Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Inane copyright regulations

RAIN -- the Radio And Internet Newsletter -- carries weekly stories on what's going on the fledgling web radio market, a fact which always surprises me since I didn't know that very much was going on there at all. Part of the reason why can be outlined in the labyrinthian rules that surround webcasting.

Reading through the differences between ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, along with the odd implementations, tortured reasoning, and dubious logic, it's clear that these are the result of all kinds of backroom arm-twisting, compromises, guesses, and mistakes. Just like most every decision. What keeps them in place is that we have a "good enough" radio and music system that lets us, by and large, listen to what we want when we want, kind of. While the system is clearly broken, the lights still turn on.

We'll see what combinations of arm-twisting, compromises, guesses and mistakes congeal into the legal infrastructure for web radio.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

iPod + BMW

Local storage is a substitute for bandwidth. An imperfect substitute, but a substitute none-the-less. Back when people were talking about "jukebox in the sky" they were thinking that there would be some sort of wireless bandwidth available that people could just tune into -- sort of like radio but bigger -- and wouldn't that be great?

The iPod, to me, was my "jukebox in the sky", except it was in my pocket. But it had *all my songs* on it and I could listen to them *whenever I wanted* and *take them with me*. No editing of playlists. No having to make decisions about what stays and what goes. All my songs, all the time, everywhere.

Currently, my iPod plays on my Mini via an adaptor plugged into the cassette deck. (Yes, the guy looked at us funny when we said we wanted a cassette deck). And as cool as the iPod/BMW adaptor kit is, all I really want is a line-in jack.

No Windows Lite

ESR has a post on how Microsoft is competing against open source software now. It is not as interesting as the Halloween Documents of the past, but it does reflect the growing acceptance of Linux in the market. To be frank, now that IBM has embraced it, I largely consider Linux's position in the mainstream to be a done deal.

Linux has 100% succeeded in keeping Microsoft out of the server. IIS on NT, which was replacing whatever on Unix at a dramatic rate, has itself been eclipsed by Apache on Linux. The server market continues to grow, both IIS on NT and Apache on Linux are enjoying the lion's share of that growth, but Apache on Linux is taking more.

On the client, look for Linux on terminals first. Microsoft has only two options for customers looking for a fairly limited client operating system 1) the latest version of Windows and 2) an old version of Windows. The latest version of Windows is probably too expensive to give to a non-information worker (who just needs email, a browser, and a little non-office app) while an old version of Windows is insecure and hard to maintain. If you don't need Office, or really any other major application, Linux is for you.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Eloquent geeks sometimes grow up to be science fiction writers. This is helpful because science and technical topics are often difficult to understand and dull, and it is a real skill to make them accessible and interesting. I have not read any of Cory Doctorow's work, but this extended piece on why DRM will fail covers cryptography, the history of digital content, the birth and evolution of copyright, with the sort of aplomb I last saw on Stephenson's "In the beginning was the command line". Good for him.

I have written about DRM on this website so many times that I'm not really sure there is anything else to say. Content companies understand that DRM is not popular, but think people will put up with some inconvenience in one area of access (what, my movie expires?!?) for some convenience in another area of access (I can play a movie on my phone!). People may, but only for as long as they have to, and since the inconvenience is artificial it can only be so long. (Thanks to RE for the link).

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Buying security?

Should Microsoft buy a security software company? Certainly certain pieces of software, such as firewalls, offer many benefits to users if they come pre-installed in hardware, so why not extend that to anti-virus software as well?

One of the key debates in the Microsoft anti-trust trial was "where does an operating system stop"? Anti-virus software is clearly something that traditionally has been outside the core operating system, but may benefit users if it is bundled and integrated into the OS.

As for Win32 API, reader EK writes:
I believe the Win32 API came about with Windows NT, and was an offshoot of what was going to be a joint development project with IBM of OS/2 3.0 which ended up splitting. I spent some time porting software from OS/2 to WinNT and the two were very similar in some ways. Windows95 came along later and was a mix-and-match of Win16 and Win32, as were 98 and ME.

Friday, June 18, 2004


I strongly recommend that everyone reads this excellent analysis of how Microsoft lost the API wars. I recommend this even to people who don't care much about technical stuff because it illustrates how a changing business environment can undermine once dominant competitive strategies.

"API" stands for "Application Program Interface", and it is basically a library of functions that software developers can use when they are writing their programs. It protects them from lots of technical ugliness that hides in the lower-level languages that actually run the hardware in computers, and dramatically improves programmer productivity.

