Gary Robinson's Rants
Rants on spam, business, digital music, patents, and other assorted random stuff.


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 Monday, October 20, 2003

This blog has moved. Please see
12:16:00 PM    

This blog has moved. Please see
12:15:19 PM    

 Thursday, October 9, 2003

I am moving this blog. I'm leaving all the content that's here in place, but future updates will be at my new URL,

The problem is that Radio UserLand, which I have been using since I started blogging, doesn't work for me. The first intimation of trouble was when I noticed that sometimes it doesn't properly update the server with changes, due to communication errors, and when that happens it doesn't alert the user that a problem has occurred. (You have to look at the log or check the site). The final straw was backup problems. RUL has a backup feature, but sometimes it doesn't work (the verification step fails for no apparent reason). It seems that a particular blog entry gets corrupted. When that happens, you have to dig into RUL's internal database to figure out what entry was corrupted. After you do, according to advice I received from UserLand, you edit that entry again and all will be fine. The first time I went through that hassle, it was indeed fine. But a few days ago I had the verification problem again, and editing the bad entry did not fix it. So at present, I have no official way to back up further entries to my blog.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole idea of RUL is kind of confused. One main advantage to running software locally rather than through the Web is so that you get the benefit of a native GUI built for your OS. But Radio's GUI is through a Web browser, so it acts pretty much as if it was a plain vanilla Web site, although it nevertheless has the overhead of requiring you to run a local process. Actually, much more overhead than a typical Mac app: Radio is usually using 12% of my CPU (on a 1GHZ PowerBook G4) while not even displaying any data (other than its little status box) or responding to user input.

Radio posts can be created through other sorftware such as NetNewsWire on the Mac, so I'm not limited to Radio's browser-based interface. But if I'm running NetNewsWire, I can post directly to a TypePad blog and not have to worry about backup issues or Radio's CPU's overhead.

On top of the issues above, Radio doesn't give you a direct way to see how many page reads you have if you aren't in their top 100. I am in the top 100 some days, but I'd like to know how I'm doing the rest of the time as well. Sure I could add a 3rd-party counter to my blog, but why should I have to bother with template editing for such basic functionality?

UserLand was a pioneer in the weblog space. But conceptually their approach has been burdened with the fact that they started out as a scripting language company. I think that's the root of the fact that Radio resides on the user's machine. It's because UserLand had a script engine and they wanted to get it onto more desktops, because of other ideas of what they might do with the platform in the future. And the language, UserTalk, is a proprietary language in a world of superior open-source scripting languages such as Python. (I have a right to say that, having done both UserTalk and Python coding in professional settings.)

There is one good thing about Radio, related to the future potentiality mentioned above. RSS enclosure handling. Radio does that better than anything else I've seen. It's not very useful functionality though because RSS enclosures don't yet have critical mass from the technology and entertainment worlds. They probably will one day, and I'll keep Radio around for that day when it comes. Though hopefully by then NetNewsWire will be able to handle them. (My guess is it will.)

So, those are my thoughts about UserLand Radio. Hello TypePad. Please visit me there.

Update: today I edited my Spam Detection piece. The first time I tried to save it, after completing my edits, Radio said it couldn't because the file wasn't open. (There's no reason I can imagine who it should think the file isn't open; Radio brought it up so I could edit it, so one could reasonably assume that Radio knew it was open.) I clicked Save again and I thought it worked, but in reality all my changes had been lost. GRRRRRRRRRR. My advice if you're in the market for a weblog tool: You guessed it. Pick something other than Radio.
10:22:48 PM    

An amazing discovery, revealed on Slashdot:

Separated at birth: [] []

9:10:23 PM    

SunnComm Says Pointing to Shift Key 'Possible Felony':
A couple of weeks ago BMG released an audio CD with a new type of DRM. Earlier this week, a computer science graduate student at Princeton wrote a report showing the DRM was ineffective - it could easily be defeated by use of the 'shift' key. The stock of the DRM company (SunnComm) has since fallen by 20%. Now, SunnComm plans to sue the student under the DMCA and claim that SunnComm's reputation has been falsely damaged. According to SunnComm's CEO, 'No matter what their credentials or rationale, it is wrong to use one's knowledge and the cover of academia to facilitate piracy and theft of digital property.' [Slashdot]
If that lawsuit gets anywhere I'm leaving the country. More appropriately, SunnComm should be sued for pretending it was selling an actual technology that did something. The fact that SunnComm would try to take the moral high ground here is disgusting, IMHO.
8:38:07 PM    

iTunes Music Store for Windows coming on October 16. []
6:04:23 PM    

A discussion of the European software patent law situation. Recommended. [LWN, hat tip to]
2:44:08 PM    

 Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Magnatune is trying to turn the music industry on its ear by encouraging file sharing and giving artists a large chunk of the proceeds. It seems to be working. By Chris Ulbrich. [Wired News]

The above is my first use of NetNewsWire's Post To Weblog feature. :)
6:42:04 PM    

Update: Slashdot already reports solid prior art.

"Microsoft has won a patent for an instant messaging feature that notifies users when the person they are communicating with is typing a message " []

Another stupid, obvious patent. AOL's AIM and Apple's iChat software infringe.

