Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Geek Dinner at the Texas Embassy

Saturday night was time to get back in to the flow. Ian Smith suggested I come along to the Geek Dinner and I'm glad I did. As a new dad I have limited time for reading (and writing) blogs, and I spend very little time listening to podcasts, but the blog/podcast focus of the evening had a feel very reminiscent of the early days of the internet: lots of geek enthusiasm, no clear business models, and a world still small enough that a newcomer can get to know people.

I left after dinner and missed the talk by Roger Scoble, but Hugh Fraser and I snagged each other as fellow geek diners on the way in, and it was good for me to get the picture from someone who's actually in the blog/podcast business - and while I may have missed the speech I caught Hugh's interview which is naturally available as a here as a podcast.

Just to prove I was there, I'm third from the right here, with Ian on my right and Sarah Blow in the near left corner.

[added: 2005-12-15] A chance to pay my respects to two travellers that I met at the dinner - Nicole Simon, over from Germany just for the event, and Regular Jen who's made the big move to come over here from the US and get married to Neil Dixon (the kind of move I've never had the guts to make myself, but instead inflicted on my own wife).

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Little Johnny and the friendly stranger

We were taking a bus back to Brixton when a man thanked Eva, me and little Johnny for moving the pram so he could wheel himself into the wheelchair space which we had been occupying. Nice, but he then complimented Johnny on "her" looks.

"Call little Johnny a girl again and he'll probably head butt you", I warned him, with some reason. Not only does the boy tend to go into woody-woodpecker mode when hungry, banging his head furiously against anything that looks vaguely like a human chest - male or female - but he has also started trying to throw himself head-first out of whichever arms are holding him.

We're beginning to wonder if the first words following his current kitten-wails will be not "dada" or "mama" but a lusty Scots cry of "Stitch that, Jimmy" as he administers the dreaded Glasgow Kiss to whichever doting adult has unsuspectingly come in range of his forehead.

Friday, December 02, 2005

How does a psychic website do THAT?

An amusing web site that correctly chooses a symbol matching the two-digit number you have chosen at random.

These things always raise two challenges - first: how does it work, second: if you can see how it works, can you explain it in such a way that others can too?

So don't read on if you'd rather work it out for yourself!

The instructions are
Take any two digit number, add together both digits and then subtract the total from your original number.

When you have the final number look it up on the chart and find the relevant symbol. [...]
First, the result of adding the two digits and subtracting them from the original is always a multiple of nine.


Well, try subtracting the left digit and the right digit in separate steps, eg

instead of
[1] 3 + 5 = 8,
[2] 35 - 8 = 27.

[1] 35 - 5 = 30,
[2] 30 - 3 = 27.

So the subtracting the right digit always leaves you with a round number, a multiple of 10, and subtracting the left-column digit subtracts 1 from each of those 10s, leaving you with a multiple of 9.

Now take a look at the table of symbols and note that each multiple of nine maps to the same symbol (a sun sign the first time I looked, a moon symbol the next).

Thanks to Andy Naughton for a great puzzle, and my apologies if you find this explanation far less amusing!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Always something new on the web...

Here I am, testing out writely.com as an on-line word processing site which happens to include a post-to-blog option.

The editing looks at least as good as blogger.com , and the fact that I can write stuff with a view to never publishing it makes it more suitable for work-related documents that I can access from my desk and my untrusted-on-LAN notebook.

It complements my other new registration, rememberTheMilk.com, rather nicely.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Poison Parents" or "victims of circumstantial evidence"?

I see from http://www.emedicine.com/med/topic543.htm that the frequency of "Diabetes Insipidus" is - in the US, at least - about 1 in 25,000. Of these some 30% are idiopathic, in other words of no known cause.

So the appeal of Ian and Angela Gay against their conviction for poisoning a child by force-feeding him with at least four and a half teaspoons of salt on the grounds that according to a professor of neuro-endocrinology diabetes insipidus is a more likely cause has to be at least plausible:
Albeit improbable, it's still more likely than the even more outlandish diagnosis of salt poisoning.
And with Tony Blair trying to reduce the burden of proof these things are likely to happen more often than in the past.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

CYA and barriers to innovation

My google alert on Advanced Transport Systems Ltd threw up this submission by them to a UK parliamentary committee.

