31 July 2008

An Unclouded Analysis

I'm not a huge fan of Tim O'Reilly's position on free software, which seems to be that code exists primarily as a business opportunity for entrepreneurs (he played a key role in the coining of the marketing term "open source" as an enterprise-friendly alternative to "free software"), but I have to say his posting "Open Source and Cloud Computing" is not just one of *his* best posts, but one of the best thought-pieces on cloud computing and its implications I have read anywhere. Don't miss it.

The Economist's New Commons Sense

Baby steps:

The economics of the new commons is still in its infancy. It is too soon to be confident about its hypotheses. But it may yet prove a useful way of thinking about problems, such as managing the internet, intellectual property or international pollution, on which policymakers need all the help they can get.

Shock! Horror! Not!

This looks bad:

Open source software names such as Joomla!, Drupal, WordPress and Linux are now alongside large proprietary software firms including IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Cisco, and Oracle in the IBM Internet Security Systems ‘Midyear Trend Statistics’ report.

But wait, there's more:

It is the first time that community-developed open source software such as the Drupal and Joomla! content-management software packages for the web also showed up on the list. Tom Cross, X-Force researcher at IBM ISS, said Drupal and Joomla! are open source packages that "have both been vulnerable to SQL injection attacks".

Er, this would be Microsoft SQL Server injection attacks, running on Windows, yes? And that's an open source vulnerability? I think not....

The Open Web: A New Old Meme

On Open Enterprise blog.

Living the Open Source Life

*Really* living it:

In a world not known for its epic romances, ChrisandTara used to be Web 2.0’s version of Brangelina. They lived together, worked at adjoining desks, finished each other’s sentences, guided each other’s dreams. Personality-wise, they were yin meets yang meets a whole lot of Venus and Mars. But in many other ways, they were two pieces of the same puzzle. Ultimately, the core tenet of open-source culture is that the sum is exponentially greater than the disparate parts—and the same could be said of Hunt and Messina’s union. In both work and love, they pushed each other to thrust the ideals of open source, including transparency and collaboration, into real life. In just two years, through the coworking movement and myriad other projects, the ripple effects of their partnership could be seen around the globe. “It was sort of magical,” Hunt says. “Just really powerful to have his more technological side and my more human side, and bring them together.”

A well-written and interesting outsider view of our (closed) open world.

Interview with Wind River's John Bruggeman

On Linux Journal.

How Much is Free Worth?

Chris Anderson bravely tries to put a figure on the value of the "free economy" - those businesses that use free as part of their model. What struck me is the extent to which the ecosystem that has grown up around GNU/Linux dominates everything else in this admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculation: $30 billion out of a rough $50 billion. Which confirms the extent to which open source continues to be the bellwether in this area - the first and still best example of how to make money by giving stuff away.

I Have an Intuition

Of all the complaints about open source - there's no support, poor security, lack of a business model etc. etc. - the one that still has a semblance of truth is that it lacks certain key applications on the desktop. Prime among these is Intuit's QuickBooks personal finance software. It looks like that final obstacle is about to fall. Not only has it set up a Linux Business site, but there are indications it is aiming to break its dependence on Microsoft technologies:

We are actively working on making our product compatible with other browsers (including Safari). We have a large product that currently uses ActiveX and was initially tuned to work with Internet Explorer. Therefore, it will require a large amount of work and will take some time on our part to accomplish. As you can see from the iPhone application, we have passion for Mac within our team!

Additionally, we too would like to use Firefox. We are in this with you; we just need some time to make it all happen.

(Via Jim Zemlin.)

30 July 2008

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and...Vista

One of the things I like about Roy Schestowitz's Boycott Novell site is the way it brings back the Golden Oldies - statements from documents that Microsoft would really rather you never knew about.

One of my favourites is a series of documents about Windows Evanglism. These are really extraordinary, because they prefigure practically everything slightly dodgy that Microsoft has done over the years. But sometimes, Fate can be cruelly ironic.

Here's a statement about how you should kick a competitor when it's down:

Ideally, use of the competing technology becomes associated with mental deficiency, as in, “he believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and OS/2.” Just keep rubbing it in, via the press, analysts, newsgroups, whatever. Make the complete failure of the competition’s technology part of the mythology of the computer industry.

Or, as we would say nowadays: “he believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and...Vista.”

Act Now on ACTA

On Open Enterprise blog.

Why Open Access for Textbooks is Inevitable

Nice summary here:

With high up front costs and (relatively) low marginal costs, textbook publishing is like other media: the big winners are obscenely profitable and the losers have no hope of turning a profit. Thus, textbook publishers are exactly like record labels: they grew accustomed to high profit margins on winners both to cover their losers, but also to transfer wealth to shareholders and executives.

Without practical or legal protection, that business model will be as extinct as the dodo bird. It happened to CDs, it’s happening to textbooks, and movies are next. The publishers’ anti-piracy czar said “It is troubling that there is a culture of infringement out there.” No duh.

Unfortunately the author then goes on with a complete non-sequitur:

I’m really furious at both the publishers and these student self-appointed Robin Hoods, because together they are creating a generation of information pirates. To all these students studying organic chemistry: would you really prefer a world without IP — that instead of having a job producing information, you will instead have a job making things, delivering personal services or digging ditches? Is that really your nirvana?

A "world without IP" does not imply that everyone ends up digging ditches: it simply implies that business models are not based on exploiting one-sided intellectual monopolies.

I (and many others - hello, Mike) have written much about the alternatives to the "eye-pea" mentality, but if you want a single counter-example you could do worse than consider how open source companies make money. Hint: it's not by locking up their code. Although the GNU GPL *does* depend on copyright law to function, that's simply - if paradoxically - to make it available for all, not to forbid such re-use, which lies at the heart of the traditional copyright system.

