Saturday, January 28, 2006

Can Corporations Stop Doing Evil?

My family recently acquired a Tivo digital video recorder. Once we started time shifting, I naturally started to think about the impact on the business models of the broadcasters and advertisers. I realized that advertisers could adjust to the millions of time-shifters by using reasonably static images on a portion of their screen real estate. One could still be brand-imprinted, even while fast forwarding.

That isn't what they did.

It didn't take me long to realize that advertisers, almost certainly with assistance from broadcasters, now randomly interleave frames from a show into a the commercial video stream. This results in a user slowing to normal speed playback, thinking the show is back on. They end up watching a commercial. In other words, advertisers had a opportunity to adjust to a new technological environment simply and effectively, but choose an aggressive (and antagonistic) approach instead. It is no wonder we hear talk of certain corporations "hating their customers".

This is the month that Google decided to facilitate censorship in China. Google's corporate philosophy is still on the Web, and number 6, "You can make money without doing evil", is still there, too. Although much has been made of this by others, it is my opinion that Google executives came across a difficult problem: Make less money by appealing to philosophy or more money by appeasing China. More money won. Everything else is justification.

This is also the month that Northrop Grumman decided to seize control of the Open Source Kowari project, a move which will probably result in the project's death over time. Although this action was not in the league of Enron's massive malfeasance or the lack of acceptable governance which lead to the Exxon Valdez disaster, it came from the same root cause: Corporations, via their most effective employees, choose short-term profits over long-term concerns. That goes for the protection of their customer base, the environment, and even executive jail time.

Is it possible for a modern corporation to compete and still act ethically? In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I believe there is hope. What we need is a meme iteration.

Twentieth Century Europe has managed just such a meme iteration. T. R. Reid's excellent book The United States Of Europe documents the rise of the European Union from the ashes of the First and Second World Wars. Europeans, it seems, finally got so fed up with killing each other that they formed an intertwining economy so that the individual nations simply couldn't gear up for war. In other words, the very idea of continuing the millennia-old practice of warfare became untenable and had to be replaced.

Will the EU succeed? Or will history judge it to be a flash in the pan, a minor interruption in the violence? Perhaps it will end up in a non-creative stasis like Renaissance Switzerland:

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
-- Orson Wells: The Third Man

Japan's attempt to form a more perfect society during the Tokugawa era ended in just such a stasis, albeit an extremely refined one. The thing I find most fascinating about this period in history is that the Tokugawa shoguns did not attempt to eliminate aggressive tendencies in their society, but to channel them.

In which ways do we in the United States of America attempt to deal with the reality of human (especially male) aggression? Spectator sports? An over-active military? More people in prison than any other industrialized country?

I am no stranger to male aggression, but I do not choose to ignore it or pretend that it does not exist. I am a graduate of two military colleges, a certified U.S. Navy "warfare specialist" and a martial artist. I believe that I know something of mankind's inherent aggressive tendencies. My wife and I chose to enroll our son in martial arts at a young age specifically to channel those energies positively.

Aggressive and competitive tendencies assisted our ancestors to survive. That's why they are there. Effective channeling, not avoidance, seems necessary. We can do that with diversion ("Yay! The Steelers won! Woo hoo!") or direction (such as the very existence of the Special Forces and the CIA), but we had better not ignore it.

The same is true of corporate governance. Executives who want to play the game need to be provided diversion or direction to stop them from hurting innocents. There must also be limitations. That is why we have Open Source licenses and environmental regulations. Too bad legislation lags corporate actions so badly.

Can we find memes that enhance our ability to feed the planet, save other species, encourage happy, healthy people and get on with life without corporate evil? I hope so. We'll keep looking. Perhaps that is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote of the "pursuit of happiness" being an "inalienable right".

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Diving into Ruby

Brian introduced me to Ruby fully a year ago, but I only started to code something in it last month. My initial reaction has been very, very positive. The only problem I have had with anything in the Ruby or Rails environments related to the known-broken SaltedHashLoginGenerator, which I eventually decided to avoid for now.

Tonight I attended the first (some say second) meeting of NovaRUG. I was hesitate about attending another users group, especially after Bernadette noted that it was "so ninties" to do so. However, I was not at all hesitate about hearing what Rich Kilmer was up to. Brian calls him the more productive person he knows, and with good reason. Rich is the genius behind Ruby Gems and kindly hosts RubyForge.

