Super Computers – All You Probably Didn't Want To Know

I like playing with computers. I’ve played with some pretty big ones in the old days – but that was a long time ago, when computers were a lot simpler. Today a friend referred me to an article in the BBC about Super Computers – the sort of machines you use to predict hurricanes, or volcanic eruptions. The Beeb has a really neat interactive chart – go take a look at it. You can pull up all sorts of information, such as what is the most popular operating system.

Now most of use are never going to see a super computer, or get to use one, just like most of use are never going to get to drive a Formula One car. But like with cars, the technology used in super computers will trickle down to the business and consumer markets at some point – in fact it already has. It’s pretty hard to buy a singe core processor now – the dual core processors in most home computers use technology that was originally designed for super computers and other high end machines. So it was interesting to look at what the most common operating system was. It was Linux.

As I said, technology trickles down. If the most advanced computers built use Linux, there has to be a damned good reason for it. And there is. Linux is the most advanced operating system currently available, far more advanced than Mac OSX or Microsoft Windows.

For anyone who wants to look at the raw data, it’s available at the Top 500 site. Just think, out of the 500 fastest computers on the planet, Linux is used on 455 of them, over 90%, Microsoft Windows is used on 5 of them, exactly 1.0%, and Mac OSX isn’t used at all.

So maybe your next computer will run Linux.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Monday May 31, 2010

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Copyright News Update – Monday May 31st, 2010 – Links And Comments

While I was putting together the article on Electric Cars, a few interesting articles on Copyright came to my attention. Here they are, with some commentary.

The Record Business Blues – Interesting article, the author repeats most of the distribution industry (RIAA) talking points, but also questions them, and looks for answers. Some coverage of ACTA. My only real complaint is the section titled ‘Requim for Recordings’, because I know of more people than ever who are recording – they just aren’t distributing their stuff through the RIAA member companies. A good read.

A Newbies Guide to Publishing – Joe Konrath, a writer, covers why ‘unauthorized downloads’ aren’t hurting his bottom line, in fact they are probably enhancing it.

Corey Doctorow is going to be a Clarion Write-a-Thon Writer – This is a fund raising campaign for the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, a wonderfully worthy cause. If you can back Corey, please do. For those who don’t know Corey, in addition to being a successful Science Fiction Author, he writes non-fiction, and Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future is a must for anyone trying to understand copyright in the 21st century. You can download a free copy of Content at Corey’s website, and an audio book version can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Corey is another author who believes that he’s making more money by having his works freely downloadable than he would otherwise.

The Fight for Fair Copyright – This little video by the Canadian Federation of Students is really well done, covering the basics quite nicely. They are asking everyone to write to their Member of Parliament about the proposed new copyright law.

Copying is not Theft – Nina Paley’s animated short movie explains how copying really works, is terribly funny, and quite frankly adorable. Nina is a real artist!

Why I Steal Movies… Even Ones I’m In -Neat article by Peter Serafinowicz, a celebrated British writer/producer/director/actor/musician/comedian/voice model, which ends with ‘In the meantime, I’ll be suing myself for pirating my own show. And I’m pretty scared, because I have an amazing lawyer.’ A must read.

Internet Archive launches new service for the print-disabled: free access to over 1 million books, including current titles – I think the title is self explanatory. One paragraph caught my eye in particular:

The new service demonstrates the principle behind the Chafee Amendment: that copyright is a conditional monopoly, not a property right, and that when we decide the monopoly is hampering an important public purpose, we can change it. The Chafee Amendment is an open acknowledgement that monopoly-based distribution was not serving the needs of the blind, the visually impaired, or dyslexic people very well, and that fixing that situation is simply a policy decision. It reminds us that copyright itself is a policy decision, and that if it is not serving the public well, we can change the policy.

Someone should tell Barry Sookman and Andrei Mincov about this, I’d love to see their reaction.

DRM: Publishers don’t want it. So why? – I added this one because of an exchange of tweets I had with James Moore, the Canadian Heritage Minister today about DRM, and the point that the WIPO Treaties state that the only person who can authorize DRM to be used is the author of a work. He said that an author could just go to a publisher that doesn’t use it, to which I pointed out that Amazon and Itunes (Apple) own over 90% of the ebook market (duopoly in other words), and they refuse to publish without it. He came back again with the suggestion that the author should go somewhere else – which shows a lack of understanding of the situation, and the limits it places on authors.

Cory Doctorow: Publish books free online – An interview with Corey Doctorow by the Guardian newspaper.

NetCoalition/CCIA Reinforces Recent Comments To IP Czar Over Bogus Industry Studies On Copyright – Good article from TechDirt about the articles by the ‘content distributors’ (MPAA/RIAA), and why TechDirt thinks that they are wrong.

Copyright and the Great Socialist Degradation – Interesting article by Andrei Mincov. Have you ever noticed that the most strident advocates of stronger copyright laws are lawyers, not creators? Curious isn’t it? Andrei made most of these points in the comments section of one of my earlier articles, and he was just as confused then as he was when he wrote this. I missed the article when he published it, and wouldn’t have known about it if Barry Sookman hadn’t have posted about it. Barry is another lawyer who is for stronger copyright protection. Hum…

Weapons Down, Please – This blog posting by Canadian Novelist John Degen covers his views about the copyright/DRM discussion. I don’t agree with John, however as you may have noticed in the past, I don’t agree with anyone :]

The Two Locks of DRM – Article by Russel Ormond from December 2007 – which I had not read until today. I’m posting it here because it’s a damned good article, and also John Degen references it.

