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…

taking the fun out of blogging

As a lawyer, I understand the need for policies, procedures, practices, etc. when running a business, managing vendors, employees, etc. Of course. Sure. That’s part of work – both my work and the work of my clients. But when I see an article entitled “Blogging Policies and Best Practices for Lawyers and Law Firms” well, gotta say, my eyes start glazing over.

Not that there’s anything particularly bad or wrong about the article. In fact, it offers some good advice on avoiding “ethical minefields”, creating “powerful marketing tools” and ensuring you realize a good return on your “investment”.

Ugh. To be perfectly honest one of the primary reasons I blog is not to realize a return on investment, or to create a powerful marketing tool, but rather just to offer casual observations (or ruminations) on my work or things related to my work. In other words, its a bit of fun, as compared, for example, to writing a formal research paper, journal article, or a 100 page outsourcing contract. For those types of writing, there are many, many rules, requirements and policies to remember and adhere to, amongst other considerations. And relatively speaking, its not quite as much writing that stuff as it is posting what are ostensibly meandering ramblings about the next new thing. Don’t get me wrong, its certainly interesting and challenging work, but its not the type of thing one typically does to relax.

I guess what I’m getting at is along the same lines as the previous post about making blogging part of someone’s job. Its kind of like saying that its part of your job to chat up your friends at work on a regular basis. Its kind of like saying that there should be internal policies governing who you go to lunch with, and what you talk about over lunch. In other words, to me, it seems to take all the fun out of it. It makes it seem like work. It puts you in the mindset that it is work. And, to be perfectly honest, I think it makes it less interesting, because you’re too worried about the time being put into it. Too worried about whether you’re writing for your “target market”. Too worried about “visualizing and addressing your market”. Too worried on making your blog sound “informal and conversational”. Too worried about this, that and the other thing, none of which have much to do with the subject matter of what you’re writing about.

Of course, this is just my take on blogging and what I hope to achieve (or perhaps rather not to achieve) by doing it.

ALPR is….

short for Automatic License Plate Recognition. Sometimes I find mention of the most interesting things in the most unexpected places. Like this brief article on how police in British Columbia are currently using a system that can easily and quickly scan license plate numbers as they drive along that I saw in bookofjoe. Surprised I didn’t see see it anywhere else, oddly enough, particularly given the implications for privacy, etc. Not necessarily that there are any – after all, license plates are there so that they can be seen by the public at large and police officers. That being said, I find it interesting how the application of new technology (optical recognition) to old technology (license plates), significantly alters the implications of how the old technology is perceived.

Sure, its one thing to have police on the lookout for a particular license plate on a car with a known felon who is escaping, but it seems to be quite another for a police car to scan and process thousands upon thousands of license plates while driving around the city.

Thoughts on Quantum Computing

Interesting article in Wired News where they interview David Deutsch who they refer to as the Father of Quantum Computing. He has a kind of low key but interesting take on the recent demonstration of a real, live 16 qubit quantum computer by D-Wave, a Canadian company based out of Vancouver.

Low key insofar as he doesn’t seem particularly enthused about the potential of quantum computers, other than perhaps their ability to be used to simulate quantum systems and of course encryption:

Deutsch: It’s not anywhere near as big a revolution as, say, the internet, or the introduction of computers in the first place. The practical application, from a ordinary consumer’s point of view, are just quantitative.

One field that will be revolutionized is cryptography. All, or nearly all, existing cryptographic systems will be rendered insecure, and even retrospectively insecure, in that messages sent today, if somebody keeps them, will be possible to decipher … with a quantum computer as soon as one is built.

Most fields won’t be revolutionized in that way.

Fortunately, the already existing technology of quantum cryptography is not only more secure than any existing classical system, but it’s invulnerable to attack by a quantum computer. Anyone who cares sufficiently much about security ought to be instituting quantum cryptography wherever it’s technically feasible.

Apart from that, as I said, mathematical operations will become easier. Algorithmic search is the most important one, I think. Computers will become a little bit faster, especially in certain applications. Simulating quantum systems will become important because quantum technology will become important generally, in the form of nanotechnology.

(my emphasis). Interesting thought about being retrospectively insecure. Particularly given spy agencies have, in the past, been sufficiently bold to transmit encoded messages on easily accessible shortwave frequencies.

I imagine the spook shops already have their purchase orders in for quantum crypto stuff (or have developed it already internally). Was a bit surprised by the statement above regarding existing technology for quantum computing. I had heard of some demos a while back, but didn’t realize that there are actually several companies offering quantum cryptography products.

Virtual Diplomacy

Short one as its getting late. Interesting piece on how Sweden is setting up an embassy in Second Life. As most of you know, Second Life is a MMORPG – a virtual world of sorts where people can control computer generated images of people in a virtual world.

That being said, somewhat less exciting than first blush, as the new virtual Swedish embassy will only provide information on visas, immigration, etc. Perhaps not surprising – I mean, its not like you should be able to get a real-world passport through the use of your virtual character. Nor, God forbid, do I hope they’re introducing the bureaucracy of passports to travel through virtual countries….

The Virtues and Evils of Open Source

Yes, I know, I’ve been behind lately. A ton of very interesting things to catch up on. But I’d like to put in one quick note about open source code. I recently came across an article, written last year by a lawyer, generally advising development companies not to use open source. I don’t quite recall where it was (if I did I’d link to it) but I do remember it being quite clear in stating that using open source is A Bad Thing and to avoid it altogether – not just to be careful, but rather to treat it as one would radioactive waste.

