Patent Absurdity

Don’t miss Patent Absurdity, a free half-hour documentary that “explores the case of software patents and the history of judicial activism that led to their rise, and the harm being done to software developers and the wider economy.”

When you open the page, the embedded video begins without human interaction, a violation of an Eolas patent. British Telecom tried to patent the hyperlink that took you to the page. The page probably results in transmission of a JPEG to your computer, a violation of a Forgent Networks patent. The browser you’re using is free in part because of the many patent-unencumbered open-source libraries and concepts its built upon: The concept of the “window” and the “tab”, the libraries that parse HTML, CSS, and Javascript and compress those resources over the wire; the TCP, IP, and HTTP protocols that made the internet bloom world-wide. The OS clipboard (“copy/paste”) that helped developers to build and reuse those libraries.

Had the modern interpretation of software patent law existed in the 60s, our computers, and the state of technology in general, might be very different. The clumsy technology in “Brazil” comes to mind.

With so much of the world’s economy and productivity now tied to software, the proliferation of software patents and worse—areas where those laws can apply—threatens to severely stifle innovation and funnel ever more of our resources into the pockets of law firms and of patent-trolling organizations that exist simply to extort from others.

Kleiman on Crime and Punishment

Remind your fiscally conservative politician that all these have severe public costs:

  • Crime
  • Prison cells
  • Disease spread in overcrowded prisons
  • Reduced number of working citizens
  • Broken families and lack of role models
  • Public fear of victimization

Evidence shows we can have a criminal justice system that actually convinces most criminals to give up crime while handing out far shorter and fewer jail and prison sentences, and without spending more money. Mark Kleiman’s new book shows how it can be done, and here’s to hoping smart-on-crime may someday overtake the dumb tough-on-crime rhetoric that got us into this terrible mess.

I highly recommend watching Mark’s recent talk on the subject. Here’s a summary:

Since the 1960s, the U.S. prison population has increased fivefold. Prisons today hold one inmate for every one hundred adults — a record rate in American history, and one unmatched by any other country. But despite the high prison population, crime has stopped falling. Punishments can seem random in their severity and implementation, minorities and the poor still disproportionately become victims and inmates, and enforcement — particularly of probation and parole — is haphazard. How can crime be controlled? UCLA Public Policy professor Mark Kleiman, author of When Brute Force Fails, visits Zócalo to offer a new strategy for cutting crime, reducing the prison population, and still enacting swift, certain, and fair punishment. [video]

The Quickening of Facebook

If you’ve used Facebook in Opera and Firefox, you might have noticed that Facebook is several magnitudes faster in FF, but this has nothing to do with FF’s speed. For FF and IE users, Facebook uses a client-side architecture called “Quickening” that basically makes a few popular pages into full AJAX applications that stay loaded in the browser for a long time. All transitions between “quickened” pages are done through AJAX calls and a cache system makes sure all pages displayed from cache are updated based on changes from the server (e.g. comments others made, ad rotation) or client (e.g. comments you made).

While other sites have certainly done this before, the complexity of Facebook’s apps and level of optimization performed is staggering. The system continuously self-monitors page performance and usage of resources and re-optimizes resources like JS/CSS/sprite images to send and receive as few bytes as possible.

Video presentation goodness: Velocity 09: David Wei and Changhao Jiang, “Frontend Performance Engineering in Facebook”

Miško Hevery Programming Talks

Miško Hevery gave several presentations at Google last year that are worth checking out, I think even if you’re familiar with Dependency Injections and unit testing. They cover the ways that global state can sneak into applications, how undeclared dependencies make classes harder to test and reuse, and how DI in general eases a lot of pain. He’s just a good teacher and the examples are clear and made me want to attack a lot of old code. Hig blog also covers a lot of the same topics.

Physics engine in Sketchup

I knew Sketchup was a great modeling tool, but apparently it’s also scriptable via a Ruby API and embedded web browser. At Google’s IO conference, Scott Lininger showed off some of this awesomeness.

20 min into the video below we see Scott capturing keystroke events within the browser instance and using them to control a modelled character. The character, its surroundings, and even the whole visual rendering style can be edited in real-time with the standard Sketchup tools.

Later he shows this YouTube clip that has more advanced physics demos made with the SketchyPhysics plugin. Wow.

EA skate has just about everything I could ask for in a skateboarding game (another post entirely), but you can’t design your own spots. Next logical step? Build a skateboarding simulator based on SketchyPhysics. The spots are already waiting.


Check out the trailer to Portal. It’s a first-person puzzler where your only ability is to create circular space/time portals between two locations. Your movement (and gravity!) does the rest. The trailer is also pretty funny.

This would’ve made Berzerk so much easier.

Google TechTalk: OLPC

Another brilliant Google TechTalk, this one on the massive tech challenges of the One Laptop Per Child project.

The revolutionary hardware design was hard enough, but the software goals are incredibly ambitious, particularly in the areas of security and long-term user data persistence within a very small space. Right now the permanent data store is 1Gb of flash RAM, and that stores the OS and apps as well. Every user file will have built-in versioning and they still have to figure out how to intelligently remove old documents and versions that are no longer needed. They want simple, near automated, and encrypted backups to school servers. Security with no passwords, no signed code, the OS runs with the assuption that any running app could be “evil”…as massive deployments of uniform systems these machines could become targets for worms and for use in DDoS attacks.

Another great talk I saw recently was a dissection of the XBOX’s security system and its compromise. The presenter does a particularly great job of entertainingly diagramming and describing the machine-level ideas behind the attacks without assuming much knowledge in the area.