A robust ­copyright regime would ­permit market ­forces to operate properly – A rather curious article by Barry Sookman. The point that he is making, is that if we had copyright protection as strong as he thinks we should have, all of the ‘content industries’ would be making huge profits. The point that he is missing, is that the United States has laws like these, and it hasn’t made any difference. At least not to the distributors, the artists are doing better than ever.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Monday May 31, 2010

The Death Of The Fossil Fuel Companies – Sell Your Stock Now While It's Still Worth Something

Am I serious? Yes. Very.

I spent a lot of time working with engine companies, in getting their engines certified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. I designed a range of 3-Way Catalytic Converters, worked to get a retrofit kit verified (you can read a copy of the interim verification here). I’ve worked with emission control systems for Diesel, Gasoline (Also called Petrol), Natural Gas, and Propane fueled internal combustion engines, used on a wide variety of machines. I’ve even done some work on automobiles. During this time I also worked with staff at both major U.S. agencies, and several of the minor ones (each state has it’s own environmental regulator) as well as Environment Canada.

The above is basic background. I know a lot about vehicle emissions, fuel costs, engine costs, vehicle operating costs, vehicle design, etc., from a sales point of view. While I’m not an engineer, to effectively sell this sort of product, you need to know more than the science and engineering basics. In fact many sales representatives in the business are engineers, because of the complexity of the systems.

So when I predict the death of the Fossil Fuel Companies, I have good solid reasons for doing so. Everyone has heard of Climate Change, and that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor. Some of you don’t believe that Climate Change is real, others do. Even those who don’t believe in Climate Change do understand basic economics though, so let’s look at some of them.

My 2003 model year Chrysler minivan has a 3.3L V6 gasoline engine, and with gasoline at about $1.00 Canadian per liter, costs about $80.00 per week to operate if I’m driving to work. Since there’s 52 weeks in a year, the cost of fuel would be about $4160.00. This assumes that I don’t go to visit my wife’s mother, who lives six hours north of us. If we do that, it costs us $160.00 for a round trip, so say we do that twice per year, and the fuel cost is now $4480.00. Add in oil changes, and other scheduled maintenance, and the total per year is about $5500.00.

Nissan is going to start shipping their Leaf compact car in December. The Leaf is an electric vehicle, with a round trip range of 160 kilometers (100 miles). It seats five, and has gotten excellent reviews from the automotive press. Here’s a review by the London Sun that was posted by the Sun on YouTube.

I hope you watched the video all of the way through – isn’t fueling simple? It’s no harder than putting gasoline into your current car, and you wouldn’t have to worry about fumes from the fill up igniting, since there aren’t any fumes. And yes, I saw the Mythbusters episode where they had a hard time igniting gasoline. I also know that gas stations have caught fire and exploded in the past, that’s why the current ones have all of the safety features that are installed on the pumps, and the warnings about smoking while you are filling up your car.

But let’s get back to the Leaf. First, instead of visiting a gas station, you plug it in every night at home. The cost in electricity will be about $2.25 per charge (information from Nissan Canada). This compares very favorably with a cost of $11.42 per day in gasoline with the Chrysler. Another issue is maintenance – the Leaf has electric drive, it doesn’t have an engine. There’s no need to change the engine lubricating oil. There’s no air filter, oil filter, or gasoline filter. In the calculations above I allowed $1020.00 for maintenance. Electric vehicles require very little maintenance, but to be fair we’ll cut the cost to $500.00 per year. So let’s add it up. $2.25 * 365 days =$821.25, plus $500.00 for maintenance, and the yearly total is $1321.25, for a $4178.75 saving per year. This is a huge saving – just think of what you could do with $4000.00 to spend!

While the range is limited, it would suffice for all of our needs, except our twice yearly trips to visit Mom. For most families, it would cover all of their needs, period. And if you do need to travel a longer distance on a weekend, rentals are available, and fast charge stations (25-30 minute charge) are going to be installed in many places. We could make the trip to Mom’s with three stops to charge. Since I never drive for five hours straight, three stops to recharge, and walk about an stretch is feasible.

Another thing to consider is that many jurisdictions have government rebate programs for electric car buyers, in Ontario a rebate of between $4000.00 to $10,000.00 is available starting july 1, 2010 (Government of Ontario Press Release).

How reliable will an electric car be? I don’t know about the ‘average electric car’, but Nissan has been building electric vehicles for over thirty years. You might have even driven one, if you are a forklift operator. While there are a lot of differences between an electric forklift and an electric car (forklifts for instance operate at slow speeds), the basic technologies are very similar, in fact Nissan’s gasoline powered forklifts use Nissan automotive engines, modified for off-road use.