On the other hand, a article from 2002 says:

America Online has quietly secured a patent that could shake up the competitive landscape for instant messaging software.

The patent (6449344), originally filed in 1997, and granted in September this year, gives AOL instant messaging subsidiary ICQ rights as the inventor of the popular IM Internet application. The patent covers anything resembling a network that lets multiple IM users see when other people are present and then communicate with them.

So it looks like AOL can fight back if necessary (I don't know where that would leave Apple and others).

This is why companies that are responsible to their shareholders have no choice but to get software patents -- so they can fight back if necessary. The problem isn't with companies that get software patents, the problem is the environment. The PTO is so mindless in its inability to distinguish obviousness that way too many software patents are a joke, and do indeed have huge potential to obstruct industry progress. And software patents should be 3 years in duration rather than 20 because software evolves so quickly.

I am in complete agreement with Jeff Bezos on these issues. He's only doing what he has to do to uphold his fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders when Amazon gets patents. Arguably, he could be sued by irate shareholders if he didn't get them if it meant that Amazon didn't have the bargaining chips it needs to deal with patent lawsuits from others. (And it would mean that.)

Bezos argues that the system should be changed, and so do I. But while it exists as it does, he's going to do what it requires. So am I.

For the reasons stated above, plus a desire not to have Microsoft copy our hard-won ideas, Transpose, too, has software patents pending that could be considered to be "business method" patents. My current thinking on the issue, if those patents are granted, is to give free license to implementations which are free or result in only small profits, but retain the freedom to fight back against Microsoft and other large companies. I have begun to explore possible ways to build such licenses into the patents so that they couldn't be revoked.

Software patents suck, but if you're trying to be responsible to people who depend on you to make the right decisions financially, you gotta do what you gotta do. I'll report here as my thinking (and the thinking of my company), evolves with respect to these issues.

9:42:15 AM    

 Friday, October 3, 2003

Andrew Sullivan has a very different take on David Kay's report on Iraqi WMDs than most of the mainstream press. As far as I've seen, most in the mainstream press have a desire to interpret the report as evidence that we shouldn't have gone to war. Sullivan, has the opposite desire. However, Sullivan at least actually publishes extensive quotes from the report, and they speak for themselves. One excerpt:

1. Saddam, at least as judged by those scientists and other insiders who worked in his military-industrial programs, had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even those senior officials we have interviewed who claim no direct knowledge of any on-going prohibited activities readily acknowledge that Saddam intended to resume these programs whenever the external restrictions were removed. Several of these officials acknowledge receiving inquiries since 2000 from Saddam or his sons about how long it would take to either restart CW production or make available chemical weapons.

That, my friends, is the whole point of the war. It wasn't based on an idea that, with the the threat of imminent attack and hundreds of thousands of troops on the border, Saddam was insanely stupid enough to be building atomic bombs and conducting large-scale biological research right at that moment. The threat was that, once the troops left, he would resume doing so. And the report says he would. That was the point.

12:18:27 PM    

CNet reviews "pay-to-play" music services. iTunes Music Store comes out on top, for now.
11:45:54 AM    

 Thursday, October 2, 2003

If you're interested in the evolution of digital music distribution, don't miss this Wired article about Mercora, which is founded by McAfee CEO Srivats Sampath out of personal funds.

I think that Mercora is a step in the right direction, but its proprietary nature will be a problem for it. A better alternative would be something like Mercora that could work with various digital music stores and with free content as well.
1:11:47 PM    

Ray Ozzie thinks email is going away:

Think about it.  Think about the rate of increase of "noise" in email over the past two years, which is a very short time.  Think about where we'll be in as short as five years.  Can you imagine?

Right now, every major enterprise has a "content-scanning gateway" that processes every incoming email, looking for Dangerous Stuff.  Many individuals do the same thing on their own computers.  Some enterprises are beginning to quarantine incoming email for extended periods - sometimes an hour or more.  Maybe you'll get too much junk, or maybe you won't get what you're supposed to get.  Maybe you'll get it, but it'll be too late.  It depends upon where they turn the knob on the software ... and it's insane.

If you're hoping for some super-duper neo-PIM to or super-filter or super-law to come along to make your life easier, spare yourself the agony and just think ahead: it is NOT a sustainable solution if it is still called "eMail".  eMail is thirty years old, and we owe it a great debt of honor, but it has been pushed well beyond its design center and it's time to move on.  Incrementally, progressively, but most definitely.

And his solution?

If you have work to do with others, online, try workspaces.  There are many different types - from Groove if you like client-based mobility, to SharePoint if you like using Websites.  No noise, no spam, tuned to save your time.  Of course, you can't give up on eMail, and likely never will.  As time goes on, though, you'll only visit eMail as a low-priority background task, much as you do when sorting through your physical mail at home.  You'd never do important work through your home mailbox, would you?

