Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Inside Nathan Myhrvold's Mysterious New Idea Machine

The uber-patent-troll? This is a very important article for anyone who invents things...especially so, if those inventions are a source of income. There is so much that is disturbing in this article, including the attitude of Mr. Myhrvold regarding ensuring fairness in the patenting process, that it deserves additional comment.

As soon as I get a free hour today, I'll put a few thoughts out there on the subject.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Top 100 Network Security Tools

I've probably used about a third of these, and I can see quite a few more that I will definitely use to ensure the integrity of a network or two. Have to make sure they're as buttoned-up as possible.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Polymathematics: No, I'm Sorry, It Does.

This is an interesting item, if only because it has drug a very large number of self-professed (and denial-laden) non-math geeks out of the woodwork to complain about a simple concept. That concept is that .9 (nine repeating to infinity) = 1

The author starts out with a very elegant proof using algebra, which a lot of people will understand, and then follows it up with what I think is probably the most graspable explanation:

1/3 = .33333...

2/3 = .66666...

.33333... + .66666... = .99999...

Now, if 1/3 + 2/3 adds up to .9, and 1/3 + 2/3 adds up to 1, an infinite geometric series represented as .9 equals one.

I think that the typical naysayer is having difficulty with the concept that the infinite series doesn't end when you get tired of writing 9's, and that the number itself doesn't change just because you write more of them. Whether you write a single "9" or two million of them, the number is the same, .9 is exactly the same number as .99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999, which is the same number as 1.

It's easy enough to miss thinking of it that way, though, so it quickly becomes obvious why there are a lot of people out there that have problems with the amount of imagination required to really "get" certain mathematical concepts, and why it takes a dedicated, persistent, and imaginative teacher to explain things like this.

This article has been linked to on digg.com, and the conversation thread has grown large enough to seriously slow down my browser when I try to read the page.

I have to admit that I'm pretty discouraged by the number of people absolutely denying that it can be possible (There's a warning at the top of the page that people are reporting that the information in the article is untrue!), but then again, math was always a subject that I liked, especially when I am shown something so obvious that I would intuitively argue with, if not shown a proof.

I'd like to give a heartfelt "Thank you" to Mr. Anonymous who decided to share his experience in the classroom and managed to extend it to the rest of the world.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Friday, June 09, 2006

Get ready for a newer, slower internet...

Well, there you have it. Apparently, the enemy has congress firml in its pocket. It becomes obvious that those representatives who were quoted on the "No" side of the equation misunderstand things as they apply to the consumers of internet access.

Rep. Lamar Smith said:

They say let the government dictate [a vibrant internet]...I urge my colleagues to reject government regulation of the Internet.

That's the spin necessary to justify voting no, and if it were a completely fair statement, I'd be okay with it. However, as someone who both connects to numerous websites and creates content that other people access, I see things in precisely the opposite direction.

I purchase a connection to the internet from SBC/ATT. I am not purchasing a connection to a list of preferred websites, I'm buying an internet connection, period. At the point that some bits of data begin to be provided more quickly than other bits, I have a problem, because my internet connection is being purposely degraded. Small wonder that yesterday, AT&T announced plans to quadruple their backbone speed. They're probably rubbing their hands together with glee at the idea of being able to hoarde 30GBPS of speed for private data (IPTV, anyone?) and leave 10GBPS for less lucrative traffic.

Throw into the mix the fact that I have already paid for a good part of the infrastructure improvements currently in place, and we begin to look skeptically at the whole "no more government regulation" bit. It's fine to have government regulations allowing telecom companies to charge "federal cost recovery" fees, but not to require that the infrastructure paid for by those fees (by you and me) carry all traffic without prejudice or deference? Something smells in that equation.

I know that the first time I note any serious speed difference in sites I normally frequent, I will be complaining and possibly changing service providers (not sure if I'll have a choice).

I'm not surprised at the results of the vote, but I am definitely discouraged, both at the percentages of yes vs. no and at the lack of respect that our representatives are paying to the citizens they are supposed to represent.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bye-bye Fair-use? It's not just section 115 you have to worry about...