Nissan hasn’t sold an electric car before this, because the technology that would work in a forklift, wasn’t practical in an automobile. Forklifts use cumbersome lead acid batteries. A standard 4000 pound capacity forklift has a battery that weighs between 3500 and 4000 pounds, more than many cars weigh. In a forklift the weight is an advantage, it is part of the counterbalance effect that keeps the rear wheels on the ground when you are lifting a load. In a car the extra weight would cause massive problems – the braking system, the frame, and the body of the car would need to be significantly strengthened. Lead Acid batteries use Sulfuric Acid, and it is nasty stuff. The small lead-acid battery that powers the starter motor in your car doesn’t hold a lot of it. A 4000 pound battery does. Cleaning up sulfuric acid spills isn’t fun. While Baking Soda will neutralize the acid, you’d need to carry a lot of it!

Also until recently forklifts used Direct Current (DC) motors, it’s only been recently that forklifts have switched to more efficient Alternating Current (AC) motors. AC Motors produce far more torque than DC motors due, which is useful, because when you need the most power is starting the car from a stop. Anyone who has learned to drive a car with a manual transmission has experienced this – you need to feed enough gas to the engine to get moving, but not enough to spin the tires. With an AC motor you don’t need to worry, it produces so much torque all you need to do is put it in gear.

So I expect this to be a real success for Nissan. While other companies are producing electric vehicles, Nissan is the only one that has long term electric vehicle experience, and a look at the Leaf shows the amount of work that they have done. This car is going to be the hottest car of 2011, with the Chevy Volt coming a close second (the Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid)

This car will really hit the fossil fuel companies hard. You don’t have to believe in Climate Change to see the advantages of a Leaf. The monetary savings are real, and huge. Nissan has hit a home run with it. The Premier of Ontario wants 5% of cars in Ontario to be electric by 2020. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that nearly 50% of cars will be electric by 2020. Yes, I expect electric car adoption to occur that quickly.

Oh, and as for Prime Minister Harper, and his government’s support of the Oil Sands project? He’s just wasted a whole pile of taxpayers money for nothing.

Wayne Borean

Sunday May 30, 2010

Disclosure: I used to work for a Nissan forklift dealership, and later called on Nissan when I was selling catalytic converters. I have worked with General Motors (Chevrolet) on several projects. My personal liking for those two companies may have affected my view. But I don’t think so. WB.

Further Links:

Nissan Leaf on WikipediaWired Article on the Leaf

The Eliica – a 230 MPH Electric Limosine

Currently Available Electric Cars (from Wikipedia)

Renault Fluence ZE – from Nissan’s sister company

Chevy Volt Plug In Hybrid – shorter range batteries, range extender gasoline engine

Wikipedia Category – Battery Electric Vehicles – lists a lot of other battery vehicles

Wikipedia Category – Plug In Hybrid Vehicles

Wikipedia – Electric Motorcycles and Scooters

Wikipedia – Electric Boats

Wikipedia – Electric Bus

Society for Sustainable Mobility

Electric Car Dreams from PBS

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Enemy Or Why VP8 Is Important Even If It Came From Google

Microsoft. Google. Apple. And on and on. Large corporations dedicated to profit.

There’s nothing wrong with making a profit. The issue is how you make it. That’s why Microsoft underwent an anti-trust trial, which cost the company dearly. There are legal requirements that businesses act ethically. These requirements aren’t always enforced evenly by the regulatory agencies, but they do exist. And companies continue to breach the regulations. In some cases it’s more profitable to do so and pay the fines. In some cases they are able to hide the breaches, and no one outside of the company learns about them (which is why some jurisdictions have Whistleblower laws which protect employees who report corporate wrongdoing).

I know a fair bit about how companies can work near the edge of legality, and over it. While I’ve never worked for a company that did this sort of thing, I’ve seen a lot of companies playing games with the law. One thing that I can state categorically, is that any company which does not work ethically  is not acting in the best interests of their customers, or their owners. It is possible to increase short-term profits by unethical actions, but there will always be long-term damage from these actions to the corporation, which will drive down shareholder value, ruin the corporate brand, and kill customer loyalty.

The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America are a good example of how not to treat your customers. In a recent joint letter addressed to Victoria Espinel, the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, the MPAA and the RIAA argued that all computers be required to scan themselves for ‘infringing content’ and remove any found. They don’t mention what they would do if something went wrong, and the scanning system deleted all of your pictures and home movies. They don’t care.

They also don’t mention that this would make running any operating system other than those supplied by Microsoft and Apple illegal. They don’t mention that it would need a more powerful processor, or that it would use more electrical power. No. They just want to treat all of their customers as criminals. This is not ethical behavior.

Then we have Google. If you use Google, it tracks you. It is possible to limit Google’s tracking ability by taking certain actions by setting your browser to remove all cookies when it closes, but this has major disadvantages.

Google follows you. Everywhere. It doesn’t matter what you are looking for. Google will find it for you, and keep records. Google claims the records are anonymized, however since we don’t know how Google does this, we don’t know that they are doing it properly. There was a case several years ago where AOL posted some supposedly anonymized information, and it was proven that the information wasn’t anonymized enough, and that it was possible to back track from the information to find the person who made the search. Bing, Microsoft’s ‘Decision Engine’ does the same thing.

And this is why the ‘Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Enemy’.

We, the consumers, are in a war. A war we didn’t want. A war over us. All of the companies named make the proper noises about how the customer comes first. In some cases (Apple for instance) they’ve built a reputation for serving the customer, while at the same time knifing the customer in the back (read your ITunes agreement – carefully – you’ll freak).

