google’s self-driving cars – 300,000 accident free miles

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit up-front to being a huge, huge fan of Google’s self-driving car project. So needless to say, I was quite happy to hear about Google reaching a milestone of 300,000 accident free miles. While there have been accidents, they have not occurred while the computer was driving. Why am I such a huge fan? One reason is because of the potentially huge benefits it could introduce. Google’s site provides a (rather understated) summary of such benefits:

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new “highway trains of tomorrow.” These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.

This technology not only has the potential to save lives, but also to radically transform the car industry (and hopefully car designs) as well as the broader transportation industry.

I suppose the second reason is that the ability to design a system that allows for automated driving is itself quite impressive.

Perhaps the only downside is that people may end up getting fatter.

linux kernel found to infringe patent

Well, this is rather disconcerting. By way of Engadget, I came across this blog entry on FOSS Patents about how a small outfit in Texas, Bedrock Computer Technologies LLC (apparently a non-practicing entity, otherwise typically described as a “patent troll”), has won a $5 million claim for patent infringement against Google.

But the part that is perhaps a bit more worrisome than either the amount or the defendant is the fact that the infringing technology in question is a portion of the Linux kernel. From the entry:

Like I said further above, the question of Google possibly having to pay $5 million (unless the judge decides otherwise or an appeal succeeds) is not really the issue. In addition to money, Bedrock also asked for an injunction, and now that Google has been found to infringe a patent deemed valid by the jury, it remains to be seen whether an injunction will be granted either by this court or on a possible appeal.

The problem is that Bedrock is now in a pretty strong position to collect royalties from other Linux users, especially those utilizing Linux for large server operations.

It’s a bit difficult to tell, based on the claims asserted in the patent, whether or not Google would be able to excise the offending part of the kernel or find some other way to avoid infringing use. I’m sure they can, but if they can’t,  an injunction might have some implications for Google’s server farms and therefore its operations.

In addition, there’s also the possibility that this will impact Android:

Concerning Android, I wouldn’t rule out that maybe some of the hundreds of thousands of Android applications out there use the teachings of the infringed patent claims in one way or another. Even if that is not the case, Google might have to modify the Linux kernel it distributes with Android in order to remove the infringing code because otherwise there’s always the risk of contributory infringement should any app make use of that portion of the Linux kernel.

Needless to say, there could be quite a few companies impacted by this, though I imagine folks in the open source community are starting to look at workarounds, hopefully. It’s difficult to tell from the claim in the patent how fundamental it is or how difficulty or easy it would be to work around.

Perhaps its just me, but sometimes get rather irritated when reading software patent claims. Often, they seem to describe things that already well known or rather mundane. Take for example the claims in this case:

1. An information storage and retrieval system, the system comprising:

  • a linked list to store and provide access to records stored in a memory of the system, at least some of the records automatically expiring,
  • a record search means utilizing a search key to access the linked list,
  • the record search means including a means for identifying and removing at least some of the expired ones of the records from the linked list when the linked list is accessed, and
  • means, utilizing the record search means, for accessing the linked list and, at the same time, removing at least some of the expired ones of the records in the linked list.

2. The information storage and retrieval system according to claim 1 further including means for dynamically determining maximum number for the record search means to remove in the accessed linked list of records.

I’m not trained as a patent agent, so cannot speak with much authority on this, but these claims, to me, seem rather mundane.

so, yeah, maybe now microsoft should start worrying. just a little.

I read with interest a short note in ars about how Intel is hard at work porting Android 3.0, or Honeycomb, to x86. While this immediately made me think of x86 powered smartphones, I started to think, well, what can’t you do on a smartphone (or perhaps more appropriate a tablet) that you can on a Wintel box? There are a few things (like graphic-intensive first person shooters) but not a huge number, I think.

And this led to me thinking about Chromium OS and, of course, the prototype Cr-48 that made the rounds late last year, most famously for its fraction-of-a-minute boot times and its usability, while I wait, patiently, as my sad little PC huffs and puffs along for several minutes before showing any signs of life.

