Monday, November 12, 2007

Small Surface Area

I appear to be one of the few people that just doesn't get Microsoft's "Surface" computer. I agree that it's a bitchin' piece of technology, and I have to imagine that somebody will eventually figure out how to make something interesting and relevant out of it. Once you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the UI for certain applications (such as 3D modeling) would be a hell of a lot easier to use if you could grab an object in two locations, rather than just one.

But given how MS is targeting Surface at hotels and casinos . . . I just don't see how they're going to get the critical mass that would be required to drop the price low enough to . . . well, achieve, critical mass. Especially with this new ("duh!") report that each installation is requiring significant custom software. All of that is guaranteed to drive the effective cost for each device well above the $10K initially reported.

OK, well maybe I'm not the only one who doesn't get it:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Southern Oregon

Galena, Caedmon and I spent this last weekend in Southern Oregon, visiting family and friends down there, and introducing Caedmon around to those not yet blessed with having made his acquaintance. In other words, we made a nuisance of ourselves, impinged on other people's hospitality, and generally paraded Caedmon about, preening, like he was the most important thing to happen to this planet since the invention of indoor toilets. (An invention with which, regrettably, Caedmon remains thoroughly unacquainted.)

Some pictures:

The most entertaining photos came from our attempt to give Caedmon a haircut. It takes quite a few people to do that, apparently, and while Caedmon appeared to be happy with the results, he was none too pleased with the process.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Common Ground?

For those of you who haven't been paying the sort of attention that clinical psychiatrists write papers about, i.e., presumably the majority of you, there's been some interesting discussion taking place on my post, from some weeks back, on the limitations of socially generated knowledge. Some of the comments, well, don't require much comment. But I've been pleased with the tenor of the back-and-forth between me and PaperGhost. (It was this post, in response to mine, that got much of the discussion going.) So I thought I'd elevate my latest response to the level of full-fledged post, in the search for some common ground between us. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there seems to be more of it than either of us might have thought at the beginning of the exchange.

PaperGhost wrote:

Do you think most people out there download scanner / removal tools purely to get rid of Zango, or to get rid of the nameless wonder that's hooked into the browser, dumped fifteen EXEs in the System32 folder and started firing spam about penis extensions to old women in Canada? To me, these people are mostly doing it for the latter, and of course in the grand scheme of things, they might have picked up Zango somewhere and decided they might not want it anymore and hose that too.

This is a good point. Unless they're encouraged to do so (perhaps even by some well-meaning but inaccurate forum posting), it seems unlikely to me that most people would purchase a scanning app to get rid of Zango. Hopefully, our unavoidable "plain language disclosure" during the download process, the icon in their system tray and logo in the toolbar, the notification message that we show upon completion of the install and every 90 days thereafter, and our entry in Add/Remove Programs, and the links in our always-labeled ads, all give people enough information about how to uninstall Zango quickly and easily on their own, if they no longer want our software.

I do continue to have a beef with the failure of some anti-spyware applications to be accurate. I've seen a number of instances where an application will claim that Zango is installed when we're not, or will incorrectly identify Zango as some egregious piece of malware. Those are sometimes understandable bugs, fixed as soon as we point them out, but I'm not sure I can understand why some companies insist on calling us "spyware" or "malware". If Zango, with all the practices, procedures and technology that we've implemented, can in any sense be considered spyware, the term has lost all meaning. My sense is that the term is simply being paraded around for its pejorative impact: draw your own conclusions.

I should emphasize this, though: I'm fully in agreement that security applications in general provide a valuable service. I'm embarrassed to admit that over the last 10 years, I've twice been tricked into executing malware of some flavor or other, and I was quite grateful for the various utilities that helped me clean up afterwards. I'm a reasonably technical and suspicious fellow, so if I can get taken in, there's not a lot of hope for my 90-year-old Grandma, out on her own. She's a sharp lady, but not nearly suspicious enough.

PaperGhost wrote:

I've said often that I'm not overly concerned about the security implications of having Zango on a PC - really, there are bigger fish to fry and nastier things out there to worry about nowadays. The thing that's always made me stand guard on Zango, and quite likely other researchers too, is that the danger hasn't really come from your own application, but the super dubious affiliates you've ended up partnering with in the past.

