Observations

How a software monopoly arose

Recently, Joel on Software wrote an essay on good programmers and how they are qualitatively different from average ones. This is not a new realization, and he knows it and references sources like "The Mythical Man Month." It was accepted wisdom decades ago that a small team of really brilliant programmers would make a better product than a giant team of lesser ones.

That wisdom, however, failed to predict the rise of Microsoft. That wisdom says a software monopoly is impossible because there are reverse economies of scale in software development. So how did Microsoft do it. The answer to that is perhaps the true genius of Bill Gates.

The trick, in part, was finding ways to make software tremendously broad in scope and features. Microsoft Word has bazillions of features, as most people know. Windows in its kernel isn't much more complex than other systems but the real Windows also includes a vast collection of DLLs (libraries) that seem external but are really part of the OS. To clone the OS you must make these DLLs -- and many other things.

A program like MS Word, with so many features, takes raw money to clone. You need that core team of great programmers -- and Microsoft has many great programmers, make no mistake -- but you also need a giant team of lesser ones to keep all the features going, to QA and document them, to translate them and make them work in so many environments.

This does have an economy of scale in the development. Combine that with the immense economies of scale that exist in the distribution of all soft things that can be copied for free, and this permitted a monopoly.

Of course, no single user makes use of all the features of MS Word, so it took even more skill to get them to demand such a complex program, when they might be better served by a leaner, more elegant system. Like I said, this is only part of it.

Down with the leap second

Recently there was a big fuss (including denouncements from many I know) over a U.S. effort to do away with the leap second. People claimed this was like trying to legislate PI to be 3.I am amazed at the leap the the defense of the leap second. I would be glad to see it go. All our computers keep track of time internally as a number of seconds since some epoch, typically Jan 1 1970 or 1980. They go through various contortions to turn that absolute time into the local time. This includes knowing all the leap-day calculations and the leap day calculations. It’s complicated by knowing that sometimes the day is Feb 29, and by knowing that a very, very few minutes have 61 seconds in them (or if you prefer, that a very few hours have 3601 seconds and rare days have 86401 seconds.)

That’s a mess. A minute should always have 60 seconds. Special casing all time code to deal with this was the wrong approach, and as noted, is subject to errors because the code is very rarely tested in that state.

I’m astounded to see people saying this is the same as declaring pi to be 3. It’s having 86400 seconds in most days and rare leap seconds that is the integerization of a real number. The truly scientific approach would be to declare the day to be 86400.002 seconds, and lengthen that number over the centuries, would it not?

Astronomers, like computers, can and should keep track of time as an absolute number of seconds since some epoch. They actually care very little about what the local time is other than to know when it’s dark, something leap seconds have insignificant bearing on. Indeed, astronomers might be happiest using siderial time (where a day is 23 hours 56 minutes and +4.1 seconds, the true rotational period of the Earth.)

Our system of time is not one scientists would pick in the first place. It is clearly designed for the convenience of the ordinary people, and the legacy of the traditional means of telling time. It’s silly to use this legacy system and at the same demand the general public and its timekeeping systems jump through error-prone hoops to make it reflect noon correctly to the second. Nobody even uses local time anyway, they all use a time zone. The time zone is off by a huge margin from local time, why does it matter in the slightest if it’s off by a few more seconds?

In many centuries, the drift will be noticeable. If we still care about local time, we can fix it then.

Oh the Irony, Dan Gillmor promoted via SV 100

I blogged earlier about my being in the Silicon Valley 100, a group generated by a marketing company to send out free stuff to hopefully influential folks. In that posting, I link to Dan Gillmor’s reaction to the program, where he writes about how “spooky” it is to him. I didn’t agree that it was that spooky, but there is a definite irony to the fact that I recently got a set of books via the SV100, and in that set was Dan’s own book “We the Media.”

Dan’s eyes rolled up when I told him that at dinner this evening. Of course, it was his publisher Tim O’Reilly who put the book out to the group, and again I don’t find much spooky about it. Publishers have sent out free copies of books to folks, hoping for reviews and buzz, since the dawn of books.

