Sci/Tech

Winning marketshare by giving away your intellectual property

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Suppose you start a small tech startup and invent a revolutionary device with tremendous potential. What would you expect to be most profitable – to make the device yourself, to license it to large manufacturers, or to give away licenses royalty free to anyone who wanted them?

The first two choices might seem reasonable, but why would you want to give away something you created? In the case of Zylog’s Z80, the third option turned out to be the key to success. Zylog was started in 1974 by an engineer who came up with a superior design to that of giants like Intel, HP, and DEC. Getting the tech industry to adopt an architecture controlled by a small unproven startup would be impossible, so Federico Faggin decided to give away his creation. Thirty five years later, his chipset is still in widespread use in numerous electronic devices. Even though Zilog never made more than 50% of Z80 chips, Federico used his success to found a chain or highly innovative and successful companies.

A similiar process happened with WordPress, the most popular blogging/content management software on the web.  Matt Mullenweg was 19 in 2003 when he took on an abandoned open-source blogging tool, and created a powerful content managment suite with a strong community.  By virtue of being free, his software quickly took over from (initially) technically better, but costly alternatives.  Although the software is free, the services and consulting work needed to support it proved very lucrative.  A few years later, the company he started to support his work is (rumored to be) worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Support Tor: fight Internet censorship

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Unless you are utterly ignorant of the outside world, you have heard that the government of China actively monitors and censors its citizen’s access to the Internet.  Its tight grip on Internet services is part of an overall policy of brutal suppression of free expression and human rights in China, including organ harvesting, mass murder, forced sterilization, and all the other assorted atrocities that go along with a totalitarian socialist regime.  As brutal as China is, the state of human rights in Putin’s Russia may be even worse. 

Besides their oppressive governments, China and Russia also share a large number of Internet users.  Being a highly decentralized network, the Internet is a critical link for citizens in these countries to connect to each other and the outside world.  Unfortunately American companies have eagerly provided technology that the Chinese government uses to block access to banned content and track down and shut down users and content publishers.

Fortunately, the technologies that allow the creation of ubiquitous surveillance also make possible ubiquitous secrecy.  One particular tool for circumventing state censorship is the Tor anonymity network.  For some time now, I’ve been running a node on the Tor network, which allows users to communicate anonymously on the Net.  Tor is an “onion routing” network, which means that I can see the (unencrypted) traffic leaving my node, but I cannot know where it originates. 

A common concern with anonymity networks is that they can be used for malicious purposes, such as identity theft, piracy, or child pornography.  I was curious to see how my node was being used, so I used some network sniffing software to monitor the sessions leaving my own node.  Since my snooping sessions occurred around 1AM, I was not surprised to find that most of the traffic went to Russian (which I speak) and Chinese (which I can translate) sites.  As far as I could tell, none of the content was illegal.  I found users browsing websites for gaming, online forums, photography, and health information.  (A health information blog might seem innocuous in the West, but such information is closely controlled in China.)  It only took a few minutes however to find traffic to Secret China.com, a site in Chinese devoted to “promoting freedom of the press, a connecting bridge between the Western culture.”  Now as a statistical survey, this is a small sample, but it seems likely to me that at the very least, a substantial part of Tor traffic is being used by people who have legitimate reasons to hide their online activity from their governments.

If you wish to support freedom and privacy, consider visiting the Tor website, downloading the software, and running a Tor node.  You can read some reasons to run Tor on the project’s site, but here are mine:

  • I want to protect the rights of all people to communicate without interference or punishment from their governments.
  • I am concerned about the U.S. government’s policy of warrantless and unconstitutional surveillance, and want to protect myself against the consequences of its continued progress towards a totalitarian regime.
  • I believe that like the right to bear arms, my rights may become useless if they are not exercised.

