Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Government Information – does it want to be free?

I’ve always been interested in this. We have already paid our government to collect data – why should it lock the data away from us, or charge us for access? Just because you have the power to do something, doesn’t make it right, after all. And, to be fair, the New Zealand government has been publishing a lot of data for a long time.

posted by colin at 10:56 am  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

iPhone tethering – it rocks

iPhone tethered small3.jpgWith the 3.0 update of iPhone software, you can ‘tether’ your iPhone to your computer so the computer uses the iPhone’s Internet connection. (The word ‘tethering’ is used to imply that the phone is physically connected to the computer, although in practice mostly people tether now using a wireless bluetooth connection.)

posted by colin at 3:03 pm  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Invisibility – fact or fantasy?

Today on Radio New Zealand National after the 11am news I’ll talk about the science of invisibilty, and whether it could ever be made real.

Read on for my notes, or after about 11:30 you can download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 10:53 am  

Friday, June 19, 2009

Software patents – unwelcome and unwanted

Software patents are not currently available in New Zealand, although several companies have tried to get “by the back door”, i.e. by tying the software idea they want to patent to some piece of hardware.

A software patent is a state-enforced monopoly on a idea. They exist in the US and some other countries, but not in many places including New Zealand. We don’t need or want them here. If you want some reasons, here are five good ones:

1) There is no benefit. Patents are intended to incentivise innovation by allowing an inventor a monopoly they can exploit for money. There is no shortage of innovation, however, in countries and communities that do not use software patents. The whole of Linux would be a good example.

2) There is serious harm in software patents, because they prevent others from using ideas. The whole of our technology, and in fact our whole culture as the human species, is built upon us using ideas others have had and developing them further.

3) Software patents lead to unintended bad consequences. Software patents have proved hugely detrimental in the US where they are often used for anti-competitive purposes. Just the threat of being sued over a software patent is often enough to stop a new product in its tracks, without that patent ever reaching court and being tested.

4) There is a large deadweight cost in legal fees and court costs which simply does not exist without software patents.

5) They can’t be awarded fairly. Patent offices overseas have proved incapable of determining what a valid software patent is and have consequently awarded patents on all kinds of obvious things. Sometimes these get overturned some years later after pressure from the community, but often they hang around and frustrate new software.

We don’t need or want software patents in New Zealand.

posted by colin at 9:01 pm  

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Are reports of the death of newspapers greatly exaggerated?

Today on Radio New Zealand National at 11:05 I talk about the Internet and the death of newspapers – is this real or is it just another request for corporate welfare?

You can read on for my speaking notes, or after about 11:30 today you can download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 7:13 pm  

Saturday, June 6, 2009

“Cloud” computing?

There’s a lot of talk about cloud computing, which is the notion that your files might live and be processed somewhere out on the Internet rather than on your own PC or laptop. It has some advantages – you don’t need a powerful machine, you can use any computer, and the people looking after your files can afford to do a better job of it than you can. Disadvantages include some loss of control over your files and worries about confidentiality.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. Like everyone else, I’m horrified by the way an airliner has disappeared over the open ocean, with apparently nothing more than a storm to blame. None of us who fly will feel safe until we understand how that happened, and how we can stop it happening again.Grossi-7.png The information about what happened to the aircraft is contained in two so-called “black boxes” (although they are actually orange) which are held on board the aircraft, presumably now in some 4,000 metres of water. They are going to be pretty difficult to find and recover. And it’s not clear that they would survive a fall from 10,000m cruising altitude in the first place.

What I’m proposing here is that the flight information that the boxes record in civilian airliners be continuously transmitted back to land. The black box becomes a server at, maybe, Boeing or Airbus Industries. Information in transit would be encrypted and subject to the same controls as the black boxes are. When the worst happens, and an airliner crashes, we will always be able to reconstruct the flight information and cockpit voice.

Reports in the papers suggest that some telemetry was taking place, mentioning a “burst of automatic messages”. That’s some clue, perhaps, to what befell the aircraft and those aboard, but it’s nothing like as complete a record as the black boxes should hold.

Let’s hope that aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and safety regulators can make this happen.

posted by colin at 9:48 am  

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