I was struck by a couple of counter-intuitive points
if passenger km delivered by light rail are divided by primary energy used, then light rail is actually less energy efficient that the average car.
It is routine for transport schemes to be returned many times for additional consultancy studies. The cost of preparing major bids taking full account of regulatory and legal issues has also become a major barrier. These costs fund consultants, lawyers, etc at high fee rates and only contribute in the most marginal way to improved transport. It has been speculated, Jakes (2003), that in the area of transport "there are probably a few hundred consultants for every designer"". This balance is more likely to impede progress than to advance it. The principal barriers to the efficient delivery and construction of new transport systems have been erected by over diligent legislation.
In humans, there is a shortening over time of telomeres on the end of replicated DNA. We don't know exactly what part this plays in ageing, but there is a strong association. I wonder if the spread of CYA legislation and regulation plays a similar role in the senescence of societies.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

They're learning, but too late?

European Telcos are joining the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to get it to change its standardisation rules to discourage participants from sneakily embedding their own patented technology in standards and then charging users exorbitant fees.

My argument with software patents has always been that they are in fact extraordinarily anti-corporate. The beneficiaries will be lawyers, companies that purely write software patents, and large software companies that can afford to invest some of their monopoly profits in tightening their stranglehold on the market. The losers will of course be ordinary software developers and anyone who uses software. By definition all non-software companies come into the last group, but by the time they realise how they've lost surety of title to their entire software investment, the bad decisions will be embedded in law and treaty, all neatly done without any public policy discussion since officially the policy never changed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sense from the Vatican

Nice to see the Vatican's chief astronomer, the Rev. George Coyne commenting that intelligent design "isn't science, even though it pretends to be."

I don't even have a problem with Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn stating
it should not be seen as "an offense to Darwin's dignity" for people to offer criticisms of evolutionary theory. "The theory of evolution is a scientific theory," he said. "What I call evolutionism is an ideological view that says evolution can explain everything in the whole development of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."
I'd agree that "evolutionism" exists - though I'd call it an attitude, rather than an ideology - and that as such it's not a scientific theory. In fact, as a card-carrying evolutionist this is just the kind of well-adapted analysis that I would hope for from such a highly-evolved religion as my former Church.

How to check up on a UK charity

I'm all in favour of charities. I'm also in favour of favouring the better run ones, in the interest of both their official beneficiaries and the credibility of the sector as a whole.

So here's where you can check the accounts of UK charities - see if their accounts are up-to-date, and work out their ratio of charitable expenditure to costs of raising funds.

PRT - a slow swell coming to shore?

I dislike urban driving whether as a driver, a passenger, a cyclist, a pedestrian or even as a resident; so I'm all in favour of Personal Rapid Transport, even if it doesn't yet exist.

I particularly like ULTRA, as a techie it seems to me that solving public transport problems by building a packet-switched solution over well-understood technologies is a highly realistic approach and could be a real winner.

I've had a google alert on ATS Ltd for some years, but it's only just got round to letting me know that they've struck a deal with BAA and Arup to implement ULTRA at Heathrow,
Heathrow has ordered 18 of the pods for a year-long test on two miles of track starting in 2008. At first they will be used to link a car park on the perimeter of the airport to Terminal One[... ] the one-year trial could merely be a taster of a far more radical scheme, which could be in place by 2012 if all goes well with the Terminal One experiment[... ] Taking in the new terminal five and all car parks, the scheme will need 30 miles of track and up to 500 capsules.

According to Arup the "The BAA contract is the first commitment in the world to a PRT system". Good for them. I think it will work, and be the start of something that makes our cities far more civilised. I certainly hope so.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Life imitates art - sadly.

I thought I was taking the mick when I wrote this entry this time last year.

I've got far more important - to me - stuff to be writing about, but something is really wrong. It is madness to be going in this direction. And if the USA goes there now, we shall too, eventually.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ringtone Blues

I'm tired of the built-in Nokia ringtones, but I'm too old and snobbish to buy over-advertised chart-crap.

