Fun Friday: Telescopes and Memories

I’ve been planning to write something for a while, but frankly, there hasn’t been anything really fun to write about.

Everyone is complaining about gas prices and inflation. Global trade is still bottlenecked and tangled in knots. There’s still a pandemic, folks, although you wouldn’t know it from the way people are dancing like it’s the last night before the End of the World.

On the business front, venture is busily grabbing any money they can to hoard while telling their portfolio companies to “tighten the belt”, mainly around the necks of their employees. Companies are eagerly complying by rescinding job offers and instituting layoffs. Folks are nervous as they crowd airports, hoping their flight isn’t one of the hundreds cancelled that day due to lack of flight staff. And the war in Ukraine waged by Russia in a fit of insanity continues to kill innocents and destabilize the entire EU.

Speaking of dead innocents, the US Supreme Court, destined to go down in history as depraved pandering sacks of shit, decided that guns everywhere makes for a stronger America. Their overturning of Roe v Wade, expected after the leaked draft admiring the people who burned innocent people as witches crawled out of the sewers, has been released and to no one’s surprise reduced women to that of beasts. Yes, it is not a Fun Friday for many people. Maybe it’s a Gun Friday. I’m sorry.

Roe v Wade was decided in 1973. I was twelve. It impacted my life and health for the better. Today it is officially overturned in a ruthless precedent-be-damned legal coup. I am sixty, past childbearing age. It cannot impact me directly. Yet I have daughters and young people I care about. I don’t want to see them hurt. Their happiness and livelihood and health matters to me. They should have the same rights to choice and freedom that I had. They may not know how much it matters yet. But they will. I am sure of that.

I spent the morning cleaning one of William’s prototype telescope designs for display in the office. It’s an unusually compact and minimalist design. As I cleaned the mirror and cover plate, I found a cricket living in the focuser. I watched it hop off the picnic table and out of sight, grabbed the telescope, and took it to the office.

It now sits amongst the many creative works William and I did together. Our reliquary. 375 computers. InterProphet low-latency networking boards. 386BSD articles and books and CDROM. An unpopulated six layer 375 motherboard.

In other parts of the office, an EtherSAN prototype unit box, a 386BSD CDROM with the heftiest liner notes ever made, 386 computers of various vintages used for 386BSD, and bins 386BSD and 375 disk drives, boards, and cables. Some complete and some mid-project, designs waiting for a hand to finish the work.

It is a reminder that things are never finished — they are only left in a state of usability for a time. Once that time passes, one either has to toss it away or begin again. I choose both. To toss some things away and to begin again on other things.

Young people also have a choice. They can fight for their freedoms — and they can toss them away. I hope they choose wisely.

Fun Friday: AI Technology Investments, Failed Startups, 386BSD and the Open Source Lifestyle and Other Oddities of 2020

First, William Jolitz and I did a comprehensive article entitled Moving Forward in 2020: Technology Investment in ML, AI, and Big Data for Cutter Business Journal (April 2020 – paid subscription). Given the pandemic and upheaval in global economies, this advice is even more pertinent today. 

Instead of moving from technology to key customers with an abstracted total addressable market (TAM), we must instead quantify artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) benefits where they specifically fit within business strategies across segment industries. By using axiomatic impacts, the fuzziness of how to incorporate AI, ML, and big data into an industry can be used as a check on traditional investment assumptions.

For additional information on this article, please see AI, ML, and Big Data: Functional Groups That Catch the Investor’s Eye (6 May 2020, Cutter Business Technology Advisor).

Techcrunch presented their loser brigade list of 2020 failed startups in December of 2020 – although a few more might have missed the list by days. Some of these investments were victims of “the right startup in the wrong time”. Others were “the wrong startup in the right time”. And some startups were just plain “the wrong startup – period”. 

We mourn the $2.45 billion dollars which vanished into the eager pockets of dreamers and fools (we’re looking at you, Quibi – the pig that swallowed $1.75B of investment and couldn’t get any customers) and feel deeply for the Limiteds who lost money in one of the biggest uptick years in the stock market.