Ahh, lobbyists. One individual commented that the proposed bill in the article above is coming from Howard Berman. There is nothing to indicate that he is about to propose such a bill on his official house.gov web page, but he does make some comments on a similar subject (Section 114, as a matter of fact) on May 11th in the House.

It's your typical "The music industry is in trouble, piracy is killing them, let's make it harder for people to legally copy music." speech, but coming from a congressperson, it's disquieting.

Among other things, he says:

People are consuming more music than ever. Yet the music industry is in crisis. The total value for the music industry at retail declined from $14.5 billion in 1999 to $12.1 billion in 2004. In March 2005 alone, 243 million songs were downloaded from illicit peer-to-peer services (NPD Musicwatch).

Okay, so now he's sufficiently framed peer-to-peer services (illicit ones...that would be *all* of them that didn't charge money or track every transfer, if fair-use is not maintained) as the culprit...

Our Founding Fathers recognized that in order for America to be at the forefront of creativity they must support and incentivize musicians to pursue their art by providing necessary protection to these original works to produce a return on investment in those works.

Really? Is *that* what copyright is all about...controlling the legal right to copy a given work? Now I understand.

...we must remember that copyright owners cannot negotiate a fair market price for their works in the marketplace for digital radio, and cannot withhold access to their works as leverage in the marketplace to negotiate for necessary content protection on digital radio.

Umm, what? They can't? They seem to be able to do it with analog radio, and people have been taping recordings from AM and FM stations for years and years. Is he trying to say that "Copyright Owners" (the RIAA/MPAA and its members, I suppose) have a poor business model, or that changing an analog signal to digital somehow makes things horrible for them?

While I am encouraged by the many options, I am concerned that certain features of the new devices turn radio, or performance services, into distribution services. This increased functionality may cause the unintended consequence of bypassing the typical marketplace distribution channels by allowing the consumer to turn broadcasts into downloads. This utility enables consumers to create an unlicensed music library without paying the artist.

Now here's a tiny blip of truth working its way through to the surface. The interested parties Rep. Berman is speaking for are concerned that any digital distribution services they may offer will be preempted by people downloading everything digitally.

The problem with trying to make this argument with a straight face begins with audio cassette tapes, carries forward to Video Cassettes (Sony Betamax, anyone), and continues with recordable CD and DVD media. I suppose you could take it back father than that, if you count performance art, but I think the currently discussed issue is pre-recorded works.

If audio tape was fine, recordable CD's were fine, videotape was fine, and recordable DVD was fine, why the apparent change of heart? What has fundamentally changed to make a new broadcast medium so objectionable, when its predecessors were not?

The bill also requires that licensees use reasonably available technology to prevent copying of the transmission to prevent against third party ``stream-ripping''--the use of tools created by third parties that captures the stream, and then disaggregates the songs for storage in a manner that substitutes for a sale. However, any content protection system must allow for reasonable recording. Most notably the bill allows for all manual consumer recording to the extent such recording is consistent with fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act.

If I remember correctly, a well-spoken woman who is responsible for one of my favorite websites has talked about this before (last two paragraphs).

So, since the copyright holder's rights are subject to certain limitations, and repeated efforts to ignore those limitations have been problematic, change the law, I suppose.

Berman says over and over again that the bill "attempts to strike a balance" between protecting musicians (I'm sure he means copyright holders, since the musicians rarely retain copyright anymore) and supporting new technologies.

That's the wrong thing to balance against. You want the balance to be between the copyright holder and the listener...the person who purchased a copy of the music and the right to listen to it and make sure that they have a backup copy of the media. Nice try, though.

Friday, June 02, 2006

United States Patent: 5860074 - Is this what Adobe's mad at Microsoft About?

So I mentioned in my last post that The XPS documents were mostly 2-dimensional, but included layers. Adobe mentions a number of patents that are licensed royalty-free and non-exclusive for use in PDF viewers and publishing software, and one that *can't* be used in software that "consumes and/or interprets PDF files".