Which in turn made me think of a post I wrote back in 2008, where I questioned the assertion that many had made back then about the release of Chrome (the browser, that is) by Google as a “Windows killer” and very much agreed with The Register’s take on it (hint, the story was called: Chrome-fed Googasm bares tech pundit futility, and subtitled: It’s a f***king web browser). And just to be clear, this was before Chromium OS was a twinkle in Google’s eye.

And in that post, I was so bold as to state that Microsoft probably didn’t have much to worry about.

I imagine it should suffice to say that I don’t quite feel the same way these days….


statute of anne’s 300th anniversary – good? bad?

As some of you may know, April 10 marked the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, otherwise known as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” and generally recognized as the first copyright statute and the origin of modern copyright law. Of course, in recognition of this milestone, there have been a number of comments, op-eds and articles recognizing the passage of three centuries of copyright law.

I read, with interest, the article on Google’s Public Policy Blog, entitled “Celebrating copyright” which described the effect of the statute as follows:

The Statute of Anne changed this system. For the first time, it granted authors rights to their works, and made it so anyone was eligible for a copyright. In this way, early copyright was anti-authoritarian and directly aimed at promoting free expression by shifting power to writers and away from printers and the state.

It also was aimed at promoting competition and the emergence of new creators and distributors. Rather than perpetual rights, copyrights would only exist for limited terms. This was intended to constrain a monopoly like the Stationers Company from existing in the future. Because any bookseller would be able to reprint valuable works after a certain period, it would be easier for others to enter the market and make these works available to the public.

Compare this with a similar piece published by the Software Freedom Law Centre, simply entitled “The 300th Anniversary of the Statute of Anne“:

By the end of the 17th century, this partnership lapsed, threatening the publishers’ monopoly. The publishers tried repeatedly to reinstitute the scheme, but amidst the growing importance of the electorate and an increasing hostility to private monopolies, all their efforts failed. The publishers had to change their strategy. If they were unable to reestablish copyright all for themselves, the next best thing for them would be to assign property rights directly to authors, who, unable to print and distribute their works on their own, would have no choice but to contract with the publishers. Publishers could then bargain with the authors to get exclusive publication rights, in essence perpetuating their monopoly over books.With this goal in mind, the publishers convinced Parliament that the creation of strong intellectual property rights was essential to encourage the advancement of learning.

So the Statute of Anne was born, and on April 10, 1710, became law.

I find it interesting (though perhaps not surprising) that two different groups can come, more or less, to two seemingly diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the effect, or intended effect, of the statute. Perhaps not surprisingly in this day and age, opinions on copyright do vary significantly. It seems that this variance also happens to find its way into the recounting of history.

google open sourcing vp8 codec

Interesting but perhaps not surprising news that Google will make the VP8 video codec open source. You can read in more detail by following the link but here’s a quick rundown: Many companies have decided to support H.264 for video streaming, including Google, Apple and Microsoft. Others, like Mozilla (the creator of Firefox), have not, as they are concerned about adopting, as a standard, proprietary technology that may one day require payment of royalties. Instead, they have chosen to support Ogg Theora, an open source codec based on a much earlier version of VP8. Making VP8 open source will remove this divide and will likely encourage the adoption of VP8 as a standard in place of either, as VP8 appears to be technically superior to both H.264 and Ogg Theora (which was developed from a much earlier iteration of VP8) and presumably would be free of potential licensing issues (and fees) associated with proprietary solutions such as H.264.

Perhaps not surprising given Google’s approach in mobile (i.e. the Android open source platform). Though it is worth noting that Google isn’t enchanted with all things open source, as evidenced by the hubbub about it and the Affero GPL a few years ago…

google legal?

Recently came across the news (now somewhat dated) that Google has now incorporated some full-text legal decisions from the US into Google Scholar.

