A Collection of Thoughts & Discoveries
Technology, Business, Giving, Etc.
- “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Ernest Hemmingway
- “Judge each day not by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” Robert Louis Stevenson
- “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Gandhi
- “Noble deeds that are concealed are most esteemed.” Blaise Pascal
- “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” Ayn Rand
- “If you want to succeed you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success.” John D. Rockefeller
- “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” Thomas Jefferson
- “Sense shines with a double luster when it is set in humility. An able yet humble man is a jewel worth a kingdom.” William Penn
- “There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.” Freeman Dyson
- “You don't know what you can learn until you try to learn.” Ronald Coase
- “Let us so live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” Mark Twain
- “Create more value than you capture.” Tim O'Reilly
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Blogs I Follow
A gemologist friend of mine recently complained about the tedium of calculating gemstone and mineral specimen specific gravity via the hydrostatic weighing method. You see, after weighing the specimen in air (at room temperature) and in water (at 4º Celsius, ideally) one must do a little math to determine the specific gravity (S.G.) of a sample. The formula is very simple: It’s the weight in air, divided by the loss of weight in water (at 4º Celsius). Or: the weight in air, divided by the weight in air minus the weight in water. Simple. Right? But when you do dozens (or more) of these a day, it gets tedious. High-end lab equipment will do the calculations for the technician, but my friend doesn’t have such equipment. And such equipment doesn’t help if one is in the field.
There are a few calculators on the Web, but most are not mobile-phone-friendly, and he likes to use his iPhone around his lab. So I coded this simple little web app to help my friend in his time of need. Of course he wants a native iOS app, but that seems a bit overkill for such a simple task.
Now I just need to update this site to modernize it and make it mobile-friendly. So little time…
If you’d like to use the calculator, you can go here and calculate ‘til your heart’s content. It’s labeled to suggest entering carat weight (for precision), but entering weight in grams is fine as well (but rounding may negatively affect accuracy, depending upon your precision). Most important is to not mix units of measure.
Bloomberg has posted an interesting article in which historical comparisons to patent infringement and litigation of the 1,800’s and today are made. Airplanes, sewing machines, agricultural reapers and smartphones share a history (and present) of conflicts over patents.
I’d like to see the tech patent wars end as they did with the sewing machine — with patent pools. It’s being reported that Apple and Google spent more on purchasing patents and litigation than on R & D last year. (I’d like to see most software patents go away altogether, but that’s a different issue, although it’s also discussed in the linked NYT article.)
The New York Times has also published a rather detailed article today on the topic of smartphone patent litigation which addresses some of the stresses the issues place on a bureaucratic system and on the markets.
Check out the Bloomberg article here.
The New York Times article is here.
Part 1: Passwords
In this day and age, when there are highly publicized reports of security lapses associated with user data around the web, there is no excuse for weak password security practices to continue. Web services which require users to submit personal information, email addresses, use passwords or passphrases to access accounts, etc., have an obligation to exercise best-practice fundamentals when designing their services. Mistakes happen, breaches will occur, but neglecting to at least implement best-practice fundamentals is not acceptable.
Recently, I have experienced several examples of very poor security design on various websites and it simply baffles me that businesses allow this sort of condition to persist in the wake of so much negative press. We’ve had examples of poor practices made very public and embarrassing at: RockYou, Gawker, Stratfor, eHarmony, LinkedIn, Sony, Yahoo! and more, and yet developers and business managers are allowing the weakest of practices to persist.
Here are some simple examples of basic do’s and don’ts, describing what should be minimum habits of design. This represents just a few of the lowest of low-hanging fruit. There must be a complete and comprehensive security policy throughout.
1. Registration and Logon must be over HTTPS, i.e. Transport Layer Security (TLS), SSL, etc.
No exceptions unless the site is just a personal project for sharing a semi-private blog among friends and family and you don’t really care if non-members access it. For websites which are for commerce or community this should not be an option. There are security holes when redirecting from HTTP to HTTPS (or including logon forms on non-secure pages), but that’s another post.
2. Don’t store users’ passwords in plain text. Argh!
This is a big one. There’s NO justification for this and yet mega-corp Sony did exactly this (according to reports) and bore significant abrasion to their rep and their pocketbook, with the issue affecting millions of account holders. In fact they had to close down the PlayStation Network for quite some time while they retooled. And Yahoo! was recently hacked in which nearly a half million passwords were exposed for this weak practice.