The problem with working with others in Ozzie's vision of a workspace is that we all have to buy into a particular product, because they aren't compatible. So if I want to use workspace to work with my lawyer with have to bothhave Groove or SharePoint or whatever. The end of that path is either that everyone has a number of different workspace applications that they've paid for, learned how to use, and are willing to keep updating over time, or one company dominates the space ala Microsoft Office. I think it's clear that the latter is the more likely solution, for pretty much the same reason that most people in business use Office rather than a motley collection of premium word-processing tools and spreadsheets. Unfortunately for Ozzie, who runs Groove, I think such a solution is more likely to come from Microsoft than from Ozzie.

But in reality email has more legs than Ozzie thinks. In the quotes above, he is quite passionate about how rapidly email is degenerating. But you know what? I run SpamSieve and I don't have a spam problem any more. Yes, I get about 200 spams a day. But I don't see any but 1 or 2 of them. It's not a problem. And SpamSieve, like a number of other filters, is accurate enough that loss of legitimate mail ("false positives") is not a significant problem.

Now, as long as most people don't know about or don't make the effort to install such filters, there will still be enough profit in the spam business to motivate the sending of billions of spams per day. But one by one, email software manufacturers are adding spam filtering to their software -- most recently Eudora and Microsoft Outlook. (I'm happy to mention that Eudora uses math that is built on the mathematical suggestions of Paul Graham and myself, as does SpamSieve.)

Before long, enough people will have spam filtering -- whether they are aware of it or not -- that spam will become significantly less profitable than it is now. (And not only because of filtering, but also because even the most gullible and insecure among us can only buy so many penis enlargement products before they decide there are better things to do with their money.) Spamming will be less enticing to prospective spammers.

Added to that are increased legal risks due to laws such as recently passed in California, and perhaps most importantly, the likelihood of ISP's and and Internet-using corporations working together to divide the Internet into "two camps, those who can be held accountable for spam, and those whose status is unknown."

When everything is added together, it is unlikely that spamming will continue to make email harder to use. It is much more likely that the noise level of email will be diminishing steadily over the next few years.

Another factor will be the fact that sophisticated users -- those who are most likely to be on a lot of legitimate news mail lists from corporations they do business with -- will increasingly be savvy enough to choose RSS rather than email for most of that sort of news, further increasing email's signal/noise ratio.

So in the end, I think that Ozzie is indulging in a bit of wishful thinking to believe that email will soon be so useless that it will have to be replaced by the likes of Groove. Of course, things like Groove do have benefits; my company in fact has a Groove account, which we received as a benefit of our SBIR/NSF grant. However, we still use an open-source wiki for group document management. The fact that the wiki is free doesn't even play a factor in our choice; our Groove account is free (to us) too. The wiki just works; it's easy and convenient and there is really not much reason for us to use anything else.

While I think that there will advances over email and wikis in the coming years, my guess is that most people will be using products that are open-source and/or conform to open standards. Even though we have had little reason to use Groove, there is also little reason reason not to use a product like Groove if it were opened up so that it didn't lock up the user's data.

I forecast that Groove, and products like it, will be marginalized if they don't create open standards for freely sharing data with other products, but if they do so, compatible open-source products will emerge that make it hard to charge a lot for them. Microsoft would seem to be the company with (by far) the best shot of creating a proprietary, closed solution, but the world is a lot wiser now than when it fell for Office, and will be wary about choosing to get tied into another Microsoft monopoly. And open-source mechanisms for software development have gained power and acceptance in recent years. That's great for consumers of information technology, and less good for people that want to make a lot of money in the software industry.
10:25:35 AM    

 Wednesday, October 1, 2003

"McAfee founder joins chorus of music sellers":
With a pitch that evokes the heady days of 1999, a digital music start-up is planning to launch a distribution service next month, inspired in equal parts by iTunes, Friendster and eBay... the newcomer is putting a twist on digital music sales, hoping to spur the creation of like-minded, music-loving minicommunities that can help sell new bands and artists to each other. []

6:33:24 PM    

"Lawsuits Damp Down P2P Audience":

LOS ANGELES -- Lawsuits launched against individuals for illegal file-sharing appear to have tempered activity on the more popular peer-to-peer networks, new U.S. research released this week shows.

Nielsen//NetRatings, which tracks Internet usage, said on Tuesday it found a 41 percent drop over the last three months in the audience for Kazaa, the leading music file-sharing service. []

I have long felt that the most likely path of evolution for the file sharing universe is that a combination of legal muscle, plus convenient means to download music and pay for it, would marginalize "piracy" to the point that it is manageable.

It's like speeding on the highway. Speed limits, and speeding tickets, don't eliminate speeding. But they keep it down to a level that is considered manageable. Similarly, there will always be people illicitly sharing copyrighted music. But it will be brought down to a level where a music industry based largely on paying for recorded music will still exist.

I think this is the scenario that is slowly but steadily playing out.
6:36:47 AM    

 Tuesday, September 30, 2003

"Europe Shows Little Patience Over Patents": Alex Hudson of the Association for Free Software says he is reasonably happy with the final wording of the new directive, particularly the wording that data processing procedures or software running on a computer cannot be considered a "technical contribution," and, importantly, that software itself cannot be patented. However, lawyer John Collins says the directive is not a victory for the open-source movement, and "all we're fighting over is the middle ground--where you put the fences." []
7:00:20 AM    

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