Containers are going to hurt Windows in the datacenter

As anyone who accidentally stumbles on this blog knows, I’ve been playing with Docker for a few weeks now, which makes me an expert and entitled to opine on its future. Hell, you don’t need to be an expert to know where this is going. Docker rocks. It’s going to revolutionize the way applications and dependencies are managed in the datacenter. No technology has captivated me this way since… I don’t even know. Virtualization came close. But it is containers that are poised to really deliver the value virtualization promised. And Windows has nothing comparable what they offer. There are plenty of virtualization solutions that work on Windows, but containers are not virtualization: they’re about environment isolation, and they are a lot lighter weight, a lot easier to use, and a lot more manageable than virtualization technologies.

Over the weekend I finished up an experiment to encapsulate the complete environment for my spider application in a Docker container. It was a huge success from my point of view. Just to recap, I’m working on an application that uses a bunch of spider processes to get information off the web. The environment these things run in is fairly sophisticated at this point: they get their work input from, and stream work product to, redis. They also stream log events to redis, from which the events are picked up by logstash and indexed into Elastic Search. The whole process runs under the control of supervisord. So there are a few pieces in play.

Configuring the environment on EC2 previously required approximately 50 steps, including installing the base dependencies from the python, debian, and java repositories. After this weekend’s work it should require two: install Docker, and build the container image.

All those manual steps are now captured declaratively in a Docker build file. The base image that the container build depends on is an Ubuntu 13.10 debootstrap install with python and a few other things added, that I pushed to my repository on the Docker index. It can now be pulled to anywhere that Docker is installed. I could also build and push the final environment image, but all images on the Docker index are public. The way around that is either to run your own repository, or build the final container image in place on the server. I’m going to take the latter approach for now.

So, with the base image in the repo, and the Docker build file created and tested, launching a new environment on a server with Docker installed looks like this:

sudo docker build -t="my:image" -rm=true - < mydockerfile
sudo docker run -t -i -n="my:name" my:image /bin/bash

Boom, the server is running. In my case what that means is that redis is up, logstash is up, Elastic Search is up, supervisord is up and has launched the spider processes, and the proper ports are exposed and bridged over to the host system. All I have to do is point my web browser at http://myhostname.com:9292 and the Kibana3 dashboard pops up with the event stream visualized so I can monitor the work progress. That. Is. Cool.

Which leads me back to my opening thought. As a developer who spent 20 years writing code for Microsoft platforms I don’t want to come off like an ex-smoker who has seen the light and needs to let everyone know it. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how Microsoft will respond to this? Docker came out of nowhere, igniting a wildfire by making a formerly obtuse technology (LXC containers) easier to understand and use. I think within another year or so containers will be as ubiquitous and as important in the datacenter as virtualization is now, perhaps more so. And Windows will be increasingly relegated to running Exchange and Sharepoint servers.

Darkfall Unholy Wars: The Best MMO You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending some of my spare time playing a massively-multiplayer PVP-oriented RPG named Darkfall: Unholy Wars. DFUW, as it is known among players, is the successor to a previous title named Darkfall Online that was pretty popular among hardcore PVP fantasy gamers. Both the original and it’s successor were developed by Aventurine SA, a small Greek game developer that bears a lot of at least superficial resemblance to CCP, the Icelandic developer of Eve Online. Many people carry the comparison further, and state that DFUW resembles Eve in a lot of ways, and that’s probably fair. But read on and decide for yourself.

The basic premise of DFUW is that of most MMO RPGs. That is, you log in and create a character with certain attributes that is then placed into a large virtual world where you explore, fight, loot, and generally act like you never could in real life. The world in DFUW’s case is fantasy-based, and contains the usual elemental themes that you find in any sword and sandals epic: castles, dungeons, monsters, etc. The setting is familiar to anyone who has read a fantasy novel, seen The Hobbit, or played games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, or, well, 99% of all the role playing games ever conceived.

At the very start of playing DFUW there is little that hints at any departure from the norms set by those earlier, ground-breaking titles. You create a character, set up his or her attributes and appearance, and get dumped into a starter area. Sure, there are some signs that things might be different. The implication that roles are flexible, for example, or the way skill points are handled. As soon as you start actually playing, though, it very quickly becomes evident that the developers took DFUW in an entirely different direction. I’ll spend the rest of this post outlining some of those differences that I think are most innovative.

