31 January 2007

Conservation Commons

A little while back I was urging you to sign a petition calling for open access in the European Union (you did sign, didn't you?). Now here's another worthy cause, asking for open access to environmental information - the ultimate, double commons:

Principles of the Conservation Commons

Open Access: The Conservation Commons promotes free and open access to data, information and knowledge for all conservation purposes.

Mutual Benefit: The Conservation Commons welcomes and encourages participants to both use these resources and to contribute data, information and knowledge.

Rights and Responsibilities: Contributors to the Conservation Commons have full right to attribution for any uses of their data, information, or knowledge, and the right to ensure that the original integrity of their contribution to the Commons is preserved. Users of the Conservation Commons are expected to comply, in good faith, with terms of uses specified by contributors.

You can sign up online. See you there. (Via Open Access News.)


Catch it while you can.

All That Jazz

This looks an interesting project:

The Jazz research project seeks to extend the Eclipse (http://www.eclipse.org) software development environment with collaborative capabilities to support coordination, communication, and awareness among a small close-knit team of developers. This involves creating connections to server infrastructure for messaging, awareness, and source control, building hooks into the Eclipse development environment to supply awareness of the developers' interactions with source code and source control, and integrating user interfaces for communication and awareness within the Eclipse environment to provide unobtrusive access to in-context team information.

Let's hope that this Jazz does better than the earlier one from Lotus (which was bought by IBM):

Lotus Jazz was an office productivity suite for the Apple Macintosh, released in 1985 for $595, after the substantial success of Lotus 1-2-3 for the PC. It was a commercial failure due to its low quality and aggressive competition.

Ah yes, I remember it well....

Steve Ballmer on Open Source

I am always amused - and slightly annoyed - that so much space is devoted to the wit and wisdom of Steve Ballmer, because basically he has none. That is, his words are pure marketing-speak, full of the right phrases, but signifying nothing. But at least in this FT interview, there's some interesting information about how Microsoft understands the open source challenge:

The biggest competitive challenges that any business faces is actually alternate business models. It is not a company. If you tell me somebody wants to come compete with us and do software in an area where we compete, or that we are going to get in a new area and it’s the same business model, it’s selling software, I know we can do it.

When somebody comes with a different business model, that’s where you get… or a phenomenon comes with a different business model.

What was the number one different business model that our company has confronted in the last six years? It’s Open Source. Open Source is not a technology phenomenon; it is a business model phenomenon. Frankly speaking, exactly what that business model is, is still unclear.

But that is a different business model and we had to ask ourselves: What do we do to compete? And we wound up saying it’s all about value and total cost of ownership, and high performance computing is a good example. It’s about 30 per cent of Linux share, and we are saying: Hey look, this is actually an area where we can take a lot of share with the right innovation, and the right total cost of ownership.

We shall see, Steve.

O Brave New World

It's not every day that a new continent is announced.

30 January 2007

Anyone for Open Source TreeCAD?

Just when you think there can't be any areas left uncolonised by free software, you discover treeCAD. (Via MMORPG.)

Not so Corny for the Mexicans

By embracing the NAFTA treaty, Mexico surrendered its corn output to the vagaries of the North American corn market. Now, all of a sudden, Americans want corn, lots of it. As part of a dubious strategy to make “cleaner” gasoline while rewarding Big Agriculture and farm states, the U.S. Government is shoveling huge subsidies to corn-based ethanol production. This new demand has bid up prices in the U.S. and caused acute corn shortages in Mexico, which in turn has tripled and quadrupled the price of tortillas.

Which just goes to show that "free" trade is neither free as in freedom nor free as in beer.

British Library Closes Down Knowledge

As I feared, the close relationship between the British Library and Microsoft has led the former to start producing online exhibits locked into the latter's proprietary products:

Turning the Pages 2.0™ allows you to 'virtually' turn the pages of our most precious books. You can magnify details, read or listen to expert commentary on each page, and store or share your own notes.

Turning the Pages 2.0™ runs with Internet Explorer on Windows Vista or Windows XP SP2 with .NET Framework version 3, on a broadband connection. We have detected that you do not have the necessary software. You may also need to check that your hardware meets the 'Vista Premium Ready' specification.

So instead of opening up access to knowledge, the British Library is now foisting Microsoft's closed source on its visitors. A sad day for a once-great institution. (Via The Reg.)

Peugeot Drives Off with 20K SuSE Desktops

Well, strictly speaking, it's "up to" 20K:

PSA Peugeot Citroën, the second-largest automobile manufacturer in Europe, and Novell just signed a multiyear contract allowing the deployment of up to 20,000 Linux desktops plus 2,500 Linux servers from Novell.

Still, a good win for SuSE - and for open source.

Of course, that pre-supposes there's no massive oily patch on the road ahead for the Microsoft-Novell "mixed-source" juggernaut.... (Via Open Sources.)

Barely Born, Vista Gets a Second Life

Well, I suppose this was inevitable; call it the Clash of Hypes: Microsoft Vista is being launched at ten locations in Second Life. And nothing wrong with that - although intriguingly, as Kitten Lulu points out:

4 out of 9 are places where you can find sex escorts, and there is also the Isle of Lesbos that is somewhat sex-related.
I guess they want to convey the idea that Windows Vista is sexy… but not free.

Me, I just feel sorry for the bloke "coolz0r", whose MS implant seems to be overheating with all the excitement:

What they have done is beyond all imagination.

Yikes! (Via 3pointD.com.)

MySQL's IPO: Hot News - or Maybe Not

Amazing news - MySQL is planning to go public:

after years of rumo(u)r the company is finally preparing to go public, joining a select group of open source vendors that have made it to the publicly traded markets.

Or maybe not quite so amazing, since Marten Mickos had already told me this last July during an interview for Linux Journal (page 74, January Issue, if you're interested, published in December 2006):

We're aiming for an IPO. We're actually aiming for an independent existence and to do that you need to do an IPO, but the IPO is not the aim, the IPO is just a step. People say: What is your exit plan? and we say that we're not going to exit.

Go to Jail; Do Not Pass Go

At a time when this is happening:

The jail system is in "serious crisis" with overcrowding affecting rehabilitation of offenders, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.

Anne Owers said some jails have become "riskier places to manage" because of the overcrowding problem.

Do we really need this?

The European Parliament's committee for legal affairs meets today to vote on proposals for criminal penalties to be imposed on those who infringe intellectual property (IP) rights.

The vote today will determine whether or not a person who downloads a single unlicensed track of music could be sent to jail.

Think about it - because you can bet that most of the politicians won't....

Behind and Beyond Halloween

The publication of the first Halloween memo in 1998 was a pivotal moment in the history of free software. For the first time, it was clear that internally Microsoft was worried by this new threat, despite its outward-facing bravado and rhetoric.

Of course, there was no confirmation from the company that the memo was genuine, so there was always a theoretical possibility that they were faked in some way, although the internal evidence seemed overwhelming. But now, Groklaw reports, we have official proof of their genuine nature. The posting also offers an interesting meditation on how all this feeds into Microsoft's current attempts to "go legit" with the ECMA standardisation of its Office XML formats.

Not Drowning but Waving

Here's a clever idea, a Web site called goodbye-microsoft.com that doesn't just encourage you to install Debian alongside Windows on a dual-boot system, but actually does it for you, directly from the site, using your browser running on Windows as its starting point.

Wave good-bye as you go. (Via Linux and Open Source Blog.)

Enter the WeblogMatrix

For fans of matrices, here's another one: Weblogmatrix, which compares the main blogging platforms. (Via Quoi9.)