29 July 2008

Open Domotics

Marc Fleury has already written computer history once when he set up JBoss with a new model of holding all the copyright in the code - hitherto the coders usually owned their own contributions, as is the case for the Linux kernel - and a bold move up the enterprise stack into open source middleware. That paid off very nicely for him - and why not? - and now he's back with what looks like another very interesting move:

I have been studying a new industry lately, it is called Home Automation or Domotics in Europe. It is really a fancy name to describe the age old problem of "why can't my mom operate my remote". Every self respecting geek has one day felt the urge to program his or her house. Home Automation in the field is lights, AV, AC, Security. Today it is a bit of an expensive hobby, even downright elitist in some cases, but the technology is rapidly democratizing, due to Wifi, Commodity software/hardware, the iPhone and the housing crisis.

Although Fleury is a hard-headed business man who speaks his mind, he's also a true-blue hacker with his geekish heart in the right place:

We are an Open Community in Domotics, product design is rather open. We provide a hardware reference implementation on Java Linux it will help us develop but also provides the physical bridge to IR/RS/Ethernet/wifi. On the software side use JBoss actually as the base for our server leveraging packaging and installation. It is an application of JBoss in a way. We use Java to map protocols.

Open domotics - worth doing for the name alone.

India's $10 Laptop


"The government aims to provide 10-dollar laptops to students and research in this direction is on," said D Purandeshwari, Minister of State for Human Resources Development in New Delhi.

Well, at that price, it won't be running Windows - unless Microsoft prices it *negatively*, which it might be driven to.... (Via Valleywag.)

Update: A real bargain: only $10, free misprint included.

Should We Fear the (Microsoft) Geeks, Bearing Gifts?

On Open Enterprise blog.

28 July 2008

Paying the Price

One of the problems with handling the issue of greenhouse gases is getting countries to accep their responsibilities. The difficulty is that there are lots of ways of looking at things. For example, although the developing countries like India and China are clearly soon going to be the main culprits here, they can - with justice - point out that countries in the West have been polluting for longer, and have therefore already contributed far more to global warming. The obvious solution here is to use a time-integrated output, which takes that into account.

But it turns out that things are even more complicated:

Economists now say that one-third of China's carbon dioxide emissions are pumped into the atmosphere in order to manufacture exported goods – many of them "advanced" electronics goods destined for developed countries.

That is, in some sense a third of China's current emissions are "ours", and should be added to our already swelling debit.

The good news is that such things can be calculated to come up with fair ways of allocating future cuts; the bad news is that not many countries are going to be mature enough to accept them.

Perhaps the easiest way to handle this would be through economics: if a green tax were applied to every product, there would be strong incentives to reduce their carbon footprint (and environmental impact generally). In this case, China would no longer be producing pollution on the West's behalf unless it could do it as "efficiently" as elsewhere. Unfortunately, that, too, requires a certain maturity on behalf the world's nations to accept such a system. It also probably requires more time to set up than have at our disposal....

Real Dan Lyons: Really Good

As so often, I'm with Matt on this one: good as he was when the Fake Steve jobs, Dan Lyons is even better as himself. This is particularly sharp analysis - not just of Apple, but of the twisted thinking of the PR people behind it:

If Nocera had simply refused to go off the record, the burden would have remained on Jobs to get his message out and to do it openly or suffer continued hits to Apple stock. By going off the record, Nocera let himself get played by Jobs and Apple. Consider this. What if Jobs is lying? I’m not saying he is. But gods have been known to lie, especially when dealing with mere mortals. Think of how Zeus looked upon humans and you get an idea how Jobs views pretty much everyone in the world who isn’t Steve Jobs.

If Apple lies in a press release, or if its CEO lies in an on-the-record statement, the company has problems. But if everything was off the record, who’s to know? Or maybe you don’t exactly lie but you kind of hint at something and shade the conversation and lead someone to believe something even without explicitly saying that thing.

If down the road it turns out Steve was lying and someone from the SEC or some lawyer in a civil suit wants to find out what was said in that conversation, they’ll have to subpoena Joe Nocera, and the New York Times will fight that request. Even if Joe Nocera wants to tell the world what Steve Jobs told him, he can’t. He made a deal. He went off the record. Even if Steve turns out to be lying, Joe Nocera is stuck.

More generally:

One of the many ironies and contradictions about Apple is that while the company presents this hip, open, cool image to the world, its PR machine is the most secretive, locked-down, hard-assed and disciplined of any company in tech, including IBM.

This is one reason why Apple sticks in my craw. As what Lyons has nicely dubbed a "freetard", I just find the company too keen on closed for my liking. That said, I think Shuttleworth is absolutely right that Apple is now the one to beat....

EPO Wins Patent for Jesuitical Casuistry

Wow, there are some clever bunnies up at the EPO these days. Try this for size:

Relying on a well-known and widely used definition, a computer-implemented invention is an invention whose implementation involves the use of a computer, computer network or other programmable apparatus, the invention having one or more features which are realised wholly or partly by means of a computer program. The term software, on the other hand, is ambiguous. It is generally understood as the implementation of an algorithm in source or object code, but without distinguishing between technical and non-technical processes.

As with all inventions, computer-implemented inventions are patentable only if they have technical character, i.e. solve a technical problem, are new and involve an inventive technical contribution to the prior art.

Right, so let's just go through that.

As the EPO says, software does not distinguish "between technical and non-technical processes". The reason it doesn't distinguish is because it is a completely factitious distinction: it doesn't exist. Software is just a bunch of algorithms working on data, outputting data; it doesn't solve "technical" problems, it solve mathematical ones. Software is mathematics.

But that's a bit of issue for the EPO, because that would mean that it could never, ever give patents for anything even vaguely software-ish. To get round this, it invents a mystical essence called "a computer-implemented invention", which is basically hardware plus software, with the magical property that the addition of the hardware makes the software patentable, even though the software is still inputting data, applying a few mathematical algorithms, and then outputting data. But to do this, the EPO has to dismiss that embarrassing concept known as "software" as "ambiguous" - by which it means "awkward for the purposes of its arguments".

