Older blog entries for raph (starting at number 311)

A grab bag of responses today, plus some actual technical content.


Thanks to guerby for his response to my entry on Venezuela. The situation there is clearly very complex, and I absolutely agree that trying to become informed by reading one blog is unwise. It's cool that he's delved into the issues without being partisan to one side or the other; that seems to be rare.

Indeed, one of the great strengths of the blog format is the ability to respond; to provide even more context for readers. The newspaper I get sucks, but there's precious little I can do about it.


I agree with djm that a "don't feed the trolls" policy is probably the wisest. I usually read the recentlog with a threshold of 3, so I don't tend to even notice troll posts unless someone else points to them.

Crowd estimation

jfleck's story about estimating the Rose Parade crowd sounds quite a bit like this one. One clarification: my Market Street numbers are based on a per-person area of four feet by four feet, or 16 square feet. Based on this, I am quite confident that my figure of 80,000 is a lower bound on the total who participated in the march. Now that I have some idea how the police come up with their crowd estimates (basically, guess), I see no reason to prefer their numbers over any others.

The war

I'd like to thank Zaitcev for his thoughtful criticism of my opposition to the war. He's made me think, which is a good thing no matter what you believe.

I agree with his point that Islamic fundamentalism is a powerful and destructive force, especially when used as the justification for dictatorships. Coexistence between the Moslem sector of the world and the West is clearly going to be one of the biggest challenges in the coming decades.

But I think that even if one agrees with the fundamental premise that military action is the best way to respond, there is plenty to criticize in the US administration's war plans. For one, from everything that I see, Iraq isn't the most virulent source of Islamic fundamentalism, not even close (it doesn't even show up on this map). Second, a pre-emptive attack based on no hard evidence, or possibly lack of compliance with UN resolutions is virtually guaranteed to fuel hatred of the US in the Muslim world, not to mention strong anti-American feelings throughout the world. No need to speculate; it's starting now just based on the rhetoric of war, not (yet) thousands of people dying.

Finally, even if the warmongers are dead right, starting a war with potential consequences of this magnitude demands very careful debate and deliberation, at least in a free society.

The Onion's take would be funny if it weren't so darned close to the truth.

Free(?) fonts

Bitstream has announced that they're donating freely redistributable fonts. It's always nice to see more font choices. Now seems to be a good time to remind people, though, that the URW fonts that ship with every Linux distribution were purchased by Artifex and released under GPL license. I'm not sure whether license Bitstream chooses will be Debian-free or now, especially given that they haven't given the text of it yet.

Distributed, web-based trust metric

Inspired by discussions with Kevin Burton, I've been thinking a bit recently about using Web infrastructure to make a distributed trust metric. I think it's reasonable, if suboptimal.

The basic idea is that each node in the trust graph maps to a URL, typically a blog. From that base URL, there are two important files that get served: a list of outedges (most simply, a text file containing URL's, one per line); and a list of ratings. In the blog context specifically, this could be as simple as a 1..10 number and URL for each rating. But, while the outedges are other nodes in the trust graph, the ratings could be anything: blogs, individual postings, books, songs, movies, whatever.

So, assuming that these files are up on the Web, you make the trust metric client crawl the Web, starting from the node belonging to the client (every client is its own seed), then evaluate the trust metric on the subgraph retrieved by crawling. The results are merely an approximation to the trust metric results that you'd get by evaluating the global graph, but the more widely you crawl, the better the approximation gets.

A simple heuristic for deciding which nodes to crawl is to breadth-first search up to a certain distance, say 4 hops away (from what I can tell, this is exactly what Friendster uses to evaluate one's "personal network"). But a little thought reveals a better approach: choose sites that stand to contribute the largest confidence value to the trust metric. This biases towards nodes that might be more distant, but are highly trusted, and against successors of nodes with huge outdegree. Both seem like good moves.

What are the applications? The most obvious is to evaluate "which blogs are worth reading", which is similar to the diary rankings on Advogato. Perhaps more interesting is using it to authenticate backlinks. If B comments on something in A's blog, then A's blog engine goes out and crawls B's blog, determines that B's rating is good enough, then posts the link to B's entry on the publicly rendered version of the page.