I agree (more common ground!) that we made some real mistakes there, back in the day. We've legitimately taken some grief for those mistakes – the $3MM fine we're paying to the FTC being just the most obvious example. We signed the FTC consent agreement, and are paying that fine, because we really did fail to police our distribution network properly. We screwed up, no two ways about it.

As financially painful and humbling as the $3 million FTC fine was (as is), it is frankly small potatoes compared to the additional costs associated with our distribution policing issues. For example, we’ve spent millions of dollars more in enhancements to our technology and business practices. The instinct of self preservation, if nothing else, has given Zango quite an incentive to keep its practices and partnerships as whistle-clean as possible.

I do appreciate that PaperGhost added the qualifier “in the past.” We’ve worked hard to clean up our distribution channel and I think that hard work has shown results.

PaperGhost wrote:

[I]n terms of the screwball affiliate installs of old, if they're not happening, I (and probably many others) don't need to be writing about you and can devote our time to worrying about the rising trade in extremely dubious Adware vendors in China, the Korean hackers teaming up with crackers from the States and the never ending stream of kiddy pr0n groups coming out of Russia.

I would honestly be happy if I never had to write about Zango ever again, and I'm guessing you would be too J.

Amen! I think we've got some fairly substantial common ground here. J

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Partial Answers

A friend at church is leading an Alpha class, and one of the attendees was asking some difficult questions. My friend wrote:

So I have a partial skeptic in this Alpha class. The person believes in the new testament just fine, but has a number of issues with the old testament for which I am at a loss to provide satisfactory answers.

If the Bible is the book of life or the way to live your life, how do we reconcile things such as these?

1. God testing Abraham by having him attempt to kill his son. If we tried this today and said God told us to do it, we would be put away for a long time. What was the point of this? If God knows all why did he have to test Abraham, he already knew what the answer would be. Granted I remember this one from last year's bible study, but a satisfactory answer did not stick with me.

2. God commits genocide for the Israelites. Some reference to an episode in Exodus where God says he will destroy all their enemies, also some issue about Joshua and Jericho. I don't know these books good enough to answer intelligently. The basic complaint is that how is this instructive in the way to live one's life? Sounds more like a vindictive God than one of patience and love.

Those are hard questions, and I don't have great answers to them, if only because they bug me too. (Especially the genocide bit in Joshua.)

In general, I try to keep the following things in mind when thinking about these and other parts of the Bible that are disturbing:

  1. Parts of the Bible are supposed to be mysterious. If it all made perfect sense, it would be a little fishy. The Bible is supposed to be dealing with realities that are beyond description. If everything in the Bible just "worked", and didn't have any mystery, or anything that rubbed us the wrong way, it would be prima facie evidence that it wasn't doing its job.
  2. I believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God, but perhaps not all in the same way. Psalm 137 ("Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks") is Scripture, and is in some sense authoritative for us, but it doesn't have the same sort of authority for us as Christians that the Sermon on the Mount does. We can learn good lessons from both, but not the same lesson, and not in the same way.
  3. God deals with us where we're at. I could explain to Caedmon all day long why he should be less selfish and should think more about other people instead of just about himself – but he's not far enough along yet even to understand that I'm speaking, let alone what I'm saying, let alone be able to do anything about it. I have to speak to him in a language that he can understand, which involves feeding him when he's hungry, holding him when he cries, changing him when he smells, and generally letting him get away with the illusion that he really is the center of the world :-). In the same way, in Joshua, God was dealing with a bronze-age culture that was nearly three millennia away from understanding that different religions actually might be able to live together in peace. The entire history of the Old Testament suggests that if God had focused at all on "why can't we all just get along", the Israelites would have concluded that the easiest way to do that would be to treat Yahweh as just another God amongst the Canaanite pantheon, and an even more important lesson would have been lost. But when the Israelites had finally gotten it through their head that there was, in fact, only one God, then and only then were they ready to hear the second part of the lesson: that this One God wanted them to turn the other cheek, to love even their enemies, and to live humbly in peace with their neighbors.
  4. There are hints even in the Old Testament that the conquest wasn't as bloody as it's described in Joshua. If you compare Judges to Joshua, it looks like Joshua is maybe a tad bit optimistic about how much territory the Israelites conquered, and how thoroughly they managed to subdue the original inhabitants. And the most recent excavations around Jericho haven't turned up much that would corroborate the Joshua account of its destruction. It's been destroyed and rebuilt a whole bunch of times, but it appears to have largely been at peace during the generally accepted dates for the conquest. (In other words, perhaps Joshua is to be understood more like 300, and less like George Grote's History of Greece: it's a genre of literature that's trying to tell an interesting story, and isn't too interested in its correspondence with actual historical reality. The story is still a bloody story, but you don't have to assume that it corresponds to actual, prolonged, divinely commanded ethnic cleansing.)
  5. Finally, and most importantly, I find Jesus compelling enough, both as an historical figure, and as a present reality in my own life, that it's worthwhile to continue puzzling over these and other questions, even when I'm not entirely satisfied with the answers. I could, in theory, just dismiss the Bible altogether whenever I find a difficulty with it, but then I'd have to dismiss Jesus too, and I can't bring myself to do that. Quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity are notoriously incompatible: but they both describe (more-or-less different) elements of reality in such compelling ways that physicists can't bring themselves to abandon one or the other. In the same way, believing in Jesus has allowed me to view the world in such interesting and compelling ways that I'm willing to continue working through these issues, even without perfectly satisfactory solutions.