3. Don’t skip the salt!Continue Reading…
According to an article at Forbes the University of Florida is eliminating its computer science program to save $1.7 million while the athletic department receives a budget increase.
Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely? Steven Salzberg: Forbes
Universities are big business, but eliminating C.S. while the U.S. struggles to improve employment statistics seems wrong-minded to me.
I count myself among those who love to hate Internet Explorer (IE), at least versions up to, and including, IE8. It’s a web developer’s nightmare (although IE8 has been an improvement) and costs clients money for the additional work required to build and maintain websites which support all current browsers. We build a “web-standards compliant site”, and then add IE support… sigh. In version 9, IE has begun to finally support some web standards which have long been part of the W3C web standards spec, as well as some design rules used in newer CSS practices which have been supported by most other browsers for some time now.
This Microsoft ad for Internet Explorer is making the rounds and I must give Microsoft a “tip o’ the hat” for laughing at themselves a bit. We should all laugh at ourselves at times and resist taking ourselves too seriously. I could go on a long diatribe about why IE sucks or sucked in past versions, but why? You probably know, or can easily find abundant complaints for the lack of web-standards support which has been the norm with IE. Better to just enjoy this new Microsoft advertisement and give them credit for improving, as well as poking a bit of fun at themselves.
A team of European and American mathematicians and cryptographers have discovered an unexpected weakness in the encryption system widely used worldwide for online shopping, banking, e-mail and other Internet services intended to remain private and secure.
Security is so important in web application design, but cryptography quirks and nuances can affect even well conceived designs. Yet another reason to maintain “best practice” coding and use “belt and suspenders” security design whenever possible. The researchers’ technical paper is available here (as a pdf).
Apple’s path from computer company to a consumer electronics company – and consumer services company – has been going on for a long time. As a long-time Apple user and an admirer of their products and much of their software, especially much of OS X, and a one-time stockholder, I’m actually quite disappointed by the “evolution of Apple” as it currently is going – at least regarding the OS and high-end tools. Oh sure, I do get it from a business point of view, from a shareholder value perspective, etc., but I’m just not thrilled with it from a selfish point of view.
Lots of people complain about “the Apple walled garden”, yet with some exceptions, I really like Apple’s integrated approach as it pertains to quality control and a uniform user experience. That many of these controls also add to Apple’s profitability is fine with me. That’s business, and I like the products.
However, as one who likes computers to feel like mature tools, I really don’t like the direction of Mac OS X at this time. I like OS X 10.6.x (Snow Leopard) very much. It’s stable on my machines (much better than Leopard, which was worse than Tiger for me), it looks grown-up and mostly works well with my software and peripherals. I don’t like Lion and find the UI absolutely atrocious in some areas (esp. the Address Book and iCal), as it looks like Romper Room to me and it’s tacky IMHO. Hopefully Apple will consider moving back to a mature and elegant user interface in Mountain Lion and beyond. The move to a uniform “iOS feel” across Apple products is the obvious direction, but it’s something I truly hate about Apple’s current path. For the consumer market it makes sense, but for people (like me) who like computers to feel like tools with detailed controls instead of a stroll through FAO Schwarz it’s not a great path. Don’t get me wrong, I love the integration, just not the “sameness” across tools used for different tasks.
This is all a very personal thing, and I’m sure that there are many who love the current path (or simply don’t care). For example, I’m one who loves the detailed controls available in Photoshop and hates the simplified UI of products like iPhoto. Even Adobe Lightroom is not for me because of the lack of precision. Apple really ticked off a lot pro users with their “update” to Final Cut Pro because of “dumbing it down” in many users’ eyes. Apple has moved away from supporting pro users on many fronts, such as color management (horrible support), discontinuation of their one display suitable for high-end image processing (the 30 inch cinema display), and a tower line with very limited RAM expansion capacity and long-due for an update (last updated August of 2010). Again, I get it, for business reasons. I just don’t like it.
Over time Apple had lost a lot of the enterprise world (or didn’t get it at all in many sectors) as IT managers stayed with the Windows platform. I’m always rooting for Apple to get more uptake in enterprise, but I can see why CIOs are hesitant to invest in Apple. Apple is making progress in this market, but talking with ranking engineers at large enterprises I can understand the resistance. One concern which I had not considered is Apple’s frequent OS updates which are not as backward compatible as needed. That doesn’t really affect me, so I overlooked it. My friend said that his team at a Fortune 100 company is using mostly Window XP still and that a change to Windows 7 will be very time consuming and costly. Enterprise needs stability, not new eye-candy. Still, thanks to the great success of the iPhone and iPad, Apple computers are working their way in to more enterprises and I like that.
