Category Archives: Technology

The rest of my life

Today someone remarked that I never write or talk about my future, I only document the past or analyze the present. It’s true. Fantasizing about the future only leads to disappointment when things don’t go according to plan, and the past and present can be disappointing enough. I got out of the habit of fantasizing about the future once I realized what brainwashing Disney was up to, and the only future scenarios I imagine are worst case ones out of practicality (ie: if we don’t fix X problem, Y horrible thing will happen). The person who made the initial observation told me that stance was unnecessarily negative, and said “if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know how to get there?” So I agreed to indulge her and detail how I imagine the rest of my life will play out in my fantasy future. For Ellyn:

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The software patent system is broken, long live the software patent system

Tonight I went to a panel discussion, one of my favorite closet nerd things to do on a Thursday night in NYC. It was at Hack Manhattan, aptly titled “Software Patents Debate – FREE alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments.” Sold out, obviously. The panel was hosted by America’s Future Foundation and featured Nilay Patel of The Verge, Chris Mims of Quartz, Reihan Salam of National Review, and patent lawyers Christina Mulligan, Alan Tenenbaum, and Greg Maskel, moderated by Chris Gaun of Gartner.

The purpose of the panel was to debate whether or not software should be patentable, if the current system is broken, and if it encourages innovation. All the panelists agreed that it was not optimally functional, mainly because of the legal aspects. The main example they kept coming back to was of a 15 year old kid in Wichita who makes iPhone game apps in between homework assignments. The kid could get sent a letter from a company claiming he’d infringed on their patent. The letter may or may not be valid, but that doesn’t matter—even attempting to defend his app could require up to $30,000 in legal fees and a whole lot of time. And it’s not like he knew about the patent in the first place because there’s no effective way to search the system and see if what you’re working on falls under another patent, he’d just have to build the thing and wait to see if he got a letter. As Christina put it, “when you’re in the position of making a product, it’s mathematically impossible to know what patents you might be infringing.” This is in-part because of the rate of growth of the software industry, in which there are about 700,000 patents currently pending, and millions of others in existence. Understandably, if I had the skills to invent something new, I would feel really discouraged from sharing it with anyone.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to define who the patent trolls are and thus impossible to impose regulations preventing such trolling. They are usually companies who bought up a bunch of patents but aren’t contributing any innovation to the marketplace, and will sometimes send letters in the hundreds or thousands to people who could possibly be infringing seeking royalties, which many inventors are inclined to pay even if they didn’t knowingly infringe on the patent because paying the royalty fees is cheaper than the legal costs. So the trolls can just sit back racking in the dough they’re bullying out of anyone brave enough to attempt to innovate. It’s clear they must be stopped via a reform in the legal system, but the reason they’re able to do that is because the ability to claim royalties exists to protect inventors from getting their ideas ripped off by intentional copycats. SO we need to find a way to differentiate between innovators and leeches. Shouldn’t be hard in theory, but what metrics do you use in practice?

It’s a stifling atmosphere that makes a lot of true innovators throw up their hands and say “to hell with the system, I won’t use it.” This is often the case with proponents of the open source movement, who are clearly the ideological heroes. But in refusing to seek patents on the principle that they won’t engage with a corrupt system, they are choosing to be poor. As Nilay put it, “the people who need [the patent system] the most are the people who don’t believe in it.”

Then there’s the case of companies trying to discourage competition by trying to patent things like rounded corners. Obviously no one company invented rounded corners, and certainly not Apple, but they still won. So the system is clearly still having some problems establishing whether an invention is “new” or if the company is exploiting the shit out of it.

The lawyers were very lawyery. One of my favorite exchanges was when Christina pointed out that the vast majority of patents are never litigated but one could still never know if he was in the wrong. Then Alan chimed in and said it didn’t matter, “go forward with your product and if you become successful then you become a target.” So if you don’t get successful, don’t worry about it. Except… what’s successful? Selling 100,000 apps at a dollar each and having to spend half that on legal fees? A million?

Then someone said maybe software shouldn’t be patentable at all, because it’s this thing that’s way different from a steam engine or light bulb or whatever was being invented when the patent laws were made with a 20 year expiration date that doesn’t really make sense in the context of today’s rapidly changing software landscape.

