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January 16 2012

Four short links: 16 January 2012

  1. Computational Science Stack Exchange -- q+a site for data-intensive computation-heavy science. (via Gael Varoquaux)
  2. An Open Letter to our Customers, Past and Future (Luma Labs) -- a reminder that poor patent examination hurts innovative startups working in physical goods, just as much as with digital goods.
  3. Javascript Performance (Steve Souders) -- JavaScript is typically the #1 place to look for making a website faster. Numbers and examples to show this, plus an interesting look at execution order of asynchronously loaded pages: Preserving execution order of async scripts makes the page slower. If the first async script takes a long time to download, all the other async scripts are blocked from executing, even if they download sooner.
  4. Retroshare (Sourceforge) -- GPL and LGPLed cross-platform, private and secure decentralised communication platform. It lets you to securely chat and share files with your friends and family, using a web-of-trust to authenticate peers and OpenSSL to encrypt all communication. RetroShare provides filesharing, chat, messages, forums and channels. I haven't tried it, but it's an interesting premise.

January 13 2012

Developer Week in Review: A big moment for Kinect?

Hope everyone is having a good year, so far. We're just getting our first snow of the season up here in New England (Snowtober not included...). Alas, I shan't be able to watch the Patriots and Broncos gird themselves for epic battle this Saturday (except after the fact on TiVo), as I'll be speaking that evening at the Arisia SF Convention in downtown Boston. I'll be participating on a panel discussing the legacy of Steve Jobs, and since one of the other panelists is Richard Stallman, it should make for a lively discussion.

Kinect for Windows makes it a good time to be a chiropractor

Say what you will about Microsoft, but its Kinect user input system has been a hot item since it was first released for the Xbox 360. The Kinect has also been a hacker's favorite, as researchers and makers alike have repurposed it for all sorts of body-tracking applications.

Come February, Microsoft will be releasing the first version of the Kinect specifically designed for Windows PCs, complete with a free SDK and runtime. This means that Windows developers can now start designing games and applications that use gestures and body positioning. A future full of "Minority Report"-style user interfaces can't be far away. And with people having to writhe and contort to use their computers, a 15-minute warm up and stretch will become mandatory company policy across the world.

Of more immediate interest: Will the hardware be open enough for folks to create non-Windows SDKs? I suspect a lot of Linux and Mac developers would love to play with a Kinect, and if Microsoft is smart, they'll take the money and smile.

A patent for those half-days

Like mobile phone litigation, software patent abuses are such a frequent occurrence that if I chose to chronicle them all, there would be no room left every week to discuss anything else. But every once in a while, a patent of such mind-altering "well, duh!" magnitude is granted that it must be acknowledged.

Enter the current subject: IBM's recently granted patent for a system that notifies people who try to email you if you're on vacation. But wait, you respond, just about every email system in existence lets you set yourself on vacation and send an auto-response to anyone who emails you. Ah, you fool, but can it handle the case where you only take a half day off? That's what this patent covers.

If NYC crashes with a null pointer exception, we'll know why

It may be more PR than promise, but New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to learn coding, as part of Codecademy's Code Year project.

Between Codecademy, the Kahn Academy and free courseware now being offered by prestigious institutions such as MIT and Stanford, there's never been more resources available to the average person who wants to learn software engineering. The question is, how will the corporate world react to a cadre of self-taught developers? We often hear there's a shortage of engineering talent in the U.S., but will companies hire newbie coders who learned it all online?

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December 12 2011

November 15 2011

Four short links: 15 November 2011

  1. Cost-Effectiveness of Internet-Based Self-Management Compared with Usual Care in Asthma (PLoSone) -- Internet-based self-management of asthma can be as effective as current asthma care and costs are similar.
  2. Apache Lucy -- full-text search engine library written in C and targeted at dynamic languages. It is a "loose C" port of Apache Lucene™, a search engine library for Java.
  3. The Near Future of Citizen Science (Fiona Romeo) -- near future of science is all about honing the division of labour between professionals, amateurs and bots. See Bryce's bionic software riff. (via Matt Jones)
  4. Microsoft's Patent Claims Against Android (Groklaw) -- behold, citizen, the formidable might of Microsoft's patents and how they justify a royalty from every Android device equal to that which you would owe if you built a Windows Mobile device: These Microsoft patents can be divided into several basic categories: (1) the '372 and '780 patents relate to web browsers; (2) the '551 and '233 patents relate to electronic document annotation and highlighting; (3) the '522 patent relates to resources provided by operating systems; (4) the '517 and '352 patents deal with compatibility with file names once employed by old, unused, and outmoded operating systems; (5) the '536 and '853 patents relate to simulating mouse inputs using non-mouse devices; and (6) the '913 patent relates to storing input/output access factors in a shared data structure. A shabby display of patent menacing.