With respect, I don’t quite agree. I certainly advise my clients to take a great deal of caution in using open source code, particularly the GPL variety, and very particularly if they have a desire to keep some or all of their own secret, proprietary code secret and proprietary. That being said, I do have many, many clients who have used open source code to great advantage in various ways. Some have simply used existing open source code to avoid reinventing the wheel (and saving on costs), while taking care to keep viral elements out of their proprietary code. Others have been more aggressive with the open source model and have intentionally decided to use open source as the basis for their business model and making their very own code, or parts of it, either open source or subject to a dual-licensing model. As the Red Hats, JBosses, Sleepycats, MySQLs etc. etc. of the world have demonstrated, you can go open source and still have a pretty viable business. And, of course, there are the “old world” companies like IBM who have decided to go open source (in some limited ways – e.g. IBM’s DB2 Express-C thing).

Of course, this is not to suggest that anyone through caution to the wind and just start pulling down stuff from Sourceforge and whacking it into your product. Use of open source definitely requires some planning ahead and consideration of what the business model and value proposition of your business will be. Optimally, enlist the help of a lawyer who’s familiar with open source licenses to discuss what you plan to do and the packages you plan to use. Or, if that’s not feasible, try at least to read the applicable licenses yourself and ensure you comply with them, because if you don’t think that anyone will notice, or that no one will actually sue you, you may want to pay a visit to the GPL Violations Site and reconsider, in addition to the questions that will be asked of you when the due diligence starts on your next round of financing or, even worse, your (aborted) exit event. Can badly managed open source usage (and I emphasize badly managed, not simply open source usage) kill a deal? Definitely.

In short – I don’t think open source is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a pretty good thing, not just in the social good sense and all that, but also as a business. But it need to be used taking into account its terms of use and ensuring that its consistent with the strategy you plan to take.

If perhaps there’s one thing I’d recommend it would be for shops to make absolutely sure they have a disciplined approach in tracking where code comes from and the terms under which its being used and why its being used. That applies not only to open source stuff, but also, for example, your programmers taking neat snippets of code from Dr. Dobbs or something else, or coming across a nice little script somewhere on the Web and saying “Gee, that’s neat, let’s use it in our product”.

Anyway, if I remember where the article was I’ll update this to include a link.


Interesting post on the Wellington Financial Blog about “Wikiality” – the practice of taking stuff in Wikipedia as the truth, or, to quote: ““a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth.”

JN notes that Wikipedia has been cited by the courts, and this is reason for concern. A snippet:

The practice poses two problems:

  1. The references may be inaccurate; and
  2. Even if accurate, the references are subject to change at any point in the future, making it difficult for any future decisions to refer back to the original or understand the context in which it was made.

Given recent reports of Microsoft offering to pay individuals to make changes to certain Wikipedia articles in which they have a vested interest, the credibility of the site as a definitive reference source again comes into question.

A few of my colleagues at the firm also expressed bemusement when a recent case in Ontario (don’t have the citation, sorry) also cited Wikipedia.

I am quite a big fan of Wikipedia. It is, I think a rather useful and handy tool to refer to from time to time. Do I take it as the gospel? No. Would I use it if I were trying to concoct an antidote for a poison that was about to kill me? Probably not. Would I cite it in a legal research paper? Possibly. In fact, quite likely.

Although Wikipedia is by no means without its weaknesses, it also has its strengths. Sure, there is a possibility of inaccuracy. But then again, isn’t something less likely to have inaccuracies if it is reviewed (and edited) by more eyes (and more minds)? Isn’t it more likely that if there is a dispute about what is and isn’t correct, it will come to light, just like the Microsoft incident?

And what source, can it be said, is free of inaccuracies? Certainly not The New York Times. Although the Gray Lady is quick to point out that it was “deceived” by an errant reporter, it is less quick to reflect on the fact that it published fabricated stories. That of course is the clearest example, but history is rife with examples of inaccurate or misleading stories in the press. Less clear, of course, is media bias. And one only needs to refer to Manufacturing Consent. I don’t necessarily agree with all that book has to offer, but it certainly provides some food for thought.

What about scientific publications? Hmmm. Well. Again, truth is quite often relative. The clearest examples, are, of course, outright fabrication. Nonetheless, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s paper on producting the first cloned stem cell line was considered the truth for several years, until he was discredited. And more generally speaking, is it not true that, in the world of science, what is considered to be the truth is what most scientists believe to be true? Is that not the system of peer review? A great read on this topic is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (as an aside, its also the book that introduced the phrase “paradigm shift” into popular parlance). I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, science, at least in concept, may not be that far from wikiality.

My point isn’t necessarily to skewer existing sources of “truth” but rather to point out that such sources aren’t necessarily more reliable or accurate, or less fallible, than something like Wikipedia.

And as for things changing? Make a copy.

Hmmm…. interesting…. oops, might have just violated a patent…

Well, not quite. Being a bit tongue in cheek. But continuing on a theme of interesting patents, a story in Boing Boing referring to Flickr filing a patent for “interestingness” and how some feel they shouldn’t be able to:

I read the Flickr patent this morning and FWIW I don’t think Flickr should be able to get a broad patent on “interestingness”. There’s a very large number of papers in the image processing and collaborative filtering areas that all define various notions of relevance, interestingness, salience, or novelty. A specific innovative technique might be patentable, but not the general idea of computing how interesting an image or media object is to a person or set of people.

Of course, to flickr’s credit, I’m not sure whether flickr’s patent is so broad to be too broad. It does, after all, go through and enumerate certain steps in its method that don’t necesarily need to be steps in other methods of determining “interestingness”, so I don’t think it really goes so far as to patent the general idea of computing or figuring out how interesting a media object is. If it were,  well, you might be in violation right now. That is, if you find this entry interesting. Or at least more or less interesting that some other entry…

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.