The first thing to mention is the setting. DFUW takes place in a huge, zone-less world that is at the same time rich in content and sparsely populated by “monsters.” Think Everquest without the zone boundaries. This is a contrast to the design direction taken by recent games that structure the environment as a more linearly connected series of increasingly challenging areas. Warhammer Online was perhaps the most standout example of this, where the zones were actually called “chapters” and were designed to be experienced in sequence as your character developed, with nearly every inch covered with monsters programmed to try to kill you.

The second most important thing is that DFUW is a free-for-all PVP game. There are four “racial” capitals for the main races in the game (Elvish, Orcish, Wolfish, and Human, more or less), each of which has three satellite cities. Wrapped tightly around each of these areas are “safe zones” where you cannot be attacked by other players. Everywhere else in the this huge world you are fair game. Since resources and opportunities are very limited in the safe zones you’ll eventually have to leave. Once you do, you will eventually be attacked and killed by another player, probably one much higher in skills and gear than you. When that happens your killer will have a chance to take everything on your corpse with the exception of some special newbie weapons that are always with you. I’ll talk a little further on about why this isn’t such a scary proposition, but it is a core aspect of the game that you should know about.

The third thing is that DFUW is not one of those games where the player base divides into PVP players vs. PVE players. This is because there is almost no PVE in DFUW. That’s not to say there aren’t monsters that drop loot. There are, and they range from trivially easy to massively difficult. In that respect the game is similar to all others in the genre. But there are relatively few places where dangerous monsters are found, compared to the overall landmass. There are also very few NPC’s to interact with beyond a few merchants. There are no NPC or racial factions of any consequence. You don’t fight for the Elves, or the Orcs, you fight for your clan, about which more below. DFUW does have a sort of quest system, called “Feats,” but feats are much simpler than the multi-part quests of other games, and primarily involve either killing something, harvesting something, or crafting something, and serve as a way to both gain skill points, and introduce you to the world and the game mechanics.

The lack of any NPC factions means that the game’s political structure is entirely player created, and this is a theme that will be repeated as other aspects of the design are revealed. Players form clans, clans form alliances. Clans can own hamlets, villages, and cities scattered across the world. Clans and alliances battle each other for control of territories by taking the population centers and their resources. Being in a clan is almost mandatory in DFUW. Once you are forced out of the safe zones you have two choices. You can either go rogue and harvest/farm out in the lawless lands, returning to the safe zones to refine, craft, and market your wares. Or you can join a clan and get access to a clan enclave which will serve as a base of relative safety from which you can explore. Take the first path and you’re on your own and fair game for any predator. Take the second and you have a clan and its resources behind you, perhaps making a killer think twice before attacking you, especially near your home.

The most striking difference between DFUW and other recent MMO games in the genre is the combat, and it will take a few paragraphs to cover it sufficiently. Here’s the main thing: DFUW does not employ a target+click combat mechanic. You target something by pointing or swinging your weapon at it. If you point in the right direction, or swing when something is within the arc of your blade, then you hit it. If you fire an arrow or a bolt spell at a moving target you have to lead it to account for the motion. When using arrows you have to account for ballistic motion (i.e. “drop”) over the distance of the shot. DFUW is in this sense more “twitch game” than a traditional MMO, and it shares some genetic material with FPS games where aiming well and shooting accurately is the entirety of a winning strategy. I wasn’t sure I would like this at first, but the mechanic has proved to be much more immersive and entertaining for me than simply clicking on a target and pressing buttons.

What keeps DFUW from being “simply” a twitch game is the stark realism of the combat and movement mechanics, and the depth of the economic foundations of battle. The game pursues realism almost relentlessly. Some examples: you can’t look behind you when running; you can’t look away from your target when performing some action like harvesting or crafting; there is no “loot all” button, you have to pick each item up; there are no levels, and no player is invulnerable. Last night I was attacked by a more experienced and highly-skilled caster, and killed him with a sword. He was too close and failed to kill me with his first shot. In any other game I wouldn’t even have been able to hurt him, but DFUW realizes that when you hit a guy wearing a robe with a sword you’re going to hurt him. That’s realism.

Other aspects of the dedication to “realism” include no crowd-control magic, no enchanted weapons and armor, no over-powered spells that wipe out multiple enemies. Players, regardless of how long they have been playing, are on a more even footing than in any other MMO I’ve experienced. There are in fact levels of weapons, gear, spells, and the other tools you need for creating mayhem. Crude weapons do less damage than superior weapons. Some armors protect more than others. But the key point is that these differences are never definitive with respect to the outcome. In a game like Dark Age of Camelot, for example, you had no chance whatsoever of hurting a player with a lot more in-game time than you. The same largely goes for Eve Online. As the experience I related above shows, this is not so in DFUW.