Aieee: It's IE8 (Internet Explorer 8)

Further proof that Firefox has changed the rules for browsers. It took Microsoft five years to move from IE6 to IE7, but there are already signs of an IE8 in the works.

29 January 2007

At Your Service

It is no coincidence that services lie at the heart of companies based around open source:

In 2006, the share of the service sector in the global employment progressed from 39.5 per cent to 40 per cent and, for the first time, overtook the share of agriculture that decreased from 39.7 per cent to 38.7 per cent. The industry sector represented 21.3 per cent of total employment.

(Via Technocrat.)

'Omics - Oh My!

One of the fun aspects of writing my book Digital Code of Life was grappling with all the 'omics: not just genomics, but proteomics and metabolomics too. Here's what I wrote about the latter:

"Metabolome" is the name given to all the molecules - not just the proteins - involved in metabolic processes within a given cell.

And here's the big news:

Scientists in Alberta say they are the first team to finish a draft of the chemical equivalent of the human genome, paving the way for faster, cheaper diagnoses of disease.

The researchers on Wednesday said the Human Metabolome Project, led by the University of Alberta, has listed and described some 2,500 chemicals found in or made by the body (three times as many as expected), and double that number of substances stemming from drugs and food. The chemicals, known as metabolites, represent the ingredients of life just as the human genome represents the blueprint of life.

This does seem to differ from my definition, but hey, my shoulders are broad.
(Via Slashdot.)

GNU/Linux on the Desktop: Get the Facts

Some say that 2007 is the year GNU/Linux is going to make its breakthrough on the desktop - just like last year, and the year before that. So instead of looking forward at what might happen, why not look back at what did happen?

Linux on the desktop grew and matured in 2006. While some analysts reported a slowing of Linux penetration on the desktop in 2006, a number of significant milestones were reached that promise to continue to move the Linux desktop ahead in 2007. As Gerry Riveros, Red Hat product marketing manager for client solutions put it, "What I think was most important [in 2006] were all of the 'under the hood' incremental improvements that took place around printing, plug-and-play support, laptop enablement and the arrival of the compositing manager that allows for modern graphics."

These and other improvements are setting the next stage of growth for the Linux desktop. A number of projects and teams have moved beyond alpha positioning and ownership to focus on how their efforts contribute to overall desktop Linux objectives. "In 2006, it appeared that developers were aware of how each other's projects help to accomplish the shared goals of all the projects," said John Terpstra, Advanced Micro Devices Linux Evangelist. Over 70 of the key desktop architects have met three times this year to agree on focus areas that would make desktop Linux "just work."

Open Healthcare

A new one to me:

1: What is “Open Healthcare”?

The nature of the Internet as a means of disseminating health media is changing. The first wave of online technology enabled organizations to extend their topdown, “command and control” communication methods to a new channel. But a new wave of open publishing technology now enables any individual, with or without professional training, to communicate with global audiences to share health-related information and opinions.

This communication occurs through multiple formats, including blogs, podcasts, wikis, message boards, videocasts, collaboration, community and review sites, as well as other forms of social media and peer-to-peer services. This grassroots media continues explosive growth with or without permission or endorsement from established healthcare institutions. Healthcare is entering a “New Era”, foretold by the Cluetrain Manifesto (http://cluetrain.com/), which greatly inspired this “open healthcare” movement.

(Via James Governor's Monkchips.)

Acceptable Intellectual Property

Although open genomics is one of the key areas of this blog, posts on the subject are few and far between. This is really a reflection of the fact that the whole area receives relatively little attention in the media. This makes articles that reflect on issues of openness and associated topics - notably intellectual monopolies - particularly welcome.

Here's one in the New York Times, which points to this very interesting paper entitled "Acceptable Intellectual Property":

Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, decisions about intellectual property became visible and contentious public issues. A variety of actors—including many NGOs, academics, scientists, industry groups, and governments—now view decisions about intellectual property not as rational outcomes of an autonomous process of legal reasoning, governed by precedent and safely left to appropriate experts, but as political choices with profound stakes. Aside from a small band of libertarians, virtually no one contends that the answer is to dispense with intellectual property entirely. But there is a growing sense that the intellectual and institutional foundations of IP policy are too weak to manage its newly recognized political dimensions. Nowhere is this more true than in biotechnology, where controversies about the ownership of knowledge and biomaterials have generated profound public anxiety. This brief discussion paper outlines the sources of tension that animate these concerns and reflects on the capacity of existing institutions to reconcile them.

It's short, sweet and to the point: well worth reading. (Via Against Monopoly.)

Update: As so often is the case, the best commentary on this comes from Jamais Cascio, who also coins a fab neologism in this context:

Genetic Rights Management (GRM) is copy-protection for genes, a direct parallel to Digital Rights Management for CDs, DVDs, and other media.

Blogging Becomes Compulsorier

I think it's a great idea to force journos to roll up their sleeves and interact with their readers; but this may be taking it a little too far:

CNET is mandating that its blogging journalists respond to all reader comments and questions, according to a report in The Guardian. Further, they are also expected to get involved in every debate that "has legs." (Hat tip to Cyberjournalist)

Also, there is a teeny-weeny irony here, in that the Guardian's flagship blog, Comment is Free, rarely sees the posters (many of whom or journos) responding even minimally to comments (with a few honourable exceptions.)

Second Life and Africa

Here's an interesting point:

Many have observed that the African American economy in the US is probably bigger than even South Africa, a country recognised as the engine of Africa, with 47 million people and yet there is no visible connection between this economy and the rest of Africa for the world to notice.

Imagine everyone of us who are privileged to be connected could use our contacts and share them with our virtual friends in this Second Life and all of us can know each other through other people, how long will it take for us to create a social networking virtual space that we can collectively use to negotiate a better life for us and those connected to us.

One of the paradoxes of Second Life is that for all that it allows people to assume any identity they want, most of these turn out to be Caucasian (with a smattering of furries). As Second Life - or its successor - moves closer to the centre of online activity, the issue of bringing in developing nations and their related identities is one that will become ever more pressing if we are to avoid exacerbating the digital divide.

eBay Loses the Plot - and its Future

One thing that is evident online is that the line between real and virtual is increasingly evanescent (for the full half-hour argument, read Ed Castronova's thought-provoking Synthetic Worlds.) It follows that the companies that will thrive tomorrow are the ones that can seamlessly accommodate the sometimes disturbingly virtual alongside the comfier real.

Cross eBay off the list:

eBay is now delisting all auctions for 'virtual artifacts' from the site. This includes currency, items, and accounts/characters

So, here's a question for all you entrepreneurs: who wants to become the eBay of 21st century? (Via Virtual Economy Research Network.)

Update: eBay has managed to find a couple of neurons, it seems.

Pentaho - Tally-ho!

Talking of opening up:

I'm not sure if anyone else noticed, but Pentaho has gone 100% open source.

Thanks to moves like this, the open source enterprise stack gets richer all the time.

The Openness Spreads...to Adobe's PDF

One campaign I have fought over the years has been for people to dump proprietary PDF files and use open HTML instead.

Clearly, I lost that one, but as time goes by, it's becoming less of a problem as Adobe moves PDF closer to being a totally open standard like HTML. Here's the latest news:

Most people know that PDF is already a standard so why do this now? This event is very subtle yet very significant. PDF will go from being an open standard/specification and defacto standard to a full blown du jure standard. The difference will not affect implementers much given PDF has been a published open standard for years. There are some important distinctions however. First – others will have a clearly documented process for contributing to the future of the PDF specification. That process also clearly documents the path for others to contribute their own Intellectual property for consideration in future versions of the standard. Perhaps Adobe could have set up some open standards process within the company but this would be merely duplicating the open standards process, which we felt was the proper home for PDF. Second, it helps cement the full PDF specification as the umbrella specification for all the other PDF standards under the ISO umbrella such as PDF/A, PDF/X and PDF/E. The move also helps realize the dreams of a fully open web as the web evolves (what some are calling Web 2.0), built upon truly open standards, technologies and protocols.

