Thursday, May 31, 2007

And the winner is ...

In the Netherlands, the inventors of the Big Brother franchise are producing a reality show in which a terminally ill woman will give away one of her kidneys to the winning contestant.

Now I can understand the need to spread awareness of a deficit of organs and the need for more donors. I also applaud the woman for offering to be a donor.

But really, is this the best way? Making a medical decision based upon a contestant's history, profile and SMS advice from viewers? Prioritising entertainment value over medical need?

This is a disturbing development and I doubt society will be a winner in the long term. What next?

TV Auctions on hospital services? For those NTNON fans out there, remember ...

Any advance on double pneumonia?

Deep depression!

Deep depression for the man on the window ledge.

Any advance on deep depression? Any advance?

And the winner is ... well not us.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Give me more ...

OSBC was an outstanding conference with some intelligent and thoughtful speakers such as Eben Moglen, breaking down the old tale that software patents makes sense.

I've argued for a long time that patents make no sense from a societal viewpoint when the time of independent discovery is less than the length of the patent and where alternative means of disseminating information for benefit exists (such as Open Source, Scientific Journals etc).

Patents can act as a spur for innovation but also as a choke-hold. Patents do make sense in some fields and have been used for specific societal purposes in the past.

I'm all in favour of a patent system, designed and used for the benefit of society - the common good. I'm not in favour of a mechanism which hinders innovation in society for the commercial benefit of the few. Now, there is the argument that invention and knowledge are totally separate things. Poppycock - that's semantics at its worst.

Invention is fundamentally the process which drives greater knowledge and it depends upon prior knowledge, experimentation and reasoning. Every time I try and solve a new mathematical problem, I'm experimenting with ways of solving it whether that's done in my head or on paper. If I discover a new way of solving the problem, I've invented a new method - my knowledge has expanded.

Invention is also not a commercial activity, it's a human one. There are many reasons why I might invent something new, plain old curiosity being one of them. Now I don't have to give my knowledge to others - it's my choice.

Patents are simply a societal means of encouraging the spread of such new found knowledge where it is of overall benefit to society that this happens. There is a cost associated with this, the provision of a monopoly, hence the principle of the greater common good.

We, as in society, give you this monopoly in return for the secrets of your invention because it benefits society as a whole to do so.

If it is likely that such new knowledge will be found and disseminate through society by other mechanisms during the lifetime of the patent then we shouldn't hand them out or we should limit the lifetime. We do need patents, but they need to focus on the common good for society and I feel we need to be a lot more demanding on our side of the bargain.

My view on more demanding patent discussions, wow stylee ...

[Thunder]: Can I have a patent for [idea] pls?
[Society]:Well only if it is likely that such knowledge wouldn't disseminate through society in the next twenty years.
[Thunder]: eh? WTF? You role playing or what?
[Society]: No you can't have a patent, it's an idea ... you don't actually think no-one else has either thought of or is going to think of this idea?
[Thunder]: Yeah
[Society]: On yer bike.
[Thunder]: UR old.
[Society]: lol

[Smerlin]: Can I have a patent for [scientific discovery] pls?
[Society]: Well only if it is likely that such knowledge wouldn't disseminate through society in the next twenty years.
[Smerlin]: No, it wouldn't.
[Society]: Hmmm, if we say no, you'll just publish it in a scientific journal anyway because of the enormous benefit and fame it brings you
[Smerlin]: No I won't.
[Society]: Yes you will. On yer bike.
[Smerlin]: twink
[Society]: lol

[Gollum]: Can I have a patent for [new software] pls?
[Society]: Well only if it is likely that such knowledge wouldn't disseminate through society in the next twenty years.
[Gollum]: eh? What's disseminate?
[Society]:Hmmm, if we say no, then if its really useful the open source community would probably build an equivalent.
[Gollum]: No they won't. They won't be able to work it out.
[Society]: Yes they will. In which case you'll just open source it anyway and hope to get the community involved.
[Gollum]: No I won't.
[Society]: Yes you will. It's in your interests.
[Gollum]: I'll stop inventing if you do that.
[Society]: Doubt it. Doesn't really matter if you do, there are a smart bunch of people coding out there.
[Gollum]: No, No, No. You need me ... give me the patent.
[Society]: Nope
[Gollum]: ?@!$%

[Valiant]: Can I have a patent for [device which teleports people between countries] pls?
[Society]: UR kidding right?
[Valiant]: Nope. U wan it? I'm using one now.
[Society]: Can u tell us how it works?
[Valiant]: u give me patent?
[Society]: OK
[Valiant]: thx
[Society]: This is really cool, we'd never have thought of that ... not in twenty years.
[Valiant]: yeah.
[Society]: thx
[Valiant]: np
[Society]: Wow ... that's amazing.
[Valiant]: lol. u want to go SM? Cath?
[Society]: sure