From the Official Google Blog:

Starting today, we’re enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the announcement seems to suggest less an emphasis on targeting lawyers as the primary audience, but rather the general public. In fact, in a recent ABA Journal article, Google’s representative even suggested that Google wouldn’t be of much value to lawyers:

Google, meanwhile, is not trying to compete with the likes of West, LexisNexis, Bloomberg, Fastcase or any other commercial legal research company, says lawyer Rick Klau, a project manager at Google who helped build the Scholar database.

“There is no attempt to slay anyone here,” Klau says. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it useful. This was a collection of content that was not accessible and well-organized.” He says Google Scholar was designed to make the information accessible for ordinary citizens. The company has no current plans to do more with the information than what is already available.

Google’s database allows users to search its content against any words, concepts or citations and will pull up opinions related to the searcher’s query. The results are ranked by relevance. Citations in the opinions are hyperlinked to other opinions. The results also provide links to other Google databases, such as books and law reviews, to help searchers get context.

But Google Scholar does not provide any sort of system to check the validity of the case, nor does it offer any type of taxonomy of the case.

Klau goes so far as to question the value of Google Scholar to practicing lawyers: “The two primary for-pay services provide tremendous value to their users and help you better understand and consume information, like whether an opinion is still valid. Those are things that practitioners rely on and will continue to rely on.”

Despite Klau’s protestations, others in the legal information sector are watching Google. “You are always very conscious of what Google is doing because the company has immense resources available,” says Warwick of Thomson Reuters.

That same article also describes how LexisNexis and Westlaw, the two Microsofts of the legal information industry, will be implementing sweeping changes in their services. I imagine those changes were prompted less by Google’s foray into the legal information industry and more by the entrance of Bloomberg into the market, and the desire to capture a greater share of what seems to be a shrinking market.

In any event, Google isn’t really reinventing anything here but rather making it a bit more convenient to access and use – apparently all of this material had previously been available on various court and other web sites. Google’s value add was to consolidate it all and make it easier to search and use.

Too bad. It would have been interesting to see Google shake things up a bit in the legal information industry (or for that matter the information industry more generally). Then again, you never know…

norwich orders, part ii (an editorial of sorts)


I was a bit surprised to find this article that covered the court orders that had required Google to disclose information on some Gmail users and the subsequent orders in Canada against certain Canadian ISPs, which was the subject of a previous post. The long and short of it is that the author considers Norwich orders to be some sort of grave, grave intrusion on privacy rights and personal liberty. Hence, this dire warning at the end of the article:

No matter how many precautions we take to remain private or cloak our identity, the authorities and other potential litigants usually have little difficulty obtaining this content. And they do it not by nefarious mean like hacking, but through our very own court system.

Internet users everywhere would do well to take heed. Your emails — and maybe even your Google searches — could be one subpoena away from the prying eyes of federal authorities, not to mention private litigants.

Why am I surprised? Because it seems to lack the most basic understanding of the legal system. I won’t get into all the details of the workings of Norwich orders – the original article by Omar Ha-Redeye that I had previously mentioned does a very good job at that, and I would certainly commend it to the author of this article so he may perhaps gain some insight.

The fact of the matter is that no, your privacy rights and right to anonymity have not suddenly disappeared altogether. However, as with all rights there are limitations. Thus, while U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms, they do not have the right to shoot people. If someone were to do that, they should reasonably expect their gun (and likely their liberty) to be taken away. Similarly, if someone uses their right to anonymity in an attempt to commit a crime or harm someone else, they should reasonably expect that right of anonymity to be taken away – at least to the extent it relates to the crime.

Remarkably, the author seems to suggest that the use of “subpoenas” (presumably he meant to refer to the Norwich orders) are almost the equivalent of, say, parking tickets, that the authorities or litigants can simply write up  if and when they choose to stomp on someone’s personal liberties for no good reason. What an unfortunate misperception of the legal system. The very reason why someone must go to the courts to obtain such as order is to ensure that the interests of the parties involved are balanced and safeguarded. If someone seeking the order does not have a reasonable and valid basis for doing so, it is likely that the order would not issue.