There are times though when the war does the consumer some good. Consider Adobe’s Flash – yes it works – kind of. Quite frankly it’s a terrible piece of junk in many ways, but it does allow you to watch video online. And then there’s Microsoft’s Silverlight. It’s worse than Flash. The consumer has the choice between bad and worse. This isn’t what capitalism and competition are about. Which is why HTML5 and the Google VP8 codec are so important, even though the codec comes from Google. Since Google has open sourced the code behind the VP8 codec, this means that anyone can make improvements. While there have been complaints about Google’s code quality, it will improve rapidly, giving the world a vastly improved video experience online.

This does not make Google our friend. Google didn’t do this for the consumer. Google did this for Google. The largest user of Flash video is this small site called YouTube, which Google owns. That Google’s actions will do the consumers good is a byproduct of Google trying to make money. Google doesn’t really care about the consumer, it only cares about Google.

There’s been a lot of articles about VP8, from a variety of publishers. You can find them here, here, here, etc. Some of the most important ones Dr. Roy at Techrights wrote. Dr. Roy has my utmost thanks for all the research time he saved me.

But everyone is missing something. What if VP8 becomes the de facto standard? Remember that VP8 is an open standard. Totally open. This means that adding DRM to it will be difficult, if not impossible. So VP8 kills off Windows Media Video (WMV) and Quicktime as a video standards, just like MP3 killed off Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Quicktime as audio standards. Remember that one of the reasons that Microsoft and Apple fought MP3 was because MP3 weren’t compatible with DRM, and the Frauhoffer Institute controlled the specification. Now we have the same situation with VP8, and we already know that Steve Jobs is panicking. You have to ask yourself why…

Simple – VP8 will destroy the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, ACTA, the new Canadian Copyright Act, the WIPO copyright treaties, and every other law which attempts to protect DRM. The ripping noise you hear is Hollywood tearing its hair out in clumps.

And now you know why the patent trolls at MPEG.LA are trying to sidetrack VP8 adoption. Which still doesn’t make Google our friend. Remember that.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Friday May 28, 2010

Patents – Why They Exist, And Why They Possibly Shouldn’t Exist – Part Two

This is a continuation of an earlier article, if you haven’t already you should read Patents – Why They Exist, And Why They Possibly Shouldn’t Exist.

One issue is that Americans think that their patent system is the be all and end all, and that everyone else should imitate them. Curiously a lot of Americans even believe that their Constitution requires that a patent system exist, due to a misreading of it. Here’s a typical comment:

Of course patents will never be abandoned in the US as they are enshrined in the constitution and are a bedrock principle of personal rights, freedom, and entrepreneurialism. But of course they need to be remodeled to engender their original form, function, and purpose.

Let’s take a look at what the Constitution actually says in Section Eight.

The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

The important word is shall. The definition of shall from Dictionary.com says:

–auxiliary verb,present singular 1st person shall, 2nd shall or (Archaic) shalt, 3rd shall, present plural shall; past singular 1st person should, 2nd should or (Archaic) shouldst or should·est, 3rd should, past plural should; imperative, infinitive, and participles lacking.

1. plan to, intend to, or expect to: I shall go later.

2. will have to, is determined to, or definitely will: You shall do it. He shall do it.

3. (in laws, directives, etc.) must; is or are obliged to: The meetings of the council shall be public.

4. (used interrogatively in questions, often in invitations): Shall we go?

What this means is that Congress has the power to take action on the following lines. For example Line one states:

To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

If we follow the argument that those who claim the Constitution requires a patent system, this would also require the United States Government to borrow money. I’m sure that the banks would love this. Let’s take a look at another line:

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

If we take the argument that Congress MUST do everything under Section Eight, would someone please explain to me why Congress has not issued a Letter of Marque in over a hundred years? Obviously Congress isn’t following the Constitution! Quick, impeach them! For that matter they have to declare WAR – they don’t have any choice in the matter, that’s what the Constitution says. And the line that everyone squeals about is worded in the same way.

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 point being that the Constitution gives Congress these powers, but Congress is not required to exercise them. And the Constitution also leaves the execution totally open to Congress. Congress could decide that the appropriate duration of a patent is one year for example, or thirty days. Or three hundred years. It’s all up to Congress. Also Congress gets to define certain things, for example the term ‘exclusive right’ could be interpreted in many ways, and has to be defined by Congress.

Just think – if the founders had wanted to require that patents exist the wording would have been:

The Congress will lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

The wording isn’t that different, but there is a huge difference in meaning.

Now going back to the original wording, someone said to me:

…but number three, the legal definition, is “must, is or are obliged to”. Surely that means “must”?

Yep, that’s what it says. But look at the original wording again – ‘shall have the power’ – so they have the power, but there is no requirement to use it. It’s very carefully worded. It amazes me how a country that is so backward in so many ways (Health Care for example), could have a Constitution that is so well written. Really, as an American friend of mine put it

you poor Canadians – it must be like living next door to the Simpsons

his comment came from a discussion about the new Republican website where they are taking suggestions. Read this:

The Republican voter base speaks out on the House GOP website. My favorite example: “A ‘teacher’ told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!” a third complains. “And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story.”

The above is from an article published by the Washington Post which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damned scary.

In closing, here’s another quote from a friend, and it’s a damned important one:

It appears that for Disney & Co. “two or three milleniums” is still “limited.”