Now I have a little plan for the ultimate classy, unobtrusive but exclusive ringtone - find a MIDI file of the 11 notes making up the theme to the track Proverb on Steve Reich's City Life and convert it into a ringtone.

But I can't find such a file, and anyway, how would I escape a well-justified lynching at the hands of the first true music lover to hear this pretentious trivialisation of such meditative and beautiful music?

Oh well, back to "Ring, ring".

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Time for a British EFF

I'm on the mailing lists for FIPR and FFII-UK (and have lobbied my MP for both) but it's pretty clear that the UK needs a funded, mass-membership body to represent the interests of the UK digital citizen, a role played by the EFF in the USA. Following a debate at Opentech 2005 it looks like something may be happening at last.

Danny O'Brien reports that a Pledgebank page has been set up where you can pledge to set up a standing order of £5/month to support a UK Digital Freedoms organisation provided at least 1000 others do too.

It seems I am number 442.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

IDFYP - I don't feel your pain

Something that happened in Holland on July 12th is helping me to make more sense of the troubles raised here in London by July 7th.

In a Dutch court, Mohammed Bouyeri turns to Anneke van Gogh, the mother of the man he murdered for attacking Islam, and tells her "I don't feel your pain. I don't feel any sympathy for you. I can't feel for you because I think you are a non-believer."

Meanwhile here in Britain, Islamic clerics find themselves thrust in front of the cameras, trying to make the clear condemnation of the bombers that may help defuse a backlash against their communities, a task made difficult by the fact that the same hatred of British and Western foreign policy which drove the bombers is shared to some degree by so many in their community, and that pretending otherwise would reduce their credibility with Muslims and others alike.

Perhaps Mohammed Bouyeri could help them. His words seem to me to offer the clearest definition I have ever seen of unacceptable belief-based extremism. Extremism itself is just a label, and I know from my own experience that fundamentalists can be very decent people. But IDFYP-ism is something that means something, it is something that can perhaps be identified and condemned regardless of your attitude to British involvement in Iraq, and that condemnation could serve the Islamic and wider communities alike.

And as a true non-believer, aware of the fate of non-believers through most of history, I could feel a little more faith in the non-transience of these tolerant times.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

letter to the Times on 12 Aug 2004 - unpublished.

12 Amberley Court,
Overton Road

(020) 7274 3989
07710 864 775


Your business supplement yesterday on the proposed European Community Directive on intellectual property omits to mention that the directive will permit the patenting of "computer implemented inventions" or, in a word, software. Under existing law software is basically protected by copyright - you write it, you own it, and then you get to use it or even be paid for it.

Under the new proposal software will be patentable as an invention provided it has a "technical effect". This could apply to any aspect of a system, from screen layouts and interfaces to algorithms and file formats, and at any level of abstraction, from byte compression to business protocols.

Defending the ownership of "your" software against EBP (expropriation by patent) involves research, legal advice, and course much time and money. There is no presumption of innocence. You may try to prove that the words of a patent do not apply to your code, or that the claim is invalid because it is obvious, or there is relevent "prior art". None of these steps is as simple, clear or cheap as simply proving that you or your supplier wrote the code.

Who benefits from the introduction of software patents? In the US, which has had software and business process aptenting for some time, large companies like Microsoft have substantial patent portfolios and the resources to offer their customers IP indemnities. Smaller beneficiaries like PanIP are not software developers, but lodge or buy patents and then target larger or smaller businesses depending, it seems, mainly on how plausible a threat they can muster.

Who loses? Any business which relies on a clear title to software which they have developed or licensed, and on which they daily depend.

The potential costs of software patenting to British business are, I suspect, almost unquantifiably vast. This doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Francis Norton.

Free Mojtaba and Arash Day

If you're spending your valuable time reading this this blog, you either share my belief in free speech or at least know what to expect.

Democracy without free speech is a recipe for government by spin and deceit. Is Iran truly a democracy? Its censorship of media and the internet suggests that democratic values don't run as deep in the government as amongst the people.

