the middle class and fosters a certain attitude among the upper class: "Oh, you want to be paid more? We don't need you, we can make our product in China or Thailand. Oh, you want to pay less for our product? That's ok. There's plenty of demand overseas. By the way, we're cutting you off from social welfare benefits because they're too expensive. Call us when you're ready to work for $9 an hour." But what they won't tell you is how much assistance they're getting from the government through subsidies, patents and copyrights.

I believe in the free market. But I don't believe in promoting a system that allows only the wealthy to have influence in government. Larry Lessig has researched the problem of influence and found that only 0.05% of the American population are financing 60% of our election campaigns across all levels of government. 60%! That is a tremendous influence on government policy from a teeny tiny minority.

I don't know what the answer to the problem of inequality is. All I do know is that the current set of conditions in our economy are not sustainable. Unless we change course, we are becoming the banana republic that we mock in popular culture.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

ISPs most hated industry in America

The Huffington Post is running a story on the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index report issued for 2013. After reading their story, I gathered the report myself and had a look. Of note is this very interesting little tidbit on the state of our economy:

"Cash flow remains strong for corporations, but weak for households. Since the latter accounts for about 70% of the economy, it is difficult to envision a strong economic recovery until wages and employment begin to move in the same direction as customer satisfaction."

That's a very interesting way to open a report on consumer satisfaction. The statement seems to plow into direct conflict with what the press and economists have been urging us to believe for the past 3 decades: that when business does well, consumers do well, too.

More importantly, though, the report shows that the Internet Service Provider industry is universally reviled around the country. We know they charge very high prices for substandard service. I live in a smaller city and am acutely aware of the lack of choice or competition in this industry. I can choose Comcast for fast, expensive service, or I can choose Centurylink for slower, expensive service, but at a discount.

Even Bloomberg has published an article detailing the gaps and problems with our ISP industry. With so much concern *everywhere*, why aren't ISPs taking decisive action?

No competition. Or at least, very little. The reason is simple. The FCC has permitted massive consolidation in the industry and has failed to properly designate the ISPs as common carriers. Once the ISPs are designated as common carriers, we can expect Comcast to get really interested and focused on dealing with the competition that will sprout from the new status. Net neutrality becomes a relatively moot issue when the ISPs are acting and regulated as common carriers.

The competition for the owners of the pipes is in the form of wholesalers who will then have the right to re-sell access to the Comcast network and provide customer service. That is the open access way. It works in Japan, there is no reason why it won't work here.

I'm looking forward to the day that employees in the FCC give up on their hopes of a job at Comcast or Time-Warner and properly regulate these embarrassing monopolies.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why so shy about cold fusion, Rossi?

Extreme Tech reports that the process of cold fusion in the Energy Catalyzer has been verified by credible scientists in the European Union. What's interesting is that the verification process doesn't permit a complete examination of the contents of the device and lacks full disclosure of the processes involved. Apparently, there is a "secret ingredient" that is necessary to make it all happen. This secret ingredient is known only to Rossi and no one else.

After a few years of promotion, scientists have finally been invited to test and verify that the the Energy Catalyzer (E-Cat) produces more energy than it takes in. It has been found to be 10,000 times more energy dense than gasoline. This would be great news if it could actually be confirmed with full disclosure and examination.

The E-cat is a creation of Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi. Rossi has spent 15 years working on his E-cat device and has only recently offered it for sale. He has applied for patents on the device, but, according to Wikipedia, his 2008 patent application has received an unfavorable preliminary review due to the lack of a complete theory explaining the operation of the E-cat.

If the point of a patent is to disclose the invention so that others could build it, Rossi seems to have missed that point. What he seems to want is a patent on a trade secret.

Patents are intended to secure enough time and protection so that an inventor can capture a return on his invention to recoup his research and development expenses after he brings his invention to market. If the E-cat is as good as Rossi says, he should make plenty of money even if he makes a complete disclosure of the invention. Even if thousands of other people can build it and sell it, he's still going to make billions if he executes properly. He will have the first mover advantage.

Perhaps Rossi wants for himself all the profits for an invention that could conceivably save the human race from destroying itself in an insatiable quest for energy. It is also possible that he has not had a chance to read "The Mary Gloster" with the relevant part quoted below:

I knew - I knew what was coming, when we bid on the Byfleet's keel -
They piddled and piffled with iron, I'd given my orders for steel!
Steel and the first expansions. It paid, I tell you, it paid,
When we came with our nine-knot freighters and collared the long-run trade!
And they asked me how I did it; and I gave 'em the Scripture text,
"You keep your light so shining a little in front o' the next!"
They copied all they could follow, but they couldn't copy my mind,
And I left 'em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.

An invention like the E-cat will make billions in consulting fees alone, in addition to sales profits. It will require time, expertise and effort to install, configure and maintain. Since it is new technology, anyone attempting to use this device to generate energy will be hard pressed to maintain it in working condition without full and complete documentation. The documentation I speak of is refined after years of use and thousands of man-hours by many users to find out what works best.

In other words, the early adopters are going to provide massive inputs for research and development before the E-cat becomes a standard item in every home and business. If Rossi is able to keep a key ingredient secret for long, that documentation is going to be much, much harder to generate. Even very well documented technology requires time, effort and record keeping to operate, understand and to maintain. Without knowledge of that secret ingredient, end users will not be able to easily find a mechanic to get their machines back online when they break.

Note that Rossi is not the only one. Thousands of patents are issued each day with incomplete specs, vague descriptions and nary a reduction to practice. These patents are often for an idea, a land grab, rather than to disclose an actual invention.

