On Aaron Swartz

by Krishna on January 20, 2013

Aaron Swartz’s sad death is one of the great losses to the tech community. The first time I heard about Aaron Swartz was when I was looking for an RSS feed to Paul Graham’s essays. Because he had a static site, he had pointed an RSS link to one on Swartz's site, which Swartz had created by scraping the content. Over time, I became more aware of his early contributions and Reddit career. I followed (and twice linked to) the writings on his blog, which covered a lot of ground, including brilliant movie reviews, such as this recent one of the sci-fi movie “Looper” and analysis of the Batman trilogy from a political perspective. He was also writing a thoughtful multi-part series called “Raw Nerve” about getting better at life.

Swartz’s main life work was in the area of intellectual property rights, mostly related to copyright. Interestingly, from what I have read, it seems that his main brushes with law enforcement related to simply making public documents publicly available. As in, information that is in the public domain, but protected by a gatekeeper who charges for the privilege, or restricts the volume of information that can be accessed. The problem, of course, is that when something similar is done by Google (like with Google Books) or other companies, they have deep pockets and an army of lawyers to fight their point of view out in court unlike an individual.

But the ideas that Swartz fought for were important. The increasing dominance of technology over every aspect of our life means that whoever controls the agenda on intellectual property will increasingly control the rewards and rents in tomorrow’s society. Copyright law, patent law, trademark law and laws against electronic reverse engineering will determine the rise and fall of monopolies, whether we have increasing or decreasing innovation, whether we have more or fewer public goods. The IP rules not only decide whether you can watch a movie or song, but also relate to things such as industrial products, food grains, labeling, whistleblowers, etc.

For example, current copyright law has stopped any work before 1923 from passing into the public domain for almost a century, something that could still get extended again. The “fair use” doctrine is ambiguous enough for litigious lawyers to sock victims for money. Patent law is a complete mess with frivolous patents hanging as a sword over growing technology companies. If you are a small technology companies, you need the protection of the patent arsenal of a larger company if you want to be able to survive, which means selling out sooner than later. Trying to break a software protection could land you in jail.

Some of the battles are being won. There is a greater awareness of the damage caused by poor IP laws. Technology companies are now politically strong enough to compete with the entertainment industry, who prefer the old approach, though the tech industry has its own pet IP rent seekers too like patent trolls. The faster pace of innovation means that enforcement is simply unable to prevent departure from the laws. For example, increases in disk storage means very soon you could have every single movie ever made on a disk drive. It does make sense still to strike poor laws to prevent people from being law-breakers and for IP owners to understand how to deal with the new realities. Also, Creative Commons has resulted in an explosion of content that successfully competes in important areas, such as college textbooks.

We have to move Swartz’s ideas forward. And in that regard, we have to avoid the Howard Zinn-ish outlook that is clear from his writings, which is that progress is only made by the elites just enough to keep the masses quiet and avoid revolution. That is quite a pessimistic take and it fosters an “all-or-nothing” mentality that can be sometimes self-defeating. It also ignores different strands of progress on the IP front, notably the GNU versus Apache-style licenses, where the latter provides a way for businesses to share in the open source movement. The SOPA success shows that greater awareness and mobilization can help turn the tide and push legislation in a more sensible direction.


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Software Development and Geography

by Krishna on December 9, 2012

This is a nice image from 37Signals showing where their developers are located:

David says that they would have missed out on a lot of great people by only looking at developers living in Chicago. That is true. What is also striking is that despite their actively looking for good developers who can work remotely, there are many places that have no representation: China, India, anybody from the Middle East, Africa or the entire Southern Hemisphere.

37Signals is a small dataset, so this is to be expected. But it is interesting to think about the factors behind remote software programmers and geography in general:

  1. Intellectual property rights: Once code leaves the country, you expect some level of confidentiality and protection of your code. This is not a problem for companies working on open source code, but otherwise you want to work with people in countries which have a good legal framework and working governmental institutions. That rules out many countries which have high levels of corruption.
  2. Skill level: Countries that have a history of encouraging higher education in engineering (Russia) or are gaining experience in specialized areas of software development (Israel) are likely to have better developers. Also, the higher the wealth level of a country, the longer exposure of its population to computing and programming, particularly with respect to non-mainstream technologies.
  3. Knowledge of English: Even though application/website screens use local languages, the popular programming languages are mostly based on English. That gives a major advantage to countries with English as the first language or official language (Commonwealth countries). Also if the “home” company speaks English, they would prefer someone speaking English too, or at least having the ability to write proper English.
  4. Time zones: Communication can be done via email, but sometimes when you need to discuss something, real-time communication (video conferencing or instant messaging) is essential. The farther people are, the fewer hours in a day they can spend online together on a consistent basis.

Of course, someone may be so good that some constraints don’t matter.

