Moving right along …

I’m leaving this blog up essentially for historical reasons. Please follow the new fun at http://mithatkonar.com/blog/.

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An Imperfect Ten

When I told my “special friend” in Istanbul (she refused to call herself my girlfriend) that I had decided to move there to take a teaching position for a semester, she smirked and said I wouldn’t last more than a couple of weeks. That was almost exactly ten years ago.

Since then, I’ve lost my cat and my dad, in that order. I racked up another academic degree. I’ve lived in three different houses. I’ve been through a couple more “special friends” and even a couple actual girlfriends. And I’ve kept the same job.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a few things about Istanbul. One of those things is that the city and its women have a lot in common. And that no matter how much you know about both of these, it’s never enough.

One of the most striking things about Istanbul is that it seems hellbent on pumping you full of ambivalence. At first the foreignness of everything lets you deny the abusive and insane stuff, but over time you begin to lose sense of the things that you love. And that makes you feel your nose increasingly rubbed in the other stuff. This isn’t good. I arrived here with a ridiculous capacity for love — and love I did. Today, I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of the emotion.

Wait … I am capable of the emotion. I love my job and my students — even more so than when I first arrived. Teaching really is an honor. The more you do it, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the more you feel you are helping. And the more you feel you are helping, the more you love what you do.

I have no idea what the next ten years will bring nor whether they will be brought forth here or someplace else. I just hope they are as imperfect as the last ten so I can continue to learn and share bits of it.

Patents are public

I do a fair amount of open source code development, yet I am not (yet?) against the idea of software patents. I think there are significant problems with the way software patents are implemented in the US, but I don’t find the concept fundamentally odious.

However, I do find corporate bullying using patent infringement as a pretext quite reprehensible. A recent example–to which I will not link so that I don’t make things worse for the coder–really has me annoyed.

In essence, an independent coder reimplemented from scratch and for no commercial gain a program to  duplicate the functionality of a commercial product. The coder then published her/his work with the intent of releasing the code under an open source license. I am not a lawyer, but I think the general gist of a patent is that it is illegal to distribute a product that is under patent protection without first obtaining a license from the patent holder. As far as I know, it is not illegal in the USA to discuss patents in public nor to publish, for example, plans for making a better or different patent-protected Hovercraft Eel Sensor. It only becomes an issue if you try to distribute a product based on those ideas without a license. The ideas and discussion thereof are public. The use of ideas in products is protected.

The coder in our story has simply published plans (i.e., source code) for making a different version of a (possibly) patent-protected product. Nowhere does the coder indicate her/his intent to distribute a product (i.e., executable code) based on the plans. In spite of this, our coder gets a threatening email from the V.P. of the corporation that makes the commercial product citing (without specificity) that the published work infringes on their patents.

It may also be worth noting that the coder does not appear to have done any reverse engineering to discover how the software works. So if the V.P. actually means “trade secret” when he actually says, “patent,” then there’s nothing there either.

I am not a lawyer, but I utterly fail to see the grounds for the corporate entity’s gripe in this and similar cases. Also, in the particular case in question, you cannot help but notice the extreme vagueness in the communications from the corporate entity. Under these circumstances, one would easily be forgiven for thinking that the corporate entity knows it has nothing to stand on and that its strategy is simply to threaten a costly legal process against the coder. They know that  lone coders will almost certainly comply with threatening requests to spare themselves the burdens of the situation. I am not a lawyer, but in common-person speak we sometimes use the word “extortion” for this strategy.

You can’t have it both ways: patent protection and protection from public scrutiny. Patents are public.

Home Cloud

clouds
If the recent rash of netbooks is any indication, cloud computing may actually be gaining traction.

The aspect of cloud computing that’s the most attractive for me is being able to access all your stuff no matter where you are–provided you have a computer with a decent Internet connection and a fairly standard browser. However, there are two very bothersome aspects of cloud computing. First, if you cannot connect to the provider of your cloud service (e.g., your ISP is flaky, the service’s servers are ill, the site has been banned in the country you are in, etc.), you are screwed. Second, no matter what guarantees the provider gives you, your stuff is in someone else’s hands–meaning the provider can legally sniff your stuff for more effective marketing (Google) or it may be illegally hacked into.

However, there is a fairly easy approach to ameliorating both these problems, especially now that capable server hardware has become so profoundly cheap. The idea is simple: instead of having Google, Google Apps, Zoho or whomever host your Cloud apps, host them in your own home on a dedicated computer. As long as you don’t plan to open your Home Cloud to tons of users, the performance demands on the hardware will be pretty small.

When you host your Cloud apps from home, if your ISP goes nuts you will still be able to access your stuff from within your home LAN. While this won’t help you if you need to access your stuff from Starbucks, it is better than not being able to access it from anywhere. Also, when you host your Cloud apps from home, your data stays at home. It still may be open to hacking, but it won’t be available for other purposes. In addition, a would-be hacker would have to specifically target your server, whereas in a hosted situation one breach of the server may make all users’ data available to the hacker.

One downside to the Home Cloud concept is that it places the burden of backing up data on the home user. But this can be greatly simplified by appropriate Home Cloud software.

A bigger problem with the Home Cloud is what all the cool people are now calling “monetization”. In other words, how do you make money off it? End users are becoming increasingly accustomed to getting services for free. Google makes money feeding you ads. Zoho makes money by selling premium services mostly to businesses. Are users willing to pay for Home Cloud software? One possible way forward is to adopt the media server model: dedicated server hardware that’s preloaded with everything needed to make it go and that requires a minimum of user configuration. We may be living in a time where it may actually be easier to sell hardware that encapsulates a task than software.

I’m aware of only a few projects that have a Home Cloud spirit. eyeOS and Lucid Desktop are OSS home-hostable apps that give the user a virtual Web-based desktop. Another project to keep an eye on is Tiny Tiny RSS–essentially a home hostable replacement for Google Reader. All three of these projects are open source software, and it will be interesting to see where all three of these projects go.

A rare moment of accountability

skids
On my way to the office today, a white van barreling down a road that joined mine at a T junction nearly removed my car, and possibly me, from service. Fortunately, disaster was averted by some heavy breaking and staccato tire squealing on my part (no ABS on the 1997 Fiat-TOFAS Tipo).

This in itself is not news. Near-misses in traffic are a million a day here. What made this event special was that the driver pulled over at a suitable spot some 300 meters on, rolled down his window, and poking both arms and his head out of the window gestured toward me for forgiveness.

And it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to give him a warm huggie to let him know that while I was annoyed at his carelessness I still appreciated his accountability.

P.S. For those of you who thought this entry might have something to do with audio, I have no reason to think that the white van had anything to do with speaker sales.