And that is much of the reason why getting “ganked” out in the lawless lands and losing your stuff isn’t the tragedy that new players usually assume it is. The first time it happened to me I had nearly everything on me, and it felt like a big blow. But in the end it took only an hour or so to gear back up. If you’re smart you don’t carry tons of gold and valuable material with you in the frontiers. Maybe you lose your armor, a leather sack with some wood, your sword and bow. So you go back to the clan city or safe zone and craft or buy another set and try again. The very temporary setback is more than compensated for by the constant sense of danger. My first tentative dash from the safe zone around the city of Amurran to the one near the Tovarr capitol of Cor Ymithril resulted in death. The second succeeded and it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a game in years.

It is in the economic underpinnings of combat that the game design really shines. If the game were just about combat people might quickly grow bored. You can’t spend all your time fighting in DFUW because you’ll have nothing to fight with. With the exception of the very lowest tier of crude weapons and armor, everything used in battle in DFUW is player-crafted from player-harvested materials. Within that framework you can choose your own style of play. You can harvest and refine everything you need, crafting your own weapons and armor. You can focus on acquiring gold and buy the items you require. You can go rogue and steal from outlying villages. You can seek out treasure chests by finding and following maps. There are many different approaches to integrating yourself into the economy. The only invariant is that you’ll have to pick one, because you can’t simply rely on PVE to supply all, or even most, of what you need to engage in battle.

Probably the last thing worth noting about battle in DFUW is all the many forms that it takes. Players can fight each other one-to-one or group-to-group. Battles can take place in open country, on the sea in ship-to-ship conflicts, or in sieges of clan towns and cities employing cannon and other siege weapons to break down walls and gates. If your clan holds an attractive location, such as an isolated fortress on an island or mountaintop with good resources nearby, you can expect other clans to try and take it from you on a regular basis. The typical siege seems to involve using siege weapons to break down the gates, followed by ground forces moving in under ranged archery fire. If they can occupy your city and destroy your bindstone they can take it from you, leaving your clan wandering the wilderness looking for a new home. Of course, you can always take it back from them. The cycle of attack and retaliation is endless in DFUW.

The last thing to note before closing out this long post is that Darkfall: Unholy Wars is an indie game, and it is far from perfect. There are some bugs, although I very rarely experience anything game breaking. There is a lack of interactive content in some places. Aventurine is busily adding stuff all the time, so this is being addressed. The interface is powerful, and horrible (or perhaps horribly powerful). That’s another similarity with Eve Online. The game lacks some of the mechanics that are expected in modern games of this type: there are no emotes, no “chat bubbles” or local speech capability, no quests, no quest NPCs. Many of these things will be addressed over time, but frankly they don’t really impact the core value proposition of the game, which is that players create the content in it, whether good, bad, or indifferent. In that respect DFUW is perhaps the most innovative game of its type in years, and well worth a try by anyone who enjoyed Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, or Shadowbane.

Darkfall: Unholy Wars is published by Aventurine SA, and is available online through the Steam store and other channels. A subscription costs 14.95 USD per month.

LinkedIn: Why I Am Not Returning Your Endorsement

Don’t get me wrong, I love you all: the former colleagues from jobs I held eight or ten years ago; the neighbor I have never actually worked with, but who plays a congenial game of poker and is an all-around nice guy. I appreciate that you took the time to go on LinkedIn and endorse me for everything from “Software Development” (because there is no aspect of it I am not awesome at), to SQL Server, ASP.NET, astrobiology, xenolinguistics, and starship navigation. It’s true, I am a master of all those things.

But there’s no way most of you guys could have known that, because, well, we haven’t spoken in a decade or so. I wish that weren’t the case. I’m terrible at keeping in touch. But then, hey, you didn’t call either. I guess, in a way, this puts us back in communication. You took the time to punch that button on LinkedIn, and that means you were thinking of me, or at least stumbled on my bio pic as an artifact of an otherwise accurate search for people you care about. In either event I’m gratified. But I am not going to return the favor, and I thought you deserved to know why before I clear my inbox.

See, in other than a very few cases to which I have already tended, I just don’t know what you’re good at anymore. Ten years ago I was writing C# code, pulling data out of SQL Server, feeding it to ASP’s renderer, writing form-based web apps. When I code now I write Python, stick my data in Postgresql, and use ajax calls to populate pages. That is, assuming I am not writing Java or Objective C for mobile apps.  The world is completely different. If you’ve worked with me in, say, the last year or two then your endorsement might carry some weight, but not after so many years. And the same goes for any endorsement I make in return.