[Pixely]: Can I patent for [inkjet printing an interconnect between two electronic devices] pls?
[Society]: No
[Pixely]: Why?
[Society]: Because that's [soldering] via [fabrication]
[Pixely]: So?
[Society]: Well they aren't exactly new concepts.
[Society]: If we give you this patent that could seriously hinder future innovation and industry.
[Pixely]: Yeah but if you don't I won't tell you how I did it?
[Society]: I don't think it's worth giving you a monopoly for twenty years.
[Society]: It's a bit obvious
[Pixely]: Not according to my lawyer.
[Society]: Well we're not your lawyer.
[Pixely]: I've spent $$ making this!
[Society]: Well sell a product then.
[Pixely]: But some big company will just copy it.
[Society]: hmmm, ok we will give you a patent for 5 yrs.
[Pixely]: I want 20.
[Society]: 5
[Pixely]: 10?
[Society]: 5!

[Tweedle]: Can I patent [Selling Dog Food via the Internet] pls?
[Society]: No
[Tweedle]: Why?
[Society]: This is a joke right?
[Tweedle] No? It's a new business process!
[Society]: Bye

Friday, May 18, 2007

I'm a fire starter, twisted fire starter ....

Open source is ubiquitous, most of the web runs on it, many electronics devices depend upon it and a large amount of commerce is built on it.

Back in 2004, the OSRM undertook an evaluation of potential patent infringement in open source software and stated :-

"In conclusion, the evaluation found that no court-validated software patent is infringed by the Linux kernel"

Hang-on, but what about all the fuss Microsoft has created with the open source community and potential patent infringement? Are these new patents? What patents are they?

Well Microsoft isn't saying .

Sounds familiar? Haven't we been here before?

Why aren't they saying? According to Edward Olivier, it is:-

"because that could allow open source developers to challenge the patent or re-program the softwares to circumvent the violations."

Thanks to Groklaw for pointing out the OSRM study and remembering Andrew Orlowski's comment that :-

"the true value of Microsoft's patent arsenal lies in the threat of their use, not their actual use."

Hmmmm .... makes sense to me.

I'll also note Brad Smith, Microsoft's Senior Vice President and General Counsel comment that :-

"The only real solution that [the free software] folks have to offer is that they first burn down the bridge, and then they burn down the patent system,"

and ask the question ...

What were patents for?

Well, let's go back to the purpose of patents, and since this is happening in the US, let's take a look at the copyright clause of the US constitution :-

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

The key is "to promote". In a world where inventions were kept secret, patents seemed a fair exchange on a societal basis.

You tell us, as in the society, your “big secret” - then we create a bank of all these “ideas” or “big secrets” and in return we will give you a monopoly for a period of time, say X years.

Why do this? Well the argument goes that such a “Bank of Ideas” helps promote innovation in a society. It's a fair exchange as no other alternative exists.

All sounds fairly reasonable, doesn't it?

Houston, we have a problem ...

Assuming that the knowledge is useful in the first place, if X years is greater than the time of independent discovery in society then X acts as a choke hold on innovation. It doesn't promote but instead stifles.

In any case an alternative DOES now exist, it's called open source.

Now with this, there is no choke hold. The benefit to a company using open source is support in the development and adoption of a product rather than monopoly. Since you don’t get to control the market, you have to compete on service.

Wait, a moment, that's a more perfect market! By turning a novel and new idea into an open and free standard, you also drive commoditisation, which allows for the development of more new and novel concepts.

That means ...

Open source should drive innovation and create more perfect markets!

Surely we should be able to see this effect? Working from the ideas of creative destruction as proposed by Joseph Schumpeter ...

"innovative entry by entrepreneurs was the force that sustained long-term economic growth, even as it destroyed the value of established companies that enjoyed some degree of monopoly power."

... you would expect to see some effect of open source, causing a rapid commoditisation of the new and novel and hence allowing for a more rapid rate of innovation. You expect to see some form of disruption with the strongest effect in those industries most reliant on IT.

Step in Andrew Mcafee ...

Andrew and Erik Brynjolfsson undertook a study into information technology's impact on competition and commented that :-

"What we have observed in industry after industry is the emergence of widespread process innovation and replication that is analogous to the product innovation and replication that takes place in high tech"

and also

"Turbulence also increased substantially in the high-IT industries after the mid-1990s, and the same patterns weren't observed in the industries that were less reliant on information technology."