These aren't pat, Sunday-school answers by any stretch. They're more a way of looking at the world, or things to keep in mind. But they're as good as I can come up with so far.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ingalls Lake (almost)

Yesterday I went with a couple friends from work on a late-season hike up near Cle Elum. We were intending to get to Ingalls Lake, but got turned back by a surprisingly substantial snowpack. We got some good pictures, though. But my favorite pictures came from after we headed back down to the Teanaway River valley, with all its fall colors out. More here and here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Seattle Storm

We had a fun little storm in Seattle this afternoon/evening. The wind was blowing up to about 30 miles per hour through the woods behind my house, resulting in this interesting shot. 10 seconds at F5.6. Of course, the only reason I was home early enough to catch the picture was because the power went off at work...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It’s a start: third-party iPhone apps

It's been the obvious move for a while now, but Apple finally realized that they'd screwed up pretty badly, and today Mr. Jobs agreed to open up the iPhone platform.

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers' hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

This hasn't quite absolved Apple in my eyes. It doesn't really bother me that Apple has locked their phone to AT&T's network: I'm used to using phones that are locked to one network or the other. But it remains annoying to me that Apple ever thought they could get away with more-or-less permanently (OK, not so permanently) bricking phones which some enterprising hacker figured out how to unlock. So Apple's not entirely back in my good graces: but I might actually consider getting one for my wife. Maybe.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Inexcusably cute pictures of Caedmon

Sorry, no excuse. These are entirely unjustified and gratuitous.

Images of Autumn

I've been taking pictures of autumn lately: the colors are amazing, and it's a great way to ease into the opening months of Seattle's nine-month rainy season. More. I should note that I like the Pentax K10D a lot more for outside work than inside: the automatic white balance settings are a lot more suited for sunlight or overcast than incandescent.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ops Retreat

I spent the last two days up at Keith's cabin, with most of the folks from our North American Operations team. It was fun: close enough to Fall to have some great colors, just enough rain to make it muddy, just enough injuries to make it interesting.


Monday, October 8, 2007

On Being a Presbyterian

A good friend (a companion from of old, from my previous life as a Pentecostal) recently asked me why I count myself a Presbyterian these days:

In one of your past blogs I noticed a reference to your switch to the Presbyterian Church and it made me wonder about that switch. Did you switch for theology or for social issues (i.e. the people here are so friendly and the hot super model pastor preaches in the nude)? Yes I know that's a little silly, but you get my point. I'd like to hear, if it was for theology, what that theology was; and if your comparison was made against the A/G or against all other denominations.