September 15 2011

Developer Week in Review: Windows 8 Developer Preview goes public

As automobile engines get more complex, the software that runs them has a correspondingly greater chance of doing something bad. Case in point, in summer 2009 I got a check-engine light on my Civic (also known as the $400 light ...). When I brought it in, I was told my catalytic converter was shot, and I'd need a new one to the tune of $1,250. Fast forward two years, and I receive a letter in the mail informing me that there was a tiny lil' software glitch in the oxygen sensor routines, and I didn't really need a new catalytic converter after all. I can send in the bill, and and they'll refund me for the service.

Embedded software engineering is a particularly demanding discipline since it usually involves making complex things happen in tight spaces with little power under extreme environmental conditions. As my catalytic converter incident demonstrates, it also can be a very expensive one for a manufacturer if done incorrectly. Props to Honda for stepping up and making good on the snafu, however.

Of course, not all software runs in confined quarters. Take for example:

Get yer Windows here

Since the dawn of time, the only way to get early releases of Microsoft software (and especially operating systems) was to be a member of their somewhat pricey Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN). If you joined, of course, you got pretty much everything in the world shipped to you on DVDs, but the rest of us had to wait for the official release to get our paws on the products.

Not surprisingly, this has led to a lot of bootlegging of early releases, many of which had malware slipped in as an added bonus. Perhaps to head this off with Windows 8, Microsoft has taken the surprising step of making a publicly downloadable version of the first early release available. That's right, anyone is free to grab a copy and install it or stick it on a VM, and take it for a drive.

Making a public alpha available also serves to drum up excitement for the new release, something that Vista and Windows 7 lacked. So did I install it? Silly question, children, of course I did. I'd give it an initial grade of "meh." Microsoft gets points for radically changing things, including better full-screen app support (that looks surprisingly like Lion ...), and changing the Start menu to something more like Launchpad. But on the other hand, I found it pretty garish, and some things seem to have been changed just for the sake of change, like putting the address bar on the bottom of the browser.

You don't need to take my word for it. Grab a copy and see for yourself.

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Yet another emerging language ...

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Google, a cabal of developers is trying to overthrow the world by promulgating so many new languages that we descend into madness. Remember Go?

Well, the latest in their mad scheme is Dart, which will be offered up next month as an intended replacement for JavaScript on browsers. Never mind that we've just started to get enough standardization of JavaScript that you can write meaningful AJAX code without having it be 90% conditional logic for the various browser dialects, now Google evidently wants to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch.

At some point, isn't it time to step back and ask someone to stop the madness? It seems like a new language springs up every week these days, and I have to ask what is so bad with the ones we have? You know, the ones that Portal 2, Photoshop, Eclipse and many other outstanding software products were written in? The continual fragmentation has got to stop. Unless, of course, Dart is really cool ...

Patent news that's not about a lawsuit

In a perfect world, a developer news summary should never have to deal with the patent system. In the one we're stuck with, though, patents have become the sledgehammer that software concerns use to beat each other around the head and neck with. The proliferation of bad patents has made software development a minefield, where any new product almost certainly infringes on some junk patent.

It is with great joy that I report that a new patent reform bill is about to be signed into law, and it will solve all of our — oh, never mind.

The legislation heading to President Obama's desk does pretty much diddly over squat to fix the broken United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The major change is a shift from "first to invent" (where companies get to dig through their engineering notebooks to prove that they came up with the idea first) to a "first to file" system, where the first person to get the patent through the door wins.

What's missing is a provision allowing the USPTO to keep the money it raises so it can pay for enough personnel to actually do the job properly. Instead, patent fees will continue to flow into the general fund, while overworked patent office examiners rubber stamp questionable claims and make life interesting for those of us who create code.

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September 09 2011

Developer Week in Review: iPhone 5 is still on hold

Ah, a new school year. It's the time when my wife disappears into her office, not to be seen again until the late spring unless she sees her shadow. My son is grumbling about 60-question math homework assignments, and all the melancholy I feel during the summer about being the only family member on the clock fades away since I actually have the lightest schedule now. Revenge is sweet ...

If you've been in a late-summer haze, here's a few items you may have missed.

