Archive for March, 2006


Friday, March 31st, 2006

Slashdot hacked by Gennie!

Three laws of robotics and DRM

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

I think one reason I find Digital Rights Management (DRM) reprehensible is that it violates the three laws of robotics as described by Asimov. While these laws were conceived with humanoid robots in mind, they are just as applicable to non-humanoid robots and almost as applicable to robots without bodies (computers). For those unfamiliar with the concept, the three laws are as follows:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws have the consequences:

  • A robot cannot be used as a weapon
  • A robot can be ordered to destroy itself if necessary
  • A robot will sacrifice itself to protect human beings

Now, the first law doesn't really apply to computers (to kill someone or fail to take action that would save someone's life, a computer would have to be connected to some device that has one of those capabilities, which would make it a robot).

The problem with DRM is that your computer won't do what you tell it anymore - the laws have effectively been changed to:

  1. A computer cannot be used to do anything with copyrighted information beyond what the copyright holder explicitly permits
  2. A computer must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A computer must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These modified laws have the consequences:

  • A computer cannot be used to infringe copyrights
  • A computer can be ordered to destroy itself if necessary
  • A computer will destroy itself to protect somebody else's copyrights

Effectively, they mean that your computer is not your own anymore - it will do the bidding of copyright holders over and above the bidding of its owners.

A computer system which includes DRM is more like a gun than a computer, not in the sense that it can be used to kill people, but in the sense that it doesn't follow the original 3 laws. In the case of a gun, the laws would be more like:

  1. A gun must obey the orders given to it by human beings.
  2. A gun may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, except where this would conflict with the First Law.

This has the fairly obvious consequence that a gun can be used to kill people.

Perhaps I wouldn't have such a beef with DRM if it were marketed honestly and paid for by those who effectively "own" it - the copyright holders. I guess having a machine in my house that enforced copyright protections on the data it contained and prevented me from tampering with it wouldn't be so bad if it was rented instead of sold and the artificial limitations were clear from the start. A gun is sold for a particular purpose and nobody is trying to make it out to be something it isn't, but unfortunately today's DRM systems are marketed in such a way as to bring as little attention as possible to the fact that the hardware you're buying is designed to prevent you from doing some things you might very well want to do.

Chiral houses

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

Some years ago, I went to a talk about Feng Shui (well, really I was dragged along by some friends). It was moderately interesting, but half the things they said were common sense (when planning how to arrange furniture in your home, think about how you will be moving about the space, what times of day the sunlight will be coming through the windows, that sort of thing) and the other half of they were saying were clearly pseudo-scientific nonsense.

One of the things they claimed (that I disagreed with) was that the ideal layout of one's home would be a great deal less ideal in mirror image, and that the ideal layout for a man would (all other things being equal) be the mirror image of the ideal layout for a woman. This seems quite illogical to me - people are for the most part symmetrical (at least on the macroscopic scale) so I'd have thought that left-handedness verses right-handedness would make far more difference than gender. No explanation was given for this, and I was too shy to challenge the expert.

It might be an interesting experiment, though. First, find a pair of houses or apartments in the same neighbourhood which are each others' mirror images, fit and furnish them identically but oppositely (even down to switching the positions of the hot and cold taps, and putting the hinges on the opposite sides of the doors). Then, populate each with one half of a pair of identical twins of the same gender and opposite handedness. Let them live there for a year and then quiz them in great detail about which elements of their domiciles work and which are annoying. I think they would find the same things annoying, but according to this Feng Shui expert, the differences would be quite pronounced.

Normal freehand

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

I was talking to my mentor at work a couple of weeks ago and was telling him about a some of the statistics stuff I was doing for the Performance Regression Prevention System analysis tools. In the course of my explanation I drew a bell curve on his whiteboard (as mathematicians, statisticians and physicists are wont to do). He was very impressed by how well I drew the curve freehand.

I guess that's thing I learned at university that I never really thought about. I wonder if I can still draw Zeta and Xi. I remember the first time one of our lecturers drew a Xi on the blackboard at university - half the students didn't believe it was a real Greek letter.