Some tips for using Tor:

  • I am using the “unstable” version just fine.
  • You must configure Tor as a relay if you want to run a Tor node.
  • Tor will use a lot of traffic if you let it (slowing down your internet access and potentially reaching monthly bandwidth limits if you have any), and may expose you to legal investigation.  You should familiarize yourself with its options, as Tor makes it easy to control both the type and volume of traffic is relays. 
  • If you disable all the exit policies or enable the “help censored users reach the Tor network”, you can run a node without exposing yourself to liability.
  • The bandwidth graph will show total usage, so you can adjust the bandwidth limits appropriately.  For reference, Comcast has a limit of 250 GB per month.

FCC rewards piracy in the name of "net neutrality"

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According to Ars Technica, yesterday the FCC ordered Comcast to stop slowing down the Internet traffic of users who use excessive file-sharing (P2P) software.  Instead, Comcast will slow down the Internet service of all users who use a lot of traffic, regardless of the content.  Other ISP’s will probably follow Comcast’s lead.

Basically, this order means that users who are anonymously sharing software and movies using file-sharing software (the vast majority of which is pirated and illegal) must be treated the same as users who are doing things such as video chat, telecommuting, and other applications that rely on real-time communications.  While not all P2P traffic is illegitimate, surely real-time applications should be given a lower priority than file-sharing.  Either way – ISP’s have the right to decide how to best route traffic on their networks.  Yet no law was necessary – just another politically-motivated decree from some nameless bureaucrat.

Score yet another victory for anti-corporate hysteria and the egalitarian ideology which is destroying capitalism and the rule of law in the name of “neutrality.”

The digital revolution transforms art history

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The world is full of great art the vast majority of people will never see. Even the world traveler who tours Chicago, New York, Paris, and St Petersburg several times over, will not see all the collections in great detail, much less a single painting. Any visitor to the Louvre will undoubtedly want to see the Mona Lisa, but he is not likely to see it in any detail, without a crowd urging him to move on, or a curator keeping him from examining the detail too closely. Once viewed, the image of a painting fades quickly from memory, with postcards, coffee table books, and even high quality reproductions offering a poor substitute for the original.

I can’t speak for other art admirers, but to me, a painting is ultimately just information. For me, the canvas is just an imperfect container for the data. It is valuable only insofar as it represents an irreplaceable source, from which all copies and memories must come from. It’s a very imperfect source – fragile, singular, and inevitably decaying in time, destroying its precious cargo as it slowly succumbs to entropy.

Imagine however, if we could clone the canvas – and not only clone it, but create a superior container for that information, one that not only does not decay over time, but reveals more information than the original source. A perfect digital representation of a painting could contain not only its state at the time of its digitization, but the record of its lifespan, including its original state, as well as the creative process itself. With a global network, such a representation could be accessed instantly from anywhere in the world. It would not be like seeing the original – it would be better than the original, representing far more information than merely viewing the canvas can provide.

Lumiere Technology is a company which hopes to do just that. They intend to digitize the world’s art and make it available (for a price) to art students and fans worldwide. Their multispectral scanning process captures images in more detail than ever before, not only in terms of resolution, but in 13 wavelengths, from ultraviolet to infrared. (45 min YouTube video.) Their digital restoration process can strip away faded varnish and hundreds of year of wear to show images in their original color. It can highlight certain wavelengths for the colorblind, or look beneath the painting in infrared.

Lumiere’s scans are certainly not the last word in digitization, but they might be the harbinger of a revolution. I can already imagine the day in which the motivation to see the original artwork is a curiosity, done for bragging rights rather than a means of studying it. Undoubtedly, a small but vocal minority will persist in silly claims that there is something to be gained from seeing the “warmth” of the original.

CD-Recordable discs unreadable in less than two years

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Long before I got my first CD-RW drive, I had friends make CD’s for me and stayed up late in the school’s computer lab to transfer my files by ftp and back up my stuff on the ancient 2X burners. Because CDR’s store data digitally and CDROM drives do not touch the surface when reading them, I always assumed that my CD’s would last forever – just like the manufacturer promised. You can imagine my shock when I read that many CDR discs become unreadable after just two years! A little research confirms that CD’s are not nearly as long-lasting as their manufacturers claim. This makes me very concerned about the dozens of CDR’s I’ve accumulated over the years. While I usually use name-brands like Memorex and Imation, I’ll be testing my old cd’s to see how they held up. When I scanned my family’s old black and white photographs to preserve them, I was sure the cd’s would outlast the photos!