Regarding process, he cites Eric Goldman:

“People need to know that very little information that they give or make available to third parties [like Google] is unavailable to the government or private litigants,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. “I think most people are surprised at how relatively easy it is for the government and private litigants to obtain ‘their’ information.”

I can’t speak to the process in the U.S. or what Mr. Goldman considers to be “relatively easy”. What I can say is that in Canada there is reasonable due process and consideration before such orders are issued. Just to cite one part of Mr. Redeye’s article:

A Norwich order is a pre-action discovery mechanism that is described by Spence J. in Isofoton S.A. v. The Toronto-Dominion Bank,

Requests for Norwich relief are largely unfamiliar to Canadian courts.  A Norwich order essentially compels a third party to provide the applicant with information where the applicant believes it has been wronged and needs the third party’s assistance to determine the circumstances of the wrongdoing and allow the applicant to pursue its legal remedies.

The 5 elements identified in this case for granting such an order include:

(i) Whether the applicant has provided evidence sufficient to raise a valid, bona fide or reasonable claim;
(ii) Whether the applicant has established a relationship with the third party from whom the information is sought such that it establishes that the third party is somehow involved in the acts complained of;
(iii) Whether the third party is the only practicable source of the information available;
(iv) Whether the third party can be indemnified for costs to which the third party may be exposed because of the disclosure, some [authorities] refer to the associated expenses of complying with the orders, while others speak of damages; and
(v) Whether the interests of justice favour the obtaining of disclosure.
[emphasis added]

The privacy interests of the alleged wrongdoer were overcome by the last element, the interests of justice, because of the applicant’s equitable right to information.  Spence J. pointed to Alberta v. Leahy and Bankers Trust Orders (from Bankers Trust Co. v. Shapira) indicating that court orders can override confidential information, even for financial records, and Glaxo-Wellcome PLC v. M.N.R. that the privacy interests of alleged wrongdoers is somewhat diminished.

Perhaps its just me, but this doesn’t sound particularly easy.

Of course, as with most things, the legal system is certainly not perfect, and there may well be instances where abuses might occur, or wrong decisions might be made by the courts where the scales of justice tip a bit. But to point at the sky and say it’s falling because of this case seems to me to be somewhat premature, to say the least.

Or at very least, as far as privacy concerns go, consider focusing more on things like the NSA and TIA than the courts.


google ventures is up and running

Announcement last night on the Official Google Blog:

Today we’re excited to announce Google Ventures, Google’s new venture capital fund.

At its core, Google Ventures is charged with finding and helping to develop exceptional start-ups. We’ll be focusing on early stage investments across a diverse range of industries, including consumer Internet, software, clean-tech, bio-tech, health care and, no doubt, other areas we haven’t thought of yet.

Perhaps not a surprise, as there were reports (like this one in the WSJ) in mid-2008 that this was in the works. So far, it seems reactions are mixed – not necessarily to Google Ventures per se but to corporate VCs in general. The WSJ had this to say:

Their track records have been mixed. Corporate venture-capital arms have been hampered by challenges that traditional venture-capital businesses don’t face. Venture capitalists invest in private start-ups at an early stage, usually in hopes of a big payout if the company is sold or if its stock goes public.

Many start-ups fear that taking corporate money limits their options and comes with strings that could turn away other potential investors — such as a right to buy the company at a later date. Some funds with less competitive compensation have struggled to retain managers, and corporate venture funds often don’t allow senior employees to invest personal money in their funds, while other venture funds typically do.

This is also echoed by some traditional VCs, including Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures (who by the way writes a great blog – highly recommended) who concluded in his post:

But I do think that venture investing is not the best use of a corporation’s capital and that it is inevitable that it will produce sub-par returns at best and significant losses at worst.