(Via Bob Sutor's Open Blog.)

27 January 2007

Peter Suber's Purview

One source that crops up more than most in these blog posts is that of Open Access News. This is simply the best place to go for information about open access activity. But its creator, Peter Suber, does more than offer a handy one-stop shop for such news: he performs the equally important task of pulling together disparate pieces of information, to create a whole larger than the parts.

A case in point is this wonderful "raft" of blogger comments on the imminent FUD campaign against open access, where Peter kindly includes my own witterings on the subject. Reading this bundle of blog rage warms the cockles of my heart; it also offers a handy reminder of the moral and intellectual energy ranged against the retrograde forces of the anti-open access bloc.

26 January 2007

The Apotheosis of VisiCalc

If the name Dan Bricklin means nothing to you, you obviously missed out on the PC revolution's prehistory (or maybe I'm just showing my age). Bricklin is one of the Ur-hackers, author of the almost mythical VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet (yes, there was one: the idea has not been present since the dawn of time).

But more than being a mere coder-god, Bricklin is a man with his heart in the right place. He did not attempt to "patent" the idea of a spreadsheet, and for that deserves our eternal thanks. Continuing this fine tradition of altruism, his latest program goes even further, and is being released under the GNU GPLv2. It's called wikiCalc: it combines the best of Bricklin's past with today's increasingly trendy wikis.

As its home page at Software Garden explains:

The wikiCalc program lets you make web pages with more than just paragraphs of prose. It combines the ease of authoring and multi-person editing of a wiki with the familiar visual formatting and calculating metaphor of a spreadsheet. Written in Perl and released under the GPL 2.0 license, it can easily be setup to run on almost any server as a web application or on a personal computer to publish by FTP.

There's also a fuller explanation, as well as the code itself. Whether you do it out of a sense of historical piety, or because you want to play with tomorrow's cool - and open - toys, it's really worth taking a look at.

One World, Science.World

A hopeful development here:

Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, Under Secretary for Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), has signed an agreement with Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, to collaborate on the development of a global science gateway. The gateway would eventually make science information resources of many nations accessible via a single Internet portal.

Called ‘Science.world,’ the planned resource would be available for use by scientists in all nations and by anyone interested in science. The approach will capitalise on existing technology to search vast collections of science information distributed across the globe, enabling much-needed access to smaller, less well-known sources of highly valuable science. Following the model of Science.gov, the U.S. interagency science portal that relies on content published by each participating agency, ‘Science.world’ will rely on scientific resources published by each participating nation. Other countries have been invited to participate in this international effort.

I particularly liked the following paragraph:

Increasingly science projects are international in scope, with researchers across the globe collaborating on projects as diverse as energy, linear colliders, genomes and the environment. At the same time, the US and UK have recognised the importance of providing their citizens with one-stop electronic access to increasing volumes of science information, with a growing sense of the need for reciprocity and sharing of science knowledge across national boundaries.

Looks like another reason that this sort of thing is doomed to fail. (Via Open Access News.)

Behind the Great (Fire)Wall

Here's something I wish I knew more about:

Zhang Shiliang, who is in charge of the use of open source software in Beijing's Pinggu County government, spoke about the problems of Linux use in his organization. Chinese government is one of the biggest Linux buyers in the country. Since the Pinggu government began to push the use of open source software in 2004, 85% of their 4,680 computers have installed Linux or other open source software. But 53% of them still have to install Microsoft Windows as well, because their superior government uses Windows or other operating systems -- even other incompatible editions of Linux.

And some worrying figures at the end:

According to Lu Shouqun, China's sale of Linux was 175 million yuan ($21 million) in 2005, increasing 81% compared with the previous year. The sale of other open source software that year was 160 million yuan ($19 million). In the operating system market, the share of Linux increased from 4.2% to 9.8% between 2003 and 2005.

But Microsoft also won in that game. "In fact, China's increase of Linux users didn't impair the use of Windows," Lu says. According to his figures, Windows' share of the operating system market increased from 55.1% to 64.8% between 2003 and 2005. Linux mainly took users from Unix, whose share decreased from 30.9% to 19.8%.

There is no War on...Botnets

After the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror, now, it seems, we are to have a War on Botnets:

Mr Toure said that whatever the solution, the fight against botnets was a "war" that could only be won if all parties - regulators, governments, telecoms firms, computer users and hardware and software makers - worked together.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged, that as soon as you declare "war" on some amorphous entity like "drugs" or "terror" or "botnets", you've already lost, because you shift from the practical to the rhetorical.

This is all about security theatre: talking tough instead of acting intelligently. Sorting out botnets does not require a "war": it's simply a matter of telling Windows users the truth about their bug-infested system, getting them to use a firewall and anti-virus software and - maybe, one day - getting them to understand that downloading or opening unknown software is hugely risky.

Community-Created Content

One of the great things about books dealing with open content is that, to be internally consistent, they are generally freely available too. Here's a case in point: Community Created Content. Law, Business and Policy can be bought in dead-tree format, or downloaded as a PDF. (Via Boing Boing.)

25 January 2007

The Coming Victory of Open Access

In this blog, I've emphasised the parallels between open source and open access. We know that as Microsoft has become more and more threatened by the former, it has resorted to more and more desperate attempts to sow FUD. Now comes this tremendous story from Nature that the traditional scientific publishing houses are contemplating doing the same to attack open access:

Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.

The "pit bull" is Eric Dezenhall:

his firm, Dezenhall Resources, was also reported by Business Week to have used money from oil giant ExxonMobil to criticize the environmental group Greenpeace.

These are some of the tactics being considered:

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000–500,000.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, you may recall, are the people behind the risible "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life" campaign of misinformation about global warming.

This is a clear sign that we're in the end-game for open access's victory.

Brazil's Free Software Utopia

A great piece by Bruce Byfield, in which he peeks behind the mainstream media's traditional image of Brazilian free software:

According to the international media, Brazil is a leader in free and open source software (FOSS) adoption. The New York Times describes the country as "a tropical outpost of the free software movement," while BBC News claims that "Increasingly, Brazil's government ministries and state-run enterprises are abandoning Windows in favour of 'open-source' or 'free' software." However, FOSS advocates familiar with Brazil describe a less hopeful situation.

They talk about unsystematic support by the government, and a business atmosphere in which mention of FOSS is more about hype than understanding the underlying philosophy. They say violations of the GNU General Public License are commonplace. Some genuine FOSS adoption does happen, they say, but, too often, it is marred by inefficiency, and possibly widespread corruption.

We should have known: "utopia" means "no place".

Seduced by Virtual Elizas

ELIZA was a very simple AI program written forty years ago that nonetheless convinced many people who interacted with it that it was indeed a real person. If we can be so easily convinced by text, what hope do we have against Virtual Elizas in Second Life?

Open Linux Router

When I wrote about the open source router Vyatta, I noted that it was slightly ironic that only now is free software addressing the area. So it's good to see another project, called simply the Open Linux Router doing the same:

The Open Linux Router will be a network appliance unlike any other. Its modular design will empower the user with the ability to pick and choose what features and/or services will and will not be included on the implementation. By scaling the features and services down, the Open Linux Router can easily be installed on a small, embedded device. Although, if the implementation demands functionality, it is just as easy to add the features, which provides the Open Linux Router with a wide and diverse demographic. Residential and small business implementations have a certain set of needs, while an enterprise implementation requires a more concentrated operation and thats what drives the modular approach to services and features. The learning curve is also greatly reduced through a consolidation of the nominal devices that your IT staff would currently have to master to rise to the same level of productivity. This project aims to encourage open source software for network systems and solutions.