I applaud Rossi's effort to commercialize cold fusion, I hope it works. However, his patent application offers not quite enough to teach others how to build it. If he wants to keep a trade secret, he should withdraw the patent application and carry on. But if he wants to share the invention with the world, the patent should fully disclose the workings of the E-cat device.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Patents vs 3D printing

While watching YouTube today, I came upon an ad for a 3D scanner. As the ad extolled the virtues and features of the scanner, I was impressed with how versatile scanners have become. The scanner in the ad could adjust for albedo, metals, and ambient light. It could produce a precise model of the scanned object as a computer file. The resulting computer file could then be shared.

Combine that scanner with a 3D printer and you get a 3D copier. Any shape you want to copy can be copied with a 3D printer and scanner. The innovative potential for this process is unlimited.

Over the last few months, a group of enthusiasts have been building, copying, sharing and perfecting a 3D-printed gun. I watched the headlines of this story over weeks to see the gun evolve from a concept to a working gun that can shoot a fair number of rounds before it breaks down. With a little finessing of the materials, it will eventually become a reliable weapon over time. The collaborative effort to improve the gun will eventually overwhelm any single gun maker in terms of capacity, precision and cost.

The network effects of 3D printing are starting to appear. As one object after another is copied through 3D scanners, each object will have a corresponding file. Once the CAD file is created, the file is shared and modified, over and over again. With each set of iterations, improvements will emerge and become dominant in the design of new copies. Iterations that don't work, or don't work as well as the best iteration, will be discarded in favor of a better working copy.

Each scan yields complete specs, materials and designs for an object, or, a new invention.

If the purpose of the patent system is to disclose inventions that would otherwise be kept secret, there is really almost no comparison to the 3D copier. In fact, some patent holders have been suing 3D printer manufacturers to stop them from making the printers unless their particular invention is blocked from printing. Existing patent holders already see the threat to their businesses from 3D printing.

This is just the beginning. Copyright is intended to encourage people to create works of art - film, audio and books - yet, technology has supplanted all that and more. 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Peer to peer file sharing is replicating and distributing books, audio and video by the terabyte. If that is what has happened to digital copies of creative works in just a few years, what will happen to patented objects?

In the debates over patents, there is very little discussion of the downstream effects of a broad patent. The system seems almost entirely bent on bestowing immense grants of power to just one inventor. The burden of evidence for the patentee is light since the patent is presumed to be valid. The burden to the defense is very high as any challenge in court requires clear and convincing evidence of prior art. Defense against patent suits, usually initiated by patent trolls can run into millions in costs. This could slow down 3D printing and scanning, but it won't stop it.

With the advent of 3D printing and scanning, simultaneous invention becomes a much more common occurrence. Independent invention of new and novel devices will become more common. But the human desire to share new discoveries and inventions often precedes any desire to acquire protection for an invention. This has been proven time and again by inventors who choose not to get their devices and ideas patented.

3D printing and scanning provide an almost perfect model for disclosure of inventions. I believe that 3D printing and scanning will prove to be far more efficient for disclosure and use of inventions than the patent system. Will we really need a patent system anymore when 3D printing  and scanning becomes commonplace? I don't think so.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cracks in the fantasy of a very small government

I have been doing debate on Facebook with conservatives and potentially libertarians who assert that if the people are left alone, they will be fine. This, of course, ignores thousands of years of history that show that when tiny minorities come to power, they almost always use that power with impunity to oppress others. This is especially true when government is smaller than the mob and/or when the mob has subverted the will of the people in government.

During debates such as these, I have suggested to the other person, that if he is looking for a nation that has fewer laws and smaller government, he might consider Somalia. Now there's a country with a very small government that is almost lawless. I think they'd welcome him with open arms.

Even in this day and age, there are still people who like to live, "off the books", a sort of modern day version of the Wild West. They do all their business in cash, have few records and often will not seek recourse when a crime is committed for fear of the authorities. Many of these people are immigrants, often illegal immigrants.

I heard a story once about a legal immigrant woman who lived with a man out of marriage while she supported her kids. She had managed to save a tidy sum and invested part of that sum with the man in some property. During their relationship, he became violent with her, so she found refuge somewhere else. But she could not get her money back. He simply refused to put her name on the deed to the property and kept the money.

The woman had a contract, but had no way to enforce it because she did not know how. She could seek help from the district attorney where her interest in the property was situated, but she was worried about reprisal by the man with violent tendencies.

For those who think that we need no laws, or very few laws, with a really small government, she might have no recourse at all. The government would be too small to help this woman, as only the wealthiest people would have access to the courts or law enforcement. The wealthiest people might have their own private police.

Because the woman conducted a large transaction in cash and had no contract, there was no third party to verify the transaction. Though she had a contract to speak for her when the other party reneged on the agreement, she could not enforce it without help. It may be that her best recourse is to inform her ethnic community and hope for vigilante justice.

For those who wish for a smaller government with fewer laws, you might consider the problem above and wonder how to solve it. Should the woman simply forget the deal and move on? Should there be no option for justice for her? Will the man who took the money be free to do it again?

In this modern age, we need government to act as an impartial arbiter of our transactions to ensure fair play. We have computers and databases to help record our transactions, root out wrong-doers and provide a record upon which a fair hearing can be heard. The Tea Party may consider this to be evidence of a surveillance state. To them, I say, "If you want your so-called 'freedom', you may need to relocated to a remote island or mountain where you will not be bothered by civilization." There, you can recreate Galt's Gulch on your own initiative, pursuant to your own imagination.

