The Tao of Usefulness

Don Norman's Unusable Teapot

Telcos around the world – and you know who you are – have a habit of being really not very useful.  Matter of fact, they get into a habit of deliberately constructing cumbersome, poorly priced, stupid products that some people use only because they have to, because there’s no alternative.  Innovation in telecom is almost entirely redundant – over and above core connectivity and network engineering, there is almost nothing that the industry has come up with in the last fifty years that anyone could call innovative.  Text messaging happened by accident.  Mobile telephony should have taken off ten years before it did, except that the telecommunications industry was the one doing it.

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Java, Oracle, and The Patent Disco

** Full disclosure – your correspondant works for IBM, though this is entirely a personal view.  He does not work in the patent side of the business. He also holds IBM shares.

The tyranny of lawyers is descending upon us.  When Oracle bought Sun, most of the headlines concentrated on Oracle’s new found love for hardware (notwithstanding its insistence on the irrelevance of cloud computing).  As a software company, however, it was its merger with the doyen of Open Source Software that was more important.  MySQL, OpenOffice, and in particular the Java programming language were managed by Sun, were now to be housed in one of the most profiable software companies in the world.  The Sun ecosystem had been driven around hardware sales, but how would ‘free’ software sit inside Oracle?  One blogger wrote that “Oracle could finally democratize the JCP (Java Community Process) by making it more transparent and inclusive,” though most were more circumspect.  The majority of concern centered on MySQL, a free database that clearly competed with Oracle’s core software business.

Slowly however it began to dawn on the outside world that the rationale for the acquisition may have been driven more by the lawyers than the technology strategists.  The R&D credentials of Sun were huge.  The patent register was impressive.  The extent to which Oracle could use its ownership of Sun to ward off nefarious encroachment by all sorts of interlopers who would steal its clothes.  It became obvious for Oracle’s actions not immediately, as speculation focused on how and whether Oracle would deal with the hardware business.  But in 2010, Oracle launched a lawsuit against Google for a billion dollars because Android had been written in Java.  Huh? Yeah.  Suddenly, everyone got jittery.

Google bought Motorola Mobility, substantially for it’s patents.  Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft all executed moves to develop their patent portfolio.  Facebook recently countersued Yahoo with a patent it had registered by a former Yahoo employee!  The great Daddy of them all IBM spends $6bn a year on R&D and has led patent registrations for many, many years.  Apple’s patents- the subject of many high profile battles with Samsung and others – are primarily hardware related.

Now, we’re seeing a rash of litigation that threatens to undermine the entire technology business.  Value, and the openness that has characterised the innovation of the Internet, is pushed into the background as defensive landgrabs from major ecosystems and major (predominantly US) players establish what appear to be zones of control.  Oracle’s case against Google – is particularly interesting in that it posits that the Java language is itself intellectual property (rather than the code / binaries that it produces) and therefore that Google’s android software owes Oracle compensation for its use of Java.  The thing is, an enormous amount of the world’s software is written in Java.  That would mean undermining a massive swath of the economics of the software business – and potentially massively enriching Oracle.

One can’t get away from the sense that this is only the first act – and that the main event will happen when these US behemoths take on the Indian and Chinese companies that are coming in the next decade or two.  And the lawyers will be in the vanguard.

Google and the Art of Deception

The Australian Courts have found Google guilty of deceiving search users by placing ‘misleading’ results to searchers.  Essentially, someone looking for “Honda” would be shown an ad for “CarSales” which was competitive to Honda.  Several issues arise here.  There is no contract between Google and the searcher that their search will provide exactly what they are looking for.  Google is not a finder of truth.  Google is an advertising business, a customer-salesman matching business, and it continues to attract customers not because it is a purveyor of truth, but because it invariably helps people to find what they need, which is in many circumstances different from what they are looking for.  The implication of the ruling is that there is some contract that has been breached, or some duty that has been abrogated, in this ‘deception’.

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IBM Selectric – a fond remembrance

selectric stamp July 31st was the 50th birthday of the IBM Selectric,  which may have been the most popular typewriter ever sold [link]. The swappable typeball was revolutionary for its time, and to quote Wikipedia.

The possibility to intersperse text in Latin letters with Greek letters and mathematical symbols made the machine especially useful for scientists writing manuscripts that included mathematical formulas. Proper mathematical typesetting was very laborious before the advent of TeX and done only for much-sold textbooks and very prestigious scientific journals.

