Friday, September 30, 2005

This Isn't Good

Apparently, the US Patent & Trademark Office indicated recently that it will be reaffirming the validity of US Patent 5,838,906. The patent is owned by the University of California, with licensing through Eolas Technologies. Eolas used this patent to get a $521 million judgment against Microsoft. Microsoft's case is pending before the Supreme Court, but there's no indication which way that will go.

So what is this patent and why is this a bad thing? The patent was filed in 1994 and granted in 1998. The title is, "Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document." What does this mean? Basically, it covers browser plugins. So, if you're using Internet Explorer and you click on a link to a Word document, IE launches a plugin to display the document inside your browser. Or if you're using Mozilla Firefox and click on a link to a movie, the mplayer or Quicktime plugin launch and play the movie inside your browser. Every browser uses plugins like this.

This essentially gives Eolas a stranglehold on the future of the web. They can refuse to license the patent to a browser company. Any company trying to release a browser without plugins wouldn't stand much of a chance. And the fact that the original judgment was half a billion dollars is simply ridiculous. Computer software is incredibly complex and can involve the use of hundreds or thousands of patents, most of which are not enforced. If you had a hundred or so patents like this with half a billion dollars in judgment, Microsoft wouldn't be around for very much longer.

And, of course, I haven't even touched on the lack of validity of the patent. It turns out a programmer named Pei Wei demonstrated the Viola browser in May 1993, a year before the patent was filed. So why wasn't this considered prior art (which would make the patent invalid)? The demonstration was done on a standalone computer and was not hooked up to a network. Never mind that any computer science researcher understands that a client/server demonstration can apply to a network just as easily as on a standalone computer.

It's cases like this that make me worry about getting more into the technology industry. It's starting to feel like anything I can do in the future will violate a patent. Perhaps that should be my business plan. Spend a month or so coming up with something technical sounding enough to get a very obscure patent, then wait for a company to put years of work and a lot of money to develop a profitable application of it (not knowing about my patent). Then, after they've done all the work and I've done very little, sue them for millions, then retire young and wealthy. Sounds like a plan to me...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

While You're Reading...

Here are a few interesting stories and posts. I don't really have much to add, so I'll just put the links here:

A funny (may insightful) post about how conservatives make themselves feel morally superior to liberals. An excerpt:

"You can throw in loving America, believing in God, and watching sports, if you like, and you do like. Now comes the most important part. This is the sign that you are a true saint on earth. You go about loudly approving of it all. It doesn't truly count unless you talk about how good it is to be good in the ways you happen to be good. From there, the next step is easy. You simply have to believe that Liberals don't approve of any of it."

Bottled water leads to more cavities. Why? Bottled water doesn't have fluoride like tap water does...

A great post from a Christian on why premarital sex is a good thing. The short summary: Marriage is about more than just sex and the two shouldn't be conflated.

The six dumbest ideas in computer security. It turns out that making your computer network completely open by default is a bad idea. Wow, can't imagine why...

One perfect reason why I have a serious problem with the Catholic church: Cardinal Bernard Law actually got a vote to become Pope. Disgusting.

Why invading Iraq was a bad idea. Now that there's a serious concern with Iran, how are we going to do anything? We don't have the resources to have wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran simultaneously. And I don't see that we'd have quite the international backing either. Spoiled international political capital. That's the new definition of Iraq.

Saturday Night College Footbal Thoughts

It was a good day. Michigan and Purdue lost. Notre Dame and Michigan State won. I can't really ask for a better day. Two players I have been very impressed with are State's Javon Ringer and ND's Darius Walker. Ringer is a freshman who is averaging almost 7 yards a carry (6.9 to be specific). Granted, of his 52 carries, he only had 4 during the ND game, which is the only team State's played with a decent defense. If he builds off of the talent he has, he could be good.

Walker, on the other hand, is averaging about 4.5 yards per carry. Seems less impressive when compared to Ringer's 6.9, but Walker's got a much tougher job. He's the main RB for ND with Powers-Neal as a backup. Ringer's the second of a very strong 3-man rushing squad for State. State's offensive line has also seemed a lot more consistently solid to me. The Irish line can give Brady Quinn 10 seconds of coverage or half a second on any given play. They've just seemed to provide a lot less consistent protection.

So, with all those disclaimers, I do really like Walker. He's tough and he's smart. He knows when to stutter-step to by some time and he knows when to power ahead. He's opened the season with 4 consecutive 100+ yard games. And he can catch the ball when he's needed. His versatility reminds me of Edgerrin James in many ways. This guy will be good.

QB Brady Quinn, on the other hand, has been less than spectacular. To his credit, he's tough, quick, smart, and evasive. What I don't like about him is his passing. He throws a lot of balls either behind his receiver or at their knees. He just happens to have receivers with very good hands. Stovall and Fasano are both solid, and Samardzija is damn good. Take away any of those guys and Quinn's numbers would be hurting.

