Distant Strike

Photo from Gerardo Lopez and available on http://cbs11tv.com/local/daytime.storms.hurst.2.1977596.html

While storms swept through the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex yesterday, today they created a new and dangerous line far east of the area. On our walk tonight, Jodi and I looked west and saw nothing but clear blue skies. East of us, however, we saw a wall of yellow-gray storm clouds. Their anvil-shaped up-drafts towered 3-4km over the ground, and every second there were bursts of bright cloud-to-cloud lightning. We could see forked tongues of bright yellow lightning streaking from the cloud base to the top. While I know that negative electric charge accumulates at the base of the storm, it was a visceral reminder of how true this is to see electricity streaking upwards into the sky.

I couldn’t help but to stop walking and watch the storms. Their fury, visible from this far west, reminded me that far worse befell the towns in the path of the storms.

My Life with Statusnet

The term “social network” is ironic, because it largely applies to systems on the internet that are themselves anti-social. For instance, Facebook and Twitter don’t really talk directly to each other. If I have one group of friends on Twitter and another on Facebook, I have to use a third-party tool like TweetDeck [1] to see information posted on both of them. While Facebook has made grudging steps toward a kind of faux-openness over time, Twitter at least defines an API that allows other programs to talk to it; however, that API only goes one way. For instance, if I have a friend on Twitter I cannot subscribe to them through anything but Twitter.

And so I prefer to live my web social life on Statusnet [2]. Statusnet is open-source social networking, ala Twitter. You can form communities of friends, post status updates up to 140 characters in length (although that limit is not strictly enforced), share photos, etc. But unlike Twitter, you can run your OWN Statusnet community (c.f. [3] and [4]). Your community is, however, not a walled garden. Since Statusnet implements the OpenMicroBlogging protocol, you can subscribe to ANY friend on another OpenMicroBlogging-enabled system (e.g. identi.ca [4])  from within your own community without having an account on that other system. You just remote subscribe to them (e.g. their_name@identi.ca) and you get their updates. Your replies go to them on their platform. It’s pretty sweet. (All you Statusnet supporters out there: remote subscribe to abcnewsradiofm@abcnewsradio.fm to support ABC’s choice of Statusnet over Twitter!)

Running my own Statusnet instance allows me to maintain a close community of friends and family. We can communicate with each other without the fear of millions of prying eyes watching our every status update. We can share photos and general silliness.

However, the closed nature of Facebook and Twitter often turns to blame for Statusnet. For instance, my sister has repeatedly complained that Statusnet is “too much work” because she can’t post something on Facebook and have it appear on Statusnet. The problem is not Statusnet; the problem is that Facebook provides no mechanism for exporting your data once you post it on Facebook. You are locked into their anti-social network. Complaining about Statusnet when Facebook is the problem is like complaining about about the right of free speech in Country A when you’ve chosen to live a brutal totalitarian dictatorship in Country B; it’s not Country A’s fault you have no rights in Country B . . . after all, YOU chose to go live there.

And, ironically, this is exactly the situation that millions of people have chosen to live in. Facebook boasts 500 million active users – more than the population of the U.S. Many of these netizens are people in the U.S., a real country where free speech, property, and many other principles of our democracy are apparently cherished rights worth dying for. Yet, these same Americans have actively entered a virtual community where they have no right to own their speech, their photos, or any other information they post on Facebook. These people have given up their founding principles for the convenience of Facebook.

So I say: quit whining. There are plenty of virtual communities on the net where freedom and ownership are founding principles. Next time you complain about being unable to cross-post between Facebook and Statusnet, remember: you’re the one who chose to live in a brutal dictatorship.

[1] http://www.tweetdeck.com/

[2] http://status.net/

[3] http://army.twit.tv/

[4] http://abcnewsradio.fm/

Better to say “I don’t know”

In his collection of essays, Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clark famously penned three “laws of prediction.” The third of these is the most widely quoted, and simply states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [1]

While in Fry’s tonight, Jodi and I happened by some floor models of those Dyson “Air Multipliers” – bladeless desktop fans that look like big wedding rings on tiny stands. They blow air just like a fan, but without the use of visible moving blades to push on the air and create the pressure difference. A father and young son happened by at around the same time. “Wow, dad, how does it work?” the son asked.

The father answered simply, “It’s magic.”

I can’t know the father’s state of mind. I can speculate wildly, though. Perhaps he was afraid of looking ignorant in front of his son. Who really knows? But his answer – “It’s magic” – was to me a tragic failure to teach. I don’t care that he didn’t know the answer, but as a teacher myself I do care that he didn’t know that it was okay to say, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” are three simple words that are a gateway to knowing. Admitting first that you do not understand is the step toward a shared opportunity to sit down with your child and learn. It has to be a deeply imprinted moment on the mind of a child when they can sit with their parent and together figure out how the Dyson Air Multiplier works. Taking computers apart with my own father was a key experience in my life, one which sticks with me to this day as a total lack of fear of  any technology.