I think there may be some value in LinkedIn’s system of professional network references, but whatever that value is, it is certain to diminish with time. Endorsements are perishable. And given that, regardless of how many I collect, any potential employer is still likely to want me to put on a nice shirt, schlep in for an interview, and prove I actually know my stuff. It’s inconvenient, but it makes them feel a lot better about paying me, so I go along. Fortunately I don’t expect to have to go through it for some time, but then, that’s what we always think isn’t it?

In the meantime, I wanted you to know that I do honestly appreciate your effort, and that my lack of a return gesture does not have a linear relationship to the respect and regard in which I hold you. It’s just that it is exactly that, a gesture. I don’t mind “liking” crap on Facebook or G+ from time to time. After all, what am I really saying? Not much. But an endorsement for a specific skill should mean something, and carry some weight, and I just don’t think that LinkedIn endorsements do.

Pretty Much Everyone Should Read This

We have this divide in my house. I’m pretty much a typical introverted developer who prefers email and text messages, avoids the phone, and will only use my mobile while driving if something powered by a warp engine lands on the freeway in front of my truck. My wife and daughters, on the other hand, live for social interaction, and think nothing of communicating nearly constantly while driving. Like many other modern drivers, they have convinced themselves that their use of “hands-free” devices renders this mode of communicating safe. Several studies have shown that they, and a lot of other people, are wrong about this. Now we have another.

In a study released today the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that mental distractions stemming from attempting to communicate with other humans while operating a motor vehicle are just as dangerous whether you’re holding the phone or not. Rating distractions on a numerical scale for risk, the study found that simply listening to the radio was a risk level of 1, which is minimal. Talking on a mobile phone, whether hands-free or handheld, rated a 2. Responding to in-vehicle systems and prompts such as those from navigation or entertainment systems provided the most dangerous distractions of all, meriting a 3 on the AAA scale.

Years ago when I was working on the water I was aboard a large sailing vessel whose captain, a master of ocean-going oil tankers who moonlighted as a square-rig sailor, had very strong opinions about chatting on duty. If you had the helm and he caught you talking to a shipmate you were in for a stern rebuke, at least, and might be dismissed from the wheel and sent to another station. For a large ship, keeping a stable course is a matter of safety and significant amounts of money, and what our captain knew was that people who are focused on a conversation cannot remain attentive to the physical and mental requirements of piloting a vessel.

And they can’t pay attention to driving a car either. There have been enough studies done, and enough research released, that there shouldn’t be any remaining debate here. When you’re driving you’re in charge of a couple of thousand pounds of metal moving at a significant speed. That’s a lot of energy, and it can have devastating consequences when it is not properly controlled. The only responsibility you have when behind the wheel is to exert the proper control to move that chunk of metal around safely. Any conversation, at all, detracts from your ability to do that. End of story. And I really do mean, end of story. Because there is no technology that can change this fundamental characteristic of our brains. Until cars can safely drive themselves, we have to put the phones away and do the driving for them.

Steal My Copper, Please

Copper is neat stuff. It’s malleable, ductile, resists corrosion, transfers heat readily, and can be easily soldered. In various forms it is incredibly useful. There are around 50 pounds of copper in an automobile, and 11,000 pounds in a diesel locomotive, for example. One of the less useful forms that copper takes is when it is extruded into long, thin wires, coated in insulating material, and strung between wooden poles to carry analog telephone signals. We still have one pair of these wires coming into our home, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Our local carrier is Embarq, or whatever they are calling themselves these days (DinoComm? DustyLink?). For $30 a month they offer us a hard-wired circuit-switched connection to any local phone number I care to call. That is, assuming I remember the number, and don’t mind dialing it in manually. Thirty bucks a month. If I want to call any of the neighboring area codes, have voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, etc., all of that is extra. We recently dropped all that stuff on our one remaining line. Before that it was $60/month.

Sixty bucks! That’s nearly half my Comcast bill, for a single lousy voice circuit. Really? I’m still paying these guys why? I can’t figure it out. We don’t even use the line anymore. Nobody uses the line anymore except a couple of marketing bots that hang up as soon as I answer (even the guys who write marketing bots don’t give a crap about telephones anymore). We use email, SMS texting, cell phones, and Skype for virtually all our communications needs. Skype is $29/year and I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, with good quality, with one-click dialing, with video, and I can exchange text messages and files at the same time.