I see some significant drawbacks to using the Web infrastructure, largely because of the lack of any really good mechanism for doing change notification. There's a particularly unpleasant tradeoff between bandwidth usage, latency, and size of the horizon. However, with enough spare bandwidth sloshing around it might just work. Further, in the Web Way of doing things, you solve those problems at the lower level. It may well be that this is a more reliable path to a good design than trying to design a monolithic P2P protocol that gets all the engineering details right.

I'm not planning on implementing this crawling/tmetric client any time soon, but would be happy to help out someone else. For one, it would be very, very easy to make Advogato export the relevant graph data.

Mainstream media sucks

You'd think that Saturday's peace marches would be considered fairly important, given that we are on the brink of war. But the Contra Costa Times (the Sunday paper we get) saw fit to run a one-column story below the fold, with the headline "Thousands in S.F. rally against war", as opposed to a 5-column above the fold report on a ball game, headlined "Ground Zero".

Most media reports of the march accept the police estimate of 55,000, while the organizers estimate 200,000. In this age of helicopters and instant high-powered image processing, the magnitude of this discrepancy is surprising.

It turns out that crowd estimation is quite a tricky business. There's an excellent paper on the efforts to count the number of marchers at the Million Man March in Washington in October 1995. I ran a few sets of numbers myself, and came up with estimates ranging from a minimum of 80,000 to a maximum of 180,000 (the number of people who can fit in Civic Center Plaza). The estimate I have the most confidence in is the number who filled Market Street from Embarcadero to Civic Center. Given four feet square per person (which I consider very conservative), 2 miles by 120 feet, that works out to about 80,000.

The energy at the march was great. Heather and I are happy that we could be a part of it. What really struck me was the diversity of the crowd. While there were a few lefty radicals in evidence, mostly we saw ordinary folks of all ages, largely white but with plenty of other races represented. The message is clear. Lots of Americans don't want us to go to war. One of my favorite signs read simply, "Why?"

I'm sure the story about the Raiders was really good.

Mainstream media sucks more

From Dave Winer, I came across a blog on the situation in Venezuela. It's beautifully written, and conveys events with clarity, compelling narrative, and passion. These qualities are not highly respected in mainstream journalism, particularly the latter. The presumption is that journalists should be impartial and objective, so actually having an opinion on something is frowned upon, much less expressing it publicly. Thus, the New York Times, for which Francisco was a beat reporter, brought up "conflict of interest" concerns, which Francisco felt the best way to resolve was to resign.

Meanwhile, wire service reports are, as usual, bland, if factually correct. There's no way anyone without a personal interest in Venezuela is going to learn what's really going on from reading about it in the papers. They'd probably get a pretty good idea, though, that the instability there is responsible for an increase in gas prices here in the US.

So here's a clearcut case, I think, where blogs are simply better than mainstream journalism. I wish Francisco and all the people of Venezuela the best through the present crisis.

New laptop

Heather needs a laptop - the Thinkpad 600 is starting to go flaky. We settled on a 14" iBook. A big reason is the battery. Heather often goes to cafes to write, and often finds it hard to plug in, so reasonable battery life is very important. Even going by the specs, the iBook is about twice as good as IBM's R series, and given IBM's past performance, the latter could well be a lot worse after a few months of real use.

It's not a perfect machine. To me, the biggest drawback is the low resolution of the screen (91 dpi). The CPU is slow by modern standards (800 MHz), but not having to burn battery to fuel a multi-GHz chip is a Good Thing. Running Safari, it ought to be plenty zippy, certainly a dramatic upgrade over RH 8 Mozilla on the TP600.

With Jaguar pre-loaded, it'll take considerably less time to get up and running than a PC-class notebook, and this way we won't be forced to buy a Windows license.

Rule of law

I've come across quite a number of stories recently that struck me. A few days ago, I found a thread which I think binds them: the concept of "rule of law" seems very much under attack.

Dumpster diving: is it legal or not? The police in Portland felt perfectly justified in doing so, with the blessing of the Multnomah County DA's office. However, when the local weekly did the same back to the powers that be, they weren't happy.