You can tell that the EPO is not really convinced by its own logic here, since it goes to make the following emotional appeal:

Try to imagine a world without mobile telephones, refrigerators and washing machines, DVD players, medical imaging (X-ray, NMR), anti-lock braking systems (ABS) for cars, aircraft navigation systems, etc., etc.

We take many of the above items for granted in our everyday lives. Still, we realise that they contain highly complicated components. And, indeed, they all make use of computer-implemented inventions, frequently implemented by software. Nowadays such inventions can be found in all fields of technology, and in many cases the innovative part of a new product or process will lie in a computer program. Our lives have been immeasurably changed by these inventions and the benefit to individuals and society is enormous.

Think for a moment how much effort and investment has been put into the development and commercialisation of these products. Then ask yourself if the innovators would really have made that effort if they had not expected to benefit economically. Finally, ask yourself if these same innovators would have invested all the money and resources required to develop new or better products without the possibility of patent protection. The reality is that many important innovations have reached the market place with the help of the patent system.

Now, of course, what's really interesting about this argument is that it's been used before:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it got paid?


One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?

Bill Gates wrote that in 1976, never dreaming something like free software could not only exist, but thrive to the point of underming his own company. And so it is with all these wonderful inventions.

Today, more and more companies are routinely making available precisely this kind of system and embedded software as open source; patents are completely unnecessary to encourage this kind of innovation, and the EPO's argument here, as elsewhere, is specious. Indeed, it is downright wrong-headed: it is becoming clear that the best way to promote innovation and provide benefits to society is to make information freely available so that others can extend your work unhindered.

And so the argument for "computer-implemented inventions" fails both at a theoretical and at a practical level: such patents are worse than unnecessary, they are impediments to innovation and progress (as, most probably, are *all* patents.)

But I have to say, the EPO would have made fine Jesuits.

One Strike and They Miss the Point

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 July 2008

The Church of Openness

In Digital Code of Life, I explained at length - some would say at excessive length - how the Human Genome Project was a key early demonstration of the transformative power of openness. Here's one of the key initiators of that project, George Church, who wants to open up genomics even more. Why? Because:

Exponentials don't just happen. In Church's work, they proceed from two axioms. The first is automation, the idea that by automating human tasks, letting a computer or a machine replicate a manual process, technology becomes faster, easier to use, and more popular. The second is openness, the notion that sharing technologies by distributing them as widely as possible with minimal restrictions on use encourages both the adoption and the impact of a technology.

And Church believes in openness so much, he's even applying to his sequencer:

In the past three years, more companies have joined the marketplace with their own instruments, all of them driving toward the same goal: speeding up the process of sequencing DNA and cutting the cost. Most of the second-generation machines are priced at around $500,000. This spring, Church's lab undercut them all with the Polonator G.007 — offered at the low, low price of $150,000. The instrument, designed and fine-tuned by Church and his team, is manufactured and sold by Danaher, an $11 billion scientific-equipment company. The Polonator is already sequencing DNA from the first 10 PGP volunteers. What's more, both the software and hardware in the Polonator are open source. In other words, any competitor is free to buy a Polonator for $150,000 and copy it. The result, Church hopes, will be akin to how IBM's open-architecture approach in the early '80s fueled the PC revolution.

25 July 2008

War on Terror = War on Thinking

Oh look, you start down the slippery path of declaring war on abstract nouns, and you end up with pusillanimous mindlessness like this:

An 82-year-old woman in Southampton, UK was told she couldn't take photos of an empty wading pool because she might be a paedophile. Because, you know, anything that children touch regularly becomes part of their souls, and if a paedophile looks at those objects, it's just like sexually assaulting a child.

Open Source Skype Scuppered

I don't use Skype much, so news that it probably has a backdoor that lets others (hello, secret services) eavesdrop doesn't much concern me personally. But it's regrettable for several reasons.

First, obviously, that such a flaw should be built in is bad. It weakens the product - crackers of the world are doubtless firing up their Skype programs even as I write - and suggests an extremely patronising attitude to users. But I think there's another, less obvious, problem with this revelation.

For some time, people have been talking about getting Skype to go open source: you can now forget that. If there really is a backdoor, Skype is not going to reveal it - or let people rip it out of any released code.

Ah well, there's always Ekiga....

BT Calls on Open Source

On Open Enterprise blog.

ActiveX: the Law in Korea?

I've long known that the Korean governmnet is pretty benighted when it comes to *insisting* that people use ActiveX in order to interact with it, but now it seems that opponents of this monoculture have just been seriously slapped down:

Open Web, a Korean web forum led by professor Kichang Kim of Korea University is best known for its fight against rampant use of Active X in Korea, lost a lawsuit against the KFTC (Korea Financial Telecommunication and Clearings Comittee). Professor Kim accused that the Korean government's mandate on the use of Active X programs for the internet banking and other public web services should be lifted, as it is against fair trade and "overly favors technology from a single company (that is, Microsoft)".

Professor Kim has also asserted that as many Korean netizens somehow grew to think that Active X is something they have to download anyway, many of them are exposed to security vulnerabilities. Also, as so many entities including virtually all financial institutes in the nation depend on Microsoft technology in Korea, whenever Microsoft announces an update, the whole nation has to upgrade its internet infrastructure, and this leads to various losses on a national scale - Kim asserted.

But Professor Kim's year-long accusation fell short of convincing the court that the government mandate on the Active X is against fair trade and therefore is illegal.

How can a government lock its people into one technology - one, moreover, whose flaws are now well documented? Even the UK government has never been *this* daft.

Not Just Another Netbook

Rather, a home-grown one with some nice touches:

The webbook is manufactured by the UK electronics company Elonex and is being sold exclusively by The Carphone Warehouse.

The webbook is a high specification UMPC that has a 1.6Ghz Via C7 processor (x86), 512Mb of RAM and [currently] an 80G HDD. The screen has a very usable 1024×600 resolution and it has the usual assortment of USB, LAN and an SD socket, plus built in WiFi too. We have setup a blog specifically for the webbook here so users can get access to all the latest news, tips and advice. Be sure to add it to your feed reader.