Bigfoot sighted using iPhone 5

iOS 5The predictions in August were that the iPhone 5 (or 4S, or whatever it's going to be called) would be announced in early September. Then it was going to be mid-September, and now people are talking about early October. Now, I'm as much of an Apple fanboy as the next guy, but this obsession about the new phone seems to border on the absurd. I've only had my iPhone 4 for a year — I'm not even sure I would upgrade to a 5 unless it cures cancer or something.

The only real reason to speculate about the iPhone 5 ship date is that it will probably coincide with the general release of iOS 5, which definitely is something to talk about, if only to other people who have signed the developer NDA. I mean the ... no, I can't talk about that. But the ... no, can't mentioned that either. Anyway, it's wicked cool, trust me.

Your comprehensive legal roundup

HTCLast week, everyone sued everyone. This item will repeat for the foreseeable future.

Of particular interest is that HTC is using patents acquired from Google to strike back at Apple. The patent war is becoming reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis — I expect to hear a statement from Oracle HQ any day reporting a suspected transfer of patents from Apple to Google and vowing a blockade unless the lawyers turn back at once.

The Makers are coming, the Makers are coming!

For those who live on the East Coast, your annual chance to get your geek on is coming up next weekend. Maker Faire New York will be returning for a second year at the NY Hall of Science, and it's well worth the trip. I went with my son last year, and we'll be back this year as well.

It's a great chance to see programming integrating with the physical world on a much more practical (or impractical) level than developers are accustomed to. If you've spent your life designing ecommerce websites, it can be refreshing to see a pair of honking-big computer-controlled Tesla coils blaring out music. It's also a Mecca for embedded computing and micro controllers, so if you like programming on the small scale, you'll see a lot to enjoy. If you happen to run into me there, say hi!

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July 18 2011

Intellectual property gone mad

Friday night, I tweeted a link to a Guardian article stating that app developers were withdrawing apps from Apple's app store and Google's Android market (and presumably also Amazon's app store), because they feared becoming victims of a patent trolling lawsuit. That tweet elicited some interesting responses that I'd like to discuss.

The insurance solution?

One option might be to rely on the insurance industry to solve the problem. "Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?" wrote @qckbrnfx. An interesting idea, and one I've considered. But that's a cure that seems worse than the disease. First, it's not likely to be a cure. How many insurance companies actually defend their clients against an unreasonable lawsuit? They typically don't. They settle out of court and your insurance premium goes up.

@mikeloukides Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?less than a minute ago via Tweetbot for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

If you look at medical malpractice insurance, where unfounded malpractice claims are the equivalent to trolling, I would bet that the willingness of insurance companies to settle out of court increases trolling. An insurance solution to the problem of trolling would be, effectively, a tax on the software developers. And we would soon be in a situation where insurance companies were specifying who could develop software (after a couple of malpractice cases, a doctor becomes uninsurable, and he's effectively out of the business, regardless of the merits of those cases), what software they could develop, and so on. Percy Shelley once said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But my more cynical variation is that the insurance companies are the world's unacknowledged legislators. I don't want to see the software industry dancing to the insurance industry's tune. Some fear big government. I fear big insurance much more.

Fighting back?

There's a variant of the insurance solution that I like: @patentbuzz said: "Developers need to unite and crowdfund re-exam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson." This isn't "insurance" in the classic risk-spreading sense: this is going on the offensive, and pooling funds to defend against trolling. I do not think it would take a lot of effort to make trolling (at least, the sort of low-level trolling that we're looking at here) unprofitable, and as soon as it becomes unprofitable, it will stop. Small-time app developers can't afford lawyers, which is precisely why trolling is so dangerous. But here's the secret: most patent trolls can't afford lawyers, either. They can afford enough lawyering to write a few cease and desist letters, and to settle out of court, but their funds would be exhausted fairly quickly if even a small percentage of their victims tried to fight back.

@mikeloukides Developers need to unite and crowdfund reexam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson http://t.co/8wFkyFQless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

This is precisely where the big players need to get into the game. Apple has tried to give their app developers some legal cover, but as far as I know, they have not stepped in to pay for anyone's defense. Neither has Google. It's time for Apple and Google to step up to the plate. I am willing to bet that, if Apple or Google set up a defense fund, trolling would stop really quickly.

Blocking sale of patents?