The main issue here is whether the same law applies to those in power and those who aren't. As Anatole France observed, ideally "The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Ambiguity in the law is a big part of the problem here, and a good way to fight against it is to force the powers that be to pin down exactly where the line is drawn. That's the basis behind Dan Bernstein's Dear Ms. Tarzian campaign, and also my request for export review of the perl-RSA t-shirt.

Do the laws on assault apply to airport security agents, or just regular citizens? Penn didn't press charges, but his experience is a good role model nonetheless.

Can the phone companies get away corrupt and illegal business practices, or are they somehow above the relevant laws? If I had more free time, I would definitely read this book and verify some of its claims.

Incidentally, for those are into the "blogger vs traditional journalism" debate, I consider the mainstream media seriously negligent in not following up on Bruce Kushnick's work. I really hope the blog community takes hold of this, reads it, checks it, and gets the word out. If so, it would be an impressive demonstration of how we can delve into deep, complex, and important issues. The corporate-owned newspaper hegemony could use a little ass-kicking.

Myers Carpenter has a blog entry on his experience trying to get DSL and what he plans to do about it.

The Bush administration. Don't get me started. The problem here is too many examples to choose from. A particularly egregious example is the appointment of Hill and Pfotenhauer to the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women, which will oversee the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act. These two can be counted on to completely thwart the spirit of the law, and probably the letter too. After all, who the hell will stop them?

ICANN is out of control. Again, a big part of the problem is that ICANN's rulers have consistently refused to be bound by their original bylaws, and have conveniently changed them to be less accountable to the public. I swear, if I collected all seven dragonballs, I'd bring back Jon Postel.


I like Safari. I also think they did the right thing choosing KHTML over Gecko. Size does matter, you know.

Of course, if they had wanted a really fast browser engine, they should have picked Gzilla (dillo) :) . But of course, the goals are quite different. They're trying to support the rich Web standards of today, including CSS, DOM, and JavaScript, where Gzilla is really only for displaying HTML.

I think this move is also really good for standards. Web developers are used to just testing on Explorer and maybe Netscape. With the inevitable popularity of Safari, it will make more sense to just make standards-compliant web pages instead.

I was going to try to tie this in to the "rule of law" thread above, but will leave it as an exercise for the reader.


The whole family will be at the Jan 18th peace march. I know a lot of my friends will be going too. Maybe we can get together. Probably cell phones are the best way to coordinate, so email me for my number. It's likely, though, that the crowds will make logistics difficult. Oh well, that's a good problem to have.


I met with Henri Poole on Friday, and Peter Deutsch on Tuesday. Both times, we had deep, far-ranging, stimulating conversations.

Henri is interested in implementing the web services version of the trust metric for Affero. (see Bram's diary entry and links for more background). This could be fun and exciting. If so, we'll probably make Advogato an early client.


I love reading stories to Alan and Max, and have lately become somewhat taken by the idea of recording audiotexts and releasing them under a Creative Commons license. So far, I've just been playing around, but you might be interested in listening to what I've recorded anyway.

In particular, a few days ago I read the prologue of Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It's a good story, and of course the whole "free Internet distribution isn't bad for sales" meme is a brilliant marketing ploy.

If 10 other people each record a chapter, it's a distributed audiobook. That would be kinda fun.


I just sent out notes towards a 1.0 rev of the IJS spec. As a protocol, it's been pleasantly stable, and I get the impression that there are quite a few people using it without a lot of fuss and bother. This is good; I don't consider protocol design a shortcut on the road towards riches and fame.

MPEG2 telecine

We got an Apex 1100W DVD player for Christmas, which is a pretty cool toy. One of the things I've been playing with is transcoding DVD's to SVCD format. When done right, the quality is quite good, and I'm a fan of the CD-R format. It's quick, cheap, and easy to duplicate, readers are nearly universal, and it's good for archival as well.

Unfortunately, some DVD's are difficult to transcode with existing free software. I've had the best success with transcode and mpeg2enc (from the mjpegtools suite). But sometimes, particular for cartoon sources, there's jerky motion, visible interleaving artifacts, and A/V sync problems. I did a little digging and think I know what the problem is.