The really cool thing about the webbook is the software. The webbok comes pre-loaded with Ubuntu 8.04.1 and some new software written especially for this application that delivers broadband connectivity over 3G Mobile networks.

OpenSim: Virtual Worlds Without DRM

OpenSim. the open source platform based on Second Life's protocols, is shaping up nicely. Here's more evidence of intelligent life in outer (virtual) space:

Frisby and Levine also backed an intellectual property scheme for OpenSim very different from Second Life’s. In Second Life, objects can be set with flags like “no-copy” by their creators, which Linden’s servers enforce. But numerous exploits to Second Life’s copy-protection model are known, and brazen theft abounds in Second Life.

In OpenSim, by default, no copy protection will exist at all. “You cannot know what a foreign piece of software will do with a piece of digital content once it receives it,” Levine said. To insert a digital rights management tool into OpenSim is to invite criminal hackers to find ways to circumvent it and undermine the credibility of the software, he argued.

23 July 2008

W(h)ither the UK Database Nation?


The court’s view was that health care staff who are not involved in the care of a patient must be unable to access that patient’s electronic medical record: “What is required in this connection is practical and effective protection to exclude any possibility of unauthorised access occurring in the first place.” (Press coverage here.)

A “practical and effective” protection test in European law will bind engineering, law and policy much more tightly together. And it will have wide consequences. Privacy compaigners, for example, can now argue strongly that the NHS Care Records service is illegal.

To say nothing of the central ID card database that permits all kinds of decentralised access....

Open Access to Drugs (Data)

Here's an interesting confluence of trends:

The Wellcome Trust has awarded £4.7 million [€5.8 million] to EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute [EMBL-EBI] to support the transfer of a large collection of information on the properties and activities of drugs and a large set of drug-like small molecules from the publicly listed company Galapagos NV to the public domain. It will be incorporated into the EMBL-EBI's collection of open-access data resources for biomedical research and will be maintained by a newly established team of scientists at the EMBL-EBI.

So here we have commercial drugs data being put into the public domain - no restrictions - and managed by one of the key public databases.

The transfer will empower academia to participate in the first stages of drug discovery for all therapeutic areas, including major diseases of the developing world. In future it could also result in improved prediction of drug side-effects.

Given that the current, capital-intensive method of drug development, which is highly skewed to coming up with drugs for rich, obese Westerners, this openness to all is important: it means that one of the key barriers to discovering new therapies is down, in part, at least.

And as Peter Suber rightly notes:

Kudos to Galapagos and Wellcome Trust not only for opening these data, but for choosing the public domain rather than a license. This fits with Science Commons' latest thinking on barrier-free research and collaboration in the Protocol for Implementing Open Access Data.

Public domain redux....

UK Public Sector Information Unlocking Service

Gosh, this is getting to be a habit:

As the regulator for public sector information re-use, we know that people can encounter difficulty from time to time getting hold of the information they need in the formats they want. Such difficulties can include issues with charging, licensing or the data standards that public sector information is provided in.

These issues are not about access (which are dealt with under access legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations), but all the other pitfalls which can occur when you want to do something with public sector information - copy it, remix it with other data or add value and republish it. If you are trying to re-use some public sector information, but the data you need is locked-up, this service is for you.

(Via Links.)

DYB DYB DYB for Drigg

As rumours swirl about Google buying Digg, spare a thought for the parlous plight of the open source version, Drigg:

I took Drigg this far, but I am fatigued. I wrote Drigg not out of passion for programming, but because I felt that the whole world needed it. I wrote several thousands of line of code in a very short time, and kept fixing bug after bug. I also took the step of splitting Drigg into several sub-module--a painful, bold and much needed move. Not, the big reports are very few and Drigg is very well structured.

I am now looking for a new co-maintainer who can take the lead in Drigg's development. I am not a programmer, and I don't feel I am the right person to push this project any further. There are important features that need to be implemented, and I am just too slow. I am not a very skilled programmer, and it simply shows. The code is good out of immensely hard work, and this means that development is slow. I feel the community deserves better.

I will still be here! People who know me and trust me know that I will hold the hand of the new maintainer and will make sure that everything is going the right direction. I will be here, via email, IM, phone, etc. The new maintainer needs to know:

* Drupal modules
* Javascript

If you would like to take over an immensely important, exciting, lively project, please let me know now ("merc" followed my "mobily1" and then ".com").


Open Source in European Public Administrations

If you're trying to keep up with the increasing number of public administrations in Europe discovering the joys of free software, here's a handy resource: the Open Source Observatory and Repository.

The OSOR provides a platform for the exchange of information, experiences and FLOSS-based code for the use in public administrations. Your are invited to participate in this exchange and make use of the OSOR services:

* international news on Open Source topics;
* a repository with code and documentation on software for public administrations;
* a state-of-the art forge for working together.

The value and usefulness of the platform will increase with the number of contributors and of contributions that are offered for sharing.

Everybody is welcome as a user. However, if you want to upload code and information or intend to open a community project, you will have to register on the forge. In case you come from the business sector, you will be required to reference a sponsor from the public sector.

The OSOR admits all free, libre, and open source software that is distributed under licenses that are recognised by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) or the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and code that is released under the European Union Public License (EUPL).

And remember: it's all about sharing....

Russian Schools A-Rushin' to Free Software

I've written before about a very interesting pilot project to introduce free software into schools in three Russian regions; things seem to be going down a storm:

В более чем 50% школ пилотных регионов, в которых запланирована установка пакетов свободного программного обеспечения (ПСПО), дистрибутивы уже установлены.

На данный момент в общей сложности ПСПО установлены в 572 школах республики Татарстан, Пермского края и Томской области (из запланированных 1084).

[Via Google Translate: In more than 50% of schools pilot regions, where the scheduled installation of free software packages (PSPO), distributions have been installed.