We came very close to cutting the cord completely a few months ago, and just couldn’t quite get there. It’s easy to generate doubt. What about 911? It doesn’t work on Skype but we all have cel phones and it does work on them. What about when the power is out and the computers are down? Well, the phone on the copper line is wireless and needs power too… and we have cel phones. All of the real questions have answers. Still, we didn’t get rid of it, and we’re still donating $30 every month so that Embarq can afford to scrub the rust off their trucks. It must be some sort of cultural nostalgia, or the communications infrastructure equivalent of apron strings.

According to the FCC (Table 2.2 Statistics of Communications Common Carriers) in 2006 there were 2.7 billion kilometers of metallic (mostly copper) wire in the physical plant of the country’s licensed local telephone carriers. I did a double take when I saw that number, and had to think about it a bit before I realized that this stat counts every conductor. If you look at sheathed metallic cable, most of which will have multiple conductors, the figure is 6.1 million kilometers. I googled around a bit on some stats for how much copper that represents, and calculated that it’s in the category of “metric ass ton.” If you want to get more specific, have fun with it. However you look at it, there’s a lot of metal hanging from wooden poles so that forgotten autodialers sitting in some dusty office closet can call me and hang up as soon as I answer.

Copper today is selling for $3.30 or so on the New York Exchanges. Next week in this space: the Post Office.

Keep the Stars, I’d Like a One G Drive

I have to admit, I’m a complete space geek. That’s one reason why I was thrilled to read this week about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s grand initiative to seek the fundamental science of interstellar travel, with the goal of developing the enabling technologies by 2111, one hundred years from now. This is good stuff. We need it, by God. In the middle of the last century John Kennedy challenged us to land a man on the moon, and that vision sustained America, in many ways, through some dark and divisive days. In this time of credit downgrades, defaults, unemployment, inflation, foreclosures, the snickering of our enemies, and the bickering of our politicians, an initiative that calls us to envision the greatness we might achieve in a century is more than welcome.

That said, I think I would have suggested a more reasonable target than the stars. I grant that “The Stars!” is a far more potent rallying cry than “A One Gravity Constant Acceleration Propulsion System!” Nevertheless, that’s what I would have suggested, and that’s where I believe our energy and resources ought to be focused. The stars may someday be accessible to us, but a high specific impulse one gravity drive would open up the entire solar system as soon as it was available. The math of constant acceleration is a wonderful thing to behold.

Start from a dead stop and begin accelerating at one gravity, or 9.8 meters per second, squared. In 10 seconds you are travelling 98 meters per second. In 30 seconds you’re moving at 294 meters per second, or 17 kilometers per minute. By the end of your first hour of one-gravity acceleration you’ve reached the blistering speed of 35,280 meters per second. That’s more than 126,000 kilometers per hour.  If you can keep this rate of acceleration up for a week you’ll be moving at more than 5000 kilometers per second. In about 354 days you’ll hit C, the speed of light in a vacuum. Well, actually you won’t, or maybe you will; we really don’t have any idea. But with a one-g drive we could find out in a year. A few years more could put a probe powered by such a drive in the Alpha Centauri system.

As cool as that sounds, the benefits of a one gravity drive don’t derive from streaking across interstellar space at the speed of light. The benefits lie right here in the solar system. Currently getting around the local neighborhood is extremely difficult for us. The reaction engines we have available produce many times one gravity of acceleration, but can only operate for very short periods at high rates of fuel consumption. That’s good, because we need such engines to get off the ground. Obviously if you light off a one-gravity drive at ground level the thing will just sit there and look imposing, and perhaps hum a bit. But once in space these low specific impulse (fuel inefficient) reaction motors become a liability.

Everything in the galaxy is in orbit around something else, riding around and around the inside of a deep well of space created by the gravitational fields of massive objects. The moon orbits Earth, which orbits the Sun, which orbits the galactic center, which orbits something much vaster that I am unfamiliar with. The center of a cluster or something. A spacecraft, once it is free of Earth, is another orbiting object in this vast dance. But, because it has power, it can do something no other object in the universe can do: it can decide to change its orbit. It can do this by applying forces to add to or subtract from its velocity. To put it simply, if you are in an orbit, and you add velocity, you move to a higher orbit. If you subtract velocity you move to a lower.