Sun Microsystems is a Hypocrite

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I’ve spent the last two days installing and playing with Windows Server 2003. It ads some much-needed features and improvements to IIS that make it a much better server OS than the Windows 2000 line. Aside from some unnecessary hardware and software compatibility issues, I have one complaint: it’s missing Microsoft’s own optimized version of Java. Is this a case of Microsoft trying to “bully” Sun? No, the missing Java is a result of a Sun lawsuit intended to force Microsoft to scuttle its superior version of Java in lieu of Sun’s because Microsoft’s implementation is “incompatible” and “obsolete.” My own experience with both versions indicates that Microsoft’s Java is better, faster, and just as compatible as Sun’s.

In the latest decision, the judge ruled that by producing a better version of Sun’s “open” standard, Microsoft was using its monopoly power to help its .Net platform. Apparently, making your competitor’s product (which MS had a license to) work better is “anti-competitive.” To his credit, he ruled that (for now) Microsoft does not have to include Sun’s inferior Java in Microsoft’s own operating systems.

Why is a company supposedly dedicated to innovation and open standards preventing others from making their own improved versions? How can Sun criticize Microsoft for being “monopolistic” while trying to force its Java into Windows and engaging in the same deals with computer manufacturers as Microsoft to bundle Java onto desktops? There are many complex licensing and technical issues here, but it is clear to me that Sun has realized that its client and server-side Java products are inferior to .Net and (like SCO) is trying to win in the courts where it has failed in innovation.

NEWCARD

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The following article on the upcoming NEWCARD standard to replace the old PC Cards is an interesting look at the issues that must be considered when impementing a hardware standard.

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Men everywhere should mark this day. Women…well, they have one less excuse.

So I'm learning Visual Basic.Net

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So I’m learning Visual Basic.Net and I’d like to focus my learning efforts on making a program that’s actually useful to help me stay motivated. Can you think of a simple GUI program that you might like to use? If so, please leave me a comment!

Open-Source Socialism?

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When I first announced ObjectivismOnline, I got an email from a college CS major who warned me against using Open Source software because (a) the leader of the movement is a dirty marxist, and (b) free software in general is anti-profit, and this anti-capitalism. After doing some (very little) research, I indeed found out that Richard Stallman, the founder of GNU is a pretty sick character, who rants against self-interest and capitalism. (Not to be confused with Richard Salsman, who writes great articles.)Understandably then, I had to give a lot of thought to using free software, which is mostly released under the anti-IP GNU GPL license. There are other free software licenses such as the Creative Commons license, which features a dollar sign with an line through it as a logo, and the simple BSD license. (BSD=”Berkeley Software Distribution”) Not all free software is hostile to profits however. ImageMagik, a popular graphics library, starts out with John Galt’s pledge, and simply asks for postcards in exchange for using it.

So is using and making free software consistent with supporting intellectual property and profits?

First, the very concept of a “software license” – whether GNU or commercial, entails the concept of “copyright,” since it restricts what one can or cannot do with software. The GNU cannot simultaneously use copyright law to restrict software rights and oppose copyrights at the same time.

In a similar sense, the GNU is not “free” either – it allows less freedom than commercial software in many ways. Owners of commercial software can dispose of their property in any way they choose, but users of GNU software face strict limitations on commercial usage and redistribution of modified code.

The advantages of open source software have already been covered at length, but I think the widespread usage of open source projects like linux, apache, php, and MySQL in commercial enterprises speaks for itself. For companies, open source projects are especially useful for creating standard platforms that they don’t have to develop on their own, and that their customers don’t feel chained to. From a personal standpoint, working on free software offers opportunities to develop new skills, work with a team on important projects, and show off your abilities. None of this is to say that there’s something wrong with closed software development. Both have their own niche, and I think that one should decide what kind of software to use based on their technical merit.

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