Talking of alphabets, Wikipedia has some fascinating articles about obscure/old alphabets and characters.


Monday, March 27th, 2006

In the play I was in recently my character took a lot of notes. For the two boardroom scenes, Don Cisneros (one of the board of directors) was writing almost continuously. I now have about 20 pages of notes.

Writing on stage is kind of a strange thing. The audience can't read it so it doesn't matter exactly what you write (although there are a couple of places where it made sense for my character to be scribbling something out instead of writing). Several people asked me after the show just what it was I was writing. As a blog exclusive, I will now reveal this right here...

Actually, it's not really all that exciting. Mostly I was just writing some combination of random words from the dialogue of the other characters that could sort of be notes from the meeting. Occasionally I would write something moderately amusing (for example, when Jules said "Excuse me, but like my predecessor I should be the one who runs board meetings" I would often write "Thinks he runs board meetings") but I couldn't write anything too funny because then it would have been too hard to keep a straight face.


Sunday, March 12th, 2006

This blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks as I'll be spending almost every evening on stage at Seattle Center house, playing Don Cisneros in "Jules dot com". Hope you'll all come to see it!

Software patent woes

Saturday, March 11th, 2006

Over the past few weeks I've been working on a program to analyze performance results and determine if there have been any regressions or improvements in the performance of our product, and, if so, when and where these happened.

When I demoed this program to my manager last week and explained the theory behind my program and that I had just made this algorithm up myself, he suggested that I should try to get it patented.

This gives me somewhat of a dilemma. Software patents are evil. It would be against my personal ethical code to do anything to help a software patent get filed.

On the other hand, if I refuse to help Microsoft patent this idea it could be a Career Limiting Move. Obtaining a patent (especially for something I invented myself without any help) would really improve my visibility at work, it would help with my chances of a promotion, the one-time bonus of up to $1,500 would be quite welcome and having my name on a patent would be good resume fodder (not to mention an ego boost). The technique is probably not useful for software developed by an individual or small team, and the patent would probably never be used offensively (I don't think my program would ever be turned into a shipping product). Also, some would say that I have already sold out my principles by working for the company in large part responsible for turning software from an endeavour practiced somewhat like science (where everyone built on everyone else's published work) into a commercial industry (where ideas are jealously guarded and hoarded and lawyers abound). And finally, Microsoft might patent this idea even without my help if I refuse (the idea is legally theirs rather than mine).

This may be moot point if this has technique has been done before, and I'm thinking of using a completely different (albeit possibly still patentable) algorithm instead, but I'm sure at some point I will have to make a decision to either choose the path of good and righteousness or sell out for personal gain. What do you think I should do?

Three cool videos that have been doing the rounds

Saturday, March 11th, 2006

The Boston Big Dog
Spore computer game
Real life Simpsons intro

I'm just sayin'.


Friday, March 10th, 2006

Did you know that the main ingredient of toothpaste is wet sand? They call it "hydrated silica" on the ingredients list but that's actually what it is - a suspension of very fine grained silica (sand) particles in water. It's an abrasive - it gets into the tiniest cracks and scrapes out left-over food.

A while back I was cleaning my keyboard (a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro):

There was a rather unsightly stain on the front part which had arisen through using the keyboard one too many times with hands greasy from cheese sandwiches. It didn't come off with soap and warm water. I thought to myself "I need some sort of fine abrasive, combined with some kind of detergent that is good for removing organic matter - ah, toothpaste!". I scrubbed at the stain with some toothpaste and an old toothbrush and it came right out.

Security requires the right mindset

Thursday, March 9th, 2006

A friend of mine at Microsoft told me this story about his manager, who is a very smart guy but apparently doesn't have the right mindset to be writing software that doesn't have security holes. The other day my friend and his manager were in their offices (just across the corridor from each other). The manager was making a phonecall. To his bank. On speakerphone. With the door open. To verify his identity, he had to key in his social security number. This number was then repeated by the electronic voice on the other end of the line for our entire corridor to hear. D'oh. To make matters worse, he continued the entire phonecall on speakerphone (with the door open).