Legally Congress could do that. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

This is the end of Part Two – Part Three to Follow.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Thursday May 27, 2010

Patents – Why They Exist, And Why They Possibly Shouldn't Exist

As an aside, my thanks to PJ for her article ‘Who Should See the Film ‘Patent Absurdity’? – Pick Your Brain‘ which inspired this. Also my thanks to the makers of the film ‘Patent Absurdity‘ which can be watched online or downloaded freely here. Note that you will need Firefox or another browser that can handle OGG files to watch it online. If you download it the best option for watching it is VLC (neither Windows Media Player nor Apple Quicktime are capable of working with open standards for some reason – you should ask Microsoft and Apple why).

Patents are another interest of mine. I’ve been following the arguments for and against software patents in the United States and European Union closely. In the United States at the current time software is patentable due to a change in case law. In the European Union a recent court case in Germany has made software patentable (see this article by Florian Mueller). In Canada software cannot be patented, and the courts have been very definite on this as has the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

I’m a cynical old bastard – and that’s the polite way of putting it. The first question I always ask is who is stealing from whom? Let’s take a look.

First we need to define what a Patent is. From Wikipedia we get:

The word patent originates from the Latin patere, which means “to lay open” (i.e., to make available for public inspection), and more directly as a shortened version of the term letters patent, which originally denoted an open for public reading royal decree granting exclusive rights to a person.

In simple terms a patent is a trade by society – society gives the patent holder an exclusive right to manufacture the patented device for a period of time, while the patent holder discloses how the device is made and works. Exact details vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The World Intellectual Property Organization is attempting to standardize the rules worldwide. ACTA is an attempt by certain countries to bypass the WIPO, so that they can enact rules that are more favorable to them.

Modern Patent Law can be traced back to the Statute of Monopolies of 1623. Again I’m going to quote Wikipedia:

The Parliament of England‘s Statute of Monopolies of 1623 (21 Jac. 1, c.3) provided strict rules on the circumstances in which the first inventor of a given item could be given exclusive rights to that invention, provided that it was not “contrary to the law nor mischievous to the state by raising prices of commodities at home, or hurt of trade, or generally inconvenient”.

The Statute of Monopolies is now seen as the origin of patent law respectively.[1] It was introduced in the reign of James I in response to abuse of the previous system whereby the king could grant of arbitrary monopolies for the production of particular goods or the provision of particular services by letters patent to the detriment of commerce. The act attempted ineffectively to mitigate the many previous grants of monopolies of trade.

The first such monopoly was granted in England to an innovator was by Henry VI in 1449 to the inventor of a new technique for the the manufacture of stained glass.

As it says above, one of the major reasons that patent law was standardized was so that ‘arbitrary monopolies’ couldn’t be granted. Say that somehow I gain a patent on table salt, even though it’s been in use for thousands of years. That patent would be an unearned license to print money, since I didn’t invent table salt, and that’s one of the things that patent law is designed to prevent.

The legal profession (specifically the ‘Patent Bar‘) has a vested interest in how the patent system works, just like any other specialists will have a vested interest in the laws that effect their field of endeavor. Some patent lawyers are trying to expand the range of patentable items. The usual reason stated is that without patent protection no one will expend resources in Research and Development, and that innovators deserve to make a profit. Through court cases such as State Street Bank v. Signature Financial Group they have attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in expanding the range of patentable items. One case that is very important to the U.S. Patent Bar is in re Bilski wherein the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear a patent case. Depending upon the ruling, it could either expand or contract patentable subject matter in the United States.

At the same time, many large companies have a vested interest in patent law. Consider Steve Ballmer’s recent claim that Android isn’t free. The company that Steve Ballmer heads, Microsoft, has been filing a lot of patents recently. His argument in respect to Android, is that they’ve patented key technologies that Android has to be using. If Steve Ballmer is right, Android is infringing on Microsoft’s patents. But are Microsoft’s patents valid? Microsoft’s patents are mostly related to software. If the Supreme Court decides that software patents are not valid, then Microsoft has just wasted a lot of money on patents that aren’t valid.

And there’s also various technology consortiums like MPEG LA. MPEG LA holds a variety of patents which cover video display among other things, and licenses them to technology companies. But what do those patents really cover? If the patent is for a hardware system to display video, and someone builds a software implementation to display video, does the software implementation infringe the patent? Since the two implementations are totally different, legally it is hard to see how a software implementation could infringe a hardware patent, as differing hardware implementations are often ruled not infringing (for example if a hardware patent used platinum as a component, and a differing implementation used palladium, the palladium implementation would not infringe – and yes, I know of a case where this was the ruling). MPEG LA is claiming that it would infringe. Since MPEG LA appears ready to test this in court, and defending patent suits in the United States usually costs several millions of US dollars, it is possible that MPEG LA could win by running their target out of money. While this sort of action may be legal, it may not be ethical. However ethics are one of the things that the law of the United States seems to have not considered. Of course MPEG LA may be distracted at present, since they are facing Antitrust Allegations in the United States.

In the United States the following text from Section Eight the Constitution forms the basis of patent law and copyright

The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

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 stated reason is to ‘promote progress’. The question is whether or not the current patent law regime in the United States promotes or impedes progress? My sometime sparring partner and member of the patent bar, Gene Quinn, is of the opinion that an exceptionally strong patent law does indeed promote progress. Ronald Riley, founder of the Professional Inventors Alliance, also favors extremely strong patent law protection. Both are of the opinion that software should be patentable.

