This one isn’t quite law related or quite technology rated, though it sort of touches on both. Just wanted to share something quite remarkable I saw this evening.

I was riding home in a cab with my wife and young son, going down Bay St. at about 8 pm this evening. While stopped at the lights, I casually noticed a gentleman, sitting in the car beside us, obviously very preoccupied with something, looking at his Blackberry  with some degree of concentration and furiously typing away with his thumbs It was quite easy to see given the backlight of his BB was very bright.

After a few seconds the light changed, he sped onwards, and so did we. And he continued to type, with some degree of vigour, apparently fully preoccupied with his urgent e-mail.

So, you ask, what is so remarkable about this, you ask? Surely this isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone tapping away on a BB in a cab, right? And the answer to that would be no. Definitely see it all the time. In fact, do it myself sometime. Great time saver.

So what’s the big deal? He was the one driving! Certainly understand perhaps taking a quick peek at your BB when stopped at the lights. But amazingly, this fellow that I saw simply continued to tap away busily while pressing the accelerator and speeding away. Neither of his hands were on the wheel, and it was quite clear to me that his vision was focused on his BB and not the road (though admittedly he did see the light turn green). I couldn’t tell if he perhaps was guiding the wheel with his elbows.

The stretch of Bay St. we were on is fairly straight, so I imagine someone could just take their hands off the wheel for a stretch and continue relatively unscathed. But do so, and at the same time also try to write an e-mail to someone? What sort of e-mail could possibly be so important to worth risking your life (and the lives of those around you)? Moreover, what kind of person would be so pressed for time that the could not let the e-mail wait a few minutes until they pulled over somewhere to compose it? I can’t imagine that he did a very good job at either.

While nothing much happened this time (he managed to make his left a bit later – too out of range to see what happened to his BB (but obviously with at least one hand off of it) I do wish him the best that karma may have in store for him.

XBRL Is Cool

Just a very short one during my “lunch”. Ever heard of XBRL? Its short for Extended Business Reporting Language – basically a kind of sort of extension of XML or, perhaps more precisely, a subset of SGML. I like to follow developments on it because I think the potential ways in which XBRL will impact a variety of industries (primarily the financial sector) is huge.

To give you an idea, here’s a (rather old) excerpt from a speech that the CIO of the SEC gave at the last XBRL International Conference last May:

I think the agency can be proud of its use of electronic filing and information distribution. But we can aim higher. Today, the vast majority of EDGAR documents are filed in ASCII text, and another large fraction in HTML. That’s fine for reading about a company’s strategy and general issues, but if you want to do financial analysis or compare accounting policies between companies, you then have to do a lot of printing, searching, data entry, text parsing, and other mechanical work. Or, you can go to a third-party data provider, who can provide you with a database of financial information — but the data provider will have made a number of assumptions to simplify and standardize the financial information, and it may no longer be consistent with how the company intended to present its financials. And you won’t get any of the valuable information from the footnotes.

Since you’re at this conference, I know you can all envision the attractive alternative posed by XBRL and interactive data, so I won’t belabor the point. The potential benefits are persuasive enough — greater transparency of financial information, reduced costs for investors and analysts, potentially even deeper coverage of midcap companies by analysts, and ultimately more efficient markets.

Let me paint what I think is an interesting scenario. Wall Street types have been talking for a couple of years about algorithmic trading — basically, using computers to process real-time streams of market data and making fast, automated trading decisions. Today, that market data is mostly about stock prices and volumes, since that’s what’s available in real time. But at some point in the not-distant future, I envision a hedge fund starting to algorithmically trade with XBRL-based balance sheet and P&L data in real-time as it’s disclosed by companies. At that point, we will all know that interactive data has won the day.

Imagine that. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The number of tools that one can create to digest, compile, report and analyze numbers is limited only by one’s imagination. I can also imagine the potential impact that this could have on data vendors who charge quite a bit to provide archived financial information – often in rather archaic forms.

Surprisingly, I’ve not heard of many companies or startups that are working on new products (particularly on the software front) either to help in generating XBRL, translating information into XBRL, or crunching XBRL reports (though admittedly, I haven’t been following it that closely).

Anyway, if you’re in this space, and you haven’t yet looked into XBRL, you should certainly consider doing so.

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.