Ultimately, we want as much innovation as possible in our society. But as usual, the dudes on the golf course smoking cigars are keeping the nerds from saving the world. One thing’s clear about this royal mess though: Something’s gotta give.

OMG: STOP, Kernel

2013! An exciting new year for media, they say. Though to me it seems that every “innovative new tech publication” has the same distribution of founders, editors, and writers that every worn old tech publication has—heavily skewed male.

I’ve been eying Kernel Mag with interest after coming across their Troll Watch movement on twitter and reading about their mission statement to “fix European technology journalism”. Recently though, they published a feature speculating on Twitter creator and Square founder Jack Dorsey’s involvement with British actress and model Lily Cole based on a Daily Mail photo(shop?) of Cole giving Dorsey a massage that made me seriously question the editorial judgment over there.

From the article, cleverly titled: OMG: IS LILY COLE DATING JACK DORSEY?

Lily Cole Jack Dorsey

It’s Jack Dorsey. And Cole seems to be getting very close to the famously private Twitter chairman, in images that will come as a surprise and diasappointment to the nerdy hero’s female fan base and a revelation to the tech industry. Is Cole jonesing for a seed investment in her upcoming venture? Or is romance in the air?

Congrats, Kernel. You’ve nailed women’s number one strategy of acquiring seed funding: donning a bikini and massaging a VC.

Also, that picture is clearly not legit, unless there are two very oddly-shaped men crammed into the 3-stair-width space behind them. And I’m not even going to touch the claims about Dorsey’s heroism and “female fan base” because, ayfkm? But also a quick glance on the editorial staff site reveals it’s overwhelmingly white male.

I’m so bored with this formula for tech publications.

JudyGarlandSigh

UPDATE: Duncan Geere has informed me via twitter that Kernel is rather notorious in the British Media for being crap, citing a really strange essay by founder Milo Yiannopoulos about women with muffin tops, and an essay in Kernel begging confident women to “get over themselves” and demeaning female support networks, authored by what appears to be a sock puppet contributor dubbed Aunt Daphne. Apparently since they can’t pay their writers to write this misogynist tripe, they have to invent them.

Kernel, you are dead to me.

Easter egg of keyboard kindness

When I got my Nexus 7 (which i’m using right now to write this post), one of the first things I bought with the $25 credit to the Google Play store was a new keyboard. I selected the SwiftKey 3 tablet keyboard, which anticipates your next word by examining your facebook and twitter posts to “learn” your writing patterns.

One quirky thing that happens sometimes while typing is the keyboard will be overconfident of what you want to say and you’ll wind up with extra words in your message. I usually just delete and move on, because I’m usually in a hurry, but today while casually attempting to tweet a video, I noticed that if you keep pressing the space bar the keyboard will form full sentences for you.

The first sentences sound like something out of the Horse e-books twitter feed. For example,

“I have been living in the emails as I have heard.”
“So i just cuddled my laptop.”
“I am at least one of the few pieces of furniture.”

Weird, but not terribly bad guesses for me, at least the first two. But after a few lines of nonsense, you get something else, something hidden and deliberate:

“I am pretty sure that you can bring happiness to anyone, even if they don’t know you. 5. Every night, SOMEONE thinks about you before they go to sleep. 6. You mean the world to someone. 7. You are Special and Unique. 8. Someone that you don’t even know exists loves you. 9. When you think the world has turned its back on you, take a look. 11. Always remember the compliments you receive. Forget about the rude remarks. So…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. “

I’ll be on the lookout for 1-4.

A(nother) tale of two phones

When I first entered the realm of smartphone existence in June of 2009, I went with the Palm Pre. I made a really bad decision for a few good reasons:

1) One of my very close friends works as a mobile technology analyst for a very large bank. He anticipated that, based on the initial reviews the Pre was getting, it could be the phone to finally break the iPhone’s choke hold on the smartphone market. I am a fan of dark horses.

2) Being one of the first-wave adopters was a risk, and I am a risk-taking sort of person.

3) My contract with Verizon was up and the Pre was just about to be released.

When I first got it, I was ecstatic. I still appreciate many of its features: Its Linux-based Web OS operating system is sleek and intuitive, its universal address book flawlessly syncs information between your online and mobile contacts, and its battery life is pretty good once you learn that searching for signal and the GPS are what drains it (putting it in airplane mode when you’re out of range and disabling the GPS fixes this).