I was with Dan at the first event in our program celebrating the EFF’s 15th birthday, a BayFF panel on blogging and blogger’s rights which attracted an overflow crowd with an engaged audience. I’ll remember to announce some of the other events in our program in advance. We sang Happy Birthday based on the older lyrics which are out of copyright.

Yes, the movie (by Sally Potter) gets a blogger's advance screening

Sunday, I was invited, along with a crowd of other local friends and bloggers, to a preview screening of the new art film “Yes” by Sally Potter. I’ll review Yes, but what was interesting was the idea of Sony Pictures doing free screenings of movies for the “blogger” demographic. As I noted earlier, I’m also in this group called the “Silicon Valley 100” where they send us free stuff in the hopes we’ll generate buzz and useful feedback. (The last few products they sent have not been exciting enough to inspire me to write about them, though.)

It makes some sense. Advance screenings to create buzz have been around for a while, and now that you can have an audience of writers whose influence goes beyond their circle of friends, they are a good target to place. Though I also went in part because it was a social event, seeing a movie with a group of folks including friends. It was arranged by Mark Pincus, who loved the movie when he saw it at Telluride and suggested the screening to Sony. Equally important was going out to a bar after the movie.

As for “Yes”, I did find it quite good. It was, however the most “arthouse” style movie I have seen in years, so I doubt it will get great commercial success. Yes is done in verse, a la Shakespeare, but with modern phrasing and perhaps a touch too much rhyme. Though the Bard never had a Scottish dishwasher apply metre as he repeated the word “motherfucker.” But it’s also a good story, with good performances and good music. It has Bergmanesque stylings, and includes a lot of “inner thoughts” voice overs, which normally turns me right off, but at least in a few places, the voice-overs work. Notably when a dying woman gets to tell her story through her thoughts even though she can’t speak them.

Of course, they have picked a terrible title for a movie if they want people to be able to find writing about it on the web. (Drupal doesn’t have explicit tagging yet, and Mark went so far as to push people to use the pre-chosen tag “yes movie” if they wrote about the film.) However, the title makes artistic sense for the film so I can’t fault it for that.

Gotta have a Revenge of the Sith Review

When I was a teenager, my father lived in a downtown appartment tower with a cinema in the basement. Due to his press credentials he had an unlimited free movie pass. Star Wars played there for over a year, and when we would visit him, if we were ever sitting around wondering what to do, somebody would suggest, "Why don't we go downstairs and see Star Wars?" Today everybody does this but then the VCR was just dawning, so this was something really cool.

So of course that movie held a special place in my heart, and it was indeed groundbreaking, particularly in effects, grand story and perhaps most of all, good editing. "The circle is now complete" as Lord Vader would say.

So I'll repeat what everybody else has said, Revenge of the Sith is far better than episodes 1 and 2 of the modern trilogy, better perhaps than the Ewok-burdened Return of the Jedi. It's an astounding triumph of visuals as well, with a much more moving and interesting story. Yes, the acting is sub par, the dialogue well sub par and the romantic scenes are non-credible, but the good parts more than make up for this.

At the same time I am left with a disappointment, because it could have been so much more. Lucas is cursed because the bar was so high. He built an empire on that first movie but only delivered some of what he could. I'll get into spoilers in the after-the-break part of this posting, and here I'll speak more generally.

The entire new trilogy is the story of the fall of Darth Vader. This movie contains its climax, as he changes from troubled Jedi to evil lord. Powerful as it is, it's still not credible. Lucas had 8 hours of film all leading up to that one moment, so there's no reason it had to be that way.

Tied in with the moral fall of Vader is the more literal fall of the Jedi. As we know, they are betrayed, but that story too could have been much richer.

In addition, the biggest thing missing from trilogy 2 is the humour. Yoda, the imp who stole Empire barely cracks a smile in all the other movies. Almost nobody does. And the movies suffer for it.