Mid-1990s? You mean like the same time open source was rapidly growing in both adoption and as a movement .. Linux, Apache etc.

Are we seeing the effect of open source?

Accelerating the commoditisation of new and novel concepts from CA to CODB, driving innovation and creating more perfect markets? Are we seeing an acceleration of innovation? Are we seeing the wider effects of Open Source?

Hmmm .... we really need to adopt this meme to more than just software, hardware & processes.

Maybe the patent system has run its course? Maybe it's time for something new? Unless of course you think that software companies and society as a whole will stop innovating without it?

"Burn down the patent system"?

An interesting but obvious idea. But why not?

Now where did I put those matches ....

Monday, May 14, 2007

Slightly silly ...

The Good

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) affirms obviousness and basically puts a dent into the idea of Internet-related patents that have a close non-Internet corollary i.e. looks like you can't say this common service plus internet is non-obvious.

The Bad

Microsoft says that open source projects infringe 235 of its patents. Why do I feel we have been here before? The terms SCO and FUD keep coming to mind.

and the ...



DRM company threatens to sue Apple and Microsoft for NOT using its products.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A personal view ... infinite information and some other childish thoughts.

I'm not a philosopher nor a mathematician, but I do have some quite strong views on reality. Let me explain ...

Back in the mid 1980s, when I was a youthful lad and "Duran Duran" were still a hot band, I wrote down these ideas. It's something which helped me create a mental model of existence around me and upon which I built my view of reality. It was also part of my idea for a book which I never finished, it helped me understand my lucid dreaming and resolve the issue for me of "what is reality". Of course, it was undoubtedly wildly flawed - but I found it useful. This is more of a record for me than something which might be of use to you.

To explain it, you need to understand my confusion when I was younger. There were two types of reality for me - reality when I was awake, and reality when I was asleep. The main distinction for me between these "realities" was whether I was in control. In the "unreal" reality of when I was asleep, I had full control. In the real world, less so. This led to me the concept that reality was simply a mental model which after all it is, a perception of what is there. 

About that time, more sophisticated 3D ray drawing games like "elite" started to appear. It became clear, that computers with enough computing power could create ever more sophisticated virtual environments, even virtual worlds. Everything in these worlds would be nothing more than information, even the characters within it.

So how could I know that I wasn't living in some sort of "super computer" world already? Did it matter? 

Well, my first thoughts on this were, "How would you create an exact copy of this universe as a virtual world?". In order to do so you need to have all the information about this universe in the model. Wow, that would be cool. Such a model would know everything about our universe, it would act in the same ways. I'd know all the laws of science, all the causes and effects would be known ... excellent.

Slight problem.
If information was finite in this universe, then such a model containing all the information in the universe couldn't exist within this universe. Damn it, I can't therefore have a "perfect" model of the universe and therefore work out all the causes and effects and model all of science. I couldn't know the "truth" of this universe, as my model can only contain a lesser subset of information even if a way was found to get past the numerous information barriers that exist (e.g. Heisenberg uncertainty principle etc)

OK, what if information is infinite? Well then, this isn't such a problem because an infinite set can also contain an infinite number of infinite subsets of equivalent size. So I could have my model. Cool.

My model of the universe contains all the information in the universe at this single point. But my model is part of that universe. So in my model, there must be another model, and inside that another model and so on. Ah, an infinite number of models of my universe, identical to this one but none of them being "real". Though of course the characters in these "virtual" worlds wouldn't know that.

Big Problem.
Taking information as infinite in the "real" universe, then let's assume that there exists one civilisation of suitably advanced technology that it could create such models. Suppose it only created one such model, then there would be an infinite number of virtual worlds (models within models). Every-time anyone else created such a model, or made variations of such, or another civilisation developed such a technology, you would have an infinite number of infinite virtual worlds and permutations of such. So given that, what's the likelihood of this universe which I exist within being real?

Well I reckon it's ... Zero.

So, either information is finite, in which case we can never create our perfect model and therefore know with absolute certainty the cause and effects of things OR information is infinite in which case this world isn't "real" anyway. We cannot know the absolute truth of things. There must always exist something beyond that perceived truth in either case. Of course, we can't actually get to the truth of whether information is finite or infinite because of the uncertainty principles and even if we could we wouldn't be able to accurately model this because of  'Godel's' incompleteness theorem. We can't even answer the question of whether information is finite or not.

This I called an "infinite information paradox"

Hence I came to my view of things being more true (+truth) or less true (-truth) because absolutes were out of the question. My awake reality was simply more true (+truth) than my sleeping reality - from a personal perspective. But if I could only show that information was finite, then at least I'd know that one was real? 