Most software engineers don’t agree. Richard Stallman, one of the truly elite software developers has spoken out many times about the dangers of software patents. Curiously those most in favor of software patents appear to be lawyers from the Patent Bar.

This is the end of Part One, Part Two is to follow.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Thursday May 27, 2010

What Are The Fiduciary Duties Of Heritage Minister James Moore?

I’ve traded comments with Andrei Mincov on one of my earlier posts. Andrei has some definite views, which I partially agree with, and partially disagree with. Like Andrei, I’m for freedom. Unlike Andrei, I recognize that freedom stems from regulation. Without regulations criminals would rule the streets. Without regulations, we would all be serfs.

Consider the Magna Carta Libertatum. Originally it was an agreement (enforced at sword point) between King John of England and his vassals, the Barons. To quote from Wikipedia:

Magna Carta required King John of England to proclaim certain rights (pertaining to freemen), respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King’s subjects, whether free or fettered — and implicitly supported what became the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.

Technically this abridgment of King John’s freedom, secured the freedom of his subjects. It limited the actions that the King could take, by binding him to the law (previously the law did not apply to the King).

It is recognized in human society that various sorts of limitations are necessary for human civilization to function. When those limits do not exist (for example in Josef Stalin‘s Soviet Union) society breaks down. In places where those limits are shaky, like in the United States, society suffers.

Andrei commented:

Government has no right to deprive someone of the right to fail at someone else’s expense.

My response was

So I should be able to sell you a car that is improperly designed, and make a profit, even if it kills you. That’s an interesting concept.

There is a fine line between over regulation and the public good. Too much regulation, and you have a situation where nothing can happen (I’ll refer to the later Soviet Union, where bureaucracy paralyzed the state, except for the armed forces, which the bureaucracy was designed to support). Too little regulation and you have a situation where criminals control society – the Barons that King John faced were some of the worst sociopaths in the country. They had to be to retain their baronial seats against the king, and against their peers.

At this point I’d like to segue to the Gulf of Mexico – should BP be allowed to cause damage to it’s neighbors? Think about it. The fisherman in Louisiana may loose their livelihoods because of the oil spill. Does BP have a responsibility to repair the damage caused by the oil spill? Because it is the same issue. Andrei also made a claim that

That’s what the monstrosity about social justice is all about. It requires that in order to give the unearned to the undeserving, the government use force to extort value from people of achievement.

You could read Andrei’s statement as saying that the money that the people of Louisiana could earn from having a sound ecosystem is unearned, and that they are undeserving of government protection. Or legal protection if you wish. Executive. Legislature. Judiciary. These are the three legs of government. The courts, or judiciary, are the third leg of the government stool. All three parts of the government have a fiduciary duty to the citizenry. When part of the government fails to act on a situation for which it is responsible, the damage can be profound.

While any government has a fiduciary duty to its citizens it is most notable in a democracy. Admittedly Canadian Democracy was originally designed to allow a small group of cognoscenti to maintain control of the country, much like the system in our mother country, England. Again much like England, there has been many shifts in power since Wolfe‘s soldiers beat Montcalm‘s soldiers on the Plains of Abraham in September of 1759 AD. The Canadian and English systems are flexible enough to allow for these transferals of power, unlike the American system, which appears to have been based on one of the wonderfully crazy cartoon machines drawn by legendary cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

Regardless which government has been in power in Canada, that fiduciary duty exists. In some cases it may force the government to act against the wishes of the citizenry, a good example being the Canadian declaration of war against Germany in 1939, which was very unpopular in Quebec, or the legalization of same sex marriage, which is still a contentious issue in many circles. In both of these cases, it could be argued that the best interests of the people, did not coincide with public opinion.

Social Justice often involves the government taking action that the citizenry may not appreciate. Consider seat belt laws. By enacting seat belt laws the government is saying that it knows what is better for you than you do. I can remember my father’s fury about the seat belt law when it came into effect in Ontario. He swore that there was no damned way he was ever going to wear a seat belt. Ever. No matter how may lives seat belt laws have saved, Andrei and those like him (and my father) would argue that these laws are an infringement on our freedoms. It doesn’t matter that there are thousands of children who have parents who are still alive to love them because they were wearing seat belts, the government made a law which infringes on the freedom of adults to make their own choices.

Social Justice is aimed at those in society who are unable to protect themselves, children, adults with disabilities, people who work in fields where there is an imbalance of power, that would not allow the average person to negotiate from a position of equality. Take the CRIA and the RIAA. Both are suffering at present due to the internet, which has given their customers and their suppliers (the artists) a position of equality for the first time in years. This horrifies the CRIA/RIAA. This is why the rumor on the street is that Canada will shortly have a new copyright law, based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the United States. The recording industry organizations have been begging for a piece of legislation that would give them back the control they used to have, when music was delivered on phonograph records, cassette tapes, and compact discs. That this would hurt the artists, who the industry claims to serve, is not their concern. They believe that the recording industry is more important than the artists. If the artists get hurt, that’s just too bad. What matters is that the recording industry maintain control, so that they can continue to profit, even if it is at the expense of the artists.

