Technology Theft

Apparently in the Steve Jobs bio there’s discussion about how he plans on destroying Android because he thought Google stole his idea. Well, yea, a phone operating system is genius, it’s just difficult to get a critical mass for a given operating system. There’s the problem of lock-in and network effects, which impact the likelihood of a given person adopting a new technology. That’s also why Google followed Apple’s lead with creating the Android Market. It’s also why Apple is suing every single major Android phone manufacturer. However, Jobs shouldn’t have been that upset there have been a lot of dead cell phone operating systems like Palm’s, many mobile windows and most recently the beautiful MeeGoo from Nokia.

Cell phones aren’t the only place where this sort of “theft” happens. Typically, it’s more considered technological borrowing by taking from one technology type and applying it to another. This happens when some technological limit is hit on a technology. This technological theft basically allows the engineer/designer to overcome some inherent limitation in a technology. An example of this was the effort that allowed proper planes to compete with jets for an extended period of time. They use super chargers and similar technology to allow the plane to fly at heights and speeds they shouldn’t normally be able to fly at.

However, this borrowing can lead to major legal issues. Which is why it’s fairly common to see licensing agreements between major firms that involve thousands of seemingly unrelated patents. This is so they can avoid any sort of legal issues if they have to use a technology the other company owns.

Other types of theft are really common, such as in software. Look at how much Facebook has taken from both twitter and google+.

What should we do about technology theft? Well, we need to deal with the patent problem first. However if we address that issue I think that technology theft is one of the best things that can happen. It’s a way that drives improvements of subtechnologies that make the larger technologies more efficient. It’s a way that technology evolves through selection process.

On a side note, I get to see my wife tomorrow, so I’m probably not going to be blogging much for the next week or so.

Where good ideas come from

Last year I bought a book after listening to a segment from NPR that my dad had sent. In it they interviewed to different authors, Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, I ended up getting both books. To my dismay the Kevin Kelly book, What technology wants,  was in my opinion painting a technology deterministic world that ultimately was unrealistic and absurd. I stopped reading it and never finished it, which is something I almost never do (I would equate him with Clay Shirky in being overly optimistic about the role of technology).

The second author’s book was significantly better. It’s called Where Good Ideas Come From and it has some really great ways to generate new ideas and how he believes ideas are formed. Below is a short talk of his animated by RSA animation.

The short and simple is that I completely buy his approach to generating new ideas. In his book he discusses using a piece of software (DEVONthink) while doing almost all of his reading . I’ve tired to do this with a similar program in windows called Evernote, but it’s difficult to remember to do it. I feel I need to get better at it. I had a great idea for a blog two days ago, never wrote it down and totally forgot what it was. Helaas pinda kaas (Dutch for “too bad peanut butter”). In some way the book is a big ad for DEVONthink, but that’s not really the important part. The important thing is how these different ideas come together and lead to new and fully formed ideas. A tool like DEVONthink or Evernote (There’s also OneNote as part of MS office) allow you to increase your ability to find things and create new ideas.

I effectively use websites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and the books I read in this fashion. Many of my blog posts come about from the different news stories I read to which I put my own spin on them and add additional commentary. Typically by combing ideas from multiple different sources. I love when my friends point me to new sources of information or stories I’d be interested in. One of my blogs, What is the value of a patent, was written because someone sent me the “When Patents attack” story by This American life. I was able to combine the ideas presented in that story with my knowledge of patents that I’ve learned at TU/e to write an interesting blog that’s more than either story.

Yes, my last two blogs have basically be book reviews. However, I figured that as a public service announcement to let people know how I come up with my topics. I think it’s important that other people try to create their own content and share what you know. If you don’t feel comfortable writing, shoot me an idea and let’s see what we can make of it.

Internet and Social Media books: A comparison between Lessig and Shirky

Recently I’ve read two books related to the internet and to some extent social media. The first book I’ve mentioned and quoted repeatedly, Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig. The second is a book I just finished called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky which is about how as the internet has evolved and grown we have been able to create our own content instead of simply being passive consumers.

Despite the fact that Code 2.0 was originally written in 1999 and then updated in 2006 and Surplus was written in 2010 I feel that Code is still more relevant. Some of this can be attributed to the approach of the authors. In both cases the authors discuss specific websites and how they impact social interaction between different actors. As side from arguing that the free time and the increased ability to create, Shirky focuses on social connections and ignores other considerations related to content creation. He oversimplifies the skills required to create new content and ignores vested interests ability to prevent content creation.

Lessig on the other hand, creates a framework where it is possible to analyze the interactions between the various actors that interact on the internet. He looks at the market forces, social forces, regulatory forces, and social norms that interact with the internet in different ways. In this way Lessig is able to create recommendations to improve the interaction with the various forces acting on the internet. His goal is to create a safe internet that allows privacy, transparency, great places where economic exchanges can happen and required controls to prevent abuse of the internet.

There are some other differences between these books. Shirky reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s the World is Flat. It’s an incredibly optimistic view of the internet. Effectively the author can’t find anything wrong with the social interactions that occur on the internet. He isn’t concerned with the privacy issues with sites like Facebook, hacking issues both white and black hat and censorship at any level. He ignores these issues and looks at the community aspect. Which is fine, but he should at least mention these factors as they can seriously impact the quality of a community that’s being created. Lessig has a much less optimistic outlook and in fact believes that the internet will allow the government unprecedented access to our personal information and control over the information we control.

