Monday, 26 May 2014

Unnecessary Dichotomy

As the scope of the open Web has expanded we've run into many hard issues such as DRM, support for patented video codecs, and applications needing APIs that increase fingerprintability. These issues are easily but incorrectly framed as choices between "principles" and "pragmatism" --- the former prioritizing Mozilla's mission, the latter prioritizing other things such as developer friendliness for the Web platform and Firefox market share. This framing is incorrect because the latter are essential components of our strategy for pursuing our mission.

For example I believe the optimal way to pursue our goal of unencumbered video codecs is neither to completely rely on platform video codecs (achieving nothing for our goal) nor to refuse to support all patent-encumbered codecs (in the current market, pushing almost all users and developers to avoid Firefox for video playback). Instead it is somewhere in between --- hopefully somewhere close to our current strategy of supporting H.264 in various ways while we support VP8/VP9 and develop an even better free codec, Daala. If we deliberately took a stance on video that made us irrelevant, then we would fail to make progress towards our goal and we would have actually betrayed our mission rather than served it.

Therefore I do not feel any need to apologize for our positions on encumbered codecs, DRM and the like. The positions we have taken are our best estimate of the optimal strategy for pursuing our mission. Our strategy will probably turn out to be suboptimal in some way, because this is a very difficult optimization problem, requiring knowledge of the future ... but we don't need to apologize for being unomniscient either.

A related problem is that our detractors tend to view our stance on any given issue in isolation, whereas we really face a global optimization problem that spans a huge range of issues. For example, when developers turn away from the Web platform for any reason, the Web as a whole is diminished, and likewise when users turn away from Firefox for any reason our influence of most issues is diminished. So the negative impact of taking a "hyper-principled" stand on, say, patent-encumbered video codecs would be felt across many other issues Mozilla is working on.

Having said all that, we need to remain vigilant against corruption and lazy thinking, so we need keep our minds open to people who complain we're veering too much in one direction or another. In particular I hope we continue to recruit contributors into our community who disagree with some of the things we do, because I find it much easier to give credence to contributors than to bystanders.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Against The "Internet Of Things"

I was lucky to be at the Berkeley "programming systems" retreat in Santa Cruz a couple of weeks ago. One topic that came up was programming in the world of the "Internet of Things" --- the anticipated future where everyone has dozens of very small, very low-power devices with CPUs, sensors and radios. There's certainly a lot of interesting work to be done in that area, but nobody seems to have asked the question "do we really want an Internet of Things?" Because I don't, not until we've addressed the pervasive problems we already have with security, privacy, and general untrustworthiness of our computing infrastructure. It's obvious that these buy-and-forget devices won't get timely security updates (if updates are even adequate for security), so governments and criminal organizations will be battling for control over them, out of sight and mind of their nominal owners. So we're talking about making the surveillance network of the NSA (and even worse actors) a lot more pervasive. These devices will be able to run for years without a battery change, so when you buy a new house or car, you will inherit a miasma of unseen machines doing everyone's bidding but yours.

There's going to be a big market for scanning and cleaning tools. A small handheld EMP unit would be great. Someone should get on this problem.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Milford Track

I took last week off to walk the Milford Track with some family members (plus a few days in Queenstown). The Milford Track is the most famous multi-day "Great Walk" in New Zealand and you have to book months in advance to do it during the regular season. It deserves every bit of its hyping as the finest walk in the world.

This three-night, four-day walk can be done "guided" or "independently". You pay a lot of money for the "guided" version and in return you stay in lodges with clean sheets, hot showers, and catered meals. For a lot less money the "independent" version has you staying at fairly standard (but slightly fancier than average) Department of Conservation huts, which means no showers and you carry your own food and bedding. We did the independent version. With both versions you must walk in the westward direction and stop for three nights in the designated hut/lodge each night. Each DOC hut has a resident ranger, and they're all brilliant to talk to.

You start by taking a boat to the north end of Lake Te Anau, then walking for just over an hour to the first hut. It's such a short distance you can carry whatever luxuries you can consume on that first night --- sausages, bacon and eggs were popular items amongst our fellow trampers. Then you work your way up to the end of the Clinton Valley, cross Mckinnon pass on the third day, and walk down Arthur Valley to Milford Sound to be transported by boat to the village of Milford itself.

The scenery is, needless to say, astonishing --- mountains, lakes, trees, rivers, waterfalls, and all that. The environment is pristine; every stream and river is crystal clear where not colored by beech tannins, and all are perfectly drinkable. There's fascinating wildlife --- trout, keas, wekas, black robins. The weather is highly variable --- sunshine, rain and snow are all quite common and we had them all in our four days (very little snow though). Having rain near the beginning of the walk, like we did, is excellent because it powers up all the streamlets and waterfalls.

One curious fact is that the Mckinnon Pass area was first explored by Europeans specifically to find a route for tourists to cross overland to Milford. Almost immediately after the pass was first crossed, tourists started using the Milford Track, often in rather appalling conditions by today's standards. For many years there was no road out of Milford so track walkers arriving in Milford generally had to walk straight back out again.