The Squirrels Are Watching

Proposal: Version Control – The Operating System

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on December 22, 2009

There are two classes I wish I took back in college: Dinosaurs & Their Relatives and Operating Systems. The latter especially bugs me, because every time I see something about a browser-based operating system, I want to scream, “No, no, I don’t want that!” and then curl up in a corner for three months making something I do want.

I don’t have the know-how to do the latter, but I do have a blog, so I can do some virtual screaming.

My beef with a browser-based OS is simple: I LIKE DOWNLOADING THINGS. My WiFi connection throws a hissy fit every 10 minutes (can’t tell whether I should blame Netgear, Comcast, or tiny gremlins). Or sometimes I’m on the road or on a plane or in some place where I want to do something on a netbook and I don’t have net access. I bet I’m not alone. I’ve heard this plenty of times: “I want a netbook. All I do is browse the net anyway. Oh, and I want Microsoft Word. And I need to be able to sync my MP3 player with it. And I want to watch some movies I’ve ripped. And I want to play World of Warcraft. And if it’d scratch my back, that’d be nice too.”

As in, people basically want a tiny full-featured laptop for $300. Sure, you can do all the above stuff with your fancy Gears / HTML5 / Extensions / etc., but you’re spending so much time reinventing the wheel. Hey look everyone, I can drag and drop in my browser! Whee! I’ve only been able to do that in my operating system since at least Windows 3.1!

This isn’t exactly a new experience for the industry either. When the iPhone launched, Apple was all, “You don’t need apps! You have web apps!” Then they launched the App Store and pretended they never said that.

So what’s the best way to merge the “cloud” with a netbook’s operating system? IMHO, the solution has been around for a while. And no, it’s not the iPhone, it’s version control.

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Copyright Assert Truthy

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on December 19, 2009

I was poking around in the newly open-sourced Etherpad code, and came across this tidbit.

/**
 * Copyright 2009 Google Inc.
 *
 * Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (the "License");
 * you may not use this file except in compliance with the License.
 * You may obtain a copy of the License at
 *
 *      http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0
 *
 * Unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing, software
 * distributed under the License is distributed on an "AS-IS" BASIS,
 * WITHOUT WARRANTIES OR CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, either express or implied.
 * See the License for the specific language governing permissions and
 * limitations under the License.
 */

function assertTruthy(x) {
  if (!x) {
    throw new Error("assertTruthy failure: "+x);
  }
}

That’s trunk/etherpad/src/etherpad/testing/testutils.js by the way. So anyhow, as much as I appreciate that is licensed under the Apache License, is “assertTruthy” really creative enough to be worthy of a copyright?

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Proposal: A Public Domain Fund

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on December 17, 2009

Quick idea

Google and various other Silicon Valley entities should create a Public Domain fund. Basic idea is that you submit some creative work (a song, image, etc.) and through the magic of up-down voting, the top X entries win some Y dollars. Only catch is that if you take money from the fund, your work must now be in the public domain.

Rationale

A large number of people and groups depend on there being a robust public domain (or at least things easily redistributable via Creative Commons) — from lip dubs to remixes to fan fiction to mere inspiration, a substantial amount of creative expression takes the form of a derivative work. Whenever I feel the need to Photoshop (or GIMP) something together, I often spend a lot of time on Google Image Search or Flickr looking for source material. I imagine I’m not alone. Much of the derivative work out there gets by on fair use, but there’s definitely a good chunk of it doesn’t (or hovers in some gray area).

Furthermore, obtaining licensing and permissions from the original right holders is a tremendous hassle. There’re legal documents to be signed, dollars to be transferred, and hours to be wasted while you wait for someone to respond to your e-mail. Furthermore, the market value for a lot of these mash-ups is uncertain and probably not worth any licensing fee. More often than not, I’d bet that the creators of derivative works do one of two things: (1) give up on the current project or (2) use the source material without permission.

These derivative work creators would benefit from a large body of public domain works available for use. Now I’m not saying there isn’t already stuff out there. I certainly am usually able to find what I need given enough time, but it’d definitely make things a lot easier if public domain / less restrictive licensing were the norm. A Public Domain Fund would provide an economic incentive for creators to use less restrictive licensing.

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FlasCar: A Ghetto Flash Card Program

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on November 29, 2009

I really didn’t want to pay for flash card software to help with studying, so I spent a few hours cobbling together FlasCar — my ghetto flash card program. It’s a Python script that parses a data file and generates an HTML / Javascript (jQuery) page that you can use.

Click here to try out the demo.

If you’re interested, you can download the Python script and make your own Javascript-powered flash cards. The details are in the README file. If you’re running Windows, you’ll need to install Python first. I think OS X and most Linux distros already have it, but if they don’t, go to the previous link  and get it.

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Bing Censoring in China?

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on November 22, 2009

Nicholas Kristof recently put up an article about Bing censoring simplified (mainland) Chinese searches. All of the major search players do this of course, but what’s new is that the censoring happens when if you’re searching from a U.S. IP address (as opposed to within China itself).