So far a total of PSPO installed in 572 schools in the republic of Tatarstan, Perm Territory, and Tomsk region (of the planned 1084).]

Medpedia: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Just because Wikipedia is wonderful (well, mostly) doesn't mean that there's no room for other wikis serving narrower domains. For example, one of the quips that is frequently made as a criticism of the crowd-sourced Wikipedia way is that you wouldn't want the same approach in the operating theatre. Well, maybe not, but this shows how you can usefully apply wikis to medicine:

The Medpedia Project is an extraordinary global effort to collect, organize and make understandable, the world’s best information about health, medicine and the body and make it freely available on the website Medpedia.com. Physicians, health organizations, medical schools, hospitals, health professionals, and dedicated individuals are coming together to build the most comprehensive medical resource in the world that will benefit millions of people every year.

In association with Harvard Medical School, Stanford School of Medicine, Berkeley School of Public Health, University of Michigan Medical School and other leading global health organizations, the Medpedia community seeks to create the most comprehensive and collaborative medical resource in the world. Medpedia will serve as a catalog, database, and learning tool about health, medicine and the body for doctors, scientists, policymakers, students and citizens that will improve medical literacy worldwide.

The key thing here, of course, is that only people who know what they are talking about will be allowed to add content, making it closer to the Citizendium model than Wikipedia (although the latter continues its slow waltz in that general direction too.)

Let's hope that other knowledge domains pick up on the idea: you simply can't have enough of this open content (Medpedia is under the GFDL, like Wikipedia).

How Open is That Database?

It's all very well calling for open data, but how open are databases really? Molecular Biology Databases aims to find out:

The objective of this project is to assess the accessibility of databases by analysing their interfaces to access data and their reuse policies in order to identify those that are in the public domain, starting with databases hosted by the Life Science Resource Name (LSRN) Schema registry.

(Via Open Access News.)

Ready for a Spot of Drizzle?

On Open Enterprise blog.

22 July 2008

Copyright = Monopoly: UK Government

Blimey, it must be Porcine Aerobatics Week or something. Here's the UK IPO - the official keeper of things "eye-pea" - on the European Commission’s proposal to extend the term of copyright protection:

Minister of Intellectual Property Baroness Delyth Morgan said,

"Because copyright represents a monopoly we need to be very clear that the circumstances justify an extension. We will therefore need to consider these proposals carefully to understand how they would work and what the benefits are likely to be."

Kudos, Baronness: you grok it. But wait, there's more:

"I would like to hear what the public thinks about this and would urge all those who have an interest in these proposals to make sure their voice is heard and to contact the UK-IPO by the end of August."

Thanks for the request. You know what to do, Brits:

If you have any comments on the proposal you are invited to contact Barbara Squires at Termextension@ipo.gov.uk by the end of August.

(Via IPKat.)

The Egregious Economist

I continue to be gobsmacked by the egregious stupidity of The Economist:

Commercial piracy may not be as horrific as the seaborne version off the Horn of Africa.... But stealing other people’s R&D, artistic endeavour or even journalism is still theft.

Not only is it not as horrific as what occurs off the Horn of Africa, it is a total insult to parrot such a stupid, loaded metaphor, which consciously tries to equate the two. And for the six billionth time, it's *not* theft, no matter how many times you repeat it: it's infringement.

Nothing is stolen: you still have your R&D, your artistic endeavour or even your journalism. What has happened is that others may be making use of those, possibly against some laws in certain jurisdictions. Quite how terrible that might be depends on many factors, not least the scale and intent.

Maybe it would be better if The Economist put the paywall back to protect innocent minds from its idiocies.

The Acceptable Face of P2P

Despite attempts to demonise P2P, the technology is thriving. And no wonder: it's such an efficient way of sharing bits. Good, then, to see some "official" development of the idea in the form of P2P-Next - funded in part by the EU - to apply P2P to live video streaming.

Now you can download the SwarmPlayer, too:

Peer-to-peer (P2P) technology has proven to be an effective way to distribute a video among many users. This can be done in three ways:

* Download the video, and watch it afterwards (typical BitTorrent behaviour)
* Watch the video while downloading it (Video-on-Demand, Vuze and Joost)
* Watch the video while it is being generated (web-cams, live TV broadcasts, etc)

Our research focusses on combining all these modes of video streaming into a single solution by merging them into the BitTorrent protocol. This allows a single player to download movies, watch video-on-demand, and watch live video streams using one technology, while taking advantage of the popularity and maturity of existing BitTorrent clients.

We have completed our SwarmPlayer software to support these streaming modes, but require an audience to test it on. After all, P2P technology is designed to support thousands of users, and to properly test this, many users have to watch the same video at the same time.

The Death of US Software Patents?

That seems to be the conclusion in this amazing posting by John F. Duffy on the Patently O patent law blog:

The Patent and Trademark Office has now made clear that its newly developed position on patentable subject matter will invalidate many and perhaps most software patents, including pioneering patent claims to such innovators as Google, Inc.


The logic of the PTO’s positions in Nuijten, Comiskey and Bilski has always threatened to destabilize whole fields of patenting, most especially in the field of software patents. If the PTO’s test is followed, the crucial question for the vitality of patents on computer implemented inventions is whether a general purpose computer qualifies as a “particular” machine within the meaning of the agency’s test. In two recent decisions announced after the oral arguments in the Bilski case, Ex parte Langemyr (May 28, 2008) and Ex parte Wasynczuk (June 2, 2008), the PTO Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences has now supplied an answer to that question: A general purpose computer is not a particular machine, and thus innovative software processes are unpatentable if they are tied only to a general purpose computer.

Wow. It's probably a little early to break out the virtual champagne, but here's hoping....

Update: The ever-dependable Mike Masnick picks apart the story here, which is not all it seems, alas....