I can assure anyone listening of one thing: it wasn't because our pastor is super-hot and preaches in the nude. Charlie's a great guy, but I have no more desire to see him in the nude than I have to see Newt Gingrich dancing the tango with a g-string and a flower in his teeth.

I ended up going the Presbyterian direction for a variety of reasons, none of them fully persuasive in and of themselves. Of all the different aspects of Presbyterianism, I like the following things in descending order: (1) their roots in the Reformed tradition; (2) their liturgical style; (3) their polity; and (4) their contemporary theological direction. Or to put it another way: I like the first two, and am not terribly keen on the others.

  1. I'm broadly sympathetic with Reformed theology, in that I think Calvinism systematizes Biblical revelation about as well as any system can be expected to, and Presbyterians are the most accessible modern incarnation of that tradition.
  2. I also like how Presbyterians worship: they're flexible enough to sing choruses when it's appropriate (which isn't terribly often, in my opinion), and hymns the rest of the time; they can raise their hands in worship and speak in tongues (our pastor does), or stick with the ancient liturgical traditions. I like a church that's flexible enough to mix all of those things together.
  3. I don't really care for Presbyterian church governance. It's exactly what you'd expect from a denomination that has accumulated 500 years of making mistakes, and is determined to prevent any of them from ever happening again. The result is a church that's less interesting in getting something done than in making sure nobody screws up along the way. If this were a SAT question, it would be: Presbyterians are to Pentecostals as government is to private enterprise.
  4. I'm not real excited about the directions that Presbyterian theology has taken the last 20 years or so. When you have Presbyterian position papers coming out that advocate "Mother/Womb/Child" as reasonable Trinitarian language, something has gone badly wrong. Even the Presbyterian emphasis on social justice, which I admire, may have as much to do with following cultural trends towards political correctness, as with a genuinely Christocentric desire to work out the Gospel in practice.

In summary, I've actually come to think of the differences between denominations as being less and less important lately. Or rather: I wish that Christians were more interested in arguing about their differences, and slower to get angry about them. No denomination is perfect, and if Galena and I were to move, we'd certainly consider churches from other denominations as well. But we'd probably try out the Presbyterian churches in our new neighborhood first.

Wrong about the iPhone

I was wrong about the iPhone. The real problem isn't its lack of haptics – though that would still be a neat touch to add. It's the fact that Apple is hell-bent on turning the iPhone into a device as proprietary as the calculator sitting on my desk. It's simply astonishing to me that Apple has managed to get away with an update that intentionally and permanently "bricks" unlocked phones, or more astonishing yet, automatically removes or breaks any third-party app you might have installed. To put this in perspective: imagine Microsoft automatically uninstalling OpenOffice or Lotus Notes during an update because it decided they weren't authorized. Try to imagine the outcry; and you'll see why I'm astonished that there's only been the current level of bad PR about Apple, and not several orders of magnitude more.

I was thinking hard about getting my wife an iPhone for Christmas: they're pretty cool. But I'm going to hold off until Apple changes their tune, if only as a protest vote. I really am astonished at how badly Apple has stumbled on this one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Theology of Advertising?

Seeing as how I make my living off of advertising (something I would never have predicted), and also do my best to live as a confessing Christian, I periodically wonder how those two sides of my life connect. If the point of theology is, as one of my profs indicated, "to think God's thoughts after Him," a "theology of advertising", then, would be an attempt to understand advertising from God's point of view: to hear God's thoughts on what advertising is, what it should be, and how a Christian should (or should not be) connected with it.

There's clearly more here than I can do justice in one post – and I'm not going to try. But at random intervals over the next several weeks, I'm planning to offer up thoughts on different aspects of advertising, considered from the divine perspective. Some questions that I'd like to consider include: Is advertising inherently problematic, or is there a legitimate role for advertising in Christian economic theory? Are some kinds of advertising better than others, and if so, what makes them better? What guidelines should a Christian who makes his living in the advertising industry follow?