And is the blogosphere is as overblown and ridiculous as its critics suggest, or maybe something that will make a change for good? Now is the time to find out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Perseus gets a hand

Forget Sisyphus and Oedipus, my personal favourite re-interpretation of a Greek myth would be Perseus, using his shield as a mirror to kill the snake-haired gorgon Medusa without letting her eyes turn him to stone. As a software guy I think this could be a founding myth - the use of a model (incorporating real-time position and motion data, but abstracting out the metamorphic gaze) to solve a particularly "hairy" problem.

Two problems with models. One, they are always approximations, simplifications. There's not much point to a model that is just as complicated as the reality it models. Two, the modeller gets to determine the purpose and value of every component. And sometimes these components are sentient, are in fact us.

But every public policy, and every law, incorporates some kind of model of the field in question. All laws and policies are potential instruments of ruin to real people. So accurate and timely feedback on their consequences is essential for humane and effective governance.

Now, from the 1st of January 2005, we have the Freedom of Information Act here in the UK. It will be evaded and abused, of course. But that is why I think it's a step in the right direction.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Straining at gnats? Trying to define "technical contribution"

I want a definition of technical contribution which will exclude most forms of software. Trickier than it sounds. Here's my best bet so far:
technical contribution

A technical contribution is that part of an invention which cannot be defined as a purely logical or mathematical extension of an existing technical environment because it depends on properties of the physical world which did not contribute to the existing arrangement.

All comments gratefully received.

[Immediate feedback - See the FFII version, which is based on the EP version, at

the reluctant activist, part 2: how to recruit your boss

Dear <boss>,

I have been invited to a workshop on the implementation of the EU "Computer-Implemented Inventions Directive" (http://www.patent.gov.uk/about/ippd/issues/cii-workshops.htm).

As I'm sure you know, copyright protects a software author against unauthorised copying of their work, whereas patenting protects against independent re-invention.

My concern is that as a company we can be reasonably certain that we are not infringing anyone's copyright, but there is no obvious way of checking that we are not infringing anyone's patents, as several companies and standards bodies have been discovering over the last few years. And since (like most software SMEs) we hold no patents, we have nothing to gain and plenty to lose by this step in the legalisation of software patents.

There is a loophole. In principle "pure software" is not and will not be patentable, but "Computer Implemented Inventions" - anything involving software but which also involves "technical effect" - are.

I intend to argue that this "technical effect" should be defined in such a way that the kind of systems we write will be classed as pure software rather than as computer implemented inventions, and therefore not at risk of expropriation by some patent-swapping cartel or litigation enterprise.

I am happy to do this workshop on my own time, out of my vacation allowance, but the application form invites me to state my affiliation. May I state that speak for <us> - our shareholders, customers and employees - on the lines that I have outlined?

Thanks -


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Telegraph | News | 'If you don't take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits'

A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.

I recently read a comment to the effect that to tolerate something is to make it compulsary, which I thought at the time was obvious nonsense. Now I'm starting to understand how the problem can arise.

A friend raised the interesting question - is religious sanction all that comes between us and compulsary prostitution, as an inevitable consequence of tolerated prostitution?

My boring answer would be, in a word, no. The penalty cuts in benefits are presumably intended to prevent the benefits going to people who did are not genuinely seeking employment. The fact that a person has turned down work as a prostitute is not compelling evidence that she is work-shy, any more than a vegan declining work in a slaughter-house or, similarly, a pacifist refusing military enlistment.

So what happens when there is a gap between the acceptable moral argument and an unacceptable adminstrative reality? If you believe, with Protagoras, that man is the measure of all things then we - and she - should stand side-by-side with the vegan and the pacifist in a common fight (obviously non-violent, involving no harm to animals and with no trading of sex for favours) for the law to be amended to permit all to exercise their various credible moral convictions.

But what happens if I have a credible conviction that I should not pay tax? Or that there should be compulsary eugenics (as opposed to merely supporting unrestricted advertising for fast food and tobacco companies) - perhaps some of these convictions are more tolerable than others?