It is true that our system of government is not perfect, far from it. But it is better than it used to be. Technology has provided us with an impartial witness to assist us in our pursuit of justice and happiness.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Economic Demand: the chain of events

While shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond one day, I couldn't help but notice all the junk for sale. I found myself fascinated by the "as-shown-on-TV" products displayed at the checkout stand just waiting for the impulse buyer. Who buys this stuff and why? Do these items last more than just a few uses before they break?

When I look at my own kitchen, I think of the things I have bought: glasses, plates, utensils, storage containers and cooking tools. I have one of those fancy-pants blenders - it works great, but one of the clips broke. I have to find a way to get one of the parts replaced and I'm not sure I can get it replaced. Maybe 3-D printing can do the job.

I like to buy things of better quality with a bit more money. This way, they last a long time and I'm not buying the same thing twice or three times or more. I sincerely enjoy a product that lasts longer than I expected and that I can truly use until it is worn out. In a way, re-use is the best way to recycle. Some of the items in my kitchen are more than 20 years old and need no replacement. They just work.

This is what I think of as a frugal state of mind. I developed this state of mind from a thought experiment. I considered what would happen if I dropped a drinking glass and it broke. What happens when I buy another one?

First, I plan a trip to buy a replacement glass among other products at the source, the store where I bought it. That requires gas to make the trip. Then there is the time to drive there, locate the replacement product, put it in the cart, check out and drive home. The process of checking out will require access to hardware to scan the product, and a computer connected to several database servers.

The computers record the products purchased, the buyer, the time and the method of purchase. If a credit or debit card is used, then transaction clearing databases are used to ensure that adequate funds are available while processing the transaction. This part of the data processing is not the most interesting part.

When a purchase is recorded, it is recorded as demand for a product. An entire supply chain exists to meet that demand. The supply chain ends at the store shelf and goes back to a distributor, manufacturers, and raw materials suppliers. All of it without exception, comes from the earth. Every time we buy anything, anything at all, we are imposing a demand on the earth - our source of sustenance, our environment.

Think of that drinking glass again. We have more than 7 billion people on the planet. Imagine the burden imposed on the earth to supply 7 billion people with drinking glasses. Do the same thing to a t-shirt, a table, a computer, a cell phone, or even a car. It is truly mind-boggling to realize the effort required to bring all those resources together to meet demand on a global level. What is even more mind boggling is what will happen to our home (this big blue marble) if we try to meet that demand without developing clean energy or far more efficient recycling processes.

My thought experiment has taught me there is more to being frugal than just saving money. It is a state of mind that recognizes the demands we place on the world we live in when we buy a single drinking glass.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A patent decision to remember

I learned from that there has been an incredible decision at the Federal Circuit of Appeals concerning patents. In CLS Bank v. Alice Corp., the court issued an en banc ruling, that, if left to stand, will likely wipe out more than 320,000 business method and software patents. This isn't just my own estimate. This is an estimate by one judge who wrote a dissenting opinion attached to the courts decision.

One judge even expressed concern about a "free-fall" in the patent system, that the decision will destroy an enormous amount of wealth in terms of patents. What is interesting to me is that the judge seems to pay no mind to the public domain, to the soil needed for innovation. Losing these patents and more like them, means that business owners won't have to wake up in the middle of the night worrying that they could go bankrupt defending against a troll.

I'm sure the losing party, Alice Corp., has already filed an appeal or is planning to. The question remains as to whether or not the Supreme Court will hear the appeal. Given the breadth and the scope of the decision, it is likely that SCOTUS will hear it. On the other hand, if certiorari is denied,  the SCOTUS could easily let those patents fall.

Patents are a form of regulation. Many conservatives have complained about regulations, but they don't talk much about patents. I never hear them saying that it would be a good idea to severely restrict the number and increase the quality of patents. To compare, if we removed 320,000 patents from the marketplace, that would be like removing a million plus pages of regulations from the market.

These "idea patents" are written in vague, broad language. The language is so broad that the patents offer no specific way to build the invention, providing no effective limit on the enforcement of the patents. The Constitution prohibits vague laws. Why is there an exception for patents?

I wouldn't be surprised to find that many investors who are aware of the ruling are taking short positions on publicly traded companies with a large software and business method patent portfolio. That would include companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Nokia. Patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures and Acacia would become much less of a threat. Most interesting of all is the patent portfolio of MPEG-LA. What will become of them and their threats against VP8 and Ogg? What about patent protections for DVDs and Blu-Ray?

This is one incredible decision that should be allowed to stand. I hope it does.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mind Games

In the olden days, we had an Atari 2600 with a joystick for a game controller (don't ask me how that term got coined, I don't know). We played all sorts of games from Pong to Tank Battle, a game I could never seem to win with Dad. We finished each gaming session with sore thumbs and palms, but we had fun playing.

I've been away from gaming for a long time. I guess I'm just not that into games, but this post on Slashdot caught my eye. The Neurogamers Expo? They could be paving the road to playing mind games as they experiment with and perfect the the brain computer interface.

Here is what makes their work significant. To start, they could enable an entirely new workforce formerly incapable of working on computers. For example, Iraq War veterans who have suffered hand injuries that prevent them from typing could type and move a mouse again. They may even become so proficient with their minds while working on their computers, that they can outperform people who can type and move a mouse by hand.

I believe that the brain computer interface will become far more efficient that what we use now. Keyboards and mice will be with us for a long time to come, but they will be supplanted and eventually replaced by the brain computer interface.

This is the dawn of the commercially available brain computer interface. Are you ready?

Why can't we brick our phones when they're stolen?