Most films are encoded into MPEG2 using "3:2 pulldown" telecine. Each 1/24th second film frame is converted into either 3 or 2 1/60th second video fields. By alternating between the two, the frame rates come out about right. (In fact, in the NTSC standard, the field period is exactly 1001/60000 second, which, if ignored, can lead to fun drifting of sync).

And indeed, most of the time, decoding of the MPEG2 stream will yield the original frames at (roughly) 24fps. Just scale to SVCD res, re-encode with the 3:2 pulldown flag set (-p option to mpeg2enc), and you're golden.

Only problem is, 3:2 pulldown is not exactly one flag in MPEG2 streams. In fact, it's implemented as two flags per "picture": "repeat first field" and "top field first" (described in more detail here). And, as one might expect, some DVD's use a fancier mix of these flags than vanilla 3:2 pulldown. For example, "Elmo in Grouchland" starts with 60 black frames with no pulldown, followed by the movie proper with 3:2 pulldown.

And the problem is that, as far as I can tell, there's no way to preserve the RFF and TFF field pattern from input (DVD) to output (SVCD) MPEG2 streams using free tools. In particular, mpeg2enc hardwires these flags on output to either all-0's (no pulldown) or a 3:2 pulldown pattern with a repetition period of 4 frames.

Modifying mpeg2enc to support arbitrary RFF and TFF, and transcode to provide these fields from MPEG2 input, would seem to be a very good idea. I'm sure whoever implements this will get love and appreciation from legions of users.

It's also possible that I'm missing a good way to do this with existing tools, in which case I'm sure someone will point it out.


Alan's school resumed today, and I start up with the homeschooling. I'm eager to try electrolysis of Hydrogen as a fun chemistry experiment. Since my goal is not (at present, anyway) to make a real table of elements, but to teach the basic concept, I think I'll go for the variation where the mixture of O2 and H2 gases fizz into soap bubbles, which are then be ignited for (hopefully) impressive yet safe effect. I'll let you know how it goes.

Max continues to astonish us with his language development. Over the past couple of weeks, he's pretty much mastered the alphabet song, and is just starting to be able to learn his individual letters (he knows "M", "A", and "X" pretty well now :). But he still managed to impress me with his facility at Alchemy, in which you have to match symbols and color. Some of our friends have been impressed merely that he's able to use the mouse. They should watch him clicking away at the thing like it's perfectly natural for a two-and-a-half year old. He's going to be a computer geek like his dad, I just know it.


I just got my first PPM file rendered from the new Fitz prototype. One of the nice things about this go-round is that I'm doing Python bindings for everything. I'm finding Python to be a very nice environment, especially for things like testing.

It's feeling very close to ready to put into the CVS repo. I'm also starting to feel ready to ramp up the public process. Especially with the clean Python bindings, I expect that there may be lots of involvement.

I'm definitely feeling daunted, though. There are lots and lots of things that need doing, over and above getting good rendering going. Documentation, language bindings, Ghostscript plumbing, porting, that sort of thing. Even within rendering, there are many different priorities. Should it be complete first, or very good at the common case first? My inclination is the former, but the desires of the free software community probably lie toward the latter.

In any case, I'll be reaching out to people who have expressed interest in Fitz over the next few days. I want the process to be very open, but there is one requirement: you must sign a copyright assignment form. This seems to me like a reasonable balance between commercial viability and getting cool code released as free software (Fitz is GPL plus dual commercial licensing), but hardcore purists might be dissuaded by it. Ah well.


The kids had a nice Christmas, with plenty of toys, and then a big family dinner at Grampa's.

I'm definitely struggling with time management. Part of the problem is that my sleep schedule is out of whack again. I seem to need at least 10 hours of sleep or so, which really cuts into my productive time. I have a lot of things I'd like to do, so I'm becoming determined to get a little more discipline, and use the time I have most effectively.

That means a little less time to play with proofs and other blue-sky things, but I'm fine with that. I do plan on keeping on going with this diary, though. Among other things, I find that the times that I'm most prolific here tend to coincide with times I'm most productive with work. So deliberately holding back my urge to write doesn't seem like a good idea.

I'm very happy that the days are getting longer again, at least in theory. You can't really see it yet, though. Right now, it's rainstorming pretty heavily. Even so, I know it will get brighter, and that's something.