Rich presented two Ruby applications. The first was a prototype mid-air refueling simulation for the U.S. Air Force via BBN. He (amazingly( pulled it off in 200 hours of coding, complete with a multi-layer Mercador-projection map by making use of his ActiveStep GUI API for Macromedia Flash. It was a stunning peice of discliplined, logical thought. The second app was the upcoming product from his company InfoEther, called Indi. Indi is a portable, PDA-like environment on a USB drive. It includes two executables, one each for Windows and Mac OS X. Running either will bootstrap a browser/Flash environment to run the Ruby application. Very cool. A Linux version will come out as soon as Macromedia allows Linux to support Flash 8 format.

I'm not going to announce my own Ruby app yet, just in case my impending move to Fredericksburg and trip to Australia get in the way of completion. However, rest assured that I will blog it, release it under an Open Source license and throw up a service to allow free use as soon as I have it in a pretty state.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Policy Aware Web Meeting, Day 2

Day two of the Policy Aware Web face-to-face meeting ended up about as I expected. Over the last year, we have been able to show that policies and logical proofs can effectively be used to control access to Web resources between two parties. This year, we are moving on to the more interesting three- and four-party scenarios.

In short, we want to allow a policy to allow very non-technical Web users to be given access where their relationship to the content is proven by a logical proof constructed of elements from other, more technical, sites. We have to allow everyone's grandmother to play.

I'll have the new use case up shortly, but for now it is given in the meeting notes.

Tim Berners-Lee showed off his Tabulator at the PAW meeting, proving once again that he is not only smarter than the rest of us, he is also more productive. The Tabulator is very, very cool. It is a 100% javascript application to navigate and display Web-based RDF content to the point where it grounds in the traditional Web. It also allows searches within multiple identified RDF sources. Tim's vision of the Semantic Web is simply more clear than mine and it continues to impress me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Policy Aware Web Face-to-Face Meeting

Today was the first day of the semi-annual Policy Aware Web project face-to-face meeting.

Open ID still likely to be used for the demo code, although discussion continues. FOAF secrets are also still a candidate. It is a primary goal to ensure the final architecture, which is not yet complete, be agnostic to authentication mechanisms.

We are playing with a new use case, to extend the ones already listed on the PAW use cases page. The new use case is an extension of the photo sharing idea, where a family member of a conference attendee wishes to see a photo and the policy allows it. That will be fun to implement and will be the first time we are trying a use case with four actors.

For the first time, we used SubEthaEdit to take minutes instead of #PAW on IRC. This was because only one person showed up with a PC; everyone else had a Mac Powerbook. SubEthaEdit allowed seven or eight of us to edit the same document to create meeting minutes that we all agreed to.

Firefox's Ping Considered Harmful

The Firefox browser has implemented a ping attribute on HTML anchors and areas. The idea is to notify a different URL when the link is clicked and is meant for Web usage tracking. The justification is that since link trackers are doing this anyway with Javascript hacks, why not make it cleaner?

I am surprised that the Mozilla team would encode this in an HTML change. I thought they would prefer to fight this sort of privacy invasion instead of encoding it in an Open Source project. So much for Open Source being equivalent to Open Society.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fixing Agriculture

Jared Diamond has called the invention of agriculture, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race". His point is that is was bad for the nutrition of individuals, lead to cities and therefore large-scale conflict and is unquestionably bad for the planet.

There may be a solution. Enter Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute.

Jackson has famously said, "If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture first, sustainability will not happen." And he is doing something about it. His big idea is remarkably simple: Bio-engineer crops which are perennial underground, but act like harvestable, annuals above ground. We would get food without a continual depletion of soil nutrients. Cool!

The Green Flash is Real and I've Seen It

A common topic of discussion among blue-water sailors is whether one has seen the illusive "green flash". Invariably, most don't believe it happens, some believe and maybe one in a couple hundred have actually seen it. I fall into the last category. I have been fortunate enough to see it three times, twice in the Western Pacific and once about 200 nautical miles North of Hawai'i.

When the sun is just below the horizon, some rays are refracted by the atmosphere and are thus visible. That causes twilight. If the conditions are just right, the atmosphere may act as a prism and split the light into its component wavelengths as it passes your position. Just for a fraction of a second, one may see the flash of green (or even violet or blue, which makes sense theoretically, although the green is easiest to see).

The phenonenon is rare because the atmosphere is rarely clear enough, and people rarely observe the sun at just the right time. I know navigators who have observed sunsets hundreds of days at sea and missed it every time.

The beautiful image below was captured by a Finish photographer in 1992. I found it via Google, posted as a Goddard Spaceflight Center Astronomy Image of the Day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Northrop Grumman's Position on Kowari

After some consideration, I have decided to publish the letter from Northrop Grumman senior counsel Michael Wallach. I interpreted that letter as threatening, in spite of its polite tone. It was clear upon a careful reading that Northrop Grumman did not intend to comply with the terms of the MPL.