Really Big Problem.
In my infinite information scenario, it was also possible to have infinite numbers of finite sets. So even if information was finite in this universe, the likelihood of it being real was also zero. Hence, I decided to take a definition of reality as a set which was unbounded by any limits. It was the absolutely infinite set at the top of this information tree. It could contain an infinite number of infinite sets and an infinite number of finite ones.

The empty set is such a set which is not bounded by limits, it just happens to not contain any other set. Hence I started with what I called my "primitive"....

0 = [] = A definition of reality.

... and allowed this initial condition to mutate to other set configurations, by the application of several simple rules.
  • Any set can mutate to any "equivalent" with the same or greater cardinality by the addition of an empty set.
  • Any value can mutate to any "equivalent" array or move in whole or part to any adjacent position.
  • The sum of this mutated primitive remains Zero.
Now by "equivalent", I mean it either enumerates to the same thing or sums to it. This processes allowed for ever more increasing permutations of values, hence I took that view that the capacity for information constantly increases. I used this system, to derive certain models where everything is derived from nothing - I occasionally still play around with it, a sort of Zero Board Hypothesis. But my general postulations are:
  • Some realities are more true (+truth) to an individual than others.
  • Science will only be ever able to provide useful models, not absolute truth.
  • Reality didn't come from anywhere, it still remains the same - nothing.
Though I find views on a personal belief valid to that individual and their perception of reality, I'm personally agnostic to such questions of "is this real?" and the supernatural. I'm also highly sceptical of anything describing itself as an absolute "truth". It's a personal view but one which enables me to quite comfortably understand reality and other questions like, "Where did we come from?". It's all just manifestations of nothing ... but it does sounds like doublethink.

Nothing is Everything.

As I said, I'm no philosopher or mathematician, and this stuff is undoubtedly as flawed now as it was then, just I still don't know better. Ignorance is bliss in my case.

--- 4th September 2014

I was reminded of this post by two recent events. First, my young lad's comments on his dreams. He seems to have very good recall and describes an ability to manipulate them. I was a bit taken aback when he turned to me and said "how do we know this is real?" [referring to the waking state].

The second was a reference to my views on Taoism. I personally find the work of Lao-tzu to be a useful philosophical interpretation of reality through the careful act of not actually trying to describe it. The work is more a continuous exercise in finding your own path, something which I find essential (for me, maybe not you but then your perception of reality is not necessarily mine). It's a bit difficult to describe other than to say - you'll have to find your own path to understanding your own perception.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

My ignite talk

Mark Fowler has very kindly put my Ignite talk about commoditisation concepts onto Viddler.

This is a general light hearted overview of the ideas. If you want to get more details about what we are doing in this field, or find out about the open sourcing of Zimki then check the Zimki blog or come and see us at OSCON '07.

Now this was a talk prepared whilst jet lagged, with short notice (i.e that afternoon) and with the rule of 70 slides in 5 minutes. I was still writing it just before presenting.

Scary stuff....

I didn't quite make the 70 slides in 5 minutes, just over, but it was sooooo close.

Friday, May 04, 2007

How did you vote?

It's election time again ... and for whom I voted is a secret .... isn't it?

Well, not really.

Everytime I vote the same thing happens. I watch in horror as my name is marked in the electoral list with a number, that number is then transfered to another sheet of paper which has a list of numbered ballot papers and I get handed the corresponding numbered paper to vote with.

So as usual, last night, I asked the registry officer ...

"someone can see for whom I voted by checking the corresponding numbered ballot paper from the number assigned to me in the electoral list"

... and once again the same typical response ...

"Yes, but I'm assured that all these list are kept secret and they are only there for disputes."

... however, this time there was a new twist ...

"In the future there is talk about some other mechanisms of ID checking."

Gasp, I hope not! Don't tell me our voluntary ID cards, which you'll need in order to get a new passport, are going to be required for voting in our anonymous and secret elections which make it possible to find out for whom you voted?

By the way I voted Liberal Democrat, saves anyone the bother of looking it up.

Which party will I vote for in the future? That depends upon if ID cards are introduced and if they start using those in elections.

If they do, then I'll be voting for our new masters, as a loyal and dedicated servant of "The Party" in our perpetual war against the axis of evil.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

70 slides in 5 mins.

Just added my talk, for anyone who likes commoditisation, ducks and kittens with guns.

You for Riehle?

Still playing catch-up since my return, but I've made a comment on Nick Carr's blog which I reprint here.

Nick talked about the recent article by Dirk Riehle on the economic effects of open source. Riehle's arguments are sound in my view, and he hints at the rise of talent

Great Article, worth reading.