He cites the same reasons above in the WSJ article and also suggests that corporate VCs will have difficulty retaining talented fund management.

Corporate VCs, like strategic purchasers in M&A deals, may have longer term strategic objectives that, over a longer term, will result in benefits to them. In this regard, corporate VCs can be likened to some extent to strategic purchasers in an M&A context (while traditional VCs can be liked more to financial purchasers). In this regard, one of the advantages of corporate VCs to investees is that they will often have a longer term view of their investment than their traditional VC counterparts – they won’t be under the same constraints to book gains and make their LPs happy or to meet the horizon of their fund. In this case, the very thing that Fred suggests is a weakness of corporate VCs could well be an advantage to an investee company, depending of course on the objectives of the investee.

For the same reason, I’m not sure if it would be valid to say that corporate VCs are or are likelier to (as compared with traditional VCs) fail, because if the focus is on longer term objectives, realized profits as reported on the corporate VC’s income statement might not accurately reflect the actual benefit. At the simplest level, it could allow a company like Google, which has traditionally simply acquired companies that interest it outright, to hedge it’s bets. If the company is wildly successful, and Google wants to buy it outright, it will have saved a few dollars by having put in money at an earlier stage (and presumably much lower valuations). Depending on how things are structured and accounted for, I’m not sure whether the savings in that situation would necessarily be reflected in the measured earnings of the corporate VC. But apart from actual savings, VC investing will also allow Google to gain an insider’s perspective on its investees at an earlier stage and to better assess how things are coming along, and to help them along. This itself may be worthwhile relative to the costs associated with researching potential acquisition targets at a later stage.

I’m not suggesting that in all cases Google will be using Google Ventures as a farm team for potential acquisitions. But even if it isn’t, it may well develop better and deeper relationships with entrepreneurial companies that it could later partner with or enter into some sort of strategic relationship that will enable it to realize financial benefits going beyond those measured in the VC arm’s financials. And it will be better positioned to do so as an investor in the company.

Not to say that life with corporate VCs is all wine and roses. There are often thorny issues to deal with, particularly when it comes to commercial dealings between an investee and an investor, as Fred notes, and things like purchase options (which I’ve seen proposed a few times and for which the answer is a relatively consistent “no” from investees).

All that being said, an article in Wired suggests Google Ventures will act more like a traditional VC:

The fund, to be called Google Ventures, will be wholly owned by Google, but will operate as a separate entity and will seek investment opportunities to maximize returns rather than looking for investments that strictly fit with Google’s strategic vision.

Several high-tech companies have in-house venture capital arms, including Intel and Motorola, But Maris said that Google Ventures will have more in common with traditional venture capital firms.

“We’re making financial return our first lens,” said Maris. But he noted that a part of the appeal of Google Ventures for start-up firms is the relationship to Google and its 20,000 employees.

Interesting. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, if you’re looking for financing, go to the Google Ventures site.

from the “this is potentially very cool if it works” dept.

Came across this story by chance via an article in a Twine update that I was about to delete. Anyway, I caught the name Wolfram so thought I’d take a peek. The name might ring a bell – it’s Wolfram as in Wolfram Research, as in Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame. No slouch when it comes to all things mathematical. In any event, apparently in May he will unveil Alpha which, I gather from the article, is a “computational engine” that will actually compute answers to plain language queries. A brief sampling from the article:

For those who are more scientifically inclined, Stephen showed me many interesting examples — for example, Wolfram Alpha was able to solve novel numeric sequencing problems, calculus problems, and could answer questions about the human genome too. It was also able to compute answers to questions about many other kinds of topics (cooking, people, economics, etc.). Some commenters on this article have mentioned that in some cases Google appears to be able to answer questions, or at least the answers appear at the top of Google’s results. So what is the Big Deal? The Big Deal is that Wolfram Alpha doesn’t merely look up the answers like Google does, it computes them using at least some level of domain understanding and reasoning, plus vast amounts of data about the topic being asked about.