I guess that means that the lone patent there can't be used in a program that translates PDF files into something else. That's the best I can make of it.

I think it means that you can have a royalty-free license for use in developing a program that makes spec-compliant PDF files, but it has to only *make* PDF files, but not import, open, or display them. I'm trying to see if I can get Adobe to make that clear, but I'm pretty much nobody, so don't hold your breath.

So, that would mean that without a paid-for license, Microsoft would have to only develop a converter for Office, or would have to make it so that Office could not open existing PDF files, but only create new ones (or, of course, make an office suite that used PDF as its only file format).

I haven't seen that Word 2007 (beta 2) can open PDF files, which seems consistent with what the license seems to say, so I'm not quite sure what the trouble is. This article seems to say that Microsoft is dropping support for allowing saving to either PDF or XPS by removing the PDF option, although it will still be available as a downloadble patch.

For Vista, their decision is even less clear, since there was an option to save in XPS, but not PDF. Microsoft has decided to allow OEMs to drop some support for saving files in XPS format.

Microsoft even says (per the linked article above) that adding PDF-saving support was on solid legal ground, so the big mystery is still just that, a big mystery.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

...a bit more on Microsoft file formats:

So, inquisitive guy that I am, I decided to do a little bit of digging around to see how exactly OpenXML relates to the Windows operating system. I initially looked for stuff about OpenXML and Windows Vista, but came up a bit short.

Searching about for OpenXML and Longhorn, however, bore some fruit. Apparently, there's a less-talked-about, but similar format designed specifically for Longhorn called "Metro" (the question being asked is about OpenXML):

Q. Is this the same thing as Microsoft Windows Metro?

A. No. Office XML Formats use some of the conventions described in the Windows Metro Specification, however, the formats are different in several important ways. Metro is a paginated, fixed document format introduced for Microsoft Windows Longhorn. The Office XML Formats are fully editable file formats for Microsoft Office Word, Microsoft Office Excel, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint. While they share similarities in their use of XML and ZIP compression, they are different in file format design and intended usage.

Hmm...interesting. I'd never heard of "Metro" before, but apparently it is a cousin to OpenXML. The next question/answer pair on that page is:

Q. Do Windows Metro and Office XML Formats have the same archiving features?

A. No. While both formats utilize XML and ZIP, they are designed with different purposes in mind. Metro is a layout-focused document format being introduced by Windows Longhorn to allow customers to effortlessly create, share, print, and archive documents. Office XML Formats are new default file formats that will be used specifically in Microsoft Office Word, Microsoft Office Excel, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint to enable more rapid creation of documents from disparate data sources, facilitating document assembly as well as data-mining scenarios.

They don't mention specifically what types of documents you're supposed to be able to effortlessly create here, but then, this is a page talking about OpenXML, not Metro. Time for some more digging:

Along with its new look, Vista is introducing a new Microsoft document format, XPS (XML Paper Specification). Documents created with XPS can be shared with people who don't have the originating application but do have an XPS viewer; Microsoft showed an XPS document being viewed in Internet Explorer. While not nearly as full featured as Adobe's popular PDF format, XPS is intended primarily to speed up and improve the quality of printing.

So, XPS (formerly known as Metro) seems to be Microsoft's way of removing Adobe's hold on easy-to-share documents...that's an awful lot of trouble to go through to preempt PDF, dontcha think? Well, I suppose coupled with OpenXML, it covers everything. No need to use non-Microsoft file formats for any type of document at that point.

There is a place where you can download samples to look at, and as someone who does a fair bit of programming on Windows machines, I was inclined to take a peek.

Unfortunately, in order to download the documents, you must agree not to give any part of the materials to anyone else, which, I suppose, would include posting snippets of them on a blog, so you'll have to go look at them yourself. There does not, however, seem to be any prohibition against discussing the files, so I'll do that. If you want details, you'll have to look yourself.