After all that criticism of the Irish QB, I would still argue that ND is a better squad than State. I watched ND-State game. There were two things that lost the game for the Irish. First, they went to half-time 2 minutes early. The game was tied 17-17 when the Spartans got the ball back with about under 2 minutes left. The Irish defense looked like they checked out for the half and completely collapsed, leading to a State touchdown and a 24-17 lead at halftime. Second, 18 seconds into the second half, Sir Darean Adams picked off Quinn and ran it back for 7. 31-17 State lead. The Irish battled back from a 21 point deficit to tie the game before losing in OT. They did this by playing good, solid defense. The Spartans have a good offense, but ND shut them down. State switched to a soft, prevent defense and the Irish exploited it masterfully. A lot of that difference, I believe, comes from the coaching style. John L. Smith is a lot more of a conservative, college style approach. Use the offense behind Drew Stanton to score a lot of points, then play it safe. Charlie Weis just came from the New England Patriots. He takes risks (went for it several times on 4th down). And he knows how to keep a team focused on getting the work done. That was how they came back. The OT put the nail in the coffin, but the combination of the TD before the half and the interception-turned-TD made the difference. Take those 14 points away and this would have been an Irish victory.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

"Inevitable Disclosure"

Imagine that you're working for company X. You decide that it's time to move along to something else. So you interview for and get a job at company Y. The people at company Y are thrilled because you have demonstrated programming skills and problem solving ability. So you turn in your notice at X and prepare to start at Y. Then the lawsuit comes. Companies X and Y, it turns out, are competitors. Company X has decided that, no matter how hard you try, it is inevitable that you will rely on company trade secrets while working for company Y. Thus, your screwed. You can't go back to X, but the court has ruled that you can't work for Y. What do you do?

That is what happened to Dr. Kai-Fu Lee when he left Microsoft to work for Google. According to the article, "Courts making inevitable disclosure rulings tend to bar a worker from a new position for a year or less, but the concept conceivably could keep someone from taking a new job in their field forever." If you quit your current job to start another one, would you be able to live with no income for a year before being able to start? At Microsoft, Dr. Lee founded a research center in China. He was hired by Google to run its China operations. These responsibilities are different enough that there should be no concern of inevitable disclosure. The court disagreed.

These arguments have typically been used sparingly in the past, but the trend is that they have been catching on. Formerly, it was only executives who potentially had to fear these suits. However, the argument is working its way down the ladder. As some court decisions have been written, chief scientists and engineers may soon be at risk. That is not a good sign for workers' rights. Maybe we should all just stay dumb so companies won't think we know anything worth sharing.

The Patent Problem

A week or so ago, there was an article that Creative Technology has been awarded a patent for an MP3 player user interface. They applied for the patent in January 2001. This demonstrates one of the major problems with current technology patents. First, the approval took 4 and a half years. That is an incredibly long time in the tech world. According to Moore's law, the speed of processors doubles every 18 months. The time from Creative's application to the approval was three full iterations of Moore's law doubling. Thanks to that delay, the market-dominating iPod could legal problems for Apple. That wonderful gadget that Apple has had on the market for 4 years now is in violation of the patent.

Another issue is the patent process in general. This article does a good job of describing the issues. One particular fact that I found interesting was that Apple's woes can be traced to the fact that its patent application for the iPod's user interface was rejected. Apple filed the application in 2002. It was rejected because of a similar pending application by Microsoft. However, that application was submitted after the iPod was already on sale. So Microsoft tries to patent something that Apple already has on the market, then Apple also tries to patent it. Apple, the original inventor, is rejected because of the "prior art" submitted by Microsoft? It doesn't make sense to me either.

And, last, but not least, you have the idiocy of the patent itself. The patent states that the user interface "enables selection of at least one track in a portable media player as a user sequentially navigates through a hierarchy using three or more successive screens on the display of the player." How is this an innovation? Computers are built on a basis of hierarchical files. Every CD ripping program I have ever seen organizes files this way. You select the artist, then you select the disc, then you select the track. That's 3 selections, which leads to a natural representation as 3 screens. There is absolutely nothing highly innovative about applying this to a portable player. It is an obvious application of an existing idea.

The end result of such patent awards is that filing paperwork is rewarded more than innovation. Apple has created a sleek device that has completely dominated the market. Creative has not been able to compete. However, they will cash in on millions because they filled out the paperwork for an obvious software application first. Theoretically, they could refuse to license the patent to Apple. That would obviously wreak a lot of havoc on Apple's sales. The USPTO should be a lot pickier about the patents it awards to ensure that it is properly rewarding creativity and innovation instead of bureaucracy. A good place to start would be rejecting the 99.9% of software patent applications that are obvious extensions to anyone in the tech field.

Friday, September 02, 2005

While I'm Still Up

As you can see, I have a little case of insomnia. I've now finished my first week of classes (and am ahead on my reading and homework...woo hoo!). I have a feeling that this semester will actually be relatively light, as two of my classes are undergrad level. That's the pain of having done a B.A. instead of a B.S. I have a bit of work to make up before I can get to fun things, such as Pattern Recognition and Security. I have no classes tomorrow, and only 2.5 hours to finish for my job for the week. Hence, the insomnia isn't a problem tonight.