DNA = Do Not Ask

I wrote about this in Digital Code of Life, four years ago:

The Switzerland-based company says they can use a $199 DNA test (compare to $1,000 for 23andMe) to help you find your perfect match, statistically speaking. They’ve analyzed “hundreds of couples” and have determined the genetic patterns found in successful relationships. Based on their algorithm and your DNA, they’ll determine the probability for a satisfying and long-lasting relationship between two people.

OK, for certain diseases this is wise; for most - and certainly for relationships - it is not, if you think about the deeper implications of what's going on (see book for more....)

The Theory and Practice of the Software Forge

On Open Enterprise blog.

Time for the Firefox Tablet?

For all its faults, TechCrunch is arguably the leading tech blog. But it has been content to remain on the sidelines - commenting rather than jumping in. Until now:

I’m tired of waiting - I want a dead simple and dirt cheap touch screen web tablet to surf the web. Nothing fancy like the Dell latitude XT, which costs $2,500. Just a Macbook Air-thin touch screen machine that runs Firefox and possibly Skype on top of a Linux kernel. It doesn’t exist today, and as far as we can tell no one is creating one. So let’s design it, build a few and then open source the specs so anyone can create them.

What's interesting about this - aside from the fact it marks a major shift for TechCrunch - is that it takes for granted that GNU/Linux and Firefox will be the foundation of such a system. Indeed, it is remarkably close to the story I posted below.

As for the name "Firefox Tablet", I say: go for it, Mark....

America: The Problem, The Solution

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change.

Sounds fair.

CherryPal Cloud-Ripe?

The Asus Eee PC was a precursor of this idea:

The C100 runs an embedded customized version of the Debian Linux operating system, but the machine's makers say its main operating system is the Firefox Internet browser.

"The operating system is not exposed to the user. So the user experience is, you turn it on, fire it up and then you see the log-in screen, user ID and password. The next thing you see is the mandatory landing page -- the Firefox browser," Seybold told TechNewsWorld.

All system-related commands are accessed through the browser, and all applications are loaded via the browser, he continued. "The operating system itself is not exposed. That's for two reasons. One is that people don't like the idea of Linux because it has a geek reputation, the other reason is that it [allowed us] to reduce the overall footprint of the OS, and that has a direct impact on the overall performance and the perceived user experience," Seybold explained.

I'm sure we'll be seeing many more such systems.

21 July 2008

Flavour of the Month: Executive Director

On Open Enterprise blog.

Copyright Moves from Reason to Emotion

Interesting discussion of the proposed extension to sound copyright, including the following:

In setting up the rationalist background of his title, Professor Bently noted that the 2004 EC Staff Working Paper, the Gowers Report, and the EC-commissioned IVIR report had all approached the question rationally, with evidence-based and economic reasoning. Each had come out against extension.

Also worth noting is this comment from the other side:

He challenged the economic evidence against extension, relying on counter-examples in a PwC report which had failed to identify any significant pricing difference between copyright and out-of-copyright music. To illustrate this point, he observed that iTunes charge 79p a track regardless of the existence of sound recording protection or lack thereof, and concluded that extending copyright would not act to the disbenefit of consumers.

Not for consumers, maybe, but what about that new group - those who want to *re-use* material? Plenty of disbenefit for them....

15 July 2008

OpenDrive, Closed Minds

OpenDrive Version 1.0 (for Windows XP/Vista)

Yes, and?

Nice name, OpenDrive; pity about the product, which isn't.

Making Clouds Open – and Secure

On Open Enterprise blog.

Modularity Gets Down to Business

On Open Enterprise blog.

No FT, No Idea

The FT seems not to understand copyright:

Brussels is expected to push ahead next week with reforms that would allow European singers and musicians to enjoy proceeds from their work for many more years.

Proposals to extend copyright protection for performing artists from 50 to 95 years were first outlined by internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy in February and could be approved by the European Commission at Wednesday’s meeting.

If so, Europe would move into line with the US, and musicians – from ageing rock stars to session players – could enjoy a boost to their pensions.

Copyright is supposed to provide an *incentive* to create, not a *reward* for having created. Increasing the term of copyright protection will not suddenly make ageing rockers more creative. Moreover, the prospect of an extra 45 years' protection is highly unlikely to make young rockers rush out and create more. So this is a pure loss for the public domain. Thanks for nothing, Charlie.

11 July 2008

EngLab: A Gift of a Program for Engineers

On Open Enterprise blog.

...And Openness Can Save

I wrote about how closed systems can kill the other day; here's the other side of the coin - how openness could save lives during 'flu epidemics:

"I can't be sure that a more open process would have prevented the epidemic, but it's possible, maybe even likely," said Salzberg, who argued his case in a commentary published yesterday in Nature. "They took the conservative approach, but the flu is always changing."

10 July 2008

O Tell Me the Truth about... the Telecoms Package

On Open Enterprise blog.

Globalisation's Upside

Yes, there is one:

The European Union is moving forward with regulations that will significantly restrict the amount of power electric appliances can consume in standby, or "vampire," mode.


As far as I can tell, the United States has nothing similar at a federal level. The 2007 Energy Act only requires that the Department of Energy "incorporate energy use in standby mode and off mode" in "future standards for covered products."

But no worries -- if the Asian manufacturers who currently produce the bulk of the world's appliances are forced to rejigger their designs for the EU market, they'll probably do so as well for products aimed at the U.S.

One of many examples where the global nature of production means that the *most stringent" rules get applied to everyone.

09 July 2008

Abolish BECTA Now

On Open Enterprise blog.

Come to the World eBook Fair

Every year, some of the top ebook companies and organisations come together to offer extremely large numbers of ebooks, absolutely free (mostly as in beer, but often as in freedom) as part of the World eBook Fair. Here are the facts and figures:

Third Annual World eBook Fair: July 4th to August 4th

Just two years ago The First World eBook Fair came on the scene with about 1/3 million books, doubled to 2/3 million in 2008, and now over one million.

Created by contributions from 100+ eLibraries from around the world, here are the largest collections.