Basically, all of the XPS/Metro examples are 2-dimensional (well, some have layers, but that's not exactly 3-D). So, going back to Microsoft's Vista app showcase, we look at Right Hemisphere and what they are bringing to the mix.

If you look here, you'll find some details about "Deep Publish" and "Deep View", which are software plug-ins designed to work with Acrobat and Office to allow you to publish, view, and interact with 3-D content within those applications:

Deep Publish™ At A Glance

Right Hemisphere's Deep Publish lets you easily publish, view, and share 2D and 3D graphics using Microsoft™ PowerPoint™, Word™, Excel™ and Adobe® Acrobat®.

With Deep Publish you can:

  • Publish 2D and 3D graphics in Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat

  • View and interact with 2D and 3D graphics in Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, and/or
    on the Web

  • Easily share 2D and 3D graphics

Designed for non-engineering professionals, Deep Publish leverages industry standard desktop applications and eliminates the need for engineering involvement whenever complex 2D and 3D product graphics are needed.

Ala "Stac Technologies' stacker data compression software, Microsoft saw an existing application that did something they wanted to do (and maybe *needed* to do, since they appear to have angered the folks at Adobe), and brought them on-board. It's not clear what the relationship is, right now, or whether Microsoft will be making a technology purchase (most documents created these days are decidedly 2-dimensional), but this appears to be a good way to cover a hole in capability.

You may ask why this would even be necessary, and OpenDocument's ISO-approved "dr3d" namespace might be a good reason why. OpenOffice Draw can already create 3-D objects, which are saved natively in ODF format (Click "View -> Toolbars -> 3D Toolbar", if you can't figure out how to add 3D shapes...I'd never done it before).

So, here we have a situation that may well be only at the beginning of the "heated discussion" stage. Microsoft, proprietary software vendor, and creator of innumerable file formats, has a past history of adding proprietary extensions to existing standards.

To boot, Adobe is apparently not all that happy with something (XPS, maybe?) about the way Microsoft is including PDF support in Microsoft Office 2007. That might cause some trouble for the integration they propose to give Vista users with the help of Right Hemisphere.

Prohibitions in what is allowable licensing-wise in present and future versions of ODF would seem to prevent Microsoft from taking control of the standard and putting up barriers to implementation for other software vendors (I'm checking on that, to be sure), so the only real angle Microsoft can pursue right now is dominance through a new, compelling, ubiquitous file format that people prefer to the alternatives.

As long as ODF exists as a universal standard, however, that march to dominance will be a long, challenging, and possibly fruitless path. If I had to bet on it, I'd say that you can expect quite a bit of spin from Microsoft in the near future about any percieved issues with anything ODF-related.

My money is on ODF in this fight, but you can bet Microsoft will come out swinging.

See Windows Vista...all your base are belong to us...

I was reading Digg, and noticed an article about a showcase of 3rd-party apps for Windows Vista. I was curious, so I took a peek...lots of clips of programs with Tom Skerrit narrating.

Anyway, if you visit the link above (http://www.seewindowsvista.com/ skip the intro, not much point in it), click on "Turning Information into Action", and then scroll down on the list of clips on the right.

The second-to-last clip is titled "Right Hemisphere - Proprietary format? No problem!"

The clip talks about taking data from proprietary formats (they are specifically talking about CAD, in this example), and making them available to "anyone, anywhere, on any platform".

I couldn't help but think that perhaps Microsoft's OpenXML is about much more than MS Office, and that they may be trying to position it as the new de facto (proprietary...ironic, eh) format for document exchange. If there is new graphics capability in Vista that this new uber-CAD-format makes use of, perhaps all of the posturing about OpenXML being the best has more importance in Microsoft's grand design than they have been letting on.

Internet Explorer gained Microsoft a lot in the market by its inclusion in Windows, and making OpenXML an automatically-supported format in Windows (to whatever extent) *could* do a lot to gain them back market share...if there wasn't a robust, capable, complete, and ISO-approved alternative in the form of OpenDocument Format.