My response to Mr. Wallach attempted to address the factual errors made in his letter, especially as related to Northrop's directions to me as a consultant and their misapplication of the MPL.

Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions about Northrop Grumman's intentions toward Kowari.

I separately wrote a response to Brian Ippolito, Northrop Grumman's director of the Tucana project. In that letter, I expressed my concerns about their gratuitous use of lawyers and announced my resignation from the Kowari project.

It is my opinion that Northrop Grumman does understand the MPL as it relates to Kowari, they simply don't like it. I personally briefed Mr. Ippolito on the MPL in November 2005 and he asked detailed questions.

Open Source Advocates Support Kowari

I have been pleased to see the blogosphere discussing Northrop Grumman's decision to stop the Kowari version 1.1 release. Some entries from good people in the know:

Kowari contributors:


Third parties:

Alex from SOFA, who also sent this email threatening SOFA interoperability
Kendall from UMD
Danny Ayers
Henry from Sun
Erik Hatcher of Lucene fame expressed regrets to me by email.

Aerospace-Defense News picked up the story from Andrew's MoreNews.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Resignation from Kowari due to Northrop Grumman Letter

It is with sincere regret that I resigned as an administrator and developer of the Kowari Metastore.

This action follows receipt of a letter from Northrop Grumman advising me that any attempt to release Kowari version 1.1 could cause "irreparable harm" to their company. I received the letter on Friday, 6 January 2006 and took no action on the project after that time.

Northrop Grumman's position seems to be that they "purchased all rights associated with the Kowari software", a position not reconcilable with their continued release of the software under the Mozilla Public License, version 1.1.

I was not able to fulfill my responsibilities as a Kowari administrator following receipt of the letter, and so I resigned. I was concerned that I would be in the middle if I retained admin privileges and another admin either (a) executed the release, (b) took administrative action Northrop didn't like or (c) inserted code that Northrop was unhappy with. In the end, it was (b) that happened and I was glad this morning not to be in the middle.

I plan to continue my contributions to the Semantic Web and Open Source communities. More news shortly.

Bijan Parsia (Whoops! That should have been Kendall Clark - ed.) had an interesting post entitled Is Northrup Grumman Smushing Kowari?. He has is pretty close to right, especially his final comments: "Relying on Kowari is now not prudent, given our obligation to do our best for our clients; but it’s also bad for Semantic Web uptake in the US federal government, and that’s something Northrup Grumman should think very carefully about." What a shame.

Still, it ain't over 'till its over and it's never over. There are still ways to move forward with Kowari or other SemWeb stores and I intend to explore those options.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 5

In a continuation of my attempts to determine whether the FBI is monitoring the inter-library loan system, I ordered Sayed Qutb's Milestones and the US Army's Improvised Munitions Handbook today from my local library. They had neither, and so an inter-library loan request was generated. If anyone is watching, that will have to match some keywords. Qutb is a radical Islamic knucklehead.

The reference librarian told me that inter-library loan requests go to the OCLC for processing. She was curious, too, whether the OCLC had been, as she put it, "compromised". I certainly hope that the answer is "no".

Either we live in a free country or we don't. If we don't, I expect a visit from the powers that be. If we do, then I expect to borrow some books I don't plan to read (although I'll probably glance through them).

See also Part 4.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Causing Creativity

Is is possible to take actions which make you more creative? I think so, and I am not alone.

I started my professional career in a process-oriented job. I drove ships for the Navy. It took me about two years to qualify to do that, after my initial training schools. Although there was a lot to learn, it was not a creative role. Judgement was considered key, not creativity. I became good at absorbing information, synthesizing it and judging effects. I certainly did not think of myself as creative. I did not create professionally or as a hobby during those years.

However, graduate school in engineering often did require creativity. Theses, design contests, even class projects occasionally required invention. I found it hard, very hard, to return to a process-oriented job after that experience. When I left the Navy, I suddenly had to be creative again. I needed to find work, create a new career for myself. Eventually, I co-founded a series of companies, wrote patents, invented new technologies. In short, the act of changing environments lead me to become creative in a way I didn't anticipate.

There is some reason to think that one's activities can influence behavior, including creativity. The Smithsonian has a nice site on this very topic. They note the similarities between creative action in adults and play in children.

Child development experts generally recognize four types of play: (a) exploration/tinkering, (b) make believe/visual thinking, (c) social play/collaboration and (d) puzzle play/problem solving. Perhaps one needs to explore all four types in order to foster creativity.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year

Happy new year to all. My plans this year include continuing to spend significant time with my family, moving house to Fredericksburg, Virginia, authoring or co-authoring at least three technical books, building Kowari and finishing my Ph.D. If that doesn't keep me busy enough, I'll probably continue to consult to small companies and those involved in the Semantic Web.