As of midnight Central Daylight Time July 4, 2008 these are the approximate numbers:

100,000+ from Project Gutenberg
500,000+ from The World Public Library
450,000+ from The Internet Archive
160,000+ from eBooks About Everything

..17,000+ from IMSLP

1,227,000+ Grand Total

Pretty impressive.

And while we're on the subject of free, here is a good list of "100+ Sources for Free-As-In-Beer Books & Texts Online", which includes a lot of fairly obscure but highly worthy sites. Recommended.

How Proprietary Systems Can Kill

Or could do:

The bewildering variety of new medical devices in U.S. hospitals promises higher standards of care. But it also poses new opportunities for error. A growing number of physicians believe that the interoperability of medical devices--their ability to communicate with each other--could make hospitals safer and more efficient.

"Today, there are many proprietary systems available from different vendors, but the problem is, these systems can't talk to one another," says Douglas Rosendale, a surgeon who works on information integration at Veterans Health Administration and Harvard Brigham and Women's Hospital. "If they can't interface, then they can't share information, which could have an impact on patient care." Estimates of the number of preventable deaths caused each year by medical errors in American hospitals range from 98,000 to 195,000.

You know the answer, people: open standards, open source. (Via James Tyrrell.)

A New Dawn

Well, not quite, but here's another of those open source, open hardware thingies:

aurora is a usb powered multichannel mixer in a typical dj form factor. the device features two linear channel faders, a single a/b crossfader and eight backlit buttons. twenty four backlit knobs allow you to control effects. aurora, unlike most midi controllers, enhances performances with controllable ambient lighting.

Great idea, pity there aren't more.... (Via Leslie P. Polzer.)

Beyond Second Life: Virtual Worlds' Second Wind

On Open Enterprise blog.

ACTA Slouches Towards Bethlehem

The extremely pernicious Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) continues to move forward. Here's what the anachronistic back-slapping club known as the G8 has to say on the subject:

We encourage the acceleration of negotiations to establish a new international legal framework, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), and seek to complete the negotiation by the end of this year.

Remember, this is an agreement that has been drawn up behind closed doors, with input from the industries that depend on intellectual monopolies, and zero input from the rest of us. Democracy? Who needs it?

Reasons to Be Tearful

Want one more thing to worry about? Try this. (Via Pluggd.in.)

08 July 2008

How to Get Rid of the "War on Terror"

Bruce Schneier has some has his usual wise words on the subject of "terror":

Terrorism is a heinous crime, and a serious international problem. It's not a catchall word to describe anything you don't like or don't agree with, or even anything that adversely affects a large number of people. By using the word more broadly than its actual meaning, we muddy the already complicated popular conceptions of the issue. The word "terrorism" has a specific meaning, and we shouldn't debase it.

But, sorry Brucie, it's too late: they've already debased it.

But debasement is a two-edged sword. What we should do now is to use "terrorism" for even the most trivial infraction: "parking terrorism", "litter terrorism", "noise terrorism" - you get the idea. In no time at all, even the politicians will recognise that the whole concept of "terror" has become eviscerated, and risible. The "War on Terror" will sound - rightly - about as sensible as a "War on Flatulence".

Welcome, Open Education News

The young field of open education is gaining momentum and energy. As additional projects, foundations, universities, and other participants join the movement, the need increases for a single source to gather, sort, analyze, synthesize, and disseminate news related to open education. As a field, open education is now where the field of open access was a few years ago. Peter Suber’s wonderful Open Access News provides an invaluable service to the OA community, and we intend to replicate this service with Open Education News.

Sounds good to me. (Via Open Access News.)

Apple, the Security Paragon


Apple just gave out my Apple ID password because someone asked

How Should Mozilla Execute Its Vision?

On Linux Journal.

GNOME Gets Stormy...

On Open Enterprise blog.

07 July 2008

Eeek: Kudos to the UK Gov, Part 2

This mashup idea is getting some serious praise around the world. And I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised at how many ideas there are already. Let's just hope that this isn't a false (open) dawn....

She Gave Me of the Apricot, and I Did Eat

I've written about Blender's Apricot before; now there are some demos to explore.

A New Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation

One of the most remarkable men around today is Sir John Sulston. He's already won a Nobel Prize for his work on nematode worms/apoptosis, and he seems certain to share another for his work on the Human Genome Project. He really ought to get a couple for that, since he was the leader of the forces that kept the human genome free and (relatively) unpatented - think of him as the RMS of the genome (he's also a big fan of free software).

So it's great to see his passion for ethics being channelled in a new institute, which opened last Saturday:

The mission of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation (iSEI) is to observe and analyse the role and moral responsibilities of science and innovation. The institute will examine the ways in which science is used in the 21st century, evaluate possible or desirable changes, and consider the forms of regulation and control of the process that are appropriate or required.

More power to his elbow.

Total Open Source

VMukti is a Free, multi-point total communications, collaboration and conferencing engine with built-in support for access to platform features through Personal Customizable Web Interface, Widgets for 3rd party websites, Desktops, and PSTN/ Mobile/ IP Phones.

The core Platform Features Include: Audio/ Telephony, Multipoint Video, Chat, File Search, Whiteboard, File-sharing, Presentation, Remote Monitoring & Controlling, Co-authoring, CRM, and more.

But does it make tea?

(Still) Defending Openness in the EU

On Open Enterprise blog.

04 July 2008

Urgent: Please write to your MEP – Now!

On Open Enterprise blog.

If you're in the EU, please do this.

IDiotic or What?

The chief executive of the Identity and Passport Service has said the ID cards database will not be completely secure.

James Hall said on Thursday that, after a string of high-profile data breaches in the past year, people should be concerned about the security of their personal information held by the government.

"You would rightly be concerned about the integrity and security of the information held about you," said Hall in a speech at the Homeland & Border Security Conference 2008 in London. "The issue has been heightened by recent events. I won't stand in front of you and say there will never ever be a breach of information."