Kristof uses Tiananmen (天安门) as his search term, but I think that’s a little ambiguous. Tiananmen Square has a history that stretches well before 1989 (trivia of the day: the 1989 incident was not the first Tiananmen Square incident) and as a popular tourist location, it’s plausible that Bing’s algorithm would turn up lots of friendly-Tianamen-is-a-nice-place-to-visit results.

So let’s try the name of a certain evil cult outlawed in China.

For comparison, here’re the Google results:

Google has 7,490,000 results and Bing has 0? Now that’s implausible.

Interesting notes:

  • Today’s Bing background is of Potola Palace in Tibet, the former home of the Dalai Lama.
  • Google includes traditional Chinese character results in search results using simplified Chinese characters (see the last item in the screenshot above).

What’s the right length of time for copyright and patents?

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on November 14, 2009

One of my issues with copyrights and patents are setup is how arbitrary their length is. Copyrights lasts for your entire life + 70 years. A patent lasts for 20 years. That seems odd to me. The end result of billions of dollars worth of product development can be under protection for a shorter amount of time than some doodle you scribbled on a napkin one afternoon.

Ideally, the length of time a copyright or patent lasts should be tied to market behavior by producers. I’m not sure how’d you make this work, but as a starting point, the market value of a copyrights or patent should correspond roughly to your sunk costs in producing the relevant intellectual property. One you account for those, I feel the law shouldn’t offer any additional protection. You are of course, entitled to try to earn a profit, but your profits should come not from a monopoly but from making a better product than your competitors — and I mean competitors in a very narrow sense. For example, I’d like to choose between book publishers based on factors like the quality of the paper or which ones offer digital copies, as opposed to which one of them managed to snag the exclusive rights to a book first.

I really can’t justify sunk costs as a barometer of the ideal value of a copyright over say, sunk costs + 20%, but it seems to jive from from the standpoint of putting the original content producer on a level playing field with the copycats. If anyone has thoughts on this, I’d be interested in hearing them.

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Bus Scheduling

Posted in Uncategorized by andrewfong on November 12, 2009

This happens pretty frequently in Berkeley. Buses on a given line are spaced 10 minutes apart. Bus A swings by a stop around 9:40AM. A large number of students with 10AM classes pile on. Because there are so many people getting on the bus, Bus A falls a little bit behind schedule. At 9:50, Bus B swings by the stop, which is now empty. B spends relative little time there and is now ahead of schedule.

The same thing happens at the next few stops. As more and more people hop on Bus A, it falls further and further behind schedule. As it falls further and further behind schedule, more and more people accumulate at stops ahead of Bus A. Feedback loop ensues.

Meanwhile, as Bus A is falling further behind schedule, Bus B is increasingly getting ahead of schedule. Since Bus A was late, the gap in time between Bus A and Bus B is now smaller than anticipated. That smaller gap in time means that fewer people have accumulated (i.e. people who normally ride Bus B now ride Bus A). Less people to pick up means less people to drop off means less time at any given stop. Bus B gets further ahead of schedule, narrowing the gap between it and Bus A. Another feedback loop.

Eventually, Bus B catches up to Bus A, and you get this very annoying scenario of a long wait-time followed by two back-to-back buses. Meanwhile, because B was so far ahead of schedule, the gap between it and Bus C starts to grow. Bus C starts taking on passengers that missed Bus B (because it came and left the stop earlier than the time listed) and starts to fall behind schedule. The cycle repeats.

There is a slight correction mechanism here. If the driver of Bus B is smart, she’ll drive ahead of Bus A and try to even out the load distribution by picking up those large masses of waiting passengers that otherwise would’ve hopped on Bus A. Still, it’s not ideal. The delays and unpredictability is frustrating as heck, but I’m not sure how’d you get around it. Thoughts?

Gun Manufacturer Liability

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on October 29, 2009

In Torts yesterday, we started on strict products liability. At some point, we touched on the liability of gun manufacturers for the costs of crimes committed with guns. This naturally started up a shitstorm.

First, let’s assume that there is in fact a legitimate public interest in ordinary citizens being able to buy a gun (if there weren’t, then we would be discussing banning guns period, not strict products liability). Given that legitimate interest, my initial reaction was that holding gun manufacturers liable for gun crimes would be horribly unfair. It’d be the equivalent of holdng auto-manufacturers liable for hit and runs. After talking to my modmate Sam though, I think, from an economic efficiency and loss distribution perspective at least, it’s an interesting proposition.

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Facebook Redirect Phishing

Posted in Code and Tech by andrewfong on October 25, 2009

Two of my friends inadvertently gave away their passwords to a Facebook password phishing site yesterday. If you don’t know what phishing is, see the Wikipedia article.

Hypothesis: The way Facebook formats its links in e-mails actually makes it easier for phishing sites to trick some users into giving their info.

Phishing websites work by creating mirror images of other websites and tricking you into logging in to them with your account info from the other site. So let’s pretend I owned notfacebook.com. I could trick people into giving me their Facebook password by sending them to http://notfacebook.com/login.php, a page that looks exactly like the actual Facebook login page, except when you entered in your password, you would be sending it not to Facebook, but to me.

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Check Out Lawless Lagomorphs

Posted in Scribbles by andrewfong on October 18, 2009

Tort Bunny

LawLag.com

Edit: Lawless Lagomorphs is now Tort Bunnies. (12/19/2009)

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