On to spoiler-based discussion  read more »

On the invention of the internet

Update: A more active thread on how this relates to Goodmail and other attempts at sender-pays traffic

There is much talk these days of “who invented the internet?” Most of the talk is done wearing a network engineer’s hat, defining the internet in terms of routing IP datatgrams, and TCP. Some relates to the end to end principle with a stupid network in the middle and smart endpoints. These two are valid and vital contributions, and recognition for those who built them is important.

But that’s not what the public thinks of when it hears “the internet.” They think of the collection of cool applications they use to interact with other people and distant computers. Web sites and mailing lists and newsgroups and filesharing and VoIP and downloading and chat and much more. Why did these spring into being in this way rather than on other networks?

I believe a large and necessary ingredient for “the internet” wasn’t a technological invention at all, but a billing system. The internet is based on what I call the “internet cost contract.” That contract says that each person pays for their own pipe to the center, and we don’t account for the individual traffic.

“I pay for my half, you pay for yours.”

While the end-to-end design allowed innovation and experimentation, the billing design really made it possible. In the early days of the internet, people dreamed up all sorts of bizarre applications, some serious, some entirely frivolous. They put them out there and people played with them and the most interesting thrived.

Many other networks had users paying not by the pipe, but based on traffic. In that world, had you decided to host a mailing list, or famously put a webcam up in front of your company fishtank, the next day the company beancounter would have called you into the office to ask why the company got a big bandwidth bill in order to show off the fishtank. The webcam — or FTP site or mailing list — would have been shut down immediately, and for perfectly valid reasons.

Pay-based-on-usage demands that applications be financially justifiable to live. Pay-per-pipe allowed mailing lists, ftp sites, usenet, archie, gopher and the web to explode.  read more »

Let's teach creation science in the schools

Creationists regularly complain that schools teach evolution improperly and should also offer creation science as an alternative. They went so far as to push one school board to put stickers on biology textbooks remindng students that evolution is a theory and should be critically viewed.

Well, surprisingly, I have some agreement with them. Evolution, like Quantum Mechanics, gravity and others is indeed a theory. And in proper science all theories are subject to intense scrutiny and testing. They are required to make predictions which can turn out false, and those predictions are tested with repeatable experimentation and observation.

So now I wonder, why if we give them their way — sort of — and mandate the teaching of “creation science” in the shools. Except I mean a rigourous, scientific treatment, by non-religious teachers, where a lesson about science and bad science is taught. Other examples of bad science should also be covered.

Students should be challenged to consider the predictions, past and present, of the creation “scientists” and whether they have come true. They should learn what happens when people conclude the results in advance and try to bend the facts to fit them. It happens in all areas of science, and a good education trains you to identify when it is happening, and when you are doing it yourself. They should of course also learn the predictions of evolution and many other theories and how they have been tested and verified. They should learn about theories that had supporters but then failed their tests and thus fell from favour.

Why creation science and not every other bogus fake science? Well, studies show it is probably the one most widely believed by the public, though psychic powers, alien abductions and others also rank highly. So as the #1 it deserves a place in our curriculum, because the critical examination of bad science deserves a place.

Indeed, for a student not actually going into science, it could well be that learning to understand bad science would be the most important thing they take out of the program. They will almost assuredly never need to calculate the velocity of a spherical monkey hanging from a massless rope over a frictionless pulley. But they will encounter bad science and have to deal with it.

(I think the same is true in math for non-professionals. One of the most important things they should learn is how statistics are misused.)

So give them what they want, and then see them beg to take it back.

Drive-by trick-or-treating

Tonight, I saw for the first time (for me) a drive-by trick-or-treating. I'm not talking about the growing phenomenon where parents drive their kids to wealthier neighbourhoods for a better class of candy. We had put out a ghost made from gauzy material with a very bright cold-cathode light inside, and hung it over the street. As I stood on the street a minivan pulled up and quickly stopped. Two children went to our front door and Kathryn gave them candy. Then we watch them get back into the van and it continued down the street, out of sight. The appeared to be cruising and stopping at houses with decorations they noticed, which can be found in many neighbourhoods.  read more »

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