To some extent, all of these questions presuppose the idea that I hold to reasonably coherent and systematic views on theology and ethics – which is a fairly large supposition, and probably inaccurate. Even just "educated" views is probably too much to hope for: I don't have nearly enough time to do the research that I'd like. But my paycheck has had its origin in advertising dollars for the last seven years, so I've had the opportunity to see the industry from the inside, and during that time I've participated in numerous detailed debates over what constitutes ethical behavior. And despite the fact that advertising makes up a significant and growing percentage of the world's economy – approaching $300 billion annually in the US alone – I'm not aware of anyone else doing this. (Let me know if I'm wrong.) So I thought I'd give it a shot.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Finishing off the Summer

Galena and I (and Caedmon, and two of Galena's friends) spent the weekend up at Keith's cabin, near Lake Kachess. We mostly just relaxed, read and ate too much, but on Saturday, Keith and my cousin Brian (recently back from Everest) and I took off for a motorcycle ride on the roads and trails around the cabin. It was a gorgeous day, with some great views of the Lake Kachess/Lake Kachellis/I90 valley. A great way to finish off the summer.

The Mainstreaming of Desktop Advertising

Part of me would really like to highlight Microsoft's recent filing of a second adware patent (after the first, here) as evidence that desktop advertising is going mainstream. But honestly, I would be several years too late. AOL's IM client has shown popup ads for years now, and every other serious IM client makes money from embedded banner ads. IAC's Fun Web Products division (aka SmileyCentral) accounts for a very large chunk of the $700MM annually that IAC's "Media & Advertising" brings in. The industry number that gets tossed around is that Google makes about $12 on each install of their toolbar. Miva's Direct division (owner of accounts for more than a third of Miva's $120MM in annual revenues.

The only frustrating thing about this is the ongoing double-standard across the industry. Everybody in the world would hate it, but it would prove my point exceedingly well, if the scanning apps suddenly started removing every piece of advertising-supported software that didn't abide by the same level of opt-in and consent that Zango does. Just so we're clear, this would include every single company and application that I mention above. It would drive home to a whole bunch of folks, very quickly, just how hard Zango has worked to make sure that users who get our software really want it.

This goes back to what I said in my last post, about the need for all "socially generated knowledge" to eventually bump up against reality. It will, eventually. But it sure takes a long time, sometimes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Limitations of Socially Generated Knowledge

For some years, I've been interested in studying "how we know things". In philosophical circles this is known as epistemology, though it has a somewhat more practical cousin called cognitive science. The whole discipline is wonderfully circular, since nearly the first question you have to ask yourself is, "How do I know that I know how we know?"

Over the last half century or so, there's been a growing consensus (though certainly not unchallenged) that most knowledge has a social or communal dimension to it. Some people even say that all knowledge-claims are socially constructed, or that any claim to knowledge is really just a disguised claim to power. But you don't have to go that far to recognize that most questions humans are interested in presuppose a plurality of humans asking the question. Still, while acts of knowledge must always take place against a backdrop of community, if knowledge is to be counted as real knowledge, in the end it must bump up against real things. Knowledge that is accessible only to a special community (whether that community be Marxists or Mormons or bloggers) will not last. Lasting knowledge both forms and is formed by a given community, but it must also reach out beyond the original bounds of that community.

One of the interesting ways in which this epistemological consensus has taken form is on the Internet. It's variously called "web 2.0", or "wikinomics" or "the wisdom of crowds," but the phenomenon described is roughly the same: using a widespread community and mass collaboration to generate knowledge. Wikipedia is probably the best-known example, but the same process takes place on thousands of forums, hundreds of thousands of blogs, and millions of email exchanges each day. People contribute what they know to a vast pool of information, and eventually, out of that sometimes maddening cacophony, consensus arises, conclusions are drawn, and very occasionally, work gets done.

I should state for the record that as a blogger and Wikipedia junky, I'm a huge fan of this, what I'll call "socially generated knowledge." It's wonderfully astonishing how well it often works. When I want to research a company, or need to understand an algorithm or mathematical concept better, my first stop is always Wikipedia; and I spend more time than my wife would like either reading blogs or contributing my own postings.

But my experience over the last several years has also brought home, quite clearly, some of the problems inherent with using mass collaboration to generate knowledge. In particular, one debate to which I've had a front-row seat illustrates quite clearly some of its limitations.

