July 28th, 2009

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Show Trials

Those interested in legal horror may want to watch the unfolding Joel Tenenbaum case on Ars Technica.

The summary goes something like this. Tenenbaum did a whole lot of music sharing on Kazaa over the span of a few years -- that much is not in dispute, he has admitted to it. The RIAA (the legal attack dogs of the recording industry) went after him, as a pretty easy target. He hired as his lawyer Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law professor who is determined to Make A Statement about the whole thing.

It's been gradually unfolding for months, and has finally come to trial -- I expect Ars to cover the mess in gory detail. Suffice it to say, Nesson has already driven the judge practically to distraction with bizarre filings and extreme legal interpretations -- just before the case went to trial, the judge summarily decided to throw out his argument that sharing music online was simply "fair use", and can't be prosecuted. (An argument more extreme than the worst fair use excuses I've heard in the SCA.) He has a talent for publicity, and shows lots of flair for it -- his opening statement is reportedly going to involve a Styrofoam box that will be used to illustrate the difference between bits and atoms -- but so far hasn't shown much understanding of how one actually wins a court case.

I kind of feel sorry for Tenenbaum, who is mostly the MacGuffin for a trial that is likely to largely feature the RIAA talking about law and Nesson talking about music sharing as a basic human right. I see little likelihood that he will be acquitted, and a good chance that the jury will get annoyed enough by the theatrics to throw the book at him (as they did in the Jammie Thomas trial a few weeks ago, whomping her with a bill of almost $2 million dollars for illegal downloading). I really wonder whether he understands the noose he's placed his neck in...
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The Nature of the Modern Market

Those who are interested in real-world economics and finance may want to read this fascinating little article in Ars Technica. It's a brief look at how the stock market actually operates today, which bears little resemblance to how most of us *think* it works, or indeed how it worked only a few years ago. It focuses on the new High Frequency Trading platforms, the computer systems that allow Goldman Sachs and others to essentially game the market in a variety of ways.

It's not at all in-depth, but doesn't assume you know a huge amount about finance and such. So if you're curious about those record-breaking profits at Goldman last week, here's one of the elements feeding into that...
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Google Wave: Game Tech comes to communication

I confess, I haven't been following the Google Wave news as closely as I should -- that's for a few reasons, not least that it's depressing to contemplate that CommYou *may* get utterly squished by Wave before I even get the second release finished. (I think it's unlikely to be as deep a conversational platform as I'm trying to build, but it may get enough right to suck away all the oxygen.)

But some of the bits are damned interesting, and tangential enough to my concerns that they don't bother me so much. One of the most interesting is today's release of the source code for Google's Operational Transformation. It turns out that Wave is designed around having *every single user action* sent to the server, not just the end results. Quoting from the Ars article:
The architecture of Google Wave is largely built around the concept of Operational Transformation. In Wave, individual operations are immediately performed locally and then get transmitted to the server, where all of the operations will converge. Then, the updated operational state history will be propagated back out to the individual clients. Applying the user's actions immediately in the local user interface rather than first propagating all events and rendering them linearly in true chronological order will help to ameliorate the perception of lag. Google refers to this behavior as "optimistic" user interaction.
To the game programmers in the audience, this should sound familiar. It sounds like what they've done is to generalize one of the standard architectural elements from games -- the user does something, his computer tells the server about it, and the server figures out the final result while his local machine makes guesses about What Happened. It's more or less exactly the system I was building in the latter days of Looking Glass -- just not limited to firing arrows and things.

I'm fascinated by the idea of this generalization, and can see the potential. We played with bits of this at Buzzpad (three startups ago -- we produced what remains the best co-browsing system ever built, and were making steps in co-editing when we ran out of time), but they've taken the idea and reduced it to general principles. Regardless of whether Wave's conversational capabilities are good or not, this is probably an idea whose time has come: there's enough cloud computing power and Internet speed to pull it off as a general-purpose architecture. I have no idea where it'll take us, but I'm willing to bet that it's going to open a lot of new doors for collaborative software, and maybe realize Buzzpad's long-neglected vision...