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All posts by Dan Gordon

2012 FOSS and Utopian Socialism

Continuing to read “Intention Economy” with great interest.  Chapter 12 (“Free and Open”) on the connection between “free and open source software” (“FOSS”) arrested me.

Searls argues that “…free markets on the Internet depend on FOSS code and development methods”.  I’ll admit that I’m ambivalent about open source.  I made a good living in the ’80’s and ’90’s from proprietary shrink-wrap software on the Microsoft platform.  It was a great platform, chock-a-block with innovation, and we made decent livings while doing work that was fun, interesting, and arguably benefitted society.

Open source has changed all that.  The price of software has been radically lowered, and while in each case users of the software (who typically are developers themselves) benefit from high-quality ubiquitous software, it’s hurt the software coder in general and the American software coder in particular.  (See “Entrepreneurs are the New Labor” for one view on this, for example: Rao doesn’t blame FOSS for the current state of affairs, but he is actually somewhat murky on how it has come about.  His conclusions and my hypothesis may not be inconsistent.)

In any case, Searls describes the FOSS world in

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The Maker Movement

As a recent Economist article notes, there is a quiet but potentially revolutionary transformation taking place in how things are manufactured.  The “maker” movement, with meetups and online SIGs of one sort or another, combines crowdsourcing, open-source or otherwise open hardware platforms, 3d printing, and a “Mechanical Turk”-style world organization of small handicrafters and manufacturers to create a new manufacturing system (dare we call it a paradigm) which will turn the idea of “economies of scale” on its head.

I have friends who prototype small systems — mainly, today, small systems for manufacturing other small systems, such as precision X-Y milling platforms, or Arduino-based controllers — at home, using a growing infrastructure of free or cheap prototyping platforms.  When they are ready, they farm these systems out to small manufacturing boutiques (in Eastern Europe for the most part, although I have no idea if this is an authentic regional specialization or an accident of my friends’ Rolodices.  If any of these systems took off, my friends could scale up to Tier 2 contract manufacturers.  This kind of easily-scalable manufacturing allows all kinds of long-tail ideas to be tried; only

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Web Disintermediation, Incumbents, and Innovation

TechDirt has a great article passionately decrying what the video content owners are trying to do to Hulu.

Essentially, the content owners don’t understand it, so they are doing what happened in the fairy tale about the goose that laid the golden egg: they’re going to cut it open and get all the golden eggs out.

Maybe it’s just that they’re frightened about what the Internet will do to their business.  But that doesn’t make their behavior adaptive; it simply makes it understandable.

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More on Gaming, Mechanical Turks, and Future of Taylorism

Well, we appear to have found a solution to the old Taylorist dilemma of working being efficient but boring: turn it into a video game.

I heard on the radio this morning that FoldIt players had solved a virus structure puzzle in 10 days which had eluded the best efforts of scientists thitherto.  FoldIt turns macromolecule folding problems — devilish 3-d puzzles — into a videogame which can be solved in parallel by a bevy of “players”.  The account of the latest solution is in Science Daily here.

How Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of “scientific management” (or, more eponymously, “Taylorism”) would have rejoiced!  Although his methods reduced work to rationally most-efficient segments, it is also notorious for draining work of all pleasure or meaning.

We don’t get the meaning back with video games, but we do get the pleasure.

Mechanical Turks of the world, unite!  Your have nothing to lose but your boredom.

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Gaming and “Serious” Technology Work

Went to the annual “Summit” of the Washington Area CTO Roundtable last night.  These are usually pretty good (program + schmoozefest), and last night’s was no exception.

The topic was “What CTOs Should Learn from Gaming”, and it featured Don Marinelli from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and Alan Gershenfeld, head of E-Line Media.

Both guys come from the entertainment business (Marinelli from the theater, Gershenfeld from the cinema and gaming), and their message for productivity in the future was:

  1. “Digital Natives” (people younger than me) are deeply trained in “interactive digital” experiences (aka videogames), and need an element of this to work productively
  2. Attention to drama, story, interaction, and feeling can improve any technology experience.
  3. Immersive environments (where you have a toolset and a “world” rather than a recipe) make for better training than didactic environments (where the learning points are laid out one by one and then drilled)

3) makes complete sense to me.  Exploring in a learning space where the laws of the space dictate the consequences of actions is exactly the right way to learn.  As they say, you have probably heard how to put

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“Contagion” and Innovation

My wife and I saw “Contagion” on Saturday night. Basically a very decent thriller with a satisfying bevy of villains human and viral.