Oh, that's alright, then.

The Hidden Poetry of...Gordon Brown

There was something about the tableau that felt fragile. I could have taken a picture with my mobile, but it would have felt intrusive, rude -especially since we’d been asked not to take any pictures inside No.11. (Describing it here is different from a picture, which is just wrestled out of its context; here you have to imagine the scene yourself rather than have it presented.). It was a beautiful summer’s evening, the sun forcing through the trees wet with the heavy showers that had fallen earlier on. And two men discussed.. something, surely important.

Nice little tableau there, Charles.

03 July 2008

Biofuels "Prime Cause of Food Crisis"

The truth:

Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% — far more than previously estimated — according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian. The damning unpublished assessment is based on the most detailed analysis of the crisis so far, carried out by an internationally-respected economist at global financial body.

Why it will not be allowed out:

The figure emphatically contradicts the US government's claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises. It will add to pressure on governments in Washington and across Europe, which have turned to plant-derived fuels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce their dependence on imported oil.

Senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George Bush. "It would put the World Bank in a political hot-spot with the White House," said one yesterday.

After all, what's a little truth between friends?

In Google We (Don't) Trust

Here's a little reminder why you can never trust Google, even if it has the best intentions:

Google must divulge the viewing habits of every user who has ever watched any video on YouTube, a US court has ruled.

Yes, that includes *you* - not that you've ever watched anything dodgy there, of course....

ID Cards: Out Come the Jackboots

Clearly Mr Brown and his chums are beginning to despair over this privacy disaster formerly known as ID cards. Not content with putting on fake "consulations" around the country, they are now starting to clamp down on anyone who dares to express a dissenting opinion:

On Monday, 9 protestors, including me, all involved with the NO2ID campaign, were arrested in Edinburgh and charged with breach of the peace.


# we were all peaceful at all times during the protest

# only 1 protestor sneaked into the meeting. Geraint Bevan, the coordinator of NO2ID Scotland got into the meeting at the start under the cunning ruse of walking up to the registration desk and claiming to be one of the people named on the badges on display.

# prior to entering the hotel, we were protesting peacefully outside, causing curiosity, amusement and the occasional message of support from the passing public.

# when the hotel manager approached us and asked us to leave, Geraint (by this time physically thrown out of the meeting) asked if it were OK for us to leave after STV had conducted an interview with him. The manager agreed.

# when the interview was over, we made to leave immediately, only to find the police had been called. At no point prior to this were we given any intimation the police were called or were going to be called. Prior to the hotel manager asking us to leave, we were not told by any member of staff that we should leave.

# when we entered, we entered peacefully, quietly, carrying placards, with an STV camera crew in tow. The people at the head of our procession did not wear masks.

This could have been serious in a democracy - thank god we no longer live in one....

Strike Out Against "Three Strikes and You're Out"

The pernicious "three strikes and you're out" idea is still about, and the Open Rights Group has news that an attempt may be made to enshrine it in European law:

Could Europe be drafting a new law to disconnect suspected filesharers from the internet? MEPs have already signalled their condemnation of this approach. But last-minute amendments to telecommunications legislation could bring the so-called “3 strikes” approach in by the backdoor. If you want your MEP to stick to their guns on 3 strikes, write to them today to voice your concerns.

Act now, before it's too late....

Feel Free to Twitter

On Open Enterprise blog.

How Closed Does Nvida Want to Be?

Nvidia is going to lose gobs and gobs of market share this year. They are effectively out of notebooks, will lose the high end in days, don't have anything close to a competitive line-up, have higher costs than ATI, and have to shell out money to keep partners alive. If you think this is bad, wait a little.

Not so much staying closed, as closing down....

In Praise of Wikileaks

Nice background piece on Wired.

02 July 2008

Cutting off the Digital Water

Love him or loathe him, Cory Doctorow writes well, and has a great knack for encapsulating important issues in striking thoughts:

I think we should permanently cut off the internet access of any company that sends out three erroneous copyright notices. Three strikes and you're out, mate.

The reason goes to the heart of the problem with the three-strikes approach:

The internet is only that wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press in a single connection. It's only vital to the livelihood, social lives, health, civic engagement, education and leisure of hundreds of millions of people (and growing every day).

An Internet connection is now at the level of electricity or water in the modern world: without out, you cannot function properly. To allow an industry to defend an outdated business model by cutting off the digital water and digital electricity supplies is an outrageous over-reaction, and betrays on the part of politicians both a deep ignorance about technology, and a deeper contempt for the "little" people who depend upon those supplies to have any chance against the system that grinds them down daily.

Waterboarding? It's Torture...

So says Christopher Hitchens - from first-hand experience.

Defending Openness in the European Union

In Open Enterprise blog.

Samba's Latest Moves

On Open Enterprise blog.

Google Is Evil in a Flash

On Open Enterprise blog.

From Smashup to Mashup

As somebody who is not wont to restrain himself when the UK government gets it hideously wrong on the IT front (hello, ID cards), it behoves me to offer a little praise when they get things right. This seems to be a rare and therefore welcome case of the latter:

The UK Government wants to hear your ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated. The Power of Information Taskforce is running a competition on the Government's behalf, and we have a £20,000 prize fund to develop the best ideas to the next level. You can see the type of thing we are are looking for here.

To show they are serious, the Government is making available gigabytes of new or previously invisible public information especially for people to use in this competition. Rest assured, this competition does not include personal information about people.

We're confident that you'll have more and better ideas than we ever will. You don't have to have any technical knowledge, nor any money, just a good idea, and 5 minutes spare to enter the competition.

This is absolutely the kind of stuff that the powers-that-be should be encouraging. I'm not exactly wildly optimistic it will lead to a sea-change in their attitude to openness in general, but it's start. If you've ever had to suppress that wild urge to (s)mash up the UK government - and let's face it, who hasn't? - here's your big chance.


One of the daftest URLs I've seen in a long time, but interesting to see the "open" meme here.