Australia and England do it. But we don't. The land of Oz has seen mugging and robbing for smartphones take a dive when phones are required to be bricked when a customer reports the phone to be stolen.

Our personal electronics have become little gems. They are full of personal information, music, and expensive functionality that you won't find in lesser devices. Smartphones fetch good money on the black market.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the phones and their theft, yet the carriers and the manufacturers have shown little desire to fix the problem. My wife had a phone stolen once and I asked T-Mobile to brick it, but they would not. Why not? They did not give a reason why.

This is a story that many journalists have reported on. Even today, The Register in *England* is running a story about smartphone theft in the U.S. It seems that the New York Attorney General is asking the major manufacturers why they can't build a "brick my stolen phone" feature into their gear.

I think he's asking the wrong party. He needs to go to the carriers for the answers. Why?

Look at the subsidy built into the phones. Buy an unlocked iPhone and you're talking $500-700. Even a new Samsung Galaxy S III will cost more than $500 at retail. Now if you buy with a two year contract, you're going to pay substantially less, but you're on the hook for two years. The value of the hardware is peanuts compared to the money the data plans bring in. The economics are simple, phone companies have absolutely NO incentive to brick a stolen phone. Zero.

Who are the carriers looking out for? Certainly not us, because they really can't resist the lucre of the data plan. The carriers are looking out for the CEO and the board of directors, plain and simple. These very important people need to pay for maintenance on their summer home in Spain when they're not on vacation.

So the Attorney General of New York is going to get some info from the phone makers. Then if he's smart, he's going to talk to the carriers because the manufacturers are just doing what the carriers ask. If he doesn't start working on the carriers to change their policies, he may be tacitly acknowledging that stolen phones are a profit center for the carriers.

So here's something to consider. Every phone has an EIN printed on it and burned into the hardware. Why is it that the carriers are not matching EINs for stolen phones? It's not that hard to call all the carriers and ask them if the phone has been stolen. Carriers could be required to identify the phone as stolen. We could even have a national registry of stolen phones that makes it easy to track them down, or to at least verify if the phone was stolen before purchase.

Carriers have the ultimate power and responsibility for the phones they sign up for subscriptions. But they are not acting like responsible corporate citizens when they fail to help the rightful owners track down their phones and help prosecute people who buy stolen goods. Apply the pressure to the manufacturers and the carriers, then the market for stolen smartphones will dry up.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Subtle evolution of the car

I've been driving for oh, I don't know, 30 years. During that time, I've had the opportunity to witness many innovations and subtle improvements in the humble automobile. I'd like to share some of them with you, with a glance towards the future.

I can remember my first car, a 1973 Chevy Malibu sedan. I loved the way the colors of sunset would bounce off the hood. It was pretty ho-hum. No air conditioning, I had to install my own sound system and it could barely hold 80mph on the freeway (yes, I was a leadfoot).

It was easy to see what was going on under the dash. Wires, tubes and shafts everywhere. The interior was devoid of the creature comforts we have become accustomed to. In the back seat, there were only lap restraints for seat belts.

I have some fond memories in that car, but I can honestly say that I don't miss it.

I remember when anti-lock brakes came out. It would be a long time before I bought a car that had them, but I read Car and Driver magazine, so I knew of their benefits. I learned how to pump the brakes when I needed to stop in slick conditions or if I could hear the tires squeal in my older cars. Learning that skill was also a source of relief when I encountered the need to use it.

I have had the opportunity to use anti-lock brakes in my current car, a 2007 Honda Civic sedan. I am glad that they are there. They have saved me some serious coin and from personal injury. It is a curious sensation to feel the pedal pulsating as I applied all the pressure I could muster in the moment to keeping the brakes on.

Another feature I like about current cars is the automatic everything. I have a key fob that locks all the doors. If I have any doubt that I locked the doors, even when the car is on the third floor of the parking structure, I can just be near the car, press a button on the fob, and the car would honk to let me know it was locked. This could be science fiction 30 years ago. But it is our reality.

The stock sound system in my car is better than anything I might have bought in the 80s. Thanks to computer drafting and engineering systems for car design, the speakers can be designed to match the acoustic properties of the interior of the car. The sound system in my car is not even the top-end system and yet, it still sounds great.

I'm rather nostalgic about family road trips. I can recall what we used to do to keep the kids occupied. Dad would give $5 to the first kid to spot the highway patrol. We'd play that license plate game where we look for all the letters of the alphabet. We'd sing songs together. I guess those days are gone.

With the rise of the SUV, we see the "living room on wheels". LCD screens in the seatbacks to play movies for the kids. 5.1 surround systems for music, complete with on-board storage for all of our music. Some are even running Windows for a complete package. I would never buy a car with Windows running on it, anywhere. I know enough about Windows to know that it doesn't belong in a car.

Electric cars have been a dream for a long time, but now they are close to reality for many of us. Just plug in at home and at work and your commute is covered. You may not be seeing gas pumps for very long anymore.

The most interesting innovation to come is the self-driving car. Google got the ball rolling and has a car that has seen several hundred thousand miles. There are at least 20 known examples of cars that drive themselves. Will kids born in the last decade learn to drive like the current crop of drivers?

I can imagine a life where the trip to California is spent playing with the kids instead of driving the car. On the same trip, we could take a nap, listen to music, watch a movie or just watch the scenery fly by. I'm sure my instincts will be on fire for awhile, but after that, we can learn to trust the car.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Can We Innovate Out of this Recession?