A great deal has been written about Zango in various online forums. Over time, a consensus has emerged about what Zango's software does, the value that it adds (or doesn't add), how it is generally installed on your machine, and how it is best uninstalled. In other words, this Consensus (it deserves the capital letter) can reasonably be claimed to represent the result of a wide-ranging, "web 2.0," communal search for understanding: socially generated knowledge at its most robust.

Here's the part that's interesting to me. When it comes to these issues, I sit in a rather privileged position, having supervised, designed or written a great deal of Zango's software myself. I actually know first-hand what Zango's software does, how it's installed, and how best to uninstall it. When it comes to knowing how Zango's software works, it's not a matter of community knowledge: I was there, elbow-deep in code, strategic decisions, debugging and implementation. And thus I happen to know from direct experience that much of the Consensus is simply wrong. And that's worrisome.

To put what I'm going to say into context, you have to understand that you've always been able to uninstall any of Zango's software by going to Add/Remove Programs. The steps you follow once you get to Add/Remove Programs have changed over the years, and we've simplified and standardized the process – but it has always been the case that if you go to Add/Remove Programs and you follow your nose, Zango will uninstall cleanly. (I encourage you to try it yourself, if you're so persuaded.) Furthermore, this is not only one possible way to uninstall Zango: it's without a doubt the easiest, and by a long, long shot, the safest. If you try to uninstall any modern application manually (by deleting files, registry keys, etc.), you run a fairly reasonable risk of screwing up your PC; and while a $30 scanning application is probably more thorough than doing it by hand, even they often fail to uninstall Zango completely or cleanly. They just don't know Zango's software as well as Zango's own engineers do. So that's the undeniable state of affairs: if you want to uninstall Zango, go to Add/Remove Programs. Period.

But to put it gently, that's not the impression you would get from a Google search on, say, "delete Zango". To show you what I mean, let's do just that, and take a look at the information out there about uninstalling Zango. This thread is typical of what you'll see:

Zango. What is it?

by Y4 - 7/8/04 9:30 AM


None of my spyware programs detected Zango.exe on my PC. This program loaded on my PC covertly. Completely unwanted....Desktop short-cut, and all. However, when I ran a McAfee scan it detected Zango as a potentially unwanted application, and listed it as a variant of "180solutions", known spyware! It even comes with an installer, that will reload the program onto your computer if deleted from "Add/Remove programs". The only program that detected it, and removed it successfully was McAfee. Has anyone else ever had the "Zango experience"? What the heck is it?

I suppose you'll have to take my word that much of what the posting describes is simply not true. Yet the contention that Zango reinstalls itself is posted as fact on numerous public forums, where it becomes the source for much additional "knowledge", and with the help of Google is referenced explicitly or implicitly by many subsequent posters.

This posting, from the same thread, similarly contains a great deal of misinformation:

Re: Zango. What is it?

by Y4 - 7/8/04 10:04 AM
In reply to: Re: Zango. What is it? by Marianna Schmudlach

Marianna, I ran Adaware, and spybot on my PC. Adaware recognised the Zango.exe, but could not remove it. I tried removing it at start-up, but to no avail. I then ran spybotS&D, it too recognised the 180solutions variant Zango.exe., and removed it successfully, however, it failed to recognise the Zango installer, and at next boot-up, BAM! There it was again! That's when I ran McAfee8, and it detected, and removed both Zango.exe, and the Zango installer. My PC is now free of the pest. This pest is a tricky one. I've done a little research on it, and from what I've tries to HiJack your explore.exe, and iexplore.exe applications. If the HiJack is successful, you would in turn delete your browser application if you delete Zango from "Add/Remove programs". This, in my opinion, is spyware nearing virus potential! BEWARE!!Thank you for your attention in this matter.

I can't swear that the scanning apps referenced didn't behave that way, because I didn't design them and I can't tell you for a fact what they can or can't do. (Though I do know that once they start messing around with a Zango installation, all bets are off as to whether Zango will still be able to uninstall itself correctly. We can write all the uninstall code we want, but if a scanning app removes that code, we have precious few options left.) But the post is most interesting to me in an epistemological sense for a different reason. The writer claims to have done "a little research", i.e., has drunk at the well of socially generated knowledge. I'm in a position to know that it's precisely this received knowledge which is most baldly inaccurate, and leads finally to the amusing (and completely untrue) claim that uninstalling Zango will delete your browser.