In 1997, it was time to publish my PhD. thesis (100 plus pages and well over 100 formulas), I found a typist in NYC who would charge $1.00 per page plus $1.00 per formula. Even though the symbol  typeball made formulas possible, it still took her longer to do a single equation than a whole page of text. My how technology has changed but I think having gradually absorbed new technology I still underestimate its impact.

Then yesterday, I came across this wonderful post [link] on a group of college journalist who tried to publish a newspaper using technology from just twenty years ago (but there is no 1 key !!!, use the lowercase L instead). Besides their experiences, there are a couple  of memorable quotes that I found quite profound.

While archeologists try to recreate what life was like 10,000 years ago, and historians try to recreate what life was like 1,000 years ago, journalists can’t even recreate how they published a newspaper 20 years ago. No one documented the details or saved the old equipment. (I had to buy some of it from creepy old men through Craigslist.)

We are losing touch with old technology and while we are relatively good at saving content, the processes are being lost at an alarming rate. The second quote was from one of the student journalists.

Technology hasn’t made us lazier, but it has made it possible to be lazier while still producing the same amount of quality work. Now that I’ve realized this, I know I’ll definitely be working faster to produce more quality news. And unlike the ancient civilizations of the 20th century, I’ve got the technology to do it.

that is something to think about.

“It’s a fact”–what we can learn from Mona Lisa Vito

I have been a fan of “My Cousin Vinny” for yearsmycousin and I must admit to guilty pleasure watching it for the umpteenth time when it does its semi-annual rounds on late night TV. Reading a couple of blog posts recently, I was reminded of my favourite scene where the antagonistic Ms. Vito, acting as an expert in general automotive knowledge,  wins the day by looking at photograph and turns the whole case for the defense…

Vinny Gambini: How could you be so sure?
Mona Lisa Vito: Because there is no way that these tire marks were made by a 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. These marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: [to Lisa] This is your opinion, or is it a fact?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact!

The full scene is at the bottom of this post….

The first post was from boingboing about the use of experts in understanding the Japanese nuclear event at Fukushima. The point made by the article was that an expert in one field is not an expert in another. In particular, while an expert in risk management can provide valuable insight on a problem of this magnitude to understand what is going on, you really should ask a nuclear scientist.

It has become a pet peeve of mine that we (the media) treat people as experts without ever considering, do they have any expertise in the subject at hand. I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin, when she was thrust in the limelight by John McCain and she was supposed to have all the foreign policy answers. An expert in public speaking does not equal an expert in the constitution, foreign policy or community service.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. This is where the second blog post comes in. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian had an article titled A case of never letting the source spoil a good story where he details various examples of journalists getting it all wrong where a check of the source material would have saved a lot of erroneous ink and spreading of falsehoods. I think his conclusion is right on

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

So the moral of the story is, if the article or blog post that  you are reading has no links to primary sources – then it is just opinion not fact.

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The real 3D revolution ~ forget the movies

There has been a lot of press about 3D at the movies and it seems that every so-so movie ( anyone seen Drive Angry 3D?) has to be filmed in 3D, even if most of the public wonders why. Avatar has a lot to answer for! Although thankfully, none of the major Oscar contenders had to rely on the 3D gimmick to get their message across.

So where is the real 3D revolution. It is is in printers gyroidof all things. An excellent summary of the technology can be found in the Economist. Basically, using the the same technology used by ink-jet printers, 3D objects are printed by laying down layer upon layer until the object is complete. While now limited to certain plastics, resins and metals, this approach has the potential of manufacturing. The benefits are enormous. Using ‘additive manufacturing’ can result in material use of 10% when compared to traditional milling techniques, it is also software-defined, so changes can be made very easily and the new ‘blueprint’ sent digitally.

We are not far off from the day, when you receive a recall notice for a faulty part in your car, you will take it down to the local service station and they will manufacture the part then and there.

But I don’t think things will stop there, in much the same way that the personal computer put computing power previously reserved for large businesses in the hands of the Joan and Joe Consumer, the same will happen with custom manufacturing. Already there are companies, like “Shapeways” and “Digital Forming” that provide a design interface and the manufacturing supply chain to allow consumers to create unique bespoke items.


Just came across this amazing talk by Anthony Atala from the TED conference. He shows a human kidney being printed. Science is wonderful.