Probably the most common API in the world is Win32. I beleive it was released with Windows 95, and over its many revisions, Microsoft has taken tremendous pains to ensure that anything programmed to run on an older version of Win32 was able to run on newer versions of Win32. When I say "tremendous pains", I mean they did things that must have made purist engineers weep--the introduced special codes and procedures that looked at what program was running, and then recreated old--often buggy--versions of the procedures just for them. People talk about "crufty" and "kludgey" code, cluttered up with all sorts of inelegant old detritus, and how this is bad, but Microsoft has (had) an enormous team of people dedicated to kludging the code up some more.

Maintaining backward compatibility may have been sacrelige to the engineering gods, but it was critical to the business gods. The reason Microsoft earns its monopoly rents is because Windows has few substitutes, and the reason Windows has few substitutes is because it is by far the best platform for developers to create applications for, and it's the best application because it is ubiquitous across generations of operating systems. If programs written for Windows 95 were not perfectly compatible with Windows 98, developers would have to decide whether or not to invest in developing products for the new platform, and each new operating system upgrade would trigger another round of potential defects. Infact, for reasons I'll go into later, this near perfect substitutability between different versions of Windows has gone from being a tremendous benifit to being a tremendous cost.

The main point of Joel's article is that Microsoft's backward-compatibility religion served them incredibly well, but after a fierce internal battle they have now turned their back on it and have embraced a new religion focusing on new technology that is not backward compatible and requires each and every software vendor to decide whether they want to support this new platform or not. It's like a new operating system company has entered the market, but it just happens to have the same name as an older one.

Joel doesn't really speculate on why this change happened at Microsoft--although his long experience with religious engineers might suggest that one of them won some internal power struggle and has now made this (bad?) decision. I don't know how true this is, but it is certainly true that the changing business context in technology means that this decision is less bad than it may have been in the past, because Win32 is just not as important to developers as it once was. There is a new operating system that most developers have decided to use, and it's called the Internet.

I've gone on and on about the emerging Internet Operating system, and the fact that the killer apps of today are things like Google, email, Amazon, IM etc. These use a series of protocols and formats such as HTTP, HTML etc. that are not tied to Win32. Worse for Microsoft, it turns out that the applications that require lots of local resources (ie. a harddrive, a fast processor, etc) are either 1) made by Microsoft and have been good enough for a while (Office) or 2) games, where they have no comparitive advantage. And that glorious backward-compatibility that locked in consumers and developers while the PC industry was growing has become a disincentive for people to get new computers--their old ones work fine. This has resulted in major revenue issues for Microsoft because upgrade cycles are stretching out. I don't beleive that all applications will ever run over the Internet--there is a real fight out there for the fat client--but Internet apps have enough benefits that they will consume enough developers to break Microsoft's API monopoly for good.

IBM still sells mainframes, and Microsoft and the PC are not going anywhere -- they've just become a boring part of the tech industry.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Can the FCC

I've written about the shortcomings of the FCC, and spectrum regulation in general, many times on this site. It was a boondoggle to begin with, and it continues to be a boondoggle today. The FCC should be eliminated, and spectrum (which causes interference) should owned in perpetruity and be managed via auctions. Spectrum which does not suffer from interference (because of attenuation) should have no regulations at all.

Monday, June 07, 2004

This is awesome

I want 2. One for my stereo, one for my printer. Finally -- networking that makes sense.

Saturday, June 05, 2004


The Register as two nails in the DRM coffin. The first is ad hoc wireless filesharing on mobile devices. People know about Napster, but there is also this thing called the Sneakernet that consists of people walking around and lending tapes and CDs to their buddies. Ad hoc wireless networking takes the Sneakernet and makes it bigger, faster, and more anonymous. And untracable. It is impossible to stop the Sneakernet, btw.

The second nail is flat-fee wireless distribution, which is similar, and to be honest I'm not sure what wireless has to do with it, but the argument is that it makes sense to price music at marginal cost because then you can sell bundled complementary goods around it, such as t-shirts or ovens or whatever. A very reasonable approach, but the logistics of a pooled license fee to pay all artists out of is not clear to me.

Health Care

People are stupid when it comes to thinking about their own health. Try this quiz:

Part 1: There is some new SARS like disease that you have a 1 in 1 million chance of catching. If you get it, you will dies for sure as there is no cure, but they have developed a new vaccine. This vaccine has no bad side effects and will 100% prevent you from catching the disease. How much will you pay to get vaccinated?

Part 2: You are walking down the street and you see an ad looking for participants in a new medical trial at the local medical school. Unfortunately, the trial as a 1 in 1 million chance of killing you. How much would they have to offer for you to sign up?

Did you answer to Part 1 match you answer to Part 2? They should. You should be indifferent between the price you would pay to avoid a 1:1000000 chance of death as the price you would need to be paid to take on a 1:1000000 chance of death. But people usually say something like $5 to part 1 and $5M to part 2, which is crazy.

It is this irrationality that makes me beleived that government should, in the spirit of libertarian partneralism, provide catestrophic health insurance to everyone. This is not like regular health insurance -- you would have to pay all of your regular costs out of pocket -- but since people undervalue the value of avoiding risk, they would be covered for the most expensive procedures.