Because we can only burn our reaction motors for very short times, a human spacecraft that wants to travel from Earth to Mars, for example, has to use something called a Hohmann Transfer Orbit. To put it simply, because I am incapable of putting it other than simply: the spacecraft begins at Earth, sharing Earth’s solar orbit. It is then accelerated until it is in a higher solar orbit that meets with the orbit of Mars at some point in the future. It then coasts until it reaches the orbit of Mars, and decelerates to match Mars’ orbital velocity. Voila! And it only took five years! Yeah, Hohmann transfers are slow. First, you have to delay even starting until the objects are in relative positions that make the voyage practical. Then you have to boost yourself into a high orbit, switch off the motors, and just ghost along for years.

With a one-gravity constant acceleration drive the trip would be slightly more expeditious. You could calculate a trajectory through the solar gravity field that intercepted the object you wished to reach, taking into account deflection from other gravity fields, and then point yourself in the right direction and light off the drive. You accelerate at 1 G until you’re halfway there, and then turn around and decelerate at 1 G for the remainder of the voyage. The moon would be hours away. Earth to Mars? Something like three days. Mars to Jupiter? Maybe ten. Now that’s cool. Such a drive would instantaneously render the entire solar system open to human exploration and exploitation, and would lead to further advances that might one day actually take us to another star.

Exciting, for sure. Achievable? Make no mistake: a one-gravity constant acceleration drive of high specific impulse is magical fantasy. Perhaps it is slightly less so than a lightspeed drive, a warp drive, a transporter, or a holodeck, but it is fantasy just the same. Still, if we’re going to set a very high, very long term goal, I think this is the one to shoot for. We may very well never get to another star. Even if the challenges of distance, time, and velocity can be overcome, the remaining technical challenges of fuel consumption, heat dissipation, hull integrity, radiation, communication, and a hundred other problems might very well be enough to keep us home.

By contrast, we already know pretty well how to survive and navigate our own solar system and return home safely. We simply lack the power to do it in a reasonable time. If we were to gain that power, it would be of far more immediate benefit to the human race than reaching another star system. It would open the vast resources of every corner of the solar system, and if there is other life to be found in the galaxy, mastery of our own system would set the stage for someday encountering them on more equal terms. The stars might make a more compelling objective, but a one-gravity drive is really the key to a human future in space.

Ineffectual Ventures

Here’s a question: what do you do after you’ve made it? I don’t mean had a couple of wins and put a few bucks in the bank. I mean absolutely, unequivocally, ball-out-of-the-park made it? Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, has definitely made it. He leveraged his massive intellect and first-class education into a career at the hottest startup of his era, and in the process made hundreds of millions of dollars, at least. So what do you do after you’re done with game seven of the series and emerge the big winner?

For Myhrvold’s former boss Bill Gates, his friend Warren Buffet, and many other very wealthy individuals, the answer has been philanthropy. For some, like Steve Jobs, it’s a second turn at the reigns of the horse you rode across the finish line in the first race. Others are serial entrepreneurs. Not a few have embraced the greatest challenges of our time. Paul Allen and Elon Musk build spaceships. For many of the newest mega winners, such as Mark Zuckerberg, the question remains to be answered. What about Dr. Myhrvold?

According to a recent investigative piece by NPR, the answer appears to be, at least in part: buy up a huge number of patents and go fishing for dollars. Myhrvold’s company Intellectual Ventures was ostensibly founded to be an incubator for innovation, and indeed it is involved in a lot of interesting projects, many a good bit more relevant to humanity than the world’s most expensive cookbook. The company holds around 1,000 patents on original work, which is pretty damn impressive. On the other hand it has purchased over 30,000 patents for it’s portfolio, and has allied with a shadowy network of employee-less patent trolls (many located in the same building full of empty offices in the Texas town of Marshall) to monetize those intellectual properties through the usual mechanism of threatened litigation.

I don’t need to address here whether software patents are a good or bad thing in themselves. I instinctively don’t like them, but on the other hand I’m a believer in the idea that software is analogous to machinery. If it’s machinery, then why shouldn’t it be patentable, as machines have long been? The question is troubling to me, but it is deserving of its own debate. The issue here is not whether software patents are right or wrong, but rather that the process by which they are currently granted is completely broken. There are patent trolls out there right now suing for license fees on ideas as basic as popping up a tooltip when the mouse is moved over a rectangular area of the screen. The NPR piece talks about a guy who literally has a patent on just about everything everyone does online. Myhrvold’s company used to own it.

It doesn’t take a genius with a doctorate to know that the system is broken, and that patent examiners are unable to accurately judge prior art, or whether what they are seeing is really a unique design for a new machine or process. My own work has been cited in five granted software patents. The articles cited in the patents were all written back in the nineties for journals like Computer Language and Dr. Dobb’s. There’s not one line of original work in any of them. I wasn’t doing original work. I was summarizing technologies for readers who wanted to understand them. I didn’t discover or invent anything, or lay the foundations for anything to be discovered or invented. So what is my work doing in patent disclosures?