Ah, tolerance again. Like the dust under the carpet, you can move it round but the bump remains. The price of freedom may be constant vigilence, but price of tolerance seems to be constant moral choice and debate.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

What's better than booze for beating the blues?

After a long hard week I had a few drinks on Friday night and a run round Brockwell Park on Saturday morning.

I have to say that I was still feeling the red wine when I woke up, and I really noticed how much better the run left me feeling than the drink did.

So here's a list of reasons why I love my crazy sport:

  1. It's social: runners tend to appreciate and offer encouragement. Especially the nice crowd at Dulwich Runners.
  2. It's exciting: enter a road race and the tension mounts from the moment you get to the start. Give yourself a realistically challenging target time and the satisfaction and frustration at hitting or missing it can be enormously motivating.
  3. It's brilliant stress-management: like a good night's sleep or a hot bath (but unlike booze or gluttony) it not only takes you away from your worries, but leaves you feeling better to deal with them on your return.
  4. It can be euphoric: many runners will tell you about the pleasant, unexpected bonus of a "runner's high", and even an ordinary run leaves a feeling of satisfaction and well-being.
  5. It's patches up your self-esteem: I never knew I had the discipline and commitment to maintain such a good habit. I may feel a bit of a fraud when people congratulate me on it - only I know how many times I haven't gone running when I knew I should have - but I still enjoy it.
  6. It's constructively competitive: most of the time you're running against yourself, but on any club run - and especially in any race - there will be someone you'll feel you should be able to catch. And if he or she accepts the challenge you'll both run harder as a result.
  7. It embodies a practical and positive philosophy: in a world where £17.2bn was spent on advertising in the UK in 2003, all with the implicit message that "you are what you buy", it's good to spend time in a more rewarding world where "you are what you do".
  8. It's cheap: all you need to buy is a pair of shoes. The will to do something about your life, the vision to see how much better even a foul-weather run will leave you feeling than the same length of time slumped in front of a TV, and the determination to keep running even when your lungs are rasping and your legs moaning are each a bit like true love - they can only be given not bought, and they will enrich your life forever. Are you generous enough to give yourself one pair of shoes, a little will, a glimpse of vision and a pinch of determination?
  9. It may lengthen your life: according to a recent study "The performance of the heart declines steadily as men get older. The hearts of our inactive older volunteers showed a 20% fall in their pumping performance compared to the 20 year-olds, but the veteran athletes have the cardiac performance that is the same if not greater than the inactive 20-year-olds."
  10. It makes you fitter: and being fit just feels good.

the reluctant activist part 1: a visit to faxyourmp.com

Francis Norton
12 Amberley Court
Overton Road
(020) 7274 3989

Miss Kate Hoey
MP for Vauxhall
House Of Commons
Thursday 23 October 2003

Dear Miss Kate Hoey,

Re: EU’s Competitiveness Council of Ministers Meeting 10/11/2003

I am very concerned that this meeting will set aside the work done by the European Parliament on 24/09/2003 to define and exclude the patentability of pure software. I hope you will share my worries with the minister for e-commerce, Steven Timms MP.

As a Senior Software Architect for a AIM-listed software company, and co-author of three software books, I have become seriously worried about the implications of software patents, mainly because of the way they undermine the concept of software ownership and provide ’perverse incentives’ that penalise implementation to the benefit of having ideas. Let me ask the following questions:

First: What, as a matter of public policy, is the optimum number of patent lawyers per software development department for a healthy and thriving economy?

We are currently digesting the implications of Microsoft having lost a Web browser patent case to Eolas. Microsoft now have a page[1] instructing developers how to code their web pages in such a way that they do not contravene the Eolas patent. Bill Gates of Microsoft said[2] ’If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today’. The US now appears to be moving towards that ’standstill’. As a software developer, I want to use my technical competence to meet my customers’ requirements. ’Working round’ existing or anticipated patent claims does not help us or our customers to do better business sooner. The EU Parliament’s amendments would go a long way to help ensure that we don’t follow the US in turning a fast-moving and innovative industry into a slow, demoralising legal quagmire.