(Via Linux and Open Source Blog.)

Interview with Second Life's Cory Ondrejka

I have an interview with Linden Lab's CTO, Cory Ondrejka, over at LWN.net - now out of paywall purdah. What impressed me about Cory - as with his boss, Philip Rosedale - was the tredendous passion he radiated for both virtual worlds and open source. This is a powerful combination, and will lead to great things, I believe.

Why Collaboration, Why Now?

A good point:

Word, Excel, Powerpoint were all about making me, as a worker at my desk, able to create more work per unit of time. But, I think we've eeked out the last bit of individual productivity gain at this stage. I mean, does the new ribbon on MS Word make me more productive as an individual? Probably not. It's a great interface, but it's unlikely that there is a massive gain in personal productivity.

This next wave that we're in is about productivity gains achieved NOT by making the individual more productive, but by making groups more productive. The massive penetration of email means that we're in touch with one another like never before and dependent on teams like never before. That means that there is a huge opportunity for productivity gains through more effective collaboration.

- Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite and JotSpot, now at Google.

Has Dave Miller Gone Nuts?

Dave Miller is one of the top kernel hackers. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for Rebel Code all those years ago (eek: how time flies). But something seems to have happened to him on the way to Australia:

I live for the warm nuts

Virtual Architecture

One of the defining characteristics of Second Life is the ability to build things. The most notable manifestation of this is the tens/hundreds of thousands of buildings that dot Second Life's landscape. If you've ever wondered how people create the amazing constructions there, here's a short YouTube video that gives a handy introduction. (Helpful hint: lose the Beethoven 9 - it's hardly suitable as background music, and really doesn't add anything to the video.)

It's a short machinima from The Arch, which is written by Jon Brouchoud (SL Keystone Bouchard):

I’m a RL Architect, and have recently dissolved my practice into an exclusively virtual mode. I started by using Second Life as a professional tool, and have since decided to devote all of my energy toward developing and contributing to the convergence of architecture and the metaverse.

It's probably the best place to keep on top of the burgeoning virtual architecture scene.

24 January 2007

There is no War on Terror

Blimey, there's hope yet:

London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on July 7 2005 were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, 'soldiers'. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London, there is no such thing as a 'war on terror', just as there can be no such thing as a 'war on drugs'.

The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.

Blogspot Bloggered?

I've been trying to post for the last hour, but Blogspot seemed well and truly bloggered. Apologies if you've been trying to read something. Just goes to show that the Great God Google is maybe not quite so godlike after all....

Shut Out from Citizendium

I've written a number of times about Citizendium, Larry Sanger's fascinating project to create a new kind of user-generated online repository of knowledge. Well, it's now officially open to the public - sort of. As the press release puts it:

For the first time, anyone can visit the website (www.citizendium.org), create a user account and get to work within minutes. The project, started by a founder of Wikipedia, aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding "gentle expert oversight" and requiring contributors to use their real names.

The catch is that you not only need to create a user account to "get to work", but even to view what's already there, as far as I can see. I can't help feeling that the best way to get people to join this worthy venture is to let them see what's going on. To lock out casual visitors from anything but the home page seems counterproductive.

Valleywag Goes Downhill


When I first came across Valleywag's rather narrow-minded attack on Anshe Chung recently, I assumed this was just the kind of editorial misjudgement that happens when publications aim to go beyond the usual pap served up by mainstream titles. As an ex-editor and ex-publisher, I can forgive this kind of thing.

But upon reading this subsequent story, entitled "Virtual world's supposed economy is 'a pyramid scheme'", I'm forced to conclude that Valleywag is simply desperate for attention and thinks that choosing a high-profile victim for its attacks will garner it some traffic (and it's correct, of course: after all, even I'm giving it some).

You can get the gist of the piece from the following:

What you're left with is lots of people putting USD in, and a small group taking those USD out, leaving the rest with no financial claims on anything - just an imaginatively sexy avatar.

Oh, yes, silly me: that's what Second Life's all about, isn't it? Putting money in to get money out. Forget about all that creativity or community stuff: after all, that's just reducible to an "imaginatively sexy avatar", right? (Via Slashdot)

Update: The Man in this sphere has spoken, and all is clear:

It's not a con game. It's a village-sized market. In fact it's a tourist attraction-type village: the big numbers of the people you see are one-time visitors. Newcomers are arriving in droves. Land speculation is rampant. But it's not thick; it's tiny. Not a ponzi scheme: a little mini gold rush.

The Future Belongs to Chindia

It's not just mobile phones:

Productivity growth will help India sustain over 8% growth until 2020 and become the second largest economy in the world, ahead of the US, by 2050, Goldman Sachs has said, scaling up estimates of the country's prospects in its October 2003 research paper widely known as the BRICs report.

The original report had projected that India's GDP would outstrip Japan's by 2032 and that in 30 years, it would be the world's third largest economy after China and the US. The new report goes one step further by moving India up from No. 3 and No. 2 in the global sweepstakes of tomorrow.

Ni hao - namaste: I, for one, salute our Chindian overlords. (Via Technocrat.)

For "Against Intellectual Monopoly"

I've written several times about the wonderful online book Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, which argues that we don't need patents and copyrights:

It is common to argue that intellectual property in the form of copyright and patent is necessary for the innovation and creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, computer software, books, music, literature and movies. In fact intellectual property is not like ordinary property at all, but constitutes a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas. We show through theory and example that intellectual monopoly is not neccesary for innovation and as a practical matter is damaging to growth, prosperity and liberty.

There's a new version available, with a hard-copy version coming from Cambridge University Press as well. Highly recommended.

Mapping the Fourth Dimension

Good to see that Yahoo is letting OpenStreetMap use its aerial imagery to speed up the process of free map creation.

Of course, we still need to get all those street names and features. GPS traces are by no means dead - think of the new housing estates and areas without imagery. But instead of cycling down every road you should be able to just pass lots of them at either end to get the names. Or just from memory.

Where does this bring us to? Well the ‘big map companies’ use expensive cars and expensive aircraft with expensive cameras and expensive GPS units to create maps. Maybe our GPS units are cheaper and less accurate, but does it matter? I think not. We now have all the pieces of the puzzle and we’re putting out great maps for Free using Free tools.

But I was even more impressed to see that OpenStreetMap has already mapped some of the future too: take a look at the entries here for March 2007.

A Flock of Cormorants

If you're interested, there's a new version of the super-social browser Flock, code-named "Cormorant". Me, I'm waiting for the gannets. (Via Vecosys.)

23 January 2007

The BBC's Other Virtual World

You could argue that radio is already a particular kind of virtual world - one created by the wetware between your ears on the basis of the code downloaded by your radio (television clearly isn't a virtual world, because there's little processing or no degrees of freedom involved). But not content with that, the BBC is apparently launching another one:

A virtual world which children can inhabit and interact with is being planned by the BBC.

CBBC, the channel for 7-12 year olds, said it would allow digitally literate children the access to characters and resources they had come to expect.

Users would be able to build an online presence, known as an avatar, then create and share content.

The youth of today....

Voici L'Avenir...

...des idées - gratuit. (Via Lessig.org)

China Mobile: More Users Than the Entire US

Think about it:

There are more mobile phone subscribers at one Chinese operator than people in the entire U.S., according to figures China Mobile posted on its Web site late Friday.