Which brings us to Heritage Minister James Moore. Rumor is that there was a political battle between James Moore, the Canadian Heritage Minister, and Tony Clement, the Canadian Industry Minister, about the direction of copyright reform in Canada, which James Moore won, and the result will be ‘DMCA Canada‘. But James Moore is not responsible to the CRIA or the RIAA. He’s responsible to the Canadian public. He has a fiduciary duty to the citizens of Canada, which is represented by the oath of office that he swore. And as Heritage Minister, he is also responsible to Canadian artists and other creators of Canadian culture. To quote from Wikipedia:

In a fiduciary relation one person, in a position of vulnerability, justifiably reposes confidence, good faith, reliance and trust in another whose aid, advice or protection is sought in some matter. In such a relation good conscience requires one to act at all times for the sole benefit and interests of another, with loyalty to those interests.

Will Heritage Minister Moore act for the sole benefit of the Canadian public, or will he act for the benefit of foreign corporations?

We should know this week.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Sunday May 23, 2010

Nina Paley Has A Wonderful Cartoon About DRM I'd Like To Share With You Thanks To Her Permission

The wonderful and talented cartoonist and filmmaker Nina Paley has a gorgeous new cartoon on DRM.

DRM Bugs
Nina Paley's DRM Bugs

Nina said about this cartoon ‘Actually, these bugs aren’t all DRM – they’re generally about privacy, “spying.” That’s why there’s a Facebook bug too.’

Nina isn’t a programmer though, and she didn’t realize that one of the issues with DRM is that it opens a computer system to added exploits. I am a programmer, so that’s what I saw. I totally missed the Facebook bug, until she pointed it out (my wife will tell you that this is because I am a man – I prefer to say that I notice what I’m interested in – and these days all too often its DRM).

An exploit may not be a bug, though it often is, and a bug may not enable an exploit – consider a bug which causes the operating system to crash. Such a bug may not allow for an exploit. Sometimes features allow for exploits, a good example being Microsoft’s ActiveX Controls. Microsoft designed the Active X system so that it was capable of accessing many internal operating system features, and so that they executed automatically. Active X controls could be used for legitimate reasons, but they could also be used to install malicious software without the user’s knowledge, and this is why later versions of Internet Explorer shipped with added security features which limited the actions that an Active X control could take.

Why does DRM open a system to added exploits? Because there are more lines of code, and more possibility of error. If you do a search on Google for the term ‘bugs per line of code‘ you’ll find 10,800,000 results! Programmers know that this is a serious issue. For every extra thousand lines of code, there will be more errors. Programmers aim for zero bugs, however it is impossible in a large, complex program like an operating system to achieve this, as there may be interrelationships that do not show up until after the product is shipped. The increasing complexity caused by Graphical User Interfaces, Networking, Web Browsers, Email Clients, etc. while useful from a user viewpoint, adds further points of attack. In cases where the various programs are tightly interrelated the problems will be worse, as an exploit in the email client may also allow the attack to work in the web browser (the Microsoft Outlook email client uses the Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser to render HTML, which means an attack on your web browser could be sent to you as an email message). Other operating systems do not have this problem, in Mac OSX the Mail application has its own internal HTML rendering engine. While it uses the same Webkit engine used in Safari, it does not call Safari. The same is true of the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client. Both use the Gecko rendering engine, but they do not call each other, which limits the effects of any exploit.

In my earlier article, Digital Right Management and/or Technical Protection Measures Cause Climate Change, from May 11/2010, I covered how added lines of code could use more CPU cycles, and especially how in Windows Vista and Windows 7 the DRM sub-system is running all the time. In addition to costing extra electrical power to run, the constantly operating DRM sub-system is constantly open to attack (for a good explanation from Microsoft on how parts of the DRM system work click here). A good example is the Macrovision bug that Microsoft built into the Windows XP kernel. A computer user might never play the games that the DRM system was designed for, but the driver ran from start-up with administrator privileges. Even worse, Microsoft somehow included this driver in Windows 2003 server – remember this is a video game DRM driver. Servers aren’t used to play games!

Academics have become very interested in DRM Systems and their exploits, the University of Kentucky has published articles, the Eindhoven University of Technology has published articles, the Helsinki University of Technology has published articles, as have many more.

Note that this is a Microsoft Windows problem. Apple’s Mac OSX has many of the same features that Windows Vista and Windows 7 have, but very few of the problems. Mac OS X uses a Unix based system architecture, and a different design criteria (Apple does not design for tight integration of operating system software components, which is one of the biggest weaknesses of Microsoft Windows). Linux, BSD, and Solaris kernel based operating systems such as Ubuntu, Moon OS, Mandriva, Fedora, et al are even more secure than Mac OSX.

The problem is that between 80 and 90% of the worlds computers run Microsoft operating systems, despite the well-known faults of Windows. Combine a weak DRM system with ubiquity and you have a computing disaster. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t filed a class action lawsuit against Microsoft in the United States to attempt to force the company to fix Windows.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Thursday May 20, 2010

PS: I highly recommend Nina’s movie ‘Sita Sings the Blues‘, if you haven’t seen it, download it and watch it. It’s a fantastic work of art, which Nina released using the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License.