Second: What is the cost of establishing that the developers of any complex software system actually own the right to sell or even use it?

The EU Parliament amendments, by giving a strong definition of ’technical effect’ and other steps, will have the effect of preventing most ’basically-software’ patents. But if such patents are allowed then they can apply to many levels of software design, from the network layer to reports and the user interface. The scope of each patent claim is blurred by the double hazard of legal and technical language, which can normally be resolved only by one or more defendents being taken to court. I do not believe that it is possible, at any price, to prove absolute ownership over any reasonably complex piece of software, but I would like to know how much it would cost to provide reasonable confidence. The thought that my employers might not - due to patent infringement - own the code that I and my colleagues have written for them, and which we sell to our customers, frankly terrifies me.

Third: Will there be any relief from ’submarine patents’ where patent holders wait - intentionally or otherwise - for ideas which they claim to have patented to be used (in formal or informal software standards, major public or private software systems or the products of companies about to have their IPO) before suing the owners and users and, if winning, having the opportunity to demand as economic rent anything up to the cost of re-implentation, regardless of how mission- or even safety-critical the system?

This is an absolutely live question - the de-facto graphics file standard of the Web, the GIF, was first subject to patent claims by Sperry[3] an astonishing seven years after it had been created and adopted by the internet community. The W3C, responsible for many web standards, has found it difficult to get even the participants in standards development to agree that they will not subsequently make patent claims over the standards that they have helped create. And an American company, PanIP, claims to have patented the use of software to do e-commerce, and is suing small companies[4] that do business over the web, and do not generally have the resources to fight law cases.

Fourth: How will the government and other software users protect themselves against the consequences of accidental patent infringement without discriminating against small software vendors?

The sensible reaction to threatened patent suits will be to ask vendors and contrators to indemnify the customer against patent or copyright infringement. In the current SCO copyright case against Linux, both Sun and HP have offered their Linux customers indemnity[5][6] against the SCO law suit. Microsoft were able to offer their customers indemnity while being sued by Timeline over a patent concerning SQL Server. You will notice that these are very large companies whose offers of indemnity carry credibility. Smaller companies who have to compete more on innovation than on marketing will be more exposed to patent cases, and less able to reduce the harm by indemnifying their potential customers.

Finally, as someone who has been involved in implementing and writing about new technologies it is my experience that ideas are cheap and implementation - design, specification, coding, testing and documenting - is expensive. Implementation is what needs to be encouraged for a healthy, competitive economy, and the most direct means to encourage implementation is a strong copyright regime that has not been dangerously undermined by software patents.

The only winners from software patents in general will be large companies with patent portfolios to exchange with each other who gain a legal barrier to prevent competitors from interfacing to their systems; and small predatory companies which do not actually produce any product and therefore do not need to exchange patents with anyone. The losers will be small innovative vendors[7] and any body, private or public, that depends on having the right to use software that it has purchased or developed.

I hope you can now see why this issue is so important to me, and why I urgently hope to raise these concerns at the most appropriate level to influence the upcoming meeting, after which I believe it will impossible to amend the council of minister’s proposal without an absolute majority of the the 623 elected members of the EU parliament.

Yours sincerely.

Francis Norton.

[1] http://msdn.microsoft.com/ieupdate/activexchanges.asp#fix
[2] http://quote.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gates
[3] http://www.kyz.uklinux.net/giflzw.php
[4] http://www.youmaybenext.com/
[5] http://news.com.com/2100-1016_3-5074012.html
[6] http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104_2-5081407.html
[7] http://www.vrijschrift.org/swpat/030508_1

Saturday, January 22, 2005

fun with webcams

I find I am a voyeur. There is something enormously gratifying about finding this list of intentionally or - more excitingly - unintentionally public web cams and watching something at random. A shoe shop - why not? A little detective work and Piggy's of Stamford turn out to be the owners. (A little more, and it turns out to be public anyway)

There is a thriller here, waiting to be written. Or a romance, or a comedy. Let's hope it's not a tragedy, involving the death of privacy. Though to be fair, the idea of a modern Oedipus plucking out his own webcams is somewhat less appalling than the original.