God only knows how many words have been typed to identify the cause of this recession. I believe that by the time we get to the end and can look back, we will see that this was a depression. In 1929, property values fell more than 30%, but in a longer span of time than we have seen between 2006-2009. If that is a measure of a depression, then we were in one.

So how are we going to get ourselves out of this one? Are we going to go the way of painful cuts in social services and civil services like police, fire and education? Austerity has been tried, to no avail.

Before the last midterm elections, President Obama suggested that the spirit of American innovation can lift us out of this recession. America has had a very long history of innovation leading the way for this country. But it can only do so as long as the powers that be are willing to let it. Unfortunately, there is very little room for innovation without risk of incumbents blocking or shelving the new ideas that could be implemented to lift our economy.

There is a lot of talk about the change in tax policy over the last 30 years. It is clear that tax policy has favored those who have money over those that don't. Tax policy has given rise to enormous efforts to send manufacturing offshore. As a result, very little in the way of new manufacturing has been brought here. Andy Grove, a former Intel executive, has pointed out that as we send our manufacturing offshore, we're giving away our ability to innovate.

But there is a subtle change that hasn't been noticed by the mainstream media: the consolidation of intellectual property into the hands of a few very powerful players. Some of them you've heard of: Apple, Microsoft, Viacom. But there are a few very large players you may not have heard of until today: Intellectual Ventures, MPEG-LA, Acacia.

Of the former group, they make things we'd like to use as consumers. iPads, Windows, and 2 1/2 Men (well, maybe not). Of the latter, they don't make the things you want to buy. They make them more expensive.

How did this happen? Quite a few books have been written on the subject, but in a nutshell, this country has draped itself in intellectual property as a religion that has turned into a boa constrictor for our economy. Over the last 30 years, we have slowly turned the screws to the public domain and the industrial commons by increasing the power of intellectual property laws and making it harder to challenge the validity of patents without going to court. it has become a tragedy of the anti-commons.

A typical patent lawsuit defense can cost anywhere from $3-6 million and that is just a start. This is significant barrier to bringing innovations to market. The high cost of patent litigation has also given rise to patent trolls. Patent trolls make no products so they are immune to counterclaims and public backlash. But they make a lot of money by threatening to sue, and offering settlement terms for an amount lower than the cost of litigation.

As we make intellectual property laws stronger, we increase the cost of downstream innovation and eventually, we find that we're falling behind other countries in terms of innovation. We are simply  so mired in litigation, both at the patent office and in court, that we don't have time to solve the really big problems humans face. This is because patents have perverted the incentives for innovation.

Of course, falling behind other countries is less of a problem if you can foist your intellectual property regime onto other countries. We do this in exchange for access to our markets and to pry open access to the markets in other countries. The US has "free trade" agreements with many other countries that achieve the goal of imposing the US patent regime on the partner countries.

Each of these agreements is guaranteed to protect doctors, lawyers and other professionals while exposing middle class manufacturing workers to direct competition with lower paid foreign workers. But more importantly, they require the other country to use the same intellectual property rules that we use here.

Apple, Intel and a few other manufacturers take great comfort in these agreements. So much so, that they can safely move their manufacturing operations to other countries without worry that their products will be copied unlawfully. That, to me, explains the decline of the American economy.

Despite many attempts at patent reform, Congress has not arrived at a solution to the problem of misplaced incentives. Michele Boldrin and David Levine have suggested the elimination of patents altogether. In a report released by the Federal Reserve Bank, Boldrin and Levine make a powerful case for eliminating patents and the market perversions they induce.

Our intellectual property regime only works for a privileged few. Until our intellectual property regime works for everyone, innovators will have very little power to help our economy. Moreover, intellectual property regimes must respect the public domain, something our current regime fails to do.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Moderation as a way of life

It is interesting to notice the incredible excesses in the news. The wealthiest people in the world spend millions on a personal residence, and some buy more than a few luxury homes. Jay Leno has a famous car collection that many people admire. For some people, spending money on a pair of shoes doesn't feel like spending money until the shoes cost several thousand.

I'll never forget the articles I used to read in Car and Driver. In every issue, they had a review of some fantastically expensive car that none of the writers (and few of the rest of us) could afford. Maybachs, McLarens, Mercedes, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris, all incredibly fast, opulent and exclusive. I remember asking the question with a Google search about how long it would take for a car that could attain 262 mph and hold it, to run out of gas. Someone answered: 11 minutes.

How much is enough?

I answered that question for myself. I love chocolate, but I know what it does to me.
When I was a kid, I'd gather the empty pop bottles in the house and put them in my wagon, then I'd head up to Bill's Liquor on PCH and Marine. I'd get a few bucks and then blow it all on candy.

As an adult, I developed a sense of moderation. In a past job, I worked at a retirement home. The average age of the residents there was 82 years. Their children and grandchildren would bring boxes of candy to their parents and grandparents. 5, 10, and 15-pound boxes of Sees Candy came in multiples and they would pile up. Many residents would just give the candy to the receptionist and she would send it to the kitchen. From the kitchen it would go to the freezer for eventual distribution to the staff.

When they brought it out for staff, where did they put it? On a file cabinet right outside of my office. I was tempted, there was no doubt, but I couldn't let myself eat it. I knew that once I got started, it would be hard to stop. I could see that many of the employees partook in the goodies. I could also see that many of them were overweight.

I just couldn't do that to myself. Besides, I know how I feel after I have too much chocolate. Add tot that a self-image that requires me to be thin, and I have restraint if I never get started.