What brought on this second post was this article on CNN. The FEMA chief is apparently saying that the victims of Katrina bear some of the responsibility for their situation. Others have written on the role that class played in this. If you have no car, live from paycheck to paycheck with no extra money to spare, and have no insurance to replace your goods that might get stolen or destroyed, are you going to abandon everything you have because the government has called for an evacuation?

Of course, I'm sure others were thinking, "It won't be as bad as they're predicting. After all, we have these levee that have been designed to keep the water out of the city." Oh yeah, the levee. But I thought I heard a while ago that there was money to fix and reinforce the levees. Ignoring that, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Regardless, I'm sure the President is busy doing all he can to help the victims.

Joseph Hughes has some further righteous indignation regarding President Bush's actions in the past several days. On Monday, he gave a speech where he spent 200 words on Katrina, followed by 800 words on Iraq. He declared the area a disaster zone, pointing out how dangerous Katrina was as a category 5 hurricane. Then he left to go out west for two days to discuss Medicare and Iraq. He called up 3,500 National Guardsmen in Louisiana, as well as 850 in Mississippi and 350 in Alabama. Compare that with the 30,000 and 6,000 National Guardsmen the first President Bush sent to Florida to help when Hurricane Andrew struck. Andrew killed 23 people in the U.S. The death toll of Katrina is estimated to be in the thousands. This is leadership? This is compassionate conservativism?

And then, to top everything off, you have Fred Phelps. In case you don't know Fred Phelps, he is a Baptist minister that goes to the funerals of gays with signs reminding the mourners that their lost loved ones are burning in hell. Real classy guy, let me tell you. Well, good old Fred put a new page up on his site, titled Thank God for Katrina. I thought I had seen another post somewhere about other religious groups blaming New Orleans' sinful culture for the destruction wrought by Katrina. It's dispicable. I am tempted to put a flippant, ironic come back here, but I will not out of respect for the victims of this tragedy.

Oh, and if you haven't donated, here is another link to the Red Cross's home page. You can do so there. There's also a list of places and ways to help on this page.


In the aftermath of Katrina, there's been a lot of talk about global warming and whether or not it has contributed to the severity of hurricanes in recent years. One the denial side, Jonah Goldberg argues that the numbers of category 3,4, and 5 hurricanes haven't increased. He points to this data and says, "[e]ven a casual glimpse at the data provided by the national weather service shows that big hurricanes (categories 3,4, and 5) haven't increased over the 20th century." The problem is that global warming is subtle and you have to do a bit more than just a "casual glimpse."

Using that same data Goldberg points to, I did an analysis of the average strength of hurricanes per decade. Disclaimer: I did make two changes to the data for the 2001-present decade. First, after looking through the climate reports for 2001-2004, I found that there should be 3 category 1 (Gabrielle, Gustav, Claudette) and 3 category 2 (Lili, Isabel, Frances). I also added the two from this year (Dennis as a 4, Katrina as a 5). Here are my findings:

1851-1860 = 19 for 1.9
1861-1870 = 15 for 1.5
1871-1880 = 20 for 2
1881-1890 = 22 for 1.9
1891-1900 = 21 for 2.1
1901-1910 = 18 for 1.7
1911-1920 = 21 for 2
1921-1930 = 13 for 2.2
1931-1940 = 19 for 2.4
1941-1950 = 24 for 2.1
1951-1960 = 17 for 2.2
1961-1970 = 14 for 2.4
1971-1980 = 12 for 1.8
1981-1990 = 15 for 1.8
1991-2000 = 15 for 2.3
2001-2010 = 11 for 2.5

Look at that data. In the past 100 years, we've had two decades that averaged below an intensity of 2. Three of the four highest averages are in the past five decades. Granted, the 2001-2010 average must be taken with a grain of salt because the decade is only half over. I also find it curious that the two decades with the lowest averages (1971-1990) immediately followed the founding of the EPA and the beginning of federal work in protecting the environment. And, of course, there were the gas shortages in the '70s. I don't have the training or the research to state that these correlations mean anything. I simply find these facts interesting.

I am not a climatologist and make no claim to be one. However, from the reports that I have read, I firmly believe that global warming exists and is a factor in the increasing intensity of hurricanes. When I look at the data above, I see a general trend, despite the dip in the '70s and '80s. I think the only thing that would convince Jonah Goldberg would be a category 5 developing a voice box as it passes over his house, calling out "Global warming did this." Even then, he might think it was just the wind and a coincidence.

Update: I just wanted to put a little note in here about the data referred to above. Those are counts of the numbers of hurricanes that hit the mainland U.S. with that category. Hence, Ivan gets counted as a 3, even though it spent a lot of time as a 5 (to which Cuba and the Cayman Islands can attest). So a definitive analysis on trends of hurricane severity would rely on additional data, most of which is not available. Somehow, I doubt people in 1875 were keeping track of the severity of hurricanes that never made it out of the Atlantic.