A large part of the patent problem is that patents are transferable. @_philjohn asks "Do you think changing law to prevent transfer of patents could reduce the patent troll problem?" On one level, this is an attractive solution. But I'm wary: not about patent reform in itself (which is absolutely necessary), but because I've worked for a startup that went out of business. They had a small intellectual property portfolio, and the sale of that portfolio paid for my (substantial) unused vacation time. That's not how things are supposed to happen, but when startups go out of business, they don't always shut down nicely. It's worth asking what the cost would be if patents and other kinds of intellectual property were non-transferable. Would venture capitalists be less likely to invest, would startups fail sooner, if it were impossible to sell intellectual property assets? I suspect not, but it isn't a simple question.


A call to action

Patent and copyright law in the U.S. derives from the Constitution, and it's for a specific purpose: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts" (Article I, section 8). If app developers are being driven out of the U.S. market by patent controlling, patent law is failing in its constitutional goal; indeed, it's forcing "science and the useful arts" to take place elsewhere. That's a problem that needs to be addressed, particularly at a time when the software industry is one of the few thriving areas of the U.S. economy, and when startups (and in my book, that includes independent developers) drive most of the potential for job growth in the economy.

I don't see any relief coming from the patent system as it currently exists. The bigger question is whether software should be patentable at all. As Nat Torkington (@gnat) has reported, New Zealand's Parliament has a bill before it that will ban software patents, despite the lobbying of software giants in the U.S. and elsewhere. Still, at this point, significant changes to U.S. patent law belong in the realm of pleasant fantasy. Much as I would like to see it happen, I can't imagine Congress standing up to an onslaught of lobbyists paid by some of the largest corporations in the U.S.

One dimension of the problem is relatively simple: too many patent applications, too few patent office staff reviewing those applications, and not enough technical expertise on that staff to evaluate the applications properly. It doesn't help that patents are typically written to be as vague and broad as possible, without being completely meaningless. (As the staff tech writer at that startup, I had a hand in reviewing some of my former employer's patent applications). So you frequently can't tell what was actually patented, and an alleged "infringement" can take place that had little to do with the original invention. Tim O'Reilly (@timoreilly) suggested a return to the days when a patent application had to include the actual invention (for software, that could mean source code) being patented. This would reduce much of the ambiguity in what was actually patented, and might prevent some kinds of abuse. Whatever form it takes, better scrutiny on the part of the patent office would be a big help. But is that conceivable in these days of government spending cuts and debt ceilings? Larger filing fees, to support the cost of more rigorous examination, is probably a non-starter, given the current allergy to anything that looks like a "tax." However, inadequate review of patent applications effectively imposes a much larger (and unproductive) tax on the small developers who can least afford it.

If we can't rely on the patent office to do a better job of reviewing patents, the task falls to the Apples and Googles of the world — the deep-pocketed players who rely on small developers — to get into the game and defend their ecosystems. But though that's a nice idea, there are many reasons to believe it will never happen, not the least of which is that the big players are too busy suing each other.

Apple and Google, are you listening? Your communities are at stake. Now's the time to show whether you really care about your developers.

Crowdfunding the defense of small developers may be the best solution for the immediate problem. Is this a viable Kickstarter project? It probably would be the largest project Kickstarter has ever attempted. Would a coalition of patent attorneys be willing to be underpaid while they contribute to the public good? I'd be excited to see such a project start. This could also be a project for the EFF. The EFF has the expertise, they list "innovation" and "fair use" among their causes, and they talk explicitly about trolling on their intellectual property page. But they've typically involved themselves in a smaller number of relatively high-profile cases. Are they willing to step in on a larger (or smaller, as the case may be) scale?

None of these solutions addresses the larger problems with patents and other forms of intellectual property, but perhaps we're better off with baby steps. Even the baby steps aren't simple, but it's time to start taking them.

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    May 18 2011

    Developer Week in Review: Buying a lawsuit with an in-app purchase

    Hello, and welcome to another fun-filled week of frolic and mayhem in the software industry. We'll get right to the news, but first this short commercial message.

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    And now, back to our program.

    iPhone developers ask for whom the suit trolls

    The continued three-ring-circus that is software intellectual property continued to roll right along last week, with a group of iPhone app developers the latest to feel the sting. Lodsys sent legal nasty-grams to a number of developers who were taking advantage of the evidently patented idea of doing in-app purchases. This has evidently led Apple to put some new iPhone apps, which use the feature, on hold.

    Interestingly, Lodsys claims that Apple, among others (including Microsoft and Google) already licenses the patent, but that it doesn't extend to developers using Apple's in-app function. That's going to be an interesting argument to watch play out. Does that mean if Apple licensed a technology to render an iOS control, and developers use that control in their applications, they'd need to get a license as well?