OOo: The Seagull Spreads Its Wings

Good to see that OpenOffice.org project getting more ambitious:

The scope of the ODF Toolkit project is:


To improve the ability to use OpenOffice.org as a programming framework for creating and processing OpenDocument (ODF) documents rather than to use it as a desktop application. This will be achieved by transforming an appropriate subset from the OpenOffice.org source code basis, and by adapting it to the new purpose.


To provide a home for components that can be used for processing ODF documents and that are either based on the new ODF Toolkit, or complement it.

Both together constitutes the ODF Toolkit, which is a toolkit for ODF document creation and processing. This toolkit shares its source code with the OpenOffice.org desktop application where ever this is reasonable. That is, based on the OpenOffice.org source code, there is the OpenOffice.org suite, and an ODF Toolkit, which is tailored to processing ODF documents outside traditional office desktop applications.

(Via Erwin Tenhumberg.)

Microsoft's Eternal Cheek

This is rich:

In this culture of instant information, some Microsoft Corp. researchers are pursuing a radical notion -- the concept of saving messages for delivery in decades, centuries or more.

The project, dubbed "immortal computing," would let people store digital information in physical artifacts and other forms to be preserved and revealed to future generations, and maybe even to future civilizations.

So, the company that more than anyone has tried to lock people into opaque, closed formats that will be unreadable in a few decades, let alone a few millennia, and which even now is trying to foist more of the same on people, suddenly discovers the virtue of unconstrained accessibility.

But to add insult to injury, it then tries to patent the idea. Earth to Microsoft: this is called openness, it's what you've been fighting for the last thirty years. There's a fair amount of prior art for the basic technique, actually.

The Coming Java Tsunami

I think this is just the first of many such decisions, all born of Sun's enlightened choice of the GNU GPL for Java:

Python was originally the language of choice for OLPC [Open Laptop Per Child] but with the announcement of the open sourcing of Java, Blizzard said that the OLPC may move to Java as it is close to native speeds thanks to Java's jit (Just in Time) compiler and Python's interpreter being rather slow. One imagines that with the restricted hardware available that a slow interpreted language is the last thing you want, even if it is an exceedingly easy and powerful one. This is also the first impact I have seen from the open sourcing of Java.

Have Pity on the Orphans

Oh dear, Larry's still having no luck rolling back US copyright law:

In a move that's a blow to the U.S. movement to reform copyright law, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle, in his lawsuit to allow orphaned works into the public domain.

Rejecting the argument of Larry Lessig, the court decided the case was too close to Lessig's Eldred copyright suit of 2002, and that's settled business


When SL is down
We are virtually certain
To find strange beauty

MMORPG in a Box

Raph Koster points out that setting up a MMORPG is pretty cheap these days: even the top-end SmartFox system, which is Java-based, costs just 2000 Euros. Already there's a number of games based on the code. And, of course, all this will run on a GNU/Linux box also costing peanuts. The only downside is that, like many online games these days, the SmartFox approach is to use Flash.

22 January 2007

Not Hoping for Misery

This reminds me why I'll never learn Esperanto.


As an ex-victim of British Telecom, I have to say that to see it apparently humbled by the forces of light in this way is doubly delicious:

BT's wireless broadband router Home Hub may be in breach of the terms of Linux's General Public License, after it emerged the device runs on open source code.


BT responded quickly and posted an admission that it was using open source software and made it available to download late last week. However, investigation by the Freedom Taskforce, the part of Free Software Europe which deals with licensing, said BT had not in fact published the complete code.

The saga is clearly not over yet, but what's significant is that a very large multinational like BT would at least want to look like it's complying: that's power. And if you don't believe that there's something new in the air, here's exhibit number 2.

Can ICANN Open Up?

I've been fairly hard on ICANN on this blog - hard but fair, given it's pretty appalling track record in terms of openness. But lo! two glimmers of light on the horizon. ICANN has suddenly got intelligent, and appointed the fine UK hack Kieren McCarthy as General Manager, Public Participation (sounds so grand). It also seems to have sprouted a blog. Here's hoping.

Will the Pleiades Be an Open (Content) Cluster?

According to Wikipedia:

The Pleiades (also known as M45 or the Seven Sisters) is the name of an open cluster in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest to the Earth of all open clusters, probably the best known and certainly the most striking to the naked eye.

So let's hope the this exciting new Pleiades is also fully open:

Built atop the open-source Plone Content Management System and hosted by the Stoa Consortium, Pleiades will provide on-line access to all information about Greek and Roman geography assembled by the Classical Atlas Project for the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (R. Talbert, ed., Princeton, 2000. Pleiades will also enable large-scale collaboration in order to maintain and diversify this dataset. Combining open-content approaches (like those used by Wikipedia) with academic-style editorial review, Pleiades will enable anyone — from university professors to casual students of antiquity — to suggest updates to geographic names, descriptive essays, bibliographic references and geographic coordinates. Once vetted for accuracy and pertinence, these suggestions will become a permanent, author-attributed part of future AWMC publications and data services.

(Via Open Knowledge Foundation Weblog.)

Open Source Bacteria

Another reason to understand openness:

When a team of geneticists unlocked the secret of the bug's rapid evolution in 2005, they found that one strain of multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii carries the largest collection of genetic upgrades ever discovered in a single organism. Out of its 52 genes dedicated to defeating antibiotics, radiation, and other weapons of mass bacterial destruction, nearly all have been bootlegged from other bad bugs like Salmonella, Pseudomonas, and Escherichia coli.

In the open source world of bacteria, everyone is working for the resistance.

Linden Lab: Yes, They Really Get It

Further to this post, here's conclusive proof that the people behind Second Life get it:

Linden Lab objects to any implication that it would employ lawyers incapable of distinguishing such obvious parody. Indeed, any competent attorney is well aware that the outcome of sending a cease-and-desist letter regarding a parody is only to draw more attention to such parody, and to invite public scorn and ridicule of the humor-impaired legal counsel. Linden Lab is well-known for having strict hiring standards, including a requirement for having a sense of humor, from which our lawyers receive no exception.

In conclusion, your invitation to submit a cease-and-desist letter is hereby rejected.


Crowdsourcing in the French Alps:

Our business model is simply to design innovative electronic products by “you” for “you” and to reward the best “you” based on the products sales revenues& in practice “you” will be made by a community. CrowdSpirit will provide the means for this community to design, invest, produce, market, distribute and support the products that make business sense. To conclude, the community will assist and participate in every step of the product cycle and will earn money from these products based on each person’s contribution.

Dunno if it works, though.

Acoustic Ecology and the Commons of Silence

Some interesting information about the Acoustic Ecology Institute:

a New Mexico-based non-profit working to "increase personal and social awareness of our sound environment, through education programs in schools, regional events, and our internationally recognized website," and to build "a comprehensive [online] clearinghouse for information on sound-related environmental issues and scientific research."

Am I Dreaming?

Dreaming in Code: a book about Chandler.

Chandler? Out of several hundred thousands pieces of free software he choose Chandler??? A project that after nearly four years still has not yet got to a 1.0 release? A project that, though started with the best intentions (which I applaud) is essentially irrelevant now that we have Lightning, based on a program (Thunderbird) that is already widely used?

Great title: pity about the subject-matter.

The (Other) Foundation

As a big fan of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, I was delighted to learn that the Linux people have done their psychohistorical calculations, and realised they need to create one themeselves.

Why Don't You Get a Life?

This is good.

This is better.

21 January 2007

Hrant Dink's Memorial

Surprisingly, there is tiny consolation to be found in the murder of Hrant Dink, the Turkish Armenian shot dead outside his newspaper's office last week.