More Legal Shenanigans In Britain – Which? vs ACS:LAW “The UNUSUAL suspects”

ACS:BORE has a new article, which is a reprint from Which? on the legal letter scam used by ACS:Law to attempt to collect large amounts of money from accused file sharers titled Which? vs ACS:Law “The Unusual Suspects”. ACS:BORE didn’t add any commentary, but the article in from Which? was detailed, describing cases where people who received letters from ACS:Law were extremely unlikely to have downloaded the things that ACS-Law accused them of downloading.

The point of the article was to call into question the system that ACS:Law is using to target people who they are claiming are downloading the products of their customers. If the article is accurate, ACS:Law is taking action with incorrect information. In at least one case it is claimed that ACS:Law had to back down on their accusations because the information was proven incorrect. ACS:Law has claimed that their system of gathering information is correct all of the time, so if it is true that they have been wrong, it is a strong indictment of their methods. Note that these appear to be the same methods used by Davenport Lyons before them, methods which have caused Davenport Lyons problems with the legal authorities in Britain, with more than 280 complaints being filed. ACS:Law is reported to be under investigation as well. It has also impacted customers of ACS:Law where the owner of a string of sex ships has had problems with a business license renewal. Another law firm which also became involved in a similar scheme dropped their participation after receiving complaints from clients, but not until after they were caught editing their own Wikipedia page. You’ve got to love British English – where else could you find an article titled ‘TBI Solicitors lost its bottle?

The legal profession has a fiduciary duty to their clients. But the legal profession also has duties as ‘officers of the court‘ to operate within certain tightly defined parameters. While the sending of letters does not involve the courts per se, the threat of court action does involve the courts. How this will play out in Britain is no known as yet, as the original complaints about Davenport Lyons are still wending their way through the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Law Society. It also appears that the Consumer Action Group may be involved. If the actions of Davenport Lyons are found to not be proper, this would put ACS:Law in a difficult situation, especially since there are links between the two firms, which give the appearance that when action was started against Davenport Lyons, that ACS:Law was chosen to continue the actions for Davenport Lyons customers, and a transfer of staff was effected.

Lord Clement-Jones has labeled the Davenport Lyons/ACS:Law scheme ‘A Scam & Legal Blackmail‘ and ‘an embarrassment to the creative rights industry‘ in the House of Lords. Adam Liversage, a representative of the British Phonographic Industry stated ‘We don’t favour the approach taken by ACS:Law to tackle illegal file-sharing‘ to BBC News.

It has been claimed that the program that is used to determine Internet Protocol Address (IP Address) was purchased for less than $750.00 US, and possibly as little as $250.00 US. While some of the basics of such a program could be found online, most often licensed under the BSD, MIT, Apache or GPL licenses, it is hard to see how a reliable system could be built for only $750.00 US, since this is less than one day’s billing for an experienced programmer. Also if code that was licensed under the GPL was used, the program itself would be a case of copyright infringement, which would be exceptionally embarrassing to ACS:Law. Since over two thirds of freely available source code is licensed under one or another version of the GPL, the odds of this being the case are very high.

Unfortunately this situation looks likely to drag on for some years. The law firms involved appear to be fighting to avoid having to appear before a tribunal, which likely means that the are aware that they may be in legally difficult circumstances. However they are still sending out ‘settlement letters’, and anyone who does settle is unlikely to be able to retrieve their money if the law firms actions are found to be incorrect. However if the recipient of the letter is required to appear in court, the cost of a solicitor would likely be higher than the cost of settling, and even if they won, it might not be possible to get the judge to rule that ACS:Law should pay costs.

From this side of the Atlantic Ocean it appears the biggest problem is the English authorities lack of speed in dealing with the case. Either it’s a scam as claimed in the House of Lords, or it’s legal, and British internet users need to know.

Wayne Borean

Thursday May 20, 2010

How Much Did Microsoft Pay HTC To Sign The Patent Licensing Agreement?

Microsoft issued a press release claiming that HTC will be paying royalties on shipments of Android phones. Most news organizations took Microsoft’s statement at face value, but it left me puzzled, so I did a little bit of digging.

First, HTC has a fair number of patents. Unlike Microsoft’s patents, HTC’s are almost all for handheld devices, like mobile phones. Now I didn’t read all of the patents on both sides (I don’t have the time) however you can be sure that HTC knows what they hold, and they also know that Microsoft has a new phone that will be released this fall. Quite frankly based on what I could see, Microsoft is far more exposed than HTC is.

So why would HTC pay Microsoft? They wouldn’t. What I suspect happened (and we’ll never know the truth because there’s a non-disclosure agreement in place) is that Microsoft paid HTC a large sum of money, and then HTC agreed to pay a small sum of money per phone sold. Just for the argument, assume that Microsoft paid HTC $25,000,000.00 for access to HTC’s patents, and HTC is to pay Microsoft $0.001 per phone sold…

Now I don’t know that this is what happened, but from what I can see, it’s the only thing that makes sense with the patents that HTC holds. Microsoft pays HTC a lot of cash, so that HTC will pay Microsoft a small amount of cash per phone. Oh, there’s a bit of accounting work involved, but HTC comes out well ahead financially, and Microsoft can scream at everyone that HTC is paying it for using Android, and actually be telling the truth (the SEC gets upset if you don’t tell the truth).

That Microsoft isn’t telling the whole truth, well, that doesn’t matter, does it?

Regards

Wayne Borean

Wednesday May 19, 2010