Thursday, 20 January 2011


I'm going away to Tongariro National Park tomorrow afternoon with family for a few days doing walks and enjoying the environment. I will be completely offline during this time. I'll be back in the office on Monday --- God willing! (By my calculations, the probability of a volcanic eruption interrupting our visit is about 0.001.)

Monday, 17 January 2011


Reading Google's latest update on media codecs in Chrome, I am immensely pleased to observe how much cover they get from Firefox having held the line. Because we don't support H.264, they can say that Chrome dropping support doesn't make things worse for Web authors. I bet the fact that users can't switch from Chrome to Firefox to get H.264 also made the decision easier for them, although they're not saying that out loud :-). Hopefully we've also just been setting a good example.

Effects like this are why Mozilla is needed and why I do what I do. Hooray!

PS: I suspect that if Google had held the line harder and never supported H.264 in Chrome they'd be in a better position now, but "I told you so" is so tiresome :-).

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Tonight at a BBQ with church friends and family one of my kids was singing The Purple People Eater song. Later my wife and I (re)watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark. While checking some details on Wikipedia later I discovered that the movie uses a famous stock sound effect, the "Wilhelm scream". That scream which was performed by actor/singer Sheb Wooley, who originally composed and sang "The Purple People Eater". Wow!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Playing The Game

The Problem

Innovation in software happens roughly like this:

  1. Come up with some good ideas (perhaps 1% of the technical work).
  2. Implement them in software, test the software, deploy the software (99% of the technical work).
  3. Succeed in the marketplace (even harder than the technical work).

The US patent system offers anyone who completes step 1 a monopoly on the use of the ideas. Once other groups to complete step 3, the patent holder can extract a slice of their revenues. This system creates strong incentives to stop at step 1, obtain patents and extract money from others who pursue steps 2 and 3: you avoid the costs and risk of steps 2 and 3, and even more importantly you avoid the risk of being pursued by other patent holders. (The latter risk is particularly acute in software, where in step 2 you will routinely create and use many implementation ideas that have been patented by others.) Groups pursuing this strategy are called "non-practicing entities" or more colloquially, "patent trolls".

Currently most groups aren't following this strategy. One reason is tradition. Another reason is that most technically adept people desire to implement technology for people to use. But nevertheless "non-practicing entities" are proliferating and that will continue while this incentive structure persists. In fact, as NPEs grow, the risk of taking steps 2 and 3 grows, so more groups will choose to be NPEs --- a vicious cycle.

Obviously a patent system which discourages creation and deployment of software technology is failing its goals, but the problem is not obvious to everyone (many people deny it exists) and even if it's obvious, vested interests prevent it from being fixed.

The Solution

I think we need to make the problem obvious to everyone by following the incentives to the hilt, proving by demonstration that the system fails. I would like to see a more rapid increase in NPEs. I would like to see a huge jump in patent litigation. I would like to see most of the profits of practicing entities diverted to NPEs and litigation. This would encourage them to abandon their support for the current system.

Some of this is happening naturally, but there are a few things that should be done differently by NPEs that want to reform the system (let's call them "ethical NPEs"). Some wealthy PEs have bought cheap protection from larger NPEs such as Intellectual Ventures by investing in them. Ethical NPEs should not make such deals. Some NPEs sell their patents to other entites; obviously, ethical NPEs should not sell their patent assets to non-ethical entities. To focus effort on reforming the system and minimise collateral damage, ethical NPEs should focus on pursuing PEs who do not support appropriate reforms. I also suggest that ethical NPEs should focus exclusively on the US market. If the US reforms, other countries will follow, and while the US software industry is crippled we can hopefully keep advancing technology elsewhere. A nationalist sentiment may aid reform efforts too.

Possibly the legal system will be unable to cope with the load. If so, that will add to the pressure for reform. As I understand it, a logjam of litigation would mainly impact patent cases, so massive litigation by ethical NPEs would have a nice side effect: litigation against PEs who support patent reform would be crowded out and delayed by litigation against PEs who do not.

This strategy risks creating a large pool of NPEs and lawyers who act in their own vested interests to perpetuate the current system. But that's happening anyway; hopefully they can be stigmatised.


I'm not currently in a position to practice what I preach here --- my employment agreement with Mozilla makes it impossible, and Mozilla is more important to me than ever. Hopefully other people will pick up the slack!

The ideas here are not new. Florian Mueller's "Fair Troll" model is closely related. I think I read that a while ago and forgot the source until "dave" reminded me in comments. Thanks!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Big Day For Free Video

Everyone's already seen this, but let me just say: THANKS GOOGLE! This is a very good day for software freedom and Web standards. I am surprised and delighted that Google is doing this.

Incidentally, it's also a good day for us at Mozilla: the pressure that was building on us to support H.264 should ease off considerably.

Theodicy And The Prime Directive

I recently read the "Night's Dawn Trilogy" by Peter Hamilton. I can't decide how good it is. Much of it is brilliant, but much of it is long-winded. It seems he took the great idea "what if, hundreds of years in the future, we discovered that souls were a natural phenomenon?" and ran with it ... for nearly four thousand pages.

One aspect of his writing I like is that he lets his characters hold opposing viewpoints, well-justified and strongly expressed; you can't tell who he favours. A lot of authors (many of whom should know better) let some character speak with the author's own voice, presenting only token opposition from other characters. I didn't like the ending; it must be the most literal deus ex machina I've ever read. Although at least it did end --- Neal Stephenson, I'm looking at you.

In the last book, a character presents the classic argument that the existence of evil proves the non-existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god. (I expect this is Hamilton's own view, although it's hard to be sure.) This intrigued me because Hamilton portrays multiple near-omnipotent alien civilizations pursuing a policy of not interfering with lesser species such as humans; this policy is apparently benevolent, on the grounds that it gives us self-determination, the opportunity to reach our own potential, etc. (Of course this is not a new idea; it's an old tradition in science fiction, perhaps most famous in the form of Star Trek's "Prime Directive".) I think there's a double standard here! Surely similar theodicies apply to both God and the Kiint.

I realize that science fiction needs superior civilizations to pursue a policy of non-intervention, otherwise god-like aliens will swoop in and solve all problems on page four. If there is too much intervention, there is no story to tell. I think maybe that applies to God too.

Monday, 10 January 2011

I'm Back

I just got back from a magical five days of boating with extended family. We spent most of the time on the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula --- Te Kouma harbour, offshore islands, visiting Coromandel town. The weather was superb, and we did everything --- swimming, fishing, walking, eating, reading, rowing, playing.

Spending a lot of time in the hot sun and swimming in the sea three times a day --- and no showers --- for five days makes me feel invigorated.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Interannual Status

We're enjoying magnificent summer weather at the moment --- cool in the shade, hot in the sun; great times to be in the bush or at the beach. Last week I was staying up near the beach doing some work and taking some time off, doing some iterations of "push to try, go surfing, analyze results". On Saturday we did the Montana Heritage Trail in the Waitakere bush with friends and neighbours ... supposed to take four hours, but the kids set a cracking pace and we did it in three. Yesterday we went to Cornwallis and did some walks along the beach and up to the Maclachlan Monument (great views) followed by yummy Shanghainese food at the corner of Balmoral and Dominion Road.

I'm planning to work Monday and Tuesday this week and then we'll probably be off on the boat for five days, completely offline until the following Monday (Jan 8). I plan to take days off on January 20-21 (Thursday/Friday) to do the Tongariro Crossing with some family members, and also February 4 and 7 to tramp out to the end of Cape Brett and back over that weekend. Possibly I might take another day or two off if an irresistible outdoor activity comes up :-).