That’s the problem, and it’s why I was disappointed to read what Intellectual Ventures has been up to. I have long been an admirer of Dr. Myhrvold, albeit one who will never spend $600+ for his cookbook. I have heard him speak, and read what he’s written, and I don’t believe he can convince himself that the actions of his company are encouraging innovation, or supporting the efforts of small inventors. They certainly could do that. There’s nothing wrong with their model if it is pursued honestly. But they are trolling with a wide net, and catching too many of the wrong kinds of fish.

Patents were originally intended to encourage innovation by offering protected disclosure of methods and processes. Nothing is disclosed when a patent is granted on something basic like tooltips, or remote updating of software, because nothing needed to be disclosed. We all already know how to do those things, which is a pretty clear indicator of prior art. The effect of these patents is simply to erect private tollgates on well-traveled roads. Good software patents might be healthy, but bad software patents are definitely unhealthy, productive of a relationship more parasitic than nurturing. The NPR piece is conclusive, as far as I am concerned, with respect to Dr. Myhrvold’s participation in this business. That’s too bad. With his mind I have no doubt he could make himself another billion or two, and in a much more productive and satisfying way: by inventing something cool.

Windows 8 Hurts My Brain

At D9 Microsoft showed the Windows 8 UI for the first time. All the attention was on the touch-oriented “Live Tiles” interface. Business Insider and some other pubs have taken to calling it “Windows 8 for Tablets.” I don’t know if that’s what it is. About all I can tell is that the Live Tiles interface is supposedly an addition to, not a replacement for, the native Windows UI. That’s good. Getting all touchy-panny with some pretty photos on a ginormous wall screen that costs more than my truck is impressive, but it doesn’t mean much to desktop and laptop users.

Live Tiles on desktops and laptops makes about as much sense as wings on a Hyundai Sonata. Microsoft has said that Windows 8 will run on some different processors, i.e. ARM, Intel system-on-a-chip, whatever. Those aren’t running Alienware gaming boxes. So is this meant to be the UI of the mobile version of Windows 8? Who knows? Is it Windows Phone 8? Apparently not. When asked how developers would write applications for the new Windows 8 UI the company said “HTML 5 and javascript.” Developers and some industry pundits interpreted this to mean no Silverlight for Windows Phone apps. To many people this seemed to make sense, given the expansion to new hardware platforms.

But hardware independence is what .NET, the CLR, and Silverlight are all about. Programmers have invested a lot of time learning the technology stack. When Microsoft released Windows Phone 7 they built the application model and UI on Silverlight for Windows Phone. Developers could leverage everything they new about C#, XAML, and the Silverlight version of the framework to write apps for the mobile platform. Then those apps could be submitted to the shiny new Microsoft app store and start generating iOS-like sales. Now… what? The native mobile interface to Windows 8 will be HMTL + script, but you’ll be able to run Silverlight apps too?

According to some comments I’ve read Microsoft has clarified their position and said that there “will be a place” for Silverlight apps on Windows (Phone?) 8 (for Tablets?). I can’t find any direct quote. On the Silverlight forums the official response has essentially been: we can’t talk now, but don’t believe everything you read, and we’ll say more later. But they’ve said too much already. Why launch a platform and all of the tools to support it, and then make such a radical change in the next version? Has Microsoft figured out that they can’t build a native app ecosystem, and decided to attack Apple’s by promoting HTML 5 and javascript?

I’m not sure, but they’ve at least given me another good reason to continue my efforts with iOS, HTML 5 + JQuery, and Android. Why invest in native Silverlight apps for Windows Phone 7 if Microsoft won’t clearly commit to carrying forward the key components of the platform or building the ecosystem?

Pining for Paper

My Dad and I got into an interesting debate while nursing cold beverages on the deck of his place in Canada,  during the annual “cram everyone into one house and see how long we last” multi-family retreat. We always have some good discussions during these gatherings. But my Dad and I aren’t that often on such clearly opposite sides of an issue. It started with some comment of mine about the declining importance of penmanship (shouldn’t that be penpersonship now? Or perhaps pencraft.) My Dad is in his 70′s and can’t imagine a world in which people don’t write notes, lists, invitations, and memos by hand. I’m about to turn 50, and can.