The killer presumably hoped to silence Dink from speaking his wise, calm words about the genocide of over a million Armenians at the hands of the Young Turks in 1915, and of the need for reconciliation, not recrimination.

And yet Dink's death has probably done more to highlight that genocide than any of his words. A casual search for "armenian genocide" on Google News turns up well over a thousand hits over the last few days. At least in the age of the Internet, the truth about such things, once exposed, is not so easily hidden.

This is Dink's memorial.

20 January 2007

Citizendium Unforks

Citizendium is a wonderful test of many things, and it just became even more interesting because it has decided to unfork itself from Wikipedia:

After considerable deliberation, indicating broad support, we have decided to delete all inactive Wikipedia articles from the Citizendium pilot project wiki. This will leave us with only those articles that we’ve been working on. The deletion will take place on Saturday at noon, Eastern time.

This is an experiment. In other words, we’re quite seriously thinking of not forking Wikipedia after all. If we see more activity on the wiki, which is what I expect, then the Wikipedia articles will stay deleted.

(Via Open Access News.)

The Smell of Conspiracy Theories in the Morning


The truth can now be told. We have a nine-floor complex beneath Devil's Tower in Wyoming, Dick Cheney's home state. We employee three-hundred Oompa Lumpas, ostensibly here on student visas, to read through the 6,000 page OOXML specification. They then input their concerns into a massively parallel computer, based on the old Deep Blue chess computer that beat Gary Kasparov. The computer takes the objections, formats them into English, inserting random literary quotes from The Modern Library of the World's Best Books, and then posts them in blogs and press articles. The computer can express these objections in the form of sonnets, haikus, or even as crude limerick. Every year on January 14th (Thomas J. Watson's Birthday) at 3:14am the Oompa Lumpas come to the surface, smear their bodies with blue paint, dance around a bonfire, howl at the moon and entreat the gods to vanquish their foes, mainly Microsoft, who canceled their favorite application, Microsoft Bob. Rob Weir doesn't really exist. He is just a subroutine. As they say, "On the internet, nobody knows your are a subroutine processing data input by Oompa-Loompas working for IBM underground in Wyoming"

But is it just coincidence that the time quoted in this extract - 3.14 - happens to be precisely the Köchel number of the Flute Concerto by Mozart that is almost certainly the lost Oboe concerto written for Ferlendis? I don't think so....

The Richard Stallman of Water

Heavy, man:

Late last year, I had a lunch meeting in New York City with the president of a foundation associated with a national protestant denomination. When the waiter came by to ask if we wanted a bottle of water, my lunch partner responded, “Tap water will be fine. I don’t drink bottled water.”

Don’t drink bottled water? I couldn’t remember the last time I heard someone say that – especially in New York City. I began to explore the issue with him and learned that he and many others in his church no longer drank Dasani (bottled by Coca-Cola) and other commercial bottled waters because they see the privatization of water resources as an intensely moral and political issue.

Obvious, when you think about it.

Indies not so Independent

When I saw this:

The world's biggest record label, albeit a "virtual" one, emerged today at the Midemnet conference in Cannes.

Indies have found themselves treated as second class citizens or ignored altogether in the era of digital music. The new organization Merlin will act as a global rights licensing agency, and represents the growing influence of the independent sector acting collectively.

My heart leapt. Could it be, I said to myself, that we might see some independent thinking in the music biz at last - you, know, no DRM, sensible pricing, that kind of stuff?


Alison Wenham of the UK-based Association for Independent Music (AIM) confirmed that indies would demand the removal of content from sites such as YouTube if they didn't cut Merlin a similar deal to the one negotiated by Universal Music, the world's biggest label.

Clearly, this Merlin the wizard ain't so wise: YouTube = free publicity = more sales.

Convergence of the Ads

Not quite the kind of convergence I was hoping for, but indicative of the way things are going:

Google is about to buy its way into in-game advertising, paidContent.org has learned, and WSJ is also reporting the same. It has been in talks to buy a small in-game advertising firm AdScape Media, in an attempt to bring its technologies, mixed with Google’s own contextual technologies, into the console and casual games market.

A Confederacy of Dunces

It's amazing how dim clever people can be. Here's a piece in the Washington Post from some apparently clever chaps about net neutrality. But listen to this:

Blocking premium pricing in the name of neutrality might have the unintended effect of blocking the premium services from which customers would benefit. No one would propose that the U.S. Postal Service be prohibited from offering Express Mail because a "fast lane" mail service is "undemocratic." Yet some current proposals would do exactly this for Internet services.

Metaphors are so seductive because they can be grasped more easily than the matter to hand. But they are dangerous because of the potential imperfection of the comparison. In this case, there is a fatal flaw in the metaphor: net neutrality is not about blocking "fast lane" postal services. Proponents of net neutrality have pointed out time and again that anyone is welcome to buy faster Net connections if they need them.

The real comparison is if a postal service were offered that guaranteed faster delivery for letters that contained a particular kind of content. This would act as a barrier to someone "inventing" new kinds of content for letters. Net neutrality is about ensuring that the playing-field is level for everyone - that anyone can invent new kinds of content, so that users can then decide which to use without other biases coming into play. It is not about blocking generic "fast lane" services.

The point is that even if there are cases that could be pointed to where priority might seem be beneficial, the overall impact is negative: once you start giving network providers the power to discriminate, they will - and not in the ways that will be good for the network. If priority is needed, it should be provided - and paid for - on a generic basis.

In the Shade of the Commons

One of the central themes of this blog is the commons, and how it's often helpful to re-frame discussions about software, content, the environment etc. in terms of this idea. So I was delighted to come across an entire collection of essays taking this approach. It's called In the Shade of the Commons,and it's freely available.

19 January 2007

David Pogue Meets The Pogues

This fine piece of doggerel deserves to become No. 1.

It could do with a catchier title, though: instead of "Ode to the RIAA", how about "pogue mahone"?

It Ain't Over Until Blake Ross Sings

There are three names that most people would associate with Firefox. Ben Goodger, who works for Google, and whose blog is pretty quiet these days. Asa Dotzler, who has a articulate and bulging blog. And then there's Blake Ross, also with a lively blog, but probably better known for being the cover-boy of Wired when it featured Firefox.

Given his background - and the immense knock-on effect his Firefox work has had - Ross is always worth listening to. That's particularly the case for this long interview, because it's conducted for the Opera Watch blog, which lends it both a technological depth and a subtle undercurrent of friendly competition:

I think Opera is better geared toward advanced users out of the box, whereas Firefox is tailored to mainstream users by default and relies on its extension model to cater to an advanced audience. However, I see both browsers naturally drifting toward the middle. Firefox is growing more advanced as the mainstream becomes Web-savvier, and I see Opera scaling back its interface, since it started from the other end of the spectrum.

(Via LXer.)

Time Jumps When Microsoft Snaps Its Fingers

I missed this the first time around:

So, for most of the world, the Gregorian calendar has been the law for 250-425 years. That's a well-established standard by anyone's definition. Who would possibly ignore it or get it wrong at this point?

If you guessed “Microsoft”, you may advance to the head of the class.

Datetimes in Excel are represented as date serial numbers, where dates are counted from an origin, sometimes called an epoch, of January 1st, 1900. The problem is that from the earliest implementations Excel got it wrong. It thinks that 1900 was a leap year, when clearly it isn't, under Gregorian rules since it is not divisible by 400. This error causes functions like the WEEKDAY() spreadsheet function to return incorrect values in some cases.

Here are Rob's updated thoughts on the subject, and how the problem is being propagated by Microsoft's rival to ODF, OOXML.