It will be interesting to see how (and whether) it actually performs. Given Wolfram’s credentials, the huge effort (undertaken in stealth mode it seems) and data that has gone into it and the positive articles to date (such as the one below) it does sound very promising.

From a legal perspective, it will be interesting to see how content used in the engine has been utilized and how the rights to such content (assuming there is at least some non-public domain material used) have been dealt with. From a tech perspective, it will be very interesting to see what the iron powering this thing will look like, particularly if it starts getting millions of queries a day, how the underlying algorithms work and the extent to which it can evolve and improve over time (I hesitate to use the word “learn”). And from a biz perspective, it will be interesting to see whether Wolfram takes a google-type approach to revenue generation (i.e. ads) or whether he has something else up his sleeve. Check it out for yourself in May.

via Wolfram Alpha is Coming — and It Could be as Important as Google | Twine.

chrome – not a windows killer (part ii)

I read with interest an article in The Register from last September that I just ran across a few days ago: Chrome-fed Googasm bares tech pundit futility • The Register. It echoes some of the sentiments that I had made in a post around the same time last year, albeit with a bit more edge and humour, as well as some thoughts as to the reasons why the tech press has presaged Chrome as the “operating system of the future”. Some excerpts:

Users aren’t going to decide which computer to buy based on which browser comes pre-installed, and even if they do, I’m going to guess that they will choose Internet Explorer (or – as it is known commonly in user parlance – “the blue internet that opens my web sites”). In any case, a browser is still going to need a proper operating system to run, and that operating system will almost always be Windows.

Given the thousands of Windows applications that are grandfathered in to many IT systems, the video games that are just a touch too GPU-intensive to run in JavaScript, and general user comfort with Windows, it’s hard to imagine a world where everything (and I mean everything) is done in a browser. Oh, and let’s not forget all your browser-based apps being ad-supported.

People are calling Chrome a cloud operating system because it is a “platform for running web apps”. It renders HTML and interprets Javascript, you know, like every fucking browser made since 1995. It’s also got Google Gears built in. Great. I’ll alert Tim Berners-Lee.

This bullshit is a common theme when talking about Chrome. Those who realize that Chrome is not a full fledged operating system but still want to get in on the page-view party are calling Chrome the cloud operating system. Get it, because it’s like clouds. All nature and shit. Don’t you want to read that story?

Well, at least Blodget sort of understands what it takes to run a web browser. I can’t say the same for Michael Arrington, who runs the Special Olympics of tech media, TechCrunch. Arrington fancies himself a kingpin of Web 2.0, but when he starts saying shit like this, it’s hard for him to keep the respect of people, who, you know, understand how computers work:

Chrome is nothing less than a full on desktop operating system that will compete head on with Windows.

Expect to see millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.

In no way can this statement be construed to make sense, and I’m not just being a pedantic asshole here. Fortunately, El Reg readers are with it enough to know that you need a proper OS before you can have a browser. However, a significant number of the users you IT admins support are reading shit like this, and will be putting in support tickets to have Google Chrome OS installed on their computers as soon as possible, because they’ve had enough of Windows and are ready for a change.

Everyone was after the perfect story, whether or not it actually exists. Someone is finally bringing the battle to Microsoft’s front door, and that someone is already a media darling. Google releasing a browser is so damned close to the ideal situation, but there’s not quite enough to declare that Chrome will replace Windows. None the less, this does not stop the technically incompetent from spinning it as such. Maybe they were just feeling nostalgic about Microsoft pummeling the shit out of Netscape?

Anyway, not even Sergey Brin could stop the premature eGoogulation. At a press conference, Brin said:

I would not call Chrome the operating system of Web apps…

Dammit, Sergey. You’re ruining my story!

As comedy would have it, word is that Brin is a Mac user. Considering Google hasn’t released its browser for the Mac yet, he has to run Chrome in VMWare.
Operating system indeed.

Well said.