Here’s an article that describes some real concerns with Mac OS X Lion in the enterprise environment. Most of what is described would be fairly easy to fix if Apple were to focus on such adjustments. The part about automatically reopening applications and windows which were open at shutdown would be an easy fix and is the source of much frustration even for the non-enterprise Mac community. There’s at least one lengthy thread in Apple’s support forums asking for this to be fixed. Apple just need to give the pro and business users a little love now and then, even though they’re “killing it” with iOS.
So there is my rant and personal lament regarding how I wish that Apple would find a way to continue to support not only the vision that is iOS, but also keep supporting those who use computers for more technical tasks, business needs, and professional production, and less so for social congregation. My whining is personal, but I also hear if from friends using OS X Lion and looking ahead to OS X “Mountain Lion”. Plus, Lion has stopped a couple of my friends from switching from Windows and that’s a shame. I’d love to see Apple develop the OS in a way that continues to innovate, yet retains the means for users to work more technically if they wish.
S.O.P.A. and P.I.P.A. are U.S. legislative bills presented as means to protect intellectual property and to stop online “piracy” of digital media. However, behind the labels of these destructive bills lies legislation which is potentially very harmful to how the Internet works to empower individuals, while pandering to certain parties in the movie industry and music industry. It’s no surprise that representatives in Congress would pander to the likes of these skillful and well-funded lobbyists, but the Internet is a valuable, global asset which must not be controlled by special interests.
To be clear, I am against any form of intellectual or creative property piracy, including bit torrents to share music against its creators’ will, using photos without the photographer’s permission, etc. We currently have laws in place against such behavior, but S.O.P.A. and P.I.P.A. appear to be designed to simply help U.S. media industry players who refuse to embrace new business models as technology has evolved–at the expense of the entire Internet.
Here’s a great talk by Clay Shirky on TED:
EDIT: I removed the embedded video here because the method TED uses for video embeds is such a drain on resources and loads incredibly slowly. So the link to the talk on the TED website is here, and worth a watch: Link to video on TED
Please inform yourself about S.O.P.A. and P.I.P.A. by following the links below, and reach out to your representatives in Washington D.C. to let them know that if they support such rubbish it will cost them their jobs.
The Wall Street Journal has published an insightful essay by Marc Andreessen on how technology permeates society, even in analogue life.
My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy. Marc Andreessen
Andreessen, an immensely successful entrepreneur, as well as venture capital and angel investor, sees tremendous opportunity globally in this trend. Of course, he’s not alone, as technology is one of the gleaming bright spots in our very challenging economy.
Marc Andreessen on Why Software is Eating the World Definitely recommended reading.
Chris Dixon has posted to his blog an except from a letter by Thomas Jefferson on patents. It really strikes a chord with me in this time of so many patent infringement legal cases in the tech world. Here’s the excerpt as Chris posted:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.” Thomas Jefferson
I’m not posting this (or reposting) because I feel that all patents are wrong, but I do feel that there is such abuse that the system needs to be reworked. I’m not a fan of software patents because I believe they stifle innovation, as well as laying claim to usage of “language” (as in computer languages) and how a user communicates or interacts with information.
In fact, I do support patents in the context of tangible products (though I abhor patent trolls). If an inventor, whether an individual or a corporation, develops an idea and wishes to earn money from the effort and creativity, I’m all for it and feel s/he should be protected from those who would simply copy the product and not compensate the originator. A lot of work and expense goes into developing prototypes and finished products. Of course, if a creative inventor takes pleasure from sharing his or her inventions with others without the need to profit, that's wonderful.
Thomas Jefferson was the inventor of many things, which he freely shared with everyone. A commenter on Chris' post, Patrick Lee, reminds us the Thomas Jefferson died at age 83, deeply in debt, and had he patented some of his inventions he might have been financially better off for it. He could have joined with others to create businesses which grew from his ideas as well. Still, his humble generosity is something to appreciate I think.
Here' the letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson. Kudos to Chris for finding this and posting it.
[via: Chris Dixon]
Caterina Fake has published a thoughtful post to her blog addressing FOMO, or the “Fear of Missing Out”, and how it affects the way people interact with, and by means of, social media.
FOMO is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does… Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on.” Caterina Fake
One need only look around when in public to see so many eyes locked on to mobile devices, thumbs pounding away at texting and tweeting or checking their Facebook, rather than taking in the scenery or talking with a companion, to see her point.