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Machine Abundance

by Krishna on November 25, 2012

I was digging through old stuff when I found some notebooks I had filled up about 20 years ago. I used to be a trivia fan and copied down things like Olympics gold medal winners from reference books. The idea was that I could easily look up the information without having to go to some library. I cannot imagine how many hours I spent on those activities, which today seems silly considering how easily Wikipedia or Google provides the same information. Even though twenty years ago, I knew about computers, thinking of them as data storage devices instead of computing devices still hadn’t entered my mind.

It is worse than a cliche to say this, but it is hard pressed to point out something that will not be made obsolete by technology. The list of things made outdated by handheld devices includes both old and new: cameras, alarm clocks, books, CD/DVD players, sound  recorders, paper, maps, encyclopedias, fax machines, envelopes, calculators, paint brushes, credit cards. Some will last longer than others by moving to the upscale market — You can still purchase a $10,000 camera if that is your living or you are into an expensive hobby. Or for reasons of sentiment or authenticity, you would rather have something that has less to do with modern technology. Though remember, physical books were once on the cutting edge of technology too.

Services performed by human beings seem immune to technology. But it is possible to see a future where much of the work is done by robots, both big and small. We already have dumb machines (dish washers, lawn mowers) doing a lot of work, but the last step is still done by human beings. The promise of Roomba is that much of those kinds of work will be taken over by robots, and you can just vegetate in front of the TV. One reason why this has not happened yet is the delicate financial situation across the globe, where household spending on newer technology has stalled, resulting in prices still being prohibitively high for the middle class. But that will change over time.

Similarly with medical care. We are close to a time when small robots the size of ants or smaller will be on or in your body monitoring and even fixing issues (“Hey, is that a tumor cell there? Zap!”) Less invasive, more precise surgeries performed by robots with minimal guidance from doctors. One issue is the massive amount of regulation that could slow the adoption of technology, but it is a question of when, not if. Over time, per unit health care costs will come down like it has in other areas. And it needs to as the human population is aging at a rate unprecedented in world history.

I think Paul Graham is right about this. Computing technology has reached a critical level where we are going to see all kinds of amazingly useful (and not just quirky) gadgets. And then people then will find ways to bring them together into single robot models. The jobs of the future will be be in how to make things that are going to make obsolete the things that human beings do. But don’t think we will only have the robot makers in the future. By then, the machines will have become intelligent enough to create copies of themselves and put the engineers out of work too. In all seriousness, though, barring politics or climate driven disasters, the next 15–20 years will be an era of fundamental change in the relationship between man and machine. Machines are going to be become smarter and more versatile, and take over much of what we do. And how we approach that world will have to be different, starting from schools to all the other institutions we have built.

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Lines of Code is a Bad Metric, Either Way

October 7, 2012

The Dropbox team had a post explaining their decision to use CoffeeScript instead of JavaScript and, in particular, re-writing their existing codebase in CoffeeScript. In case you are unfamiliar with CoffeeScript, it is a language that compiles down into JavaScript, so you have the option to do new development in CoffeeScript while retaining your previous […]

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Reckless Debt versus Strategic Debt

August 25, 2012

Chris Eargle has a great article explaining that the term “technical debt” comprises both strategic debt and reckless debt: Technical debt accrues interest, and it must be paid back lest the interest payments (lost time) become too high for product maintenance and future development. If immediate business concerns outweigh future business concerns, it makes sense […]

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The Politics of Software Development

August 18, 2012

Steve Yegge has a couple of posts (here and here) expounding a new theory of thinking about software engineering. As he says, 1) Software engineering has its own political axis, ranging from conservative to liberal. […] 2) The notions of “conservative” and “liberal” on this political axis are specialized to software engineering. But they exhibit […]

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The Limits of Being Persuaded

August 11, 2012

Jeff Atwood had a post about persuasion, linking to one of my favorite movie scenes where Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda, castigates his advisor for not effectively persuading him to expel Asian residents who were not Ugandan citizens. The conversation goes like this: Idi Amin: I want you to tell me what to […]

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Rules to Liberate vs Rules to Choke

July 29, 2012

Angela Baldonero at Return Path has a post about her work at human resource management. Some of her points are very good. She writes about not tolerating brilliant people who cannot work in a team. Their company (apparently) does not simply pay lip service to their stated value of total transparency, but acts on it even […]

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Acquisition for Termination

July 22, 2012

I read Matt Gemmell’s take on critics of Google’s acquisition of Sparrow (an email client) with interest. It echoes some of what I previously wrote about entrepreneurs, i.e., they are in the game to benefit financially and because there are many business factors outside their control, sometimes it is worth selling the business when they […]

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The Pokayoke Software Development Guide

July 1, 2012

Aaron Swartz has written up a guide for software development from idea to launch. He calls it “The Pokayoke Guide to Developing Software”. I was unfamiliar with the word “Pokayoke”, but it means mistake-proofing, i.e., “eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur”. Developing software from zero to […]

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