And so it goes. Forum postings like these are to be found everywere, but blog postings that encourage painfully manual uninstalls are common as well. Most egregious are the official-looking postings from various online security companies which insist (explicitly or implicitly) that Zango can only be safely uninstalled by shelling out $30 for their product.

To be fair, over the last year or so, some postings (here, here and here, for instance) do recognize that the best way to uninstall Zango is to go to Add/Remove Programs. Given that the process these posts describe is not only the right process, but also the cheapest and easiest by several orders of magnitude, it's rather astonishing how few and far between those posts are, and how long it's taken them to start showing up. And perhaps most troubling, despite quite a bit of searching, I have yet to find any post that explicitly corrects the Consensus. Nobody ever says, "Nah, you don't have to spend all that money, and you don't have to spend an hour mucking about with your registry. Just find Add/Remove Programs and follow your nose." Even those contributors who apparently know better don't seem to mind that the Consensus is quite wrong, and that's quite puzzling.

At some level, this rather shocking discord between reality and the Consensus calls into question the reliability of the entire "web 2.0" project. (Though please note that I explain "web 2.0" with a reference to the archetypal web 2.0 site – who said irony is dead?) In further postings, I'd like to explore the reasons why so much that is said about Zango is so inaccurate – and see if that can help us to understand better the strengths and limitations of socially generated knowledge.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

H.R. 1908: The Patent Reform Act of 2007

I'm no patent lawyer (or lawyer of any sort), and I admit that I quickly feel out of my depth when it comes to discussing patent law. But as an interested participant (at minimum) on technical matters at a fast-moving Internet company for almost a decade now, and as an interested observer for much longer, I remain quite frustrated with what I (and others) think are obvious flaws in our patent system. Let me repeat the disclaimer: patent law is quite complex and I'm no authority. Nevertheless, I have opinions and this happens to be my blog, so I'm going to share them.

My starting point is the idea that patent law is based on utility, not morality (or its close cousin, natural law). This, it seems to me, is different than most laws. Lots of folks like to say, "You can't legislate morality," but that's nearly the opposite of the truth. In fact, it's quite difficult to legislate anything besides morality. The law says "You can't kill someone" because, well, we all agree that it's immoral to do so. But morality doesn't really enter into patent law. You can't own an idea the same way you can own a car or a laptop or a wallet; similarly, you can't steal an idea the way you can steal somebody's wallet. If I have a wallet, by definition you can't have that wallet, and any attempt to split the wallet between us destroys that wallet or, at least, lessens its value. In contrast, if I have an idea, that has zero bearing on whether you can have the same idea; indeed, my idea becomes more powerful if I share it with others. Thomas Jefferson noted this as far back as 1813:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

His conclusion, then, is that patent law is not based on inherent ideas of ownership, but on whether it improves society:

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.

So that's the first thing about patents: their point is not to ensure ownership, but rather to improve society by encouraging innovation: utility, not morality. It's a mistake to argue for strong patent laws by saying, "This idea is my property and by rights it should remain mine." Ownership of ideas doesn't work that way. Patent law should encourage innovation and precious little else; and if it doesn't do that, it should be changed.

This leads me to my second point: in many situations, our current patent system does not in fact encourage innovation; and it should be changed.

As the co-founder of a medium-sized Internet company, I've had the opportunity to observe first-hand how patents are used. And at least in this field, my impression is that if it were to become more difficult to obtain a patent, more difficult to enforce one, and rather less profitable to do either, these changes would foster innovation and not discourage it. The reason is simple: at least in the Internet space, I've seen patents used far more often to bully other companies than to protect legitimate innovation. Zango has often fought-off competition and, judging by the fate of our chief competitors, has fought it off fairly well. But although we've done much that is patentable, we've yet to feel the need to aggressively use patents to bully our competitors: our business moves too quickly, and we're innovating too fast, to make such a slow, expensive and blunt weapon particularly useful. The converse, however, is not true, and the patent challenges we've spent time and resources rebuffing have distracted us from our efforts to provide value to consumers.