To satisfy my urge, I found a shortcut. I would wait until I happened to be at the box of chocolate at the same time as someone else who was actually going to eat some. Then in front of the other person, I would open the box, waft the luxurious smell up to my nose and take a big, deep sniff. "Aaaahhhh! I'm done!" Then I'd close the box and go inside my office to work.

I don't know what effect this had on other employees, but this is what I needed to do to restrain my temptation. Just smelling the chocolate was enough for me. I wanted to do this while the other employees were there to keep me accountable. A good whiff of the chocolate turned out to be enough for me.

Today, I understand a bit more about myself. I still eat chocolate. But I like my chocolate expensive, dark and frozen in very small quantities. I just have a little bit each day and that's enough for me.

I moderate my chocolate because I remember how I felt after eating too much when I was a kid. Even as a young man, I ate too much, but I also noticed my limits and honored them. I noticed then, that eating several candy bars didn't make me feel any better than having a few small bites.

There's an interesting scene in Babylon 5 where a confrontation ensues. During the confrontation, a telepath, a human with mind reading capabilities, offers an opportunity to his opponent to strike him. "Hit me........again.......again". After 3 punches, the telepath asks the opponent about his experience. 

To paraphrase, "How did you enjoy that? Was the first punch better than the last? Was the third punch better than the first? When will you be satisfied that you've had enough?"

I never forgot that  but the point is not lost on me. How much is enough?

That is a question each of us have to answer, whether it be money, houses, gadgets or food or anything else, for that matter. The answer each of us may find has profound effects on where we place our priorities and how we treat other people to answer that question. What is your answer?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Linux - a different frame of mind

In the news today, I read that all of the Windows laptops on the International Space Station have been wiped to make room for Linux. This is a very interesting development considering that Windows XP was even allowed to be on any equipment aboard the space station.

I remember when I made that switch myself. In June of 2007, I made the switch from Windows XP to Ubuntu. I had been playing with Ubuntu and several other distributions for months just to see what it was like. I decided I was going to switch and never look back.

During that time while playing with Linux, I checked all of the major applications for the major functions that I wanted to do with Linux. Productivity was easy with Open Office because it can read and write MS Office documents. Fortunately, the Free Software community had spent years decoding the Microsoft Office file formats to make them work with Open Office. Open Office used it's own document format, the Open Document Format, a format that was designed to last for centuries, not just until the next upgrade. I now use LibreOffice.

I found Rythmbox, Amarok and Banshee to be very serviceable music players. Eventually I settled on Rhythmbox since it integrates well with Gnome-Shell and I happen to prefer Gnome to the other desktops. I can play most popular formats so it's easy to work with.

Web browsing was easy with Firefox on hand. Firefox is standard issue with all of the major Linux distributions. It has suited me well until I found that Google made a version of Chrome for Linux. Worthy of note here, is that the Chrome installation process will add a new repository to the list of software sources so that Chrome stays up to date.

And then there was Beyond Compare, my favorite file manager. Beyond Compare makes it easy to manage directories and move files around. If you have two directories with similar contents, you can use Beyond Compare to easily sync the folders and files with worrying about overwriting newer files. This is also great for removing duplicate file and directory sets.

With the exception of Chrome and Beyond Compare, it is rare for me to download software from a website to install on my computer. Most software installed on my computer comes from repositories - places on the Internet where binary files that can run on my computer are stored. The repositories are consulted when new updates become available. Each repository is checked to ensure that it has not been tampered with and gives me the peace of mind that the software will just work.

There is something else really interesting about Linux. The update process works for *everything*. As long as the packages are installed properly, the system keeps a list of all software installed and checks for updates for all of the software, not just Ubuntu.

Linux is not just an operating system, it's a philosophy. The philosophy that I find so appealing is that my work on Linux begins with the least amount of privilege needed to get the work done. If I need to make any changes to the system, I run sudo in Bash or I will be prompted to enter my password from the desktop. The privilege is temporary and only applies to the process at hand, no others. Once the changes are made, the privilege goes away and I can be confident that even if I were to encounter a virus, it would not be able to take over my system.

Since I've made the change to Linux, I have found that I can just focus on my work and not on my computer. That's why I'm never looking back to Windows and can't imagine going back.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Reseller Nation

In the United States more than 200,000 patents a year are issued and each patent has a potential life of 20 years. Most patents are written in broad, vague language that make it almost impossible to build the invention that is claimed just by following the instructions in the patent. This vague language also provides a very blurry boundary for the claims. For the most part, they're idea land grabs.

On the other hand, we have automatic copyright of anything and everything that is written. Each copyright is good for 70 years plus the life of the author. The copyright enforcement regime is incredibly stringent for the consumer, but not for the creator or rights holder. Copyright holders have the power to determine the technology choices available to view or hear protected works. Copyright holders are nothing if not gods in the eyes of the courts.

It is pretty amazing how much power has been given to the rights holders and how little accountability is imposed on the same.

In 2003, The SCO Group sued IBM for copyright infringement. They claimed that IBM had copied code from UNIX into Linux without authorization. After years of motion practice, discovery and many press releases on the part of SCO in the vain hope that IBM would settle, the case has not gone to trial yet. Worse, while that case was in process, SCO was sued by Novell over the copyrights.

In the end, SCO lost a jury trial against Novell where the jury found that SCO did not own the copyrights. What this means is that SCO sued IBM over copyrights it did not own and now there is a teetering pile of counterclaims just waiting for SCO when the trial gets back on calendar again. So far, everyone involved has lost money and everyone on SCO's side has, for now, escaped personal liability for their actions.