Ultimately, of course, my Dad is right: it will be a long, long time before humans fully forget the skill of making physical characters with a writing tool on some surface. But long before that happens penmanship will have been relegated to a ceremonial role, and then something of purely antiquarian interest. What of the stuff we write on? An article in the NYT (registration may be required) today about the bookselling giant Barnes & Noble putting itself on the block notes the rapid growth of ebooks, and the how the death of paper is poised over the publishing industry like a virtual wrecking ball. My analogy is imperfect because it implies sudden destruction, whereas this wrecking ball has been slowly swinging back and forth for a few years now.

I used to spend maybe $200 to $500 a year on programming books. I don’t buy any programming books these days, and haven’t for close to five years. Everything I need to know is online. I still do buy fiction, because I don’t yet have a reader. My wife, who does have a reader (a Nook), buys ebooks more or less exclusively at this point. I also buy non-fiction, but much less than in the past. In recent research for a historical novel I purchased four or five technical history texts, but I collected at least as much or more information online. I visit the library for paper books too, and wonder what will happen to Ben Franklin’s idea over the next twenty years? Who will lead us through the stacks when there are no stacks?

As a writer who still has hopes of being published when he grows up, I am not at all disinterested in these developments, and whether they are good for writers. In balance I think they will be. What the publishing business represented was distribution. If the average author made a couple of bucks per book they were doing pretty well. People are already finding success publishing their own work, promoting it online, and delivering it electronically. With publishers focused on blockbuster novels and movie-star authors this change may in fact stir up the market, and let forth a lot of great material that would otherwise have mouldered on a hard drive.

However things turn out for writers, these changes will be cataclysmic for companies like Barnes & Noble, with thousands of stores and the massive bottom line associated with brick and mortar retailing. Companies that make paper, print books, bind books, sell books, and play other roles in the aging paper pipeline will be hit hard. Small companies may find new niches and prosper, but utterly disruptive change is nearly impossible for large companies to deal with. Just try to get a meeting room full of senior executives or board members to jettison an existing business model and pour resources into a risky new one. Netflix wins, not Blockbuster.

The Fine Art of Poking Holes

I’m a hole poker, and people don’t much care for hole pokers. I learned this lesson years ago, when I was the boatswain aboard a large sailing vessel. The boatswain is the highest-rated seaman aboard who isn’t an officer; his job is to keep everything on deck and above in working order, and supervise the other seamen. The word boatswain comes from Old English and Norse, but you don’t often hear it spoken. Instead we say bosun, which should properly be punctuated as bo’sun. Sailors don’t like to move their mouths much, which is one reason why I wasn’t a great success as a sailor.

In the capacity of bo’sun I often found myself delivering bad news to the First Mate, who didn’t always appreciate it. The First Mate, by the way, is the highest rated officer aboard who isn’t the captain, so there was a certain symmetry to our relationship. He didn’t really mind it when I pointed out something that was broken and needed to be patched with money, but when the news was more of the anticipatory “if we don’t fix this then its possible that might happen” variety, he would get a little irritated. I was dreaming up work, which I certainly wouldn’t be doing if I had work to do.

I ended up spending nearly a whole summer aboard a laid-up ship with that same First Mate, and I like to think we developed some respect for each other’s approach. I never forgot that lesson, however, and I’ve had it repeated more than once since, in venues as distant from each other as the deck of an oyster dredger is from a boardroom. Which is to say that while I never forgot it, I never learned it either.

As a species our inherent distaste for hole poking is illuminated by our distaste for criticism. We look down on professional critics, thinking that if they had any real talent they would do things, and not simply criticize the things others are doing. But it takes imagination to criticize, and poke holes. You have to be able to imagine something as other than it is, and then imagine the consequences of that. Novelists should make pretty good hole pokers.

The problem with our aversion to the poking of holes is that there is one thing we fear more than having the flaws in our plans highlighted before a large audience: the consequences of not having those flaws highlighted. We are terrified of Bad Things happening. We hate risk so much we’ll shut down half the world’s airspace rather than chance flying through the Invisible Cloud of Death. We hate it so much that we’ll put colored cellophane around it and call it something else, like Collateralized Debt Obligation.

The way to avoid Bad Things happening as a consequence of flawed plans is to poke holes in the plans before they are put into operation. But that would require admitting that we, the authors of those plans and designs, didn’t possess sufficient imaginative powers to envision and close the revealed gaps before the hole poking began. Perhaps the best thing for all of us is to sit tight, pretend we’ve covered the bases, and then when things go south rise in righteous indignation and demand that our politicians pass a law to keep it from happening again.

On second thought there may be some flaws in that plan.