Thirty years have passed since we launched open source operating systems with 386BSD. Open source as a concept has been around for over 40 years, as demonstrated by the amazing GNU GCC compiler done by RMS. But until the mid-1990’s, most software was still held under proprietary license – especially the operating system itself. The release of 386BSD spurred the creation of other progeny open source OS systems and a plethora of open source tools, applications and languages that are standard today. However, the “business” of open source is still much misunderstood, as Wired notes in The Few, the Tired, the Open Source Coders”. Some of the more precious gems excerpted:

But open source success, Thornton quickly found, has a dark side. He felt inundated. Countless people wrote him and Otto every week with bug reports, demands for new features, questions, praise. Thornton would finish his day job and then spend four or five hours every night frantically working on Bootstrap—managing queries, writing new code. “I couldn’t grab dinner with someone after work,” he says, because he felt like he’d be letting users down: I shouldn’t be out enjoying myself. I should be working on Bootstrap!

“The feeling that I had was guilt,” he says. He kept at it, and nine years later he and Otto are still heading up Bootstrap, along with a small group of core contributors. But the stress has been bad enough that he often thought of bailing.”…

…Why didn’t the barn-raising model pan out? As Eghbal notes, it’s partly that the random folks who pitch in make only very small contributions, like fixing a bug. Making and remaking code requires a lot of high-level synthesis—which, as it turns out, is hard to break into little pieces. It lives best in the heads of a small number of people.

Yet those poor top-level coders still need to respond to the smaller contributions (to say nothing of requests for help or reams of abuse). Their burdens, Eghbal realized, felt like those of YouTubers or Instagram influencers who feel overwhelmed by their ardent fan bases—but without the huge, ad-based remuneration.

Been there. Done that.

Not many Linux-come-latelies know this, but Linux was actually the second open-source Unix-based operating system for personal computers to be distributed over the Internet. The first was 386BSD, which was put together by an extraordinary couple named Bill and Lynne Jolitz. In a 1993 interview with Meta magazine, Linus Torvalds himself name-checked their O.S. “If 386BSD had been available when I started on Linux,” he said, “Linux would probably never have happened.”

Linus was able to benefit from our two year article series in Dr. Dobbs Journal (the premiere coding magazine of the day, now defunct in an age of github), which along with the how-to details of “Porting Unix to the 386” we also included source code in each article. That, coupled with Lions Commentary on Unix (NB – the old encumbered Edition 6 version, and not Berkeley Unix) allowed Linus to cudgel together Linux. We had no such issues, as we had access to both Berkeley Unix and a source code license from AT&T for our prior company, Symmetric Computer Systems, and hence knew what was encumbered and what was not (Lions was entirely proprietary). Putting together an OS is a group effort to the max. Making an open source OS requires fortitude and knowledge above and beyond that.

Jalopnik, one of my favorite sites, found the ultimate absurd Figure 1 patents with this little gem of an article: Toyota’s Robocars Will Wash Themselves Because We Can’t Be Trusted. Wow, they really knocked themselves out doing their Figure 1, didn’t they? Womp Womp.

And finally, for a serious and detailed discussion of how the pandemic impacted the medical diagnostic side, I recommend this from UCSF: We Thought it was just a Respiratory Virus. We were Wrong (Summer 2020). Looking back, it was just the beginning of wisdom.

Stay safe, everyone!

Raytheon Wins the 10 Million US Patent Sweepstakes!

USPTO new patent cover

Today the US Patent and Trademark Office issued its ten millionth patent! The extraordinary Patent No. US 10,000,000 entitled “Coherent Ladar Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection” was assigned to Raytheon Company by inventor Joseph Marron of Manhattan Beach, California.

As the winner of this sweepstakes, Raytheon has been granted a lovely 20 year monopoly from the filing date (10 March 2015) for a new and unique invention that uses comparisons between a target and sample frequencies in a clocked processor to determine the phase difference for navigation. You can also, it notes, use it for holography assuming your target and you are both stationary, but that’s unlikely to happen unless you’re driving a Chevy Malibu.

As a token of esteem, Raytheon has been provided this lovely new patent cover page to swaddle their new baby patent Figures and Claims. We have no doubt Raytheon’s patent counsel shall commence to commit it to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead.

I congratulate Raytheon for winning the 10 Million US Patent Sweepstakes, beating out ever-industrious rivals IBM, Samsung, Canon, Qualcomm, Toshiba, Sony, LG, Intel, Microsoft and most particularly, Google, which has missed out on yet another self-driving navigation patent.

The next milestone sweepstakes, the 20 Million US Patent Sweepstakes, should be starting right about…now. Inventors: Start your engines.

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” 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”.