Prenda Law seems to be a newcomer that has been making the news lately. Prenda Law is yet another copyright troll that has been tracking Bittorrent users with nothing more than an IP address and suing them for downloading porn, shakedown style. "Just give us the money and we won't publish your name." They have been having a rough time in court lately, mostly because the judge is onto their game.

Even Viacom and Fox have no compunction when it comes to issuing bogus takedown notices to YouTube for content they do not own. There is almost no penalty for their actions, yet, they are costing legitimate businesses real money.

Patent trolls are starting to enter the national consciousness. In polite circles they are known as patent assertion entities. Examples abound, but the largest and probably the most famous is Intellectual Ventures, founded by Nathan Myhrvold. Intellectual Ventures is probably the most feared patent troll on the planet due to its size and patent portfolio.

Patent trolls issue a strong defense against the derogatory term and insist that they are doing good for the country and for innovation. They also take advantage of the uneven evidence burdens placed on patent holders and defendants who have no prior knowledge of the patent (hint: the defense has a a very high burden to prove that a patent is invalid). How else could patent trolls explain the need for thousands of shell companies they set up to collect royalties?

The USPTO has in recent years has operated at or near a 90% approval rate for all patent applications. With so many patents issuing, the USPTO is creating a patent thicket that inhibits newcomers from bringing new innovations to market and still make a profit. To do so, you must gain the support of a deep-pocket incumbent with a legal team that executes very thorough patent searches to clear the rights to bring a new product to market. Even after an expensive patent search, it is still possible to be sued by a patent troll.

These conditions give rise to a patent troll business model that is similar to the copyright troll. "Look, we're not asking for very much money if you settle. Sure it's a lot of money, but fighting us could run into millions. Just sign here, cut a check, and we'll go away."

Patent trolls are killing jobs by raising the barrier to market for any newcomer in almost any market, but with particular respect to the technology market. Small businesses are being sued for using scanners, email and wi-fi. Patent trolls are not promoting innovation. They are cashing in on the innovations of others.

Copyrights and patents combine together to form a very high barrier to market for many potential newcomers. I used to work for a firm that washes windows where I was tasked with creating a customer relationship management system. We decided to embark on this project after we found that what we were already using didn't work for the company (but the developer was very happy with vendor lock-in).

For about a year at the window washing company, I worked with another developer to build a new customer relationship management system. When it was nearly done, my boss asked me how much it would cost to bring it to market to sell to other companies. I hazarded a guess at about $500,000 and that was just to start. I don't think he ever got that off the ground, but he did continue to clean buildings and windows as before, he just had a better system to work with.

With so many barriers in place, there is really only one thing left to do for most people if they want to sell a product. They can resell a product produced by someone else who will then assume the liability for the same. When I say "liability" it is obvious that I'm talking about legal liability. While consumer safety is a considerable liability, patents and copyrights must be cleared before a new product can be brought to market. Now there are so many unknown rights holders waiting in the wings, that clearing all rights is nearly impossible or at least, very expensive.

Few people starting a small business can bring a new product to market if they have to clear all that and then pay suppliers and fabricators to put it all together. Better to join a franchise or a multi-level marketing organization. Care for a glass of Noni juice? If not, there is always eBay.

Franchises are all the rage these days as any shopping center will attest. In a franchise organization, all the rights to business processes and media have been cleared, so all you have to do is follow the manual and the business should just run by itself, right?

That leaves very little room for the true innovators. Most of the innovation these days is a result of serendipity, or an "itch" to fix a problem. Often, innovation and know-how takes place on the shop floor where things - real things - are made. But if you should bring your own innovation to market, you may find that the ghost of Jerome Lemelson has decided to sue your company.

So where do we go from here? A thorough re-examination of our copyright and patent systems is in order. If we want to bring the jobs home, we need to lower the barriers to the marketplace by either reducing the scope of protection and the penalties for infringement, or remove them altogether.

An examination of intellectual property rights should also include a measure of the effects of patents and copyrights on downstream innovation and creative works. If you ever thought regulation was a problem in the marketplace, then intellectual property rights should come under that fold. Intellectual property protection is another form of regulation, but business seems loathe to talk about that.

Until we have that discussion, I don't expect the economy to improve much over the long term.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The case for open source software: no hidden bitcoin clients

Seems that an enterprising young man has figured out that he could make a little extra money on the side. How? By inserting Bitcoin mining code into proprietary software that is installed on computers that belong to the customers of the company he works for.

Users of the E-Sports Entertainment Association (ESEA) reported high GPU and CPU readings on their computers after installing the ESEA client software. The same users also reported that their antivirus was sounding alarms and that their computers were freezing or crashing. The reason for all this trouble is that the secret Bitcoin client software was, while trying to hide it, using spare computing power to mine Bitcoins.

To understand what this means, we need to know what Bitcoin is and what it's for. Bitcoin is computer generated currency. The currency is generated by running calculations that place a high demand on the CPU or GPU as work. The work is then calculated as a fraction of a Bitcoin. Once mined, or minted, Bitcoin users can trade Bitcoins on the Bitcoin network as currency for goods and services.

It might surprise you that Bitcoins are now being accepted as currency by a few places, which you can find here. There is even a bar in New York that takes Bitcoins.

So what is the problem? Unless a proprietary software company exercises very strict quality control, it is possible to slip Bitcoin code into the software that you install on your computer. How would you feel if you installed software on your computer only to find that your antivirus is sounding the alarm, your computer crashes from time to time and your GPU is running near 90% when your computer is idle? That's what was happening with this example of Bitcoin subversion.