[reprint of my comment - tidied up a bit]

Open source tends to drive the adoption of new ideas because of its free and open nature. This accelerates the transition of new genres of software (and ideas) from being a potential source of competitive advantage, being novel and new, to being (if useful) a cost of doing business due to its ubiquity.

Open source also accelerates the adoption of new standards - for example REST over SOAP. Do you believe that the world wide web would have been anywhere near as vast if HTTP had been a proprietary licensed product?

The interesting thing about common and ubiquitous services, is that they allow for new ideas to be built upon them. You need commoditised power, communication and data processing before you can have something like Google.

Imagine building a virtual web business, if the first thing you need to focus on is how to manufacture a microchip, installing communication lines to customers etc. At some point, each of these concepts were novel and new - the real power of these "infra-structural" goods only becomes apparent when they are ubiquitous.

Open Source drives this transition from novel and new to common and ubiquitous ideas and services, which in turn encourages new ideas and services based upon them. I'd argue that open source drives innovation in a society and I'd agree with Riehle that open source tends to diffuse knowledge and increases competition.

But what if I'm a programmer spending all my time developing CODB (cost of doing business) like applications - does this threaten me? Of course it does, but then again the spread of any idea from novel and new to common and ubiquitous always threatens those who make their living from keeping that idea, that concept, that software service to a niche few.

An example of this is ERP. A very lucrative industry, which is often sold as providing a source of competitive advantage or strategic value, despite almost every company having ERP systems. The reality is more likely that ERP is just a CODB. Any advantage of customisation should be weighed against the cost of customisation. Being ubiquitous and common, I would suggest that any advantage can only be gained through being "cheap as chips" or "cheaper than your competitors".

I would argue that much of IT is now CODB. Hence the tendency to offshore, buy off the shelf or ideally rent on a utility basis (SaaS).

Of course, as a company, one of my concerns is always vendor lock-in and exit costs. Hence for example, though I think Amazon's EC2 is a great idea, my problem with it is that there is no Google EC2 or Microsoft EC2. There is no open standard, no portability for my applications other than spending CAPEX on building my own infrastruture or entering a contract negotiation with a hosting vendor. So for CODB like apps, I'll always seek the lowest cost with the most portability between vendors. Hence, open source, which tends to create emergent standards, supported by vendors, is my natural preference.

However, I am also always seeking for the novel and new, something to give an genuine advantage over others. Who better to help create it, but the same people who build those emergent standards, who are well versed in the leading edge of technology and of whom I can clearly see their capabilities - the alpha geeks.

Hence, I use open source communities as a hunting ground for real talent.

This is a growing trend, at almost every open source conference that I've attended in the last year - the banners, even the presentations by companies saying "we're hiring" were everywhere. Head-hunting of top open source developers also seems rife within Europe.

To give a pertinent example, a well respected open source developer announced one morning on his blog his intention to leave his job. By the time I got through to him in the afternoon, the offers had been flooding in. The competition for the most talented and skilled developers - individuals who can make a real difference - is intense, something which I have never experienced before in the world of IT.

As for those who don't fit into those categories, well I don't want to pay large amounts of money for something which is really a CODB and whose price is over-inflated because it is kept arcane and proprietary with no open standard. I'm afraid their future does look fairly gloomy because with open standards you can only compete on talent.

That's the real beauty of open source for any programmer - because everyone can see your work, you get to find out if you really are that good or not. Unlike the old days, where everyone said they were an expert.

I know of a few concrete examples of top open source developers who loved what they were doing and have been head-hunted by financial institutions. In every case, they weren't interested but the banks wanted them and asked them what it would take to make them move. In every case, they give what they thought was a ridiculous figure, the sort of sum earned by a broker, to get rid of the bank.

In every case, they got that amount.

For the really talented - it means you can write your own meal ticket.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My highlights of web 2.0

I've mentioned before that web 2.0 was outstanding, that there were many good speakers, interesting talks and interesting people. It was also a chance to catch up with old friends and make new one's.

To thank everyone who made this occasion so special for me, would end up with an enormous list - so I'm just going to mention a few key moments.

The most personal moments for me were the evenings spent with Jesse Robbins (the master of disaster!) and Allegra Searle Le-Bel, (dancer / choreographer / entrepreneur - that's so cool). Jesse's talk at web 2.0 was my favourite, and still makes me chuckle today. You had to be there to understand, but the 404 message for a non-existant bridge was blinding.

I also spent time with Blaine Cook (Twitter) and Christy Canida (Instructables) who both work in fields I find fascinating and are great company.

And finally, I spent a late evening talking about Genetics (and discovering how much I'd forgotten) with Jordan, a man who certainly knows his bees.