He Gave Me of the Tree

And I did eat.


Alan Cox Stands up for Closed Source

These aren't words you'd expect to issue from the mouth of one of the most senior Linux hackers:

Cox said that closed-source companies could not be held liable for their code because of the effect this would have on third-party vendor relationships: "[Code] should not be the [legal] responsibility of software vendors, because this would lead to a combinatorial explosion with third-party vendors. When you add third-party applications, the software interaction becomes complex. Rational behaviour for software vendors would be to forbid the installation of any third-party software." This would not be feasible, as forbidding the installation of third-party software would contravene anti-competition legislation, he noted.

But, of course, he's absolutely right - which emphasises how lucky we are to have someone as sane as Alan representing the free software community when too many self-styled supporters present quite a different image.

18 January 2007

Live a Little: Try Knoppix

How can anyone resist this sort of thing? Go on, live a little: you know it makes sense.

Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner...

...and a geek to boot, that I love these kind of things:

We've taken a selection of maps featured in the London: A Life in Maps exhibition and converted them into a Google Earth layer.

(Via Ogle Earth.)


Access to all open access science? Ambitious, if nothing else, this:

The major aim of the project is to develop the world’s largest communication medium for scientific knowledge products which is freely accessible to the public. A key challenge of the project is to support the rapidly growing number of movements and archives who admit the free distribution and access to scientific knowledge. These are the valuable sources for the ScientificCommons.org project. The ScientificCommons.org project makes it possible to access the largely distributed sources with their vast amount of scientific publications via just one common interface. ScientificCommons.org identifies authors from all archives and makes their social and professional relationships transparent and visible to anyone across disciplinary, institutional and technological boundaries. Currently ScientificCommons.org has indexed about 10 million scientific publications and successfully extracted 4 million authors out of this data.

(Via eHub.)

Blogs 2.0

This is the kind of stuff that John Battelle is best at:

A brief dip into nearly every blogger's referral logs shows that a very large percentage of readers - nearly 40 percent in some cases - come directly from search - someone who put "steve ballmer throws chair" into Google, for example, and lands here.

Now, this person doesn't have any frame of reference about Searchblog, or its grammar, audience, or ongoing conversation. He or she is most likely to hit the post in question, read it (perhaps), and move on. This site loses a potential new reader, and this community loses a potential new member, because, in the end, I, as the publisher of Searchblog, have done nothing to demonstrate to that reader the wonders and joy that is Searchblog.

Interesting (says someone whose Google referrals are rather higher than 40%.)

There is a There There

I had occasion to use Second Life in anger the other night, by which I mean I made a serious, business-related use of it. Taking up the kind invitation of the splendidly-named Gizzy Electricteeth (SL name, of course), I went to visit IBM's recreation of the Australian Open, which I had written about earlier (and which Gizzy had spotted).

As I had surmised when reading about it, this is an impressive virtual construction, not just for what it is, but mostly for what it portends. The ability to capture a ball's path in real time, and then recreate it in Second Life - and a rapidly-moving ball at that - means that other, more sedate sports like football and cricket will be even easier to reproduce in this way.

As a result, fans of those sports (I'm told there are one or two) will not only be able to watch matches as they happen, but also replay them, watching from different angles. They could even join in - for example, taking the viewpoint of the umpire/referee, or one of the players (even I found myself "playing" tennis, with balls careering towards me at high velocity - and magically being returned).

I think this alone makes IBM's work important, because it may well be enough of a hook to get couch potatoes off their sofas and staggering towards their PCs (until, of course, somebody produces set-top boxes for TVs specifically designed for Second Life.)

But impressive as all this work was - knocked up in less than a month by a small and clearly dedicated team including said Gizzy - what really struck me most was something quite different. This was the fact that I was engaged in this immersive experience while I sat at my computer, late at night in a wintry London, as Gizzy sat at her computer, mid-morning in Australia, in the summer, and while both of us "met" in that somewhere land we call Second Life.

Whereas my previous experiences of SL have been purely of an exploratory kind - and hence retained an element of being "there" only in a shallow, unengaged sense - my visit to the IBM site, which involved me being myself, a journalist asking questions, as I do in ordinary life, was far truer, far more real. Not because of where I was, or what I saw, but because of what I was doing, which was a seamless extension of my life in another place that was neither here nor there, but simply was.

17 January 2007

Argo Sets a New Course

The rather fine Argo Genome Browser,

Broad Institute's production tool for visualizing and manually annotating whole genomes

has now been released under the LGPL.

O, to be in Hamburg...

...now that Google Earth is there.

Even though I've been writing about the coming convergence of online games, virtual worlds, and 3D systems like Google Earth, for a while, I'm still amazed at how quickly it's happening. Here's the latest milestone:

Hamburg wird als erste Stadt weltweit als 3D-Modell in das Programm integriert - inklusive der Häuserfassaden.

(Hamburg has become the first city in the world to be integrated into the 3D-program [Google Earth] - complete with building facades.)


Franz Steidler, Chef der Cybercity AG, die von Paris und Florenz bereits auf eigene Kosten 3D-Modelle erstellt hat, träumt bereits von ganz anderen Anwendungen: Man solle auch in Häuser hineingehen können, etwa in Geschäfte, um virtuell einzukaufen. "Da ist vieles denkbar."

(Franz Steidler, the head of Cybercity AG, which has already made 3D models of Paris and Florence at its own expense, already dreams of other applications. People will be able to go into buildings, for example shops, in order to make virtual purchases. "All kinds of things are imaginable there.")

Buying virtual goods in virtual shops: now where have I heard that before? (Via Ogle Earth.)

I Urge You to Urge EU Urgency on OA

Open access is important, but for most of us, it's hard to do much about it. So I urge you to vote for the following EU petition, whether you're in the EU or not:

I urge decision-makers at all levels in Europe to endorse the recommendations made in the Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets of Europe in full, in particular to adopt the first recommendation A1 as a matter of urgency.

(Via Open Access News.)

Becta: Must Try Harder

Despite Becta's fine words, that guardian of the free software spirit, Mark Taylor, wants more action:

"This is the perfect opportunity for Becta to reject accusations that it is in bed with big suppliers by offering serious support to Linux and open source software as valid alternatives.

"Becta's own evidence says it will save schools money, so let's see them provide at least equal opportunities for schools to buy open source software through their e-Learning Credits and the new Learning Platform Framework Agreements."

Go for 'em, Mark.

Gene Geni

This is quite clever - although it's a pity it uses Flash. You start to build your family tree on-screen, adding emails to the names where available. These are then sent info about the site, and obviously encouraged to add their own local knowledge of the tree. So the system is viral, and is based on two networks: that of family connections, and that of the Internet.

It's easy to foresee the day when we know all our public genealogical connections in this way - a stage before our genomes are used to show all the private ones, too.... (Via TechCrunch.)

Open Aladdin4D

I've written before about the example of Blender, and how it was freed from its proprietary shackles. Now it seems that another modelling program, Aladdin 4D, may also receive its manumission:

What is Aladdin 4D? It's a powerful, but extremely easy-to-use, 3D modeling, rendering and animation package that includes the 3D tools that you'd expect as well as many unique features like relative time-based animation, an amazingly powerful particle system, and one of the fastest rendering systems on the desktop.

Nova originally purchased Aladdin 4D in the mid-1990s from Adspec, Inc. and then heavily upgraded and modernized to make it even more powerful and easy to use. Aladdin 4D has many advanced tools for professional 3D animation, yet its interface was designed to be easy for anyone to use. The source code for Aladdin 4D was designed to be as portable as possible. Adspec, under contract, once ported Aladdin 4D to the Transputer board and also did a special Intel processor rendering engine. Aladdin 4D has already had it's rendering engine test-compiled (a quick hack job) under Linux, MacOS X and other platforms in the past. The source code is highly standard C source code.