I think that these two books represent well the different ways that people look at the internet. I personally have a Lessig outlook. This maybe for a few reasons. I’ve read a few of his books, I can be cynical and I don’t have endless optimism for any technology. I think that the internet is an amazing thing. That people are creating more content, but it’s going to take some time before it gets to the point that Shirky is dreaming of. One of my friends over at KBMOD things that within a few years everyone will have a YouTube account the way that everyone has a Facebook account. I’m skeptical of this. I think there’s more time required to be effective at being a YouTuber than being a Facebooker. Which will decrease the number of people that are willing to take up a hobby. Facebook takes about 10 seconds to update, with YouTube you have to feel comfortable in front of a camera or talking over some sort of content. I think it’ll happen over time, but I think there will be something of a U shape of users. I think older generations that have more free time will pick it up.

I think both books have a positive outlook on the internet and social media. They both think that the more connections that happen the more connections that can occur. Overall, I personally think that if you’re interested in the different forces interacting in the internet Lessig’s book is for you. If you’re interested in a rosy outlook on the positive impact of the internet then read Shirky’s book.

Is software a technology?

I saw an interesting comment on r/technology today, r/technology is a subreddit devoted to all things technology, where the author complained about too much web/software related articles were being posted on the site. As the site is user driven the choice of the content can be influenced by questions and comments like this. In fact it can change the shape of the entire community and how they interact with each other. For instance r/fitness tested text based submissions only with no external links allowed. This fundamentally changed the discourse in that community. Anyway, this made me sit back and think about if software or websites should be considered technology in the way that a computer or keyboard is.

According to the Google dictionary the following is the definition of technology:


  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry: “computer technology”; “recycling technologies”.
  2. Machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.

I believe that software could fall into the first category of technology. Wikipedia says: Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of toolsmachines, techniques, craftssystems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.

Again this could easily be applied to software. Specifically because of the word techniques. However, I think we need to tread carefully here because both of these definitions would also include all of mathematics as a form of technology. Why does this definition matter? Well, you are able to patent technologies, but you are not able to patent mathematical algorithms or techniques. If some one was able to prove that P=NP in a mathematical proof then it couldn’t be patented. However, if you put that same proof into a piece of software it suddenly becomes patentable, and then make some one very rich.
I think there’s another fundamentally cognitive difference as well. Despite the fact that people say Android phone technology or Apache web server technology, it feels different than when you say internal combustion technology. I think the main difference is the physicality of the combustion technologies over the technology that has been developed to create phone OSes or webservers. It requires manual labor and a set of tools and skills that are all physical entities whereas with the software, anyone with a computer can learn how to program. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a set of people that are better at it or more likely to pick it up than other people. I’m basically self taught in both SQL server and VB.Net.The fact that software can be copied perfectly an infinite number of times also changes how it should be treated.
I think that these differences means we should actually treat software differently. I think that it is a technology, but a technology more related to mathematics and logic than other sciences.

Communication in Science

I watched this great TEDxRotterdam talk today the guy who gave it wrote an article on a case of homosexual necrophilia activities of a duck. He happened to observe it in action. He basically happened to be in the right place at the right time and is trained as a biologist. For that article he won the ig noble prize, for science that makes you laugh then think. These types of awards are great methods for scientists to communicate with the general public. It shows that scientists can really have a sense of humor.

Another great example of this was a panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting, a James Randi event, which had two really well known scientists, Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson as well as two less well known scientists (to the general population) Pamela Gay and Lawrence Krauss. (Link to the video it’s an hour long) In the panel they discuss the future of space. At some points it gets rather heated between de Grasse Tyson and Krauss, but it’s great to see serious scientists with a sense of humor discuss something they are passionate about. All of them make some seriously excellent points. They discuss how we’re at a turning point in the space program and  how the shift to commercial space flight will change the space industry. The point they are the most serious about however is saving the James Web Space Telescope. For those of you unaware, this is the replacement for Hubble, as I mentioned in my NASA blog. As a side note we need to save this.

The point they were making though, is that there needs to be an adjustment in how NASA works and how scientists interact with the larger population. If scientists aren’t able to articulate why a specific study needs to be done, for it’s own sake, then in some ways they don’t deserve to do it. The added benefit is that most of these endeavors do have additional positive externalities in the form of spin-off firms. Which is pretty awesome.

However, the important thing to take away here is that there needs to be an improve method for scientists to communicate complex ideas to the general public in a way that gets people reading about it. Independent bloggers like me certainly help, but there needs to be a larger push by general scientists. I’d love to have my advisers here at TU/e blog. They study extremely interesting topics and I’d really enjoy getting to read them. There are some “rock” star science bloggers like PZ Meyers but he also discusses a lot of controversial topics that a great deal of people don’t like. He’s an atheist and is extremely vocal about it. Another blogger is Ben Goldacre who studies bad science and attempts to debunk it (his TED Talk).

I think that Google Scholar will do great things for opening up access to materials written by scientists. I for one try to take advantage of it. I use it to search for documents if I can’t find them on the university system and surprisingly I have a really high hit rate. Copyright restrictions limit it.

So how can you help? I suggest sharing articles you find interesting. I try to do it as much as I can. I love when I find a really interesting article posted on facebook or twitter.