The film is essentially about touching (or not touching, as the case may be). A touch can kill, and does multiple times.  But a human touch can also save, as it does, multiple times.

The film is also, unabashedly, pro-science, science as the condition of innovation. The virus is unbeatable with hysteria, troops, greedy bloggers, and even that mainstay of American media life today, feelings, no matter how strong. The only thing that beats the virus is patient, skeptical questions and answers about where the virus comes from, how it spreads, what it looks like, and how to boost the immune system against it. You need courage, too, but courage has to be guided by reason.

This is science, which comes in for an awful beating in our political life nowadays. And there’s a lot of “folks” (as we call people we want to speak for) who think we can have innovation without skepticism. It doesn’t happen, in or out of the movies.

Your thoughts?

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So I Don’t Like Patents Much; Am I Wrong?

First of all, I have nothing against the concept of intellectual property, or of paying for it, or of protecting it.  You are reading the words of 1 out of probably 2 or 3 people on the planet who has purchased a license for WinZip!  That’s dedication to IP.

My problem is that I don’t think patents do a particularly good job of protecting IP. The way patents work is: you reveal your invention to everyone and then count on a system that allocates IP protection to the wealthiest to protect your disclosure.  How could such a system help the up-and-comer?

(This is of course a fashionable view where I come from: Silicon Valley.  Just like everyone there is a “healing power of greed” type of ur-liberatrian, everyone there believes that patents are a way to stifle innovation, not protect it.  But just because it’s fashionable doesn’t mean it’s wrong.)

The current system helps the rich at the expense of the poor because the main muscle behind the protection system is litigation, a pay-to-play game that coddles either big players with big legal staffs and big legal budgets or else

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Slave Tools and the Consumerization of IT

There is much wonderment in the IT industry about the “consumerization of IT”, by which the pundits mean “invasion of the enterprise IT area by applications, devices, and approaches taken from consumer IT”.  A cavalcade of “cool” and “fun” technology is storming the enterprise.

It’s not hard to understand the dynamic.  In the pre-Civil War South, slaves were given only heavy, rude tools to work with, even slaves whose work was in factories and craft ateliers.  The reason?  Slaves would break any tools they could, as a form of rebellion and a way to avoid yet another day of slavery.  Only the heaviest and most break-proof of tools could survive, even if they weren’t very good tools.

It’s the same way with the enterprise IT of years past: rude, clunky software, heavy ponderous devices, ugly screen after ugly screen.  It’s as if the management of the modern enterprise were afraid that the employees would break the software if they gave them anything decent.

Well, the decent stuff is flooding in everywhere now.  And that’s why employees like consumer IT.

Thoughts?

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Software Quality

My friend David Black posts a fine piece here about software quality.  It includes a wonderful cartoon that anyone who has been in the business of creating software will deeply appreciate.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to share your thoughts.

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The Healing Power of Greed?

In an earlier post on “software factories”, I touched on the question of why America’s software engineers were not, by and large, working on projects that would enhance American software competitiveness:

…the finest software minds of the current generation are not interested in solving the American productivity problem, but are interested in profiting from what I elsewhere call flash-fads, huge blockbuster moneymakers that last for the comparative blink of an eye but, like the Pet Rocks of my youth, make lots of money.

This is probably rational behavior on the part of these software engineers.  Sacrificing current income to make the income of the nation greater over time is a bit like voluntarily helping to pay down the national debt by giving extra money to the Treasury: patriotic, maybe, but certainly not a mass choice.  (One of my partners told me this morning that some $81M had been contributed to the Treasury in this fashion, versus a national debt service obligation several orders of magnitude greater.)

But how does the rational behavior of individual software engineers feed the public good?  Our market orientation in the U.S. gives us

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