Trust metrics for blogs

I had a nice long phone chat with John Hiler of Xanga and Microcontent News. He's just recently read my thesis draft, and is intrigued by the idea of using them in larger-scale blog services. The main application will probably be to suppress spam and abuse, and perhaps to ease support.

The prospect of having the trust metric ideas implemented for a mass audience site is exciting. I'm sure it will happen sooner or later, and this might just be the sooner.


Bruce Kushnick has written an "Unauthorized Bio of the Baby Bells", available for free download. I don't really have time to read through it right now, but I'm intrigued by his thesis that the telcos in this country are basically a scam. He comes across as a little bit of a crank, but my gut feeling is that he's substantially right.

While my experiments so far with VoIP have shown it to be not quite ready for prime time, I strongly suspect that it will become so in a couple of years or so, at which time the telco business will find itself quite disrupted. For example, imagine a cell phone that has an onboard 802.11 radio, and logs on to the Internet (instead of GSM or whatever) whenever it finds a base station within range. That would be cooool.

I'd be interested to hear what any Advogatan (or critical thinker from any corner) has to say about this book.

(via JOHO the blog via boingboing)

DNS, phone numbers, and ENUM

One of the many problems that needs to be solved before Internet phones become usable is directory services. What kind of name space do we want for IP phones? One obvious choice is phone numbers, which have the advantage of smoothing migration from POTS. Other choices include DNS-based email-like human readable addresses, or entropy-rich tokens such as hashes of public keys. As a stopgap, people might use IP addresses (these seem to be standard for NetMeeting and friends), but those have serious usability problems.

One proposal to map phone numbers to IP addresses is ENUM, which hacks the phone number namespace on top of DNS. The basic idea seems sound, but in practice it's almost certain to inherit the problems of DNS, not least of which is corrupt governance.

In particular, it sure looks like the telephone companies are going to be the primary owners of namespace chunks. This is the worst choice possible, because they have a powerful business interest to fuck up deployment of IP phones as long as possible, so as to preserve their price-gouging in the POTS business.

I want to be able to map my phone number to my Internet address. I'm skeptical that the ENUM implementation will actually be able to provide this service for any reasonable price and terms, but of course I'd love to be proved wrong. In the meantime, people interested in making IP phones happen should be thinking about other forms of namespace. Or, perhaps the right answer is an independent service that also uses the phone number namespace, but is actually trustworthy, as opposed to the telecom industry. Worth thinking about, in any case.

Periodic table

If you haven't seen the Theodore Gray's Periodic Table of elements, you should check it out. I especially liked his essay on why he did it. His philosophy obviously resonates with the hacker spirit of doing things yourself rather than leaving it to the experts.


I've been hacking a bit on Fitz, although the code is still not to the point where it does anything useful.


It's an interesting experience having very high Googlejuice. So far, there haven't been any big, mind-blowing consequences, but a bunch of smaller, pleasant ones.

One such experience just happened recently. In June, I wrote a diary entry about passwords, and mentioned somewhat offhand the Mandylion password token. Well, a few days ago I got an email from the Mandylion people, saying that they've been getting quite a bit of traffic from that (which in turn must be from Google). As a result, they offered me a free unit, and I accepted. It just came in the mail yesterday.

If I were a journalist, taking it would have been a breach of ethics. Fortunately, I'm not one. There was a big thread about this in the blogging world a couple of months ago. These certainly are interesting questions.


I get a good vibe from the OSAF people (Liam calls them the "open source air force :). Yes, Chandler is an address book, but for me the more interesting part is the planned infrastructure: a distributed version-control repository, with both server and low-admin peer-to-peer flavors. If this stuff works well, it could be useful for lots of other things.

In addition, I think their choice of wx is right on. There are many UI choices for Python, all of which have difficult tradeoffs. wx is the closest thing to a good, usable, cross-platform library, so it makes sense to fix it up to be really good.

Part of the motivation for my visit was to discuss whether Fitz should be the canvas for Chandler. It looks like the answer is probably no; Chandler is not all that graphically intensive, and there are real concerns with stuff like making sure the fonts are sychronized between the main UI toolkit and the canvas. So a better solution (at least for the short term) is to improve one of the canvases available for wx.