I suppose it bothered me more that this particular parent reverted to “magic” to cover their ignorance. I get it. It seems fantastical, a fan without blades. But it also suggests a fear of that technology that renders the mind’s only explanation as something other-worldly or super-natural. Human-created things are not beyond nature, and we mustn’t be afraid to admit we don’t understand them as much as we mustn’t be afraid to tear them apart and find out how they tick.

Incidentally, the way the Air Multiplier works is that it draws in a bit of air through the base and pushes it up into the ring, where it flows along the inside of the ring and then out some small hole on the inner ring surface. The motion of the air is reminiscent of an airplane wing, except that half the air flow takes place inside the surface rather than entirely on the outside. The net effect of all of this motion in through the base and out through the ring is to create a continuous laminar flow of air through the ring.

I like the site referenced in [2] because they’re not afraid to conduct experiments on the device (e.g. block the intake vents and see what happens) or to dismantle it.

[1] “Profiles of the Future.” Arthur C. Clark. Revised, 1973.

[2] http://www.cravingtech.com/dyson-air-multiplier-a-k-a-bladeless-fan-review.html

Free as in verse

A few weeks ago, I was lying on the couch browsing RSS news feed headlines on my open-source “TiVO” (called STiVO – I’ve mentioned it before…), when I saw on the linux.org news feed that a letter-writing campaign was in gear. The Free Software Foundation, whose work I deeply appreciate but whose absolutism I don’t always side with, was calling on open-source users to write to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) [1]. A recent court case was forcing the USPTO to revisit patent review guidelines, and the FSF wanted independent open-source users to write and encourage them to reject software patents from consideration.

So I wrote. Jodi was out on her bike ride and I decided to to something civic-minded for my weekend project. Below is the letter I wrote, which I cc’d to the FSF per their request. The letter was then quoted in a follow-up article by the FSF on the letter-writing campaign [2], which resulted in over 450 letters to the USPTO. Enjoy!

I am writing to express my opinion that, in your coming review of USPTO guidance for patent eligibility, submission of software patents be expressly forbidden from consideration by your guidelines.

I am a software writer and a user. Both in my personal and professional lives, software plays a fundamental role. I rely on open-source software to power all of the computers in my home: laptops, desktops, and even my own home-built TV entertainment system. I rely on open-source software to advance my creativity as a physics professor, both in teaching and research. If software were encumbered by patents, I would be unable to innovate in my home, or develop software for my friends and colleagues and freely distribute it, without fear that somebody else has patented the idea of the code and can sue me for breach of patent.

I view this issue – software patents – in the same way that I view poetry. Thousands of poets have, time and time again, written about the same subjects – love, money, death, birth, nature, etc. Poets use our human languages to construct literary solutions to the puzzles of human experience, even though there are a finite number of human experiences. Poets are not allowed to patent the idea of writing such a poem; they may copyright their specific construct, but not patent the idea of the construct.

In the software world, thousands of people have had to solve the same problem. They have each brought their unique software-writing talent, using the language of the computer (mathematics), to solve those problems. The reason I choose free software, or choose to write software, is because I don’t always agree with (or need) the solution written by a for-profit organization. I might choose to write my own program to do the job, and then distribute it to friends or colleagues who require the same solution. Software patents threaten my creativity by bringing the possibility of a lawsuit, all for my use of mathematical machine language to solve a problem. That would be like patenting a poem about love, and then having the poet sue me if I choose to write and distribute my own love poem. It stifles creativity and creates a legal environment that threatens innovation in the United States.

Now that computers are near-ubiquitous, it’s easier than ever for an individual to create or modify software to perform the specific tasks they want done – and more important than ever that they be able to do so. But a single software patent can put up an insurmountable, and unjustifiable, legal hurdle for many would-be developers. The Supreme Court of the United States has never ruled in favor of the patentability of software. Their decision in Bilski v. Kappos further demonstrates that they expect the boundaries of patent eligibility to be drawn more narrowly than they commonly were at the case’s outset. The primary point of the decision is that the machine-or-transformation test should not be the sole test for drawing those boundaries. The USPTO can, and should, exclude software from patent eligibility on other legal grounds: because software consists only of mathematics, which is not patentable, and the combination of such software with a general-purpose computer is obvious.

[1] http://www.fsf.org/news/uspto-bilski-guidance

[2] http://www.fsf.org/news/uspto-response