But it didn’t take long before I started to encounter some deal-breaking problems. On multiple occasions (including right now), it would seemingly arbitrarily decide to stop syncing my email. The first time this happened, hours on the phone with tech support and two trips to the Sprint store could not remedy the problem, and I ended up getting a replacement phone. Sprint’s tech support is so abysmal that the next five times this happened, instead of stressing myself out by dealing with those people, I simply went without email on my phone until the problem seemingly arbitrarily fixed itself after a few days/weeks. It’s gotten extremely sluggish over time, with the touch-screen commands executing a good 5 seconds after they were initiated, sometimes more. The camera phone app now takes minutes to open, if it does at all. And finally, the PHONE APP broke, so I haven’t been able to make or receive calls for about two months.

It soon became clear the Pre was not the dark horse some had hoped it would be. Aside from the hardware problems, or maybe because of them, mobile application builders stopped investing time and resources on WebOS aps. And the app catalog was a mess to begin with, and nobody ever cleaned it up. I could get by for a while, but then even the facebook app stopped working and I couldn’t post photos to the web anywhere with my phone. After Twitter changed its authentication method to OAuth, none of the Twitter apps for the Pre worked anymore, and still nobody has bothered to fix them or make new ones.

Me = Fed up.

Thankfully, my friend Dave Winer, after seeing me suffer in a state of smartphone limbo for quite some time, gave me a spare phone he had as an early birthday present. Thank you X a million, Dave!!!

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Why Dave Munger’s passport fail made Science Online London better

There's Dave! Next time though, you should dance or juggle while you present.

There's Dave! Presenting from Second Life at SOLO09

Twas the facepalm heard ’round the science blogging community when news traveled that Dave Munger, who was slated to present at Science Online London, neglected to renew his passport and would not be attending the conference. But while this may be a high-ranking fail for Dave, it should be documented as a notable win in Science Online history.

I’ve been to more than a few scientific conferences in my day, and at almost every one there’s some kind of technological mishaps that stalls the flow of events. I always notice because, though scientists are typically highly intelligent, they can still make some pretty novice errors with whatever new technology is supposed to enhance their presentation — the kind of errors that leave me wiggling in my seat debating whether I should get up and help or mind social norms. Technology provides remarkable opportunities for enhanced communication in conference settings, but often times these opportunities are not explored for fear of something malfunctioning at crunch time.

But from what I’ve witnessed, technological experimentation is rampant at Science Online conferences (which is one of the many reasons I enjoy them so much). At Science Online London, while the conference was underway, a virtual conference was being held simultaneously in Second Life so that anyone around the world with an internet connection and the Second Life software installed could virtually attend by visiting the Elucian Islands, Nature Publishing Group’s archipelago of scientific wonder in Second Life.

I’ve never really gotten into Second Life, though I have attempted to explore it on two occasions. The first, my old laptop didn’t have enough space on the hard drive to run it; the second, I successfully installed the software and built an avatar, but within the first five minutes of gameplay she got stuck in some kind of vortex. Based on my failures, I will admit I was a bit skeptical that the plan to broadcast in real-time could be executed.

Multiply that by roughly 20 and that’s how skeptical I was when I heard that the new plan for the session on Blogging for Impact was for Dave Munger to beam himself into the conference via his Second Life avatar and actually conduct his presentation through Second Life. It’s not that I have ever doubted Dave or his abilities, or those of the very competent individuals who were in charge of the SL control panel. I guess I’ve just been jaded by my experiences of witnessing technological mishaps.

BUT IT WORKED!! After a few minutes of suspense while the SL techies tinkered around with settings and relayed instructions, Dave’s audio came in loud and clear and everyone in the conference hall — as well as in Second Life — was able to listen to Dave give his part of the presentation. It was like the conference audience was NASA when the Apollo 13 spacecraft came back online after all that dead air time (right around 8:35 in the video). Yep, pretty much exactly the same situation.

SOLOMunger

I think this was actually the coolest part of the conference for me, because I got to watch technological evolution in action. If it wasn’t for Dave’s passport fail, it wouldn’t yet be demonstrated at a Science Online conference that it is not only possible, put potentially just as entertaining and effective, for someone across the Atlantic to present in an auditorium full of people. It would still be just a theory waiting to be tested by a brave individual willing to risk technological malfunction.