Dinner was quite lively. Eleven people in all showed up at Chef Chu's: David McCusker, Aaron Swartz, Bram Cohen, Andrew Lowenstern, Liam Quin, Liam's friends Jay and Tony, Andy Hertzfeld, Andy's wife Joyce McClure, and Philip Lindsay (from NZ). I don't think we solved many of the world's problems, but a good time was had by all.

Max's dream

Ever wonder what 2.5 year olds dream?

"I saw a ghost, a scary one." Was this a dream? "Yes. It was made out of wood, and it was flying. It was stupid!" How did you know? "I lighted a candle, and it went away. I didn't hit it." Good for you. "And it didn't come back!"

I'm posting at a somewhat odd time today, to make sure that people get a chance to contact me about dinner tomorrow. I want to follow up on some proof threads, but that will have to wait a day or so.

Felix Mellitus Viridisque

We have a translation! After extremely helpful info from Chris Ryland and forrest, we've settled on "Felix, Mellitus, Viridisque". Finding a really good translation for "sticky" turned out to be quite difficult, so we went for "mellitus" instead, which means literally "honeyed".

The family motto happened spontaneously, in a car trip a couple of years ago. Our previous family motto was, "it's more complicated than that," as it was a phrase we used quite frequently trying to explain to others our living arrangements - at the time, we were living with another couple. It was a noble goal, but ultimately there was just too much tension to make it work.

In a sense, the new family motto represents the opposite of our old situation. Not only was it fairly unhappy, but the woman of the other couple is compulsive about neatness. Neither Heather and I are, so as you can imagine, this was one of the major tensions. For the kids to have sticky hands is just fine if they're happy.

Google Answers

The response to my previous entry on Google answers was very satisfying. Apart from the Latin help, Telsa sent a pointer to an article describing one librarian's experience being a Google Researcher, and her subsequent termination for breaching the silence clause in the Researcher contract. I find that kind of censorship to be uncool in the extreme, if not exactly evil.

Exchanging knowledge can be a purely financial transaction, as in Google Answers, but it's better when it's done through one's social network. I find that most people genuinely want to share their knowledge (or, perhaps, there are a lot of people who don't, but I don't interact much with them). Google's insistence on anonymity of their Researchers would seem to actively frustrate the building of any such community around their service.

One illustration with the problems of Answers as commerce is the frequency of homework problems. Google's policy frowns on these, but of course it's often hard to tell for sure, and I can easily imagine how they'd be tempting for a Researcher to just answer and collect the fee.

Generally, I imagine kids with rich parents, who have learned that it's easier to throw money around to get what you want than to learn how to do it yourself, or tap into a network of people who can teach you. (Why is it that I can easily imagine kids of the Bush dynasty fitting into this pattern?)

Chris Ryland asserts that "getting the best answers from the community, without using a Google Answers-like business, only works if you're already a respected (or at least highly-read, e.g., Winer) leader in your community." I respectfully disagree. Being highly-read lets you be lazy, in that merely posting a question is likely to get you answers at least as good as Google Answers, but I believe everyone has such a network around them, and would do well to cultivate it. The main thing is to go around asking, "do you know anyone who knows (for example) Latin translation?" If you're stuck, many research librarians would be happy to help you as well.

For this sample query, it's interesting to note the importance of the network, as opposed simply to the volume of people reading my diary. Chris checked with a friend of his who's a Latin scholar, and who tutors his kids. Forrest asked an anarchist poet, who obviously was willing to answer the query.

Ever since starting to study social networks for my research on trust metrics, I'm continually blown away by their power. They're one of the most valuable resources at your disposal. I think a lot of people understand this instinctively, but for whatever reason I didn't really grasp it until I studied it academically. Perhaps it's that I grew up fairly isolated.

So, in the end, this is why Google Answers is at best a service that might be useful to some people, rather than the transcendent coolness of Google's search function. It's a substitute for building one's social network of knowledge-seeking, inferior and more expensive.


I'm visting the OSAF tomorrow, largely to talk about whether Fitz will be a good match for their needs. Afterwards, David McCusker and I will be having dinner at a Chinese restaurant somewhere on the peninsula, and we'd like to invite a few more people. Please send email if you're interested.