It turns out that this is a common problem, and Brad DeLong and Arnold Kling argue for something similar, but from two different angles. Both are worth reading.

The Constitution is not a suicide pact

A while ago I argued that the Geneva Convention is a good document that protects civilians by not protecting unlawful combatants--people who forgo the rights accorded to soldiers because they do not wear uniforms and they hide amongst civilians. This means that terrorists and guerillas can be legally killed on sight because they chose to fight as terrorists and guerillas, not soldiers.

But it seems that there are people who do not understand how making no distinction between lawful combattants (who do not hide behind civilians) and unlawful combatants (who do) increases the death toll amongst civilians. The author says
No one at the DOJ seems even to have pondered whether the public would credulously accept the truth of a document that—by its own admission—is a product of secret government interrogations. The lesson of Abu Ghraib was that we no longer trust what happens in dark dungeons, where the rule of law has been cast aside. To reassure us, the Justice Department responds with the assurance that no one there trusts what happens in the bright light of a constitutional democracy.
and is right on both counts. There is lots of shady business in the world, governments are involved in plenty of it, torture can produce bad information, but none of this helps us tackle the fact that there are shady people out there, hiding amongst civilians, putting toghether terrorist acts. I have no idea what, if anything, Padilla did or planned to do, but neither does the author. You can beleive the Justice Departments documents and accusation, or you can say they are all bogus. In the end it all just comes down to picking a side, and that's a pretty clear choice in my mind.

RIP Reagan

I remember Reagan primarily as a (literally) absent minded puppet on Spitting Image but it seems he still drives some people in the US crazy. Here was a man who defeated Communism--a force with killed millions in Stalin's Gulag's and impoverished tens of millions more on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, and navigated through the very real threat of nuclear armageddon, with nary a shot fired. Clearer minds would honor, or at least acknowledge, such an achievement, but not the frothers at Slate. This is how they understand the fall of the Iron Curtain and the avoidance of the end of all Life on the planet Earth:
Reagan can probably claim some credit for ending the Cold War, but his principal weapon, characteristically, was spending—the Soviets bankrupted themselves trying to keep up with the Pentagon's weapons-buying binge through the 1980s. Reagan's greatest achievement in foreign affairs was therefore linked to his greatest achievement in domestic affairs. He taught Republicans that they could be even less responsible than Democrats.
But I cheered up when I read the next paragraph because it was quite funny:
Government spending is not (at least in my view) inherently irresponsible. What is irresponsible is spending money you don't have. Perhaps the moist poignant passage in Reagan's first inaugural address is the one expressing what today seems a very old-fashioned Republican concern about deficit spending: "For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals."
"You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we are not bound by that same limitation?"
One of the most useful things a government can do is to shift spending from areas of excess (such as booms) to areas of shortage (such as busts) and thus smooth out the very real pain and dislocation that comes from a business cycle turning. What governments all around the world have proven to be awful at is 1) killing dud programs, 2) financing programs with long term liabilities honestly (such as Social Security and Medicare), and 3) not spending money they have as soon as (or slightly sooner than) they get it. The only time government has ever ended up with a surplus is when it 1) lied about its long term liabilities and 2) got the money by surprise. Deficits are the only control for fiscal policy we have, and it is a bad one. Some analog for a central bank would be helpful here.

Slate's soft headedness

Slate has a silly article comparing the success (or failure) of the CIA to the success (or failure) of the war on poverty. It argues that
But intelligence is not a uniquely human endeavor. The war on poverty, too, is human and imperfect. The bureaucrats who wage that war, like those who wage the war on terror, strive to do better. The difference is, Bush doesn't let them measure their progress by goodness, decency, community, caring, funding, and "hidden successes."
Which means that Bush requires the departments engaged in the war on poverty to demonstrate results, but keeps the CIA's operations under wraps. Someone should hand this guy a copy of any book discussing codebreaking during World War II, and he would see that the code breakers took tremendous pains to ensure that the enemy did not know what codes they had broken. They even went so far as to not attack enemy ships, and to let their own soldiers die, to keep the fact that they had broken the codes a secret. If the enemy knows that you have broken their code, they will switch to another channel and your advantage will disappear. Even a historical text is too Boring for Slate, I would also recommend Neal Stephenson's excellent Crytonomicon, which covers similar ground.

The war on hunger will not be compromised by transparency.

Setting Sun

So, Sun Microsystems is partnering with Fujitsu to develop SPARC and open sourcing Java. My my.