I'm excited, therefore, to see that the House has just passed a reasonable patent reform measure (H.R. 1908) and that the bill is on its way to the Senate. As it turns out, I don't think that the bill goes quite far enough. As one of the comments on Google's blog posting pointed out, the real problem with our patent system is screwed up is excessively broad patentable subject matter: stuff gets patented these days that simply shouldn't be patentable. The bar for "non-obviousness" is set too low and the scope of potential subject matter is expanded too broadly. Unfortunately, HR 1908 doesn't address either of those two problems.

That said, the 2007 Patent Reform Act is better than nothing. It makes some technical changes to the law that all seem to point (perhaps somewhat vaguely) in the right direction. It makes it a little easier for people to challenge stupid patents. It makes it a little harder to claim absurd, astronomical damages. It makes it more difficult to shop for a favorable venue. In short, it's limited. It won't fix the problem. But it will make it somewhat better. And even that's enough to give me hope. At least we recognize there's a problem.

Oh, and Caedmon just peed on me. Apparently he's not a fan of patent law either.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Skunk Works Projects

Typically, Zango's product development lifecycle starts with Product Managers who help to specify the product and prioritize work around it; and then the actual programming and feature creation happens in Development. This is fairly typical – nothing particularly interesting here. However, it's a fact of life – and a fact worth celebrating – that not all great ideas need to get their start in Product Management. Sometimes, folks in Dev (or who have development skills) have ideas for products that they like to play around with. We call those projects "Skunk Works Projects", after the famous Lockheed Martin Advanced Development group.

We like skunk works projects, and want to encourage developers to work on them, as they see fit, without a great deal of centralized control. It's a great way to foster innovation, and shortcut the bureaucracy that's inherent in developing products in a large, distributed organization (that is nevertheless consistently short on resources). However, before a developer spends his next six weekends working out his latest bright idea, we've instituted these guidelines for them to consider – and I thought the guidelines were worth sharing.

  • It's a little flexible how much regular work time you can/should spend on skunk works projects. But the hard-and-fast rule is that skunk works projects can't delay regular SDLC'd projects. If existing, project-managed, product-managed work requires overtime to meet the date you've committed to, your skunk works project has to go on hold.
  • If you're smart, you'll check with your friendly neighborhood product manager before spending a bunch of time on an idea. You don't have to – we're talking about skunk works projects here – but product managers generally have a good feel for what sort of ideas are perfect, which ones are interesting but just won't fit into our schedule anytime soon, and which just don't make sense. So why not spend time brainstorming and building trust with your key allies?
  • Before you introduce your idea to folks beyond the initial developers/brainstormers, show it to Product first. You don't want your idea shot down in a room full of twenty people: give Product the chance to give feedback on it first, in a smaller setting.
  • Be ready for disappointment. For a variety of different reasons, most skunk works ideas don't make it all the way through to a released product. They can still be valuable, whether as a learning experience for yourself, or to get people thinking, or what-have-you: but just because you really like the idea doesn't mean that it's the right thing for the company to spend the resources required to turn it into a production-ready system or a market-ready product.
  • No skunkworks project gets rolled out without eventually getting turned over to Product Management. And once that happens, you become a stakeholder just like everyone else. Eventually your babies grow up and move out on their own.
  • Your vision for your project might not be what Product Management eventually does with it. Feel free to whine and complain about this – but also be ready to suck it up and deal with it.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I don't have any particularly profound thoughts tonight (it's coming onto midnight, and Caedmon is promising to outlast me) – but I wanted to share my gratitude to all the friends and family and church members who have helped to welcome Caedmon into the world. No man is an island, Donne said, and Caedmon is less so than most. Since he was born some 22 days ago, not a day has gone by without a present – arriving in the mail, sitting at our doorstep, or delivered by hand. He is far more popular than I had ever dreamed of being. Lots of people love this little guy, and that bodes extremely well for his parents' sanity and his own well being.

So: to everyone out there who's had a chance to meet him and show your support, this is my huge thanks. Thank you.