I have zero respect for patent trolls, and I am a firm supporter of copyright laws protecting content creators, but now there’s a new twist: a law firm named Righthaven is apparently engaging in “copyright trolling”. As described by Christopher Mims on the M.I.T. Technology Review blog, Righthaven is making a business of suing people and businesses for copyright infringement by waiting for an image to go viral and then buying the rights to it for the purpose of suing those who have posted it on the web.
As a photographer I value my copyrights, but I surely do not support this type of trolling abuse of an otherwise important method of protecting content creators. It’s actions such as these which may ultimately bring about changes in laws which weaken protection for artists, designers, writers, musicians, photographers and other makers of creative content. This kind of misuse of copyright law should not be rewarded and the actions should be penalized.
Mim’s post is here: Post a Copyrighted Picture, Face a $150,000 Lawsuit
If there is good to come from this, perhaps some exposure to this sort of thing will get more people to think before posting others’ images without permission and attribution. Still, I’ll be happy to see this “business model” practiced by any copyright trolls FAIL.
Amid massive protests in Egypt this week, the Egyptian government took steps to sever communications with the outside world by switching off nearly all connections to the internet. This has the effect of stopping outgoing (and in-going) communications via applications such as Twitter as well as basic email, Facebook, and wireless telephones. Bobbie Johnson has posted an article on GigaOM that describes some of how such a severance would or could be done. According to the information in that article, Egyptian officials at least had the forethought to not stop through-traffic to other countries downstream of their position in the internet infrastructure.
As certain groups in the United States are trying to get approval for an “internet kill-switch” in the U.S., Egypt serves as a prime example of why the internet should remain a free and open channel of communication. Homeland security is important for every nation, but stifling the citizens within the nation is not and should not be an option available to governments.
The New York Times has an interesting article discussing many details surrounding the cyber-worm known as “Stuxnet” and how it was unleashed against the Iranian nuclear program. There have been several articles written on the subject, but this one provides some connections and data points which read more like a movie plot than day-to-day geopolitics. In this case credit/blame is attributed to a joint Israeli-American project.
The biggest single factor in putting time on the nuclear clock appears to be Stuxnet, the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.”
The article describes the precision with which the attacks unfolded and what were the likely steps taken to prepare for that precision.
As infrastructure and services become more and more dependent upon network interaction it’s pretty easy to imagine how vulnerable these systems become as technology extends other efficiencies of operation. These situations underscore the importance of security as an integral part of system design rather than political rhetoric or as an afterthought which seems all too common in government.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the technology sector about patents, patent trolls, violations by one mega-company or another. My opinion is that patents in the tech sector are both necessary and stifle innovation. Innovators and inventors must be protected and rewarded for their efforts, visions and development costs. Hardware, bio-tech, and other physical innovations seem appropriate to patent, but some software patents seem as if they’re sure to slow development of exciting new methods. As one studies what is being approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office it’s obvious that there lacks a broad vision of what constitutes an appropriate patent in the space. Factor in patent trolls and one questions from where new innovations will come. Fear of being sued is always a concern as an entrepreneur launches a new idea.
Now there’s a new problem in the space: China. The Chinese company, Huawai, held just 152 patents three years ago, but now has over 45,000! Vivek Wadhwa does a good job of presenting the problem in his Bloomberg column and in a TechCruch post. I recommend reading both.
China could game the U.S. in intellectual property.” Vivek Wadhwa
Additional perspective is presented in this New York Times post.
As U.S. companies, as well as other non-Chinese companies, face steep licensing fees for marketing their own technologies in China, one must consider what will become of the process, as well as how manufacturing needs for tech products will be met in the future. Will businesses decide that it’s too expensive to do business in this manner? I doubt it, because I believe adjustments and pivots in policy will be made to preserve the upper-hand. However some will simply feel that the costs are “immoral” and take a stand against them. Does that mean to do business elsewhere? Or to put less effort into pushing innovation as the anticipation of being “duped” by a new “patent troll”, China, charging the innovator for his or her own products adds a layer of new concerns?
The patent trolls of Silicon Valley are a blight on the technology development environment. The global patent system, as an incomplete series of reciprocity agreements, needs to be remodeled, but it’s obvious by these developments in China, as well as numerous examples in recent years within the general tech sector, that the reformation must be carefully considered and designed with the intention of protecting innovation, not stifling it.