This would be great news. Great, because it reinforces this as a model for expanding open source; great because competition is good; and great because with the rise of virtual worlds (especially open ones), 3D modelling packages are going to become as common as HTML editors.

Blog Perdurability and the Information Commons

Simon Phipps raises an important point: what should be done about corporate blog pages when their owner has, er, passed on (as in to another company)? Sun's solution:

When we started blogs.sun.com, we had a long discussion about what we should do when employees left. The conclusion we all reached, supported strongly by Jonathan Schwartz who attended the meeting, was that they should simply be left in place, merely closed for further changes. Our view was that, if the blog text had been acceptable when it was published, there was no reason a change of employment status should vary that. Not to mention the desire by Tim to preserve URIs. Interestingly, one of Jonathan's motivations for this was also so that people could pick up where they left off when they rejoined Sun!

But I'd go further. I think that companies have a responsibility to maintain the availability of any materials that they make public. This is because of the changed nature of information these days: it's inherently interconnected, and snipping out a weft here and a warp there isn't good for the rest of the data tapestry.

Publicly-available information forms a commons; removing it constitutes a destruction of part of that commons. Ultimately there should be laws against it, just as there are against chopping down historic trees that form part of the landscape commons.

Microsoft Enterprise Open Source

Well, that's what it says here, although what this really means is something like this:

Aras Innovator enterprise software solutions take advantage of the Microsoft enterprise service-oriented architecture [SOA] technologies to deliver applications that are scalable, manageable and secure.

Aras Innovator solutions are Microsoft enterprise open source combining the flexibility and control of open source with the affordable Microsoft infrastructure. Together Aras and Microsoft deliver a Total Cost of Ownership dramatically lower than conventional enterprise systems.

Not quite so dramatic, but nonetheless an interesting move from a company that seems hugely proud of its mongrel heritage:

Aras Corporation is the Microsoft enterprise open source software solution provider for companies that want the control and flexibility of open source and have Microsoft skill sets and infrastructure.

(Via TheOpenForce.com.)

16 January 2007

Just Say Something

If I had to name the biggest problem with Second Life, it would not be lag or all the other usual stuff (or even unusual stuff like flying penises), but the lack of voice communication. Currently, Second Life is a mute world, which makes it rather eerie (at least for those of us fortunate enough to be able to hear).

So news that Centric are adding a voice chat system in a rather clever way caught my attention:

Centric today announced Second Talk, an easy-to-use voice communication system for Second Life. Second Talk "headsets" automatically scan for other Second Talk users nearby, and offer instant voice chat for groups of up to 10 users through Skype, a popular Voice over IP communication platform.


Second Talk offers significant benefits in terms of convenience and cost. Since voice chat is facilitated by Skype, use of the system is free and virtually unlimited. In addition, Second Talk does not require the installation of proprietary software or SIP server setup. Finally, Second Talk does not require a base station to designate a chat area or manage chats - the headset is wearable and fully portable.

Hm: if this works, I might even sign up for Skype....

Gating Technology: The E-Factor

I'm starting to write more posts about energy efficiency, since it obviously feeds into issues surrounding various environmental commons. But it's increasingly clear to me that its impact is going to be much more direct on the technologies I consider on a regular basis.

Take this, for example:

In a piece of research that could have implications for the future of mobile broadband, a US analyst firm has claimed that new mobile applications will make pure cellular technology too energy-inefficient to be practical in the future.

This is going to happen again and again, changing the course of technology development just when everyone thought they knew where it was going....

Becta Late Than Never

I've been a bit remiss in not posting this earlier, but it's still worth underlining the major shift that's going on here, at all sorts of levels.

A while back, I was moaning about Becta not giving free software a chance in UK schools. Well, they've obviously been on holiday to Damascus, because in the recently-published interim report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007, Becta seems to have seen the light:

The report found that whilst the new features of Vista add value, there are no “must have” features in the product that would justify early deployment in schools and colleges. The technical, financial and organisational challenges associated with early deployment currently make this a high risk strategy. Early deployment is therefore strongly recommended against.


As the costs of deployment of Office 2007 would be significant, Becta has not identified any convincing justification for the early adoption of Office 2007. Recognising that many schools and colleges already have perfectly adequate office productivity solutions there would need to be a strong case to justify the necessary investment.


The report compared Office 2007 with a range of competitor products and found that many of them delivered about 50% of the Office 2007 functionality, enough it is believed to meet or exceed basic office productivity requirements of many schools.

Becta therefore calls on the ICT industry to ensure that computers for the education marketplace are delivered with a choice of Office productivity suites available, which ideally should include an open-source offering.

The ability for schools to exercise choice is further restricted by interoperability difficulties and Becta is calling on Microsoft to improve its support for the ODF interoperability standard.

There is also concern that the current lack of support for Microsoft’s new file formats in competitor products (particularly “free to education” products) may exacerbate “digital divide” issues. Becta therefore advises that schools and colleges should only deploy Office 2007 when its interoperability with alternative products is satisfactory.

Definitely better late than never.

Shining Mirrored Pages: A Visual Commons

This is art, right?

Thus, by making a public display that is attentive to its community of users, a Visual Commons, it becomes possible for the community to escape the present hegemony of one-way communication, or "broadcast," of generic information (such as the time, or stock prices) or the barrage of mass-media advertising (such as occurs in New York City's Times Square). In effect, dynamic processing of community feedback regarding the contents of the display enables it to become more than just a billboard.

What would Tulse Luper say? (Via OnTheCommons.org.)

We Are All Modular Now

One of the central theses of this blog is that for things like software, modularity produces more and better code, because it allows a kind of Darwinian selection to kick in on an atomistic basis.

But wait: isn't another of my theses that openness is appropriate across a whole range of activities - notably content production? And so...that would suggest that content should become more modular too, allowing a similar kind of winnowing process to take place.


Horde Groupware (Also for Humans)

This sounds rather good:

Horde Groupware is a free, enterprise ready, browser based collaboration suite. Users can manage and share calendars, contacts, tasks and notes with the standards compliant components from the Horde Project. Horde Groupware bundles the separately available applications Kronolith, Turba, Nag and Mnemo.

And I can't help feeling that the timing is perfect....

Of WikiSeek and Digital Tyrants

WikiSeek sounds a good idea in principle:

The contents of Wikiseek are restricted to Wikipedia pages and only those sites which are referenced within Wikipedia, making it an authoritative source of information less subject to spam and SEO schemes.

Wikiseek utilizes Searchme's category refinement technology, providing suggested search refinements based on user tagging and categorization within Wikipedia, making results more relevant than conventional search engines.

It does, of course, replace one digital tyrant (Google) with another (Wikipedia).

Real Knowledge of Virtual Worlds

If anyone has the right to pontificate about virtual worlds, it's Howard Rheingold. Fifteen years ago, Rheingold wrote Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds - and How It Promises to Transform Society. We're still waiting, of course, but that only makes his historical perpective on things even more valuable:

Some things about online social behavior seems to be eternal and universal--trolls and griefers and the eternal meta-debate about what to do about them, for example. There's a widespread amnesia, as if these kinds of cybersocializing were new. Not many people online have much sense of history. That's probably true of just about everything. What I really like is that it's so easy to roll your own these days. It used to be a big deal to set up your own chat or BBS or listserv. Now it's part of the tool set for millions of people, and it's mostly free.