Lawyer-free zone

Lawrence Lessig has an essay in favor of limiting copyright terms. I agree of course, as I'm sure most Advogatans do. What struck me is his use of the phrase "lawyer-free zone" to describe the public domain, with the clear implication that this is a good thing.

I think that he's identified a clear cultural distinction between lawyers and non-lawyers. Lawyers, having been steeped in the legal approach to resolving disputes, assume that it's the best approach, and can barely consider any others. The rest of us recognize the legal approach as being hideously expensive, unreliable, often quite unfair, and with significant potential to limit innovation and flexibility.

These problems with the "lawyer zone", as opposed to the "lawyer-free zone", are the reason why the current trend to increase the reach of copyrights, patents, and trademarks is a bad thing. The problem is, of course, that most lawmakers come from the lawyer culture.

I'm impressed with Prof. Lessig for both being a damn good lawyer (his command of the legal issues as shown in his oral argument in Eldred vs. Ashcroft is downright impressive) and for being able to see and express so clearly the advantages of sometimes not doing things the lawyer way.

Free software, of course, is a shining example of an almost entirely lawyer-free zone. I'm impressed with the mechanisms we have for resolving disputes. One key, I'm now convinced, is fork rights. At heart, the right to fork a project gives people an option in case the current maintainer isn't doing a good job, for whatever reason.

A particularly clear examples is the handling of the SourceForge codebase. As the OSDir interview with Tim Purdue makes clear, VA Software did a number of things in direct opposition to the interests of the free software community, not least of which is making promises to release the code without any intention of doing so. A more subtle, but no less important, issue is the deliberate rigging of the installation process to make it difficult.

In the lawyer zone, these types of things would generally get handled as some kind of contract litigation. There'd be a lot of "discovery" to try to find a smoking gun to prove that this bad behavior was intentional, and in the end neither side would really win anything (in stark contrast to the lawyers themselves).

Fortunately, in the free software world, we have a better way. We simply fork the code, fix the problems, and move on.

I have high hopes that the Creative Commons can bring the benefits of the lawyer-free zone to writing, music, art, and other creative domains that have been increasingly dominated by the culture and processes of lawyers. We'll see!

Google's new stuff

Google absolutely rocks, but I'm not anywhere nearly as impressed with their more recent offerings.

I took froogle for a spin, but wasn't all that impressed. For example, the search "pc2100 ddr 512mb" gives you prices from $109.99 to $289.95 on the first page, while pricewatch is $96-$99 for the first page of the category. Other queries gave similarly unimpressive results.

I've written about Google Answers fairly recently. Here's how I think they (or someone else) could make a much more compelling service.

Very simply, start with the existing service but provide means of crediting user accounts for answering questions, in addition to debiting them for asking. Each user can choose to be in the red (as now), in the black (in which case Google would PayPal the money), or at zero, which is probably how most people would want to use it.

You have some nontrivial trust issues, especially as you're paying money out, but I'm pretty confident they're tractable. Google already has ratings, a dispute process, and so on.

Paying money to get an answer is interesting. It's a way for people to demonstrate that they really care about the answer, but at the same time it feels a little odd. On the other hand, if I can get an answer in return for answering 1.25 other people's questions, that would be appealing.

In any case, I find I have relatively little use for such a service, because I'm already part of a fabulous network of knowledge seekers. This diary is a significant component of that network. For example, one test query I was considering is the Latin translation of our family motto, "happy, sticky, and green" (in the sense of a child who has just eaten a pistachio ice cream). Now that I've posted the query here, the chances are excellent somebody will send an answer. Thanks in advance!

Why machine verifiable proofs?

moshez asked why I'm so interested in making machine verifiable proofs. Freek Wiedijk explains it better than I can, from a mathematician's point of view.

But my main interest is not so much existing proofs of mathematics. What I really want to do is develop correct programs. The theorems needed for programming tend to be much too tedious for mathematicians to deal with. But if the programmer has the patience to generate such a proof, at least a mechanical checker can give pretty good confidence that the theorem is true, and thus that the program is correct.

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