Now that we know if can be done, the sky is the limit, really. Why keep conference presenters limited to individuals who can physically attend the conference when you could have anyone in the world beam themselves in for 15 minutes? Money and time have ceased to be limiting factors, so at Science Online 2010 this January, why not beam in the big names? (/crosses fingers for Nick Denton)

Palm Pre + me = Love

Te quiero mi amor.

Te quiero mi amor.

From the instant I heard of you, through the murmured musings on my favorite tech blog, I knew I had to know you. They said you could be the one to finally put the iPhone to shame after all these years of its boasting… that arrogant device. You piqued my interest, dark horse. I had to know more.

I went to your website and that was the first time I laid eyes on you… your sleek frame, your compact numerical keypad, your large, wide screen. You made my heart race, Pre. I knew I had to have you. I surrendered my email address to your makers with confidence, something I am usually reluctant to do. I don’t trust so easily, Pre. I’ve been spammed in the past, and those wounds take time to heal. I don’t just give away access to my inbox anymore.

But you…. you were different. I didn’t know if I could afford you or if you were really as good as they said you were. I have high standards, Pre. But I also have intuition, and it was telling me with forceful persistence that I just had to know when you would be ready. Ready for me to hold you.

The media reviewers started to buzz about you, making me giddy with excitement. They loved you, Pre! Though some were weary to pick a favorite between you and your Apple enemy. I know it is no small feat to convert an iPhone user. They are comfortable in their mediocrity, and to question only makes them defensive. To convince them of your superiority, or even to have them rate you as merely an equal — to me that indicates you have already won the competition.

And you won my heart, Pre. When I saw the novice Gizmodo review of you, I felt a rage wash over me. How could he submerge you in soft cheese?? How could he defile you like that?? I took a stand for you, Pre. Because reading the empty criticisms of an Apple lover in that review, I knew. I knew that you were the one for me.

And then the very next day, I saw it. Waiting for me in my inbox. The alert from your makers:

Today’s the day. The new Palm® Pre phone on the all-new Palm webOS platform is here.

I knew you wouldn’t let me down, Pre. And it was destiny, you see. Did you know, my precious? Did you know that my Verizon contract had ended June 3rd? Did you know that my other beloved phone was dying? That it struggled to connect the audio when it was open in its primary position, forcing me to talk through speaker phone in the texting form, like it was some kind of Nextel 2-way? Shhh you don’t have to tell me if you knew, Pre. It won’t change how I feel about you.

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Why Palm Pre is the phone for me (even if it isn’t the one for Gizmodo)

Alternate title: Why “Mac people” shouldn’t review tech gadgets. In this Gizmodo review of the new Palm Pre, Jason Chen loses much credibility as soon as he gives himself away as a Mac Person by criticizing the Pre’s address book system: “I was able to pull my contacts from Facebook and Google into the phone quite easily, despite the Pre not supporting syncing to OS X Address Book, so it was a near-seamless transition.” The fact that this software is only available for iPhones, is the first clue of Chen’s bias. But in my humble opinion, simply using a Mac product does not make one a “Mac person”. I use a MacBook primarily, but I also appreciate PCs and operating systems oriented towards PC users, and can adapt to virtually any piece of technology if necessary. To me a “Mac person” is someone who values “user friendliness” above all else — even above the ability to use the technology to its full potential and craft it to her own specifications. Mac people generally want everything pre-packaged and don’t care if they don’t have the option to customize or modify specific features. Being a Mac person isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit one’s ability to analyze new technologies, much like Chen’s perspective is in his review. Though he gives it pretty good ratings overall, he is obviously iPhone-centric and has several petty complaints about features that sound like they would be a plus for someone like me:

Design

The first thing you’ll notice as you slide open the Pre is the absurdly sharp ridge digging against your palm. Nowhere—not on the iPhone, the G1, the G2 or any of HTC’s other smartphones—has a phone been so threatening to the integrity of my skin.

Cry me a river, Mac Boy. I like my phones like I like my analyses: sharp. If you cut your finger, it’s your own fault for making a classic Mac person mistake: NOT READING THE DIRECTIONS until after the fact. At least you learned the error of your ways and realized that you’re supposed to push up from the screen to open. I may be a rarity in that I enjoy reading instruction manuals cover-to-cover, but IMO it’s like voting: If you don’t do it, STFU and stop complaining.

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