    Apart from being a headache for both Apple and the developer community, there could be other far-reaching ramifications. For example, would Steam's in-game purchasing of weapons and clothing be subject to the same patent? Until Congress or the courts step in and stop the madness, it's anyone's guess.

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    Mono strikes out on its own

    MonoAs previously reported, Novell's new overlords (that would be Attachmate, which still sounds like some kind of "As Seen On TV" product to me) gave the Mono developers their walking papers last week. Now Mono guru Miguel De Icaza has formed a new company to pick up the pieces. The company, called Xamarin (which sounds like a prescription sleeping aid to me), will offer commercial Mono support, as well as .NET tools for Android and iOS.

    Knit One, perl 5.14

    Perl 6 may be languishing out there with "Duke Nukem Forever," but there's still new perl to be had. This week, perl 5.14 hit the streets. Improved Unicode support seems to be a major thrust of the release (click here for all the gripping details.)

    For those of us who grew up (professionally, at least) with perl in our toolbag, it's good to see continued active development on the language. While I may not pull that particular tool out as often as I used to, I still find myself writing the occasional script to grovel over a file and pull out the golden nuggets I need.

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    March 02 2011

    Developer Week in Review

    Coming to you from 24 hours in the future, it's this week's Developer Week in Review.

    All your news cycles are belong to us

    We're using the O'Reilly Tempro-Spatial Distorter to send you back news of Today's's iPad 2 launch before it's even happened. Who could have predicted that the iPad 2 would have both a 3D Retina display and Smell-o-vision? But the real shocker had to be the announcement that the iTunes store was finally going to have the long-missing catalog of Up With People available for sale.

    Ok, so we don't have a time machine, and deadlines dictate that this will be going to edit before the Big Announcement today. I'm sure one or two other news outlets will be covering the event, so you can probably find out what happened sometime later this week. For those keeping score, this is something like the 3rd or 4th Big Announcement so far this year, and we're only through February. It must be truly depressing to be anyone else in the industry, and have to compete with Apple's PR machine.

    Unnoticed in all of this is that Google has replaced their Gingerbread Man with a more insectile sculpture, as Android Honeycomb begins to appear in the wild. Remember folks, Honeycomb's got a Big Big Byte.

    New patents pending?

    Once upon a time, I did an article on patent reform, and as part of it I interviewed a staffer in Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) office, since Leahy sits on the Judiciary Committee. Ever since then, I get at least one press release a week from the Senator's office about the never-ending progress of patent reform legislation (and with no opt out link ...). I ignore the stuff most of the time, but this week I got notice that some very interesting provisions have been added.

    The first is an item entitled "Create a pilot program to review the validity of business method patents." It goes on to explain:

    Many business method patents are of dubious validity because they are not truly inventive. This provision will create a temporary, limited proceeding at the USPTO to challenge business method patents.

    So it looks like Bilski lives on, and maybe some of the truly junky software patents may finally get a second look.

    The other item that caught my eye is: "End fee diversion at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; establish a revolving fund to ensure that funds collected by the USPTO can be used at the USPTO." This is a long-standing sore point, in that the USPTO is regularly raided for cash, leaving them underfunded to hire examiners. This, in turn, leads to the junky patents mentioned above.

    Of course, as the press release baldly states:

    Congressional efforts to reform the nation's patent system first began in 2005. The Senate Judiciary Committee has reported patent reform legislation to the full Senate in each of the last three Congresses.

    In other words, don't hold your breath.

    P <> NP, at least for now

    The world held its breath recently as word came that there may have been a breakthrough in the long quest for P = NP. The world started breathing again this week, as word came that the promising line of attack wasn't so promising after all.

    P = NP is one of the most vexing problems left in theoretical computer science, and also the one most likely to make a lay listener's eyes glaze over. As assistance to anyone trying to explain P = NP to their mother (for whatever reason), may we suggest the following one sentence description, courtesy of Wikipedia?

    Suppose that solutions to a problem can be verified quickly. Then, can the solutions themselves also be computed quickly?

    This will almost certainly leave her just as confused as before, but will lead her to believe the $50,000 she spent on your CS degree was worth the money.

    Got news?

    We're cranking up the power on the Time Portal, so next week we'll be bringing you news of the 2011 WWDC and the results of the 2012 presidential elections. If you want to get us news the old fashioned way, please send tips or leads here.

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