Dealing with Mean People – A Silicon Valley Manager’s Perspective

I suppose it had to come — the inevitable “What made that poor boy do such a horrible thing?” brooding and hysteria after the Virginia Tech murders. Already people are seeking to blame culture, video games, racism, conjectured bullying / criminal exploitation in his past, and so on, as if that makes it all understandable. Sadly, no matter how you slice it, nothing will balance out with the horrible crime this kid’s committed — the murder of innocents — and to spin wheels trying to do so misses the point. No action like this is redeemable.

Instead of focusing on a hateful monster, we should ask a different question. Why, when the world perpetrated a terrible evil on one man, who witnessed murder on a mass scale, suffered deprivation and want — who literally witnessed the face of evil during the Holocaust — did he give his life to save his students? Professor Liviu Librescu did not give in to meanness and cruelty, although his life was shaped by the meanness and cruelty of others. If anyone should have had a “reason” to be bad, he was the one. Yet he is the model of all that is good in people. He was literally “good” in times of evil.

Speaking as a manager, I’ve seen my share of hostile angry employees. Silicon Valley is extremely competitive, and some people don’t thrive in the pressure cooker of high-stakes startups…

I Really Don’t Think Lessing of Him…

Nice little mention of Larry Lessig’s work and the impact of peer-to-peer in Mediapost today. Of course, they did get a few points wrong, like his name, as I quickly pointed out to them: “The author of “Free Culture” is Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School, not “Laurence Lessing”. A published review (Sept 04) of his book has just been made available on the web”. Enjoy the article by Jim Meskauskas, ignoring the typos – it could happen to anyone.

Open Source Software Patents an Oxymoron?

“Recent events have drawn attention to the intersecting realms of patents and open-source software. IBM has donated 500 patents for use in open-source software, Sun plans to liberate 1,600 for use with its open-source Solaris operating system, and a Hewlett-Packard executive believed in 2002 that Microsoft planned to attack rival open-source projects with its patents,” according to Stephen Shankland of Cnet. That should be good, right?

Linus Torvalds, Brian Behlendorf and Mitch Kapor don’t think so. Even with donations of patents and white knights like IBM to protect Linux, other companies like Microsoft could launch a patent attack that could devastate open source. “We have to be concerned about…the use of patent WMDs. That will be the last stand of Microsoft,” said Kapor.

Aside from the melodrama, is there a case for the granting of software patents? Back in the 1980’s, when Unix was in its heyday, software patents were not filed because software was considered a collection of algorithms (not patentable) that was “expressed” in a unique form similar to that of a book or music. Hence, software was protected under copyright and trade secret status.

It seems inevitable that the success of open source spawned the boom in software patent filings, since trade secrets can no longer be maintained in open source and copyrights are routinely ignored. Patents are published but provide the grantee with exclusive ownership of the process for close to two decades. This made sense when hardware manufacturing processes and inventions might take many years to finance and develop, but not in the case of an intangible like software.

I expect there will be more filings – not less – for software patents. In operating systems alone I routinely review patents that are mere windowdressed versions of basic virtual memory, filesystem, stack, and driver functions that predate my involvement at Berkeley. The temptation to file by big entities (remember – “PatentLand” is pay-to-play) is just too great.

Perhaps a very short-term protection status for software patents (like three years) with a separate fast-track review process might be a far more reasonable solution to the current dilemma.

Is President Bush Good for Tech?

James Fallows of the NY Times served up a very interesting article analyzing the Bush administration’s impact on technology. I’m pleased to see someone apply a bit of intellectual rigor and careful reading of history to an article (so rare nowadays – most journalists seem to believe the Internet and press releases are accurate), and observe that technology initiatives are driven by many interests over time (industry, government, investment, military,…), and not usually a quick doc by a particular administration. It is well-worth reading.

I do believe Mr. Fallows has omitted two critical groups that have influenced inexpensive access to information more than all the others – the American taxpayer and the American free press.

Free Culture and the Internet by Lynne Jolitz in Dr. Dobbs Journal

Well, my book review Free Culture And the Internet discussing Larry Lessig’s latest book is now on the newstand in Dr. Dobbs Journal. After I had Coffee with Larry Lessig back in April of this year, he kindly had a copy sent to me.

My background in this area is most extensive – in fact, it predates Dr. Lessig’s professional interest by a bit. Even in the 1980’s I was wrestling with the issues of royalties and copyrights and license agreements as part of the staff of Symmetric Computer Systems, and used that experience to great advantage later with days, as I write in my backgrounder of the review, also entitled Free Culture and the Internet.

If you enjoy the review, let the editor of DDJ know so we can keep them coming. And if you like the review enough to read the book, let me and the author know what you think. Books are meant to be shared.

Google Stole Code? Is Social Networking that Hard?

I just saw on Cnet the following headline “Lawsuit accuses Google of code theft – Start-up claims an engineer stole software code to create the popular online social networking service Orkut.com.” If true, I just don’t get why those Google guys would have to rip off someone’s social networking software. It’s not rocket science or OS architecture we’re talking about here – anyone can put together the basic mechanism using an off-the-shelf open source content management system, plus some python programming in about a month – 2 weeks if you full-time it. My son could do it, and he’s 14!

Of course, I never understood the open source guys ripping off old OS work either, when the chip architectures had changed, and you could do something a lot faster, better, cheaper. But that’s real work – not kiddie script stuff like we’re hearing about here.

I guess some folks would rather spend years stealing than a few hours thinking. Or do you think the Orkut engineer was just desperate for a date and couldn’t wait?

Is “Free Culture” Under Siege?

Dan Kusnetzky, VP Systems at IDC, found my piece on Free Culture “an interesting analysis”, which is high praise. But Dan also took issue with Dr. Lessig’s premise that copyright and fair use is under siege.

Dan wondered whether we were seeing the impact on copyright and fair use as less “a concerted, planned effort…underway to control culture” and more a “side effect of a piecemeal effort to control ‘intellectual property’ for commercial purposes”.