The deal with Fujitsu is remarkable because Sun, like Apple, was once a hardware company at its heart, and SPARC was its crown jewel. Parting with someone else on SPARC is essentially Sun turning its back on its hardware roots, something that I thought I would never be able to do. We'll see if things work out. Java, on the other hand, was always slightly schizophrenic for Sun because it commoditizes hardware (and OS) -- thus consuming the other half of its business. Good thing it never caught on on the desktop and was relegated to chunky server-side programs only. Thanks to .NET and C#, it seems that the competition in the network-centric object-oriented language market has driven prices to marginal cost, i.e. zero. We'll see if Microsoft changes its C# licensing in any way.

Uncle Miltie

Here is a nice interview with Milton Friedman, the Yoda of Economics. The interview begins on the topic of freedom, ie. is it increasing or decreasing, and it struck me that there realy isn't a good word in English for the "free" that's at the heart of "free-market" economics. "Free" can mean free as in speech, or free as in beer, but "market freedom" is neither of these, it's "free" as in "freedom with consequences" (the U Chicago motto) or "free" as in "competition and accountability" (which doesn't even have the word "free" in it). The French liberte ("free" as in "freedom") really does not capture the "freedom with consequences" "free" either.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Why did Hailstorm fail?

This article in the Seattle Weekly talks about how Microsoft's may be doomed. The main culprit is open source software, which is targeting both Windows (via Linux) and Office (via OpenOffice et al). This we've heard before. And despite Billg's (and Sun's) claims, it is very unlikely that hardware will be priced at marginal/near-zero cost while software commands the monopoly rents Windows and Office enjoys today -- it's more likely that both will be commoditized and whatever rent remains in this market will go to either specialized service providers, or consumers. This isn't neccessarily bad, but it's quite different from the winner-take-all markets we've seen in enterprise software.

The article ends on a strange note where the author laments that Windows, for all its success, does not seem to command the same devotion that Linus or Mac OS X does. He attributes this to a certain soullessness at Redmond, but I think it is more reasonable to attribute it to the fact that most people don't care about computers, and since most people use Windows, most people do not care about Windows. Only the most loyal, fanatical user has a Mac or Linux box (if they cared less, they would pick Windows for the price and convenience), so they get a loyal and fanatical base.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Geneva Convention

My understanding of the Geneva Convention is that you give up any protection you have under it if you dress like a civilian and hide amongst civilian populations. This is designed to save civilian lives by keep the lines between civilians and soldiers distinct. A soldier who dresses like a civilian and hides amongst civilians is no longer a soldier -- he is an "unlawful combatant" and has no Geneva Convention rights. (There are other things you can do to not have protection. I beleive there was also a rather good New Yorker article that made this same point). Here is an excerpt from USS Clueless that makes the point very clearly:
The provision regarding lack of uniforms is one of the more important exceptions. The basic idea of requiring formal insignia for combatants is to make it so that the soldiers of each side can differentiate enemy combatants from enemy non-combatants. If the soldiers of one side cannot easily determine whether someone on the other side is soldier or civilian, then there's a much greater likelihood that civilians will be killed. One of the things that those who composed the treaty wanted to try to do was to reduce the slaughter of civilians in war.

Therefore, if an enemy combatant is captured and is not wearing any recognizable insignia or uniform, he is not entitled to any protection at all under the Geneva Convention. He can be executed on the spot without trial, for instance. He is considered to be committing a war crime by fighting without any such insignia, but if he's executed then those who order the execution and those who carry it out are not committing a war crime.

That provision regarding combatants without insignia applies to three major cases: to insurgents (such as to guerrilla action in occupied areas), to soldiers trying to hide among civilians during formal combat, and to spies. The argument for not rewarding each of these cases is the same and is valid; if you grant them protection anyway, you will encourage more of all three with tragic consequences.

Therefore, I'm not sure I understand the point that Alan Dershowitz is making in this article. He seems to argue that the Geneva Convention should be re-written so it no longer protects terrorists hiding amongst civilians, but it doesn't do that now. He also says that
Terrorists who do not care about the laws of warfare target innocent noncombatants. Indeed, their goal is to maximize the number of deaths and injuries among the most vulnerable civilians, such as children, women and the elderly.
But targeting innocent noncombatants was certainly part of WWII where submarines attacked merchant vessels, and airforces bombed factories, cities, and infrastructure. Neither the Rape of Nanking nor the firebombing of Dresden targeted armies.

It is certainly true that people invoke the Geneva Convention as a kind of "be nice to people!" imperitive in ways that directly hamper the fight against terrorists--thus making us all less safe--but this is not a fault of the Convention, it's a fault of people interpreting it incorrectly. It is rare that one finds a bureaucratic document that is fundamentally sensible, so let's take the time to understand why it says what it says, and make it clear to those who dress like civilians but are combatants that they forgo any rights they might have because they are no longer soldiers. Instead of re-writing a good document, let's make folks understand what is says and why it says it--it's clearly written by people who understand the horrors of war all too well.