When all of the Bitcoin activity was finally stopped, the total value extracted by the Bitcoin miner software was $3715. Not bad for a couple weeks of work. Of course, the source of the problem was discovered and removed. The company has apologized for the error and has pledged a matching sum to a charity.

This is just the start. Turns that there is a new malware industry sprouting to install Bitcoin mining software on computers without the user knowing it. The virus or worm is the preferred vector of attack, and with Windows, most users will not be aware that anything is wrong.

The problem of secret Bitcoin code can now be seen in legitimate proprietary software and in malware. But you won't find this problem in open source software. With open source software, the source code is examined frequently and checked often to ensure that it has not been tampered with. There is no place to hide Bitcoin miners in open source software.

The reason for this is peer review of the source code where many programmers are reviewing, modifying and improving the source code. Open source software licenses provide for access to the source code for any revisions made to the source code when the binaries are distributed. How does that work? All software is written by programmers in text editors in human readable code with comments to describe what the code does. When the programmer wants to run that code, he must compile the source code using a compiler. The compiler converts the source code into machine language that the computer can understand, and in the process, strips out the comments. 

Humans cannot easily read the machine language of software, but they can read the source code. If you don't have rights to access the source code for software you're running on your computer, it's not open source software. You don't get access to the source code of proprietary software like Windows, Microsoft Office or iOS. But you get the source code with Linux.

I think that the day will come soon where proprietary software vendors seek a legitimate source of revenue in the Bitcoin miner. Imagine this: as part of your license agreement to use proprietary software, you will permit the vendor to run Bitcoin mining software on your computer. This sort of enterprise makes open source software that much more appealing.

Open source software is about having the freedom to decide what runs on your computer. It is also about knowing what is running on your computer. You'll never hear that from Microsoft or Apple.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Waiting in line at Comcast

Yesterday, I returned equipment to Comcast to cancel my service with them and settle for "broadband" service from Centurylink. Centurylink offers no more than 5mbs per second here at my home. But for $41 a month, I get both data and phone service. That compares favorably against Comcast which wanted $74 for the bundle of data at 20mbs and phone, and that was with a promotion that would eventually bring the total up to more than $90 a month. When the promotion ends, the total with tax for just phone and data service with Comcast would come out to more than $100.

Centurylink, as you may recall, used to be Qwest, a company that filed a notorious lawsuit to stall UTOPIA before it could reach much farther. UTOPIA is a municipal broadband service that, due to Qwest's lawsuit, stopped building their network about one and half blocks away from my home.

Comcast likes to talk about competition and how they're so much better. In my neighborhood, 5mbs is the max that the competition can offer at this time. Comcast owns the market above that speed. This is a reflection of an almost complete lack of competition, which suits Comcast executives well, since they need a captured market to finance a summer home in Spain for the CEO.

I remember when I was a young man during the Reagan administration. We used to laugh at the long lines that the Russians had to endure in the USSR. We used to laugh at how inefficient they were. We're not laughing anymore. The major ISPs really suck in terms of customer service and efficiency. Doesn't it seem strange that year after year, communications technology gets faster and cheaper, yet, the rates never go down?

I can remember the scene well as I took the modem and power cord back to Comcast at their service center. When I entered the office, there were 3 people servicing customers waiting in a long line. As the time approached noon, did they add more staff to the counter to service customers for lunch hour? No. One woman closed her window and a few minutes later, I saw her walking out to her car - for lunch.

The line remained and moved slower. I waited about 20 minutes to get to a customer service representative just to say, "Hi, here's your equipment. I'm canceling my subscription to your service." How efficient is that?

For all the talk about how we have a free market in the United States, when it comes to Internet access, we are far from it. Comcast dominates the market here and their sidekick, Centurylink is just along for the ride. Both of them play tag team bashing municipal broadband in the courts and in the press, and they seem very sure that internet access is a luxury. Luckily for them, they have the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) working as a mouthpiece to stifle the adoption of municipal broadband.

Internet might have been a luxury in the past, but times have changed. Most people are loathe to cancel internet access and will find almost any other alternative to cutting the cord. Internet access has replaced the telephone as the must have utility.

I think we are far beyond the point where the Internet is just a data service and a novelty for entertainment. The Internet is now being used for work, job hunting, education and entertainment, with a thousand other uses we haven't the room to mention here.

Comcast has an interesting pricing strategy. As speeds increase, set up service tiers so that the price remains the same, but speeds go up in response to encroaching competition. Remove lower price tiers and make the lowest tier so unbearably slow or expensive that it just seems more reasonable to order the higher speed. It's worth it right?

Here's what I'm talking about. For $50 a month, Comcast offers 6mbs. After a day at 4mbs, I can tell you that Gmail, Pandora and Blogger all load pretty slow at that speed. Once they load, they're OK. Well, Blogger had an error saving this blog more than once. At 25mbs, you wouldn't know how bloated the modern website has become. But at 3mbs, Comcast can be sure that customers will opt for higher speeds.

I use the term "bloated" lightly here. The capabilities of websites is far beyond what we could do in the 1990s. From multimedia to statistical analysis to education, the browser has become home to the modern application. Who needs to buy software as a box with a CD in it? The browser does it all. But the connection speed must be fast to do it. What are we giving up when we let private ISPs dictate speed?

One thing for sure though, Comcast would not deliver more than 10mbs without Utopia in the neighborhood. Same with Centurylink. When Utopia gets here, I'm signing up. With them, I can get 100mbs for $45 a month at Sumo Fiber. Comcast will sell that speed to us for $114 a month (this used to be $200 a month - Utopia must be getting closer). Why is Comcast so much more expensive? They have no competition and they really need that summer home in Spain for the CEO.