Creative ownership

id Software’s highly anticipated game Doom 3 uses a graphics technique for rendering stencil shadows called “Carmack’s reverse”, named after its author and id Software’s rockstar head developer, John Carmack.

Apparently this did not stop Creative Labs, noted makers of the SoundBlaster soundcards, from quietly patenting Carmack’s algorithm with the USPTO in October 1999. This recently came to a head when HardOCP noted an awkwardly-written Creative/id Software press release that spoke of a cross-licensing deal. The jist of the story was this: Creative lets id Software use their own algorithm without getting sued, and id Software agrees to use Creative’s EAX HD audio in subsequent games.

There may also be some prior art, with nVidia’s Sim Dietrich pointing out he publicly described a similar technique earlier in 1999 (at a Creative developers forum, no less). Creative asserts they invented it first. Not like it matters – launching a legal defence requires lawyers, and lawyers cost a lot of money. Carmack chose the path of least resistance, although he told Beyond3D he’s not exactly super-happy about the whole thing.

Even the open source community, afraid of having to face future litigation from companies snatching up patents on common coding techniques, have urged FLOSS developers to fight fire with fire, and preemptively patent everything they write.

Ex-patent lawyer and EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz opines that such patents get through the system due to a staggering backlog, although this doesn’t answer the ugly question: should you be able to patent software? Software patents are valid in the USA and Japan, and is currently being considered by the EU.

Do software patents stifle or promote innovation? I’m not qualified to answer that, but I do notice that Creative just got a sweet deal with minimal exertion on their part.

Hapless place on earth

In Coupland’s novel Microserfs, one of the characters has relabelled his blender with pop culture references. One of the highest settings is “Disneyland when you’re 10”, and one of the lowest settings is “Disneyland when you’re 25”.

As a kid, I visited Disneyland in 1988, and Walt Disney World in 1991. The employees, called Cast Members, and themed attractions truly made them “the happiest places on earth”. At home, I devoured articles on Audio-Animatronics and Imagineering. To me, Disney was synonymous with limitless creativity and compassion.

Fast forward to 2004: When I think Disney, I see the Disney-CBS-Touchstone Pictures media conglomerate. A conglomerate trying to oust its own CEO at the moment. My Disneyland memories are tainted: what I once thought was cuddly is now cloying.

After reading MiceAge, it seems it’s not just the memories that are fading. The Skyway, Submarine Voyage and Main Street Electrical Parade are long gone. The Cast Members of the Jungle Cruise no longer carry muskets to “shoot” the marauding hippos due to political correctness.

And DisneyWorld’s EPCOT, my favourite of all the parks, is replacing its cerebral, Animatronics-laden attractions with more action rides. Horizons and World of Motion (which I rode on twice) are gone. I guess learning about alternative energy and world cultures is boring compared to thrills and chills.

Next year will be Disneyland’s 50th anniversary. Many of the attractions, such as the Tiki Room and Sleeping Beauty Castle are getting much-needed restoration work done. But people still care, and as long as they do, I’ll probably bring my future kids there some day. At least they won’t think it’s a Mickey Mouse operation.

Buyer be aware

Sometimes I have warm fuzzy feelings about our Canadian government. We can pay our taxes, view traffic through webcams of our busiest highways, and even book driving tests without lifting our healthcare-covered butts off our computer chairs.

They’ve even helpfully compiled a PDF file of the Canadian Consumer Handbook, a quick guide to shopping responsibly and avoiding scams. It covers topics ranging from online auctions to identity theft prevention to getting the best deals on funeral arrangements.

Email and phone numbers are also provided to alert the government on misleading advertising and business ethics violations. It’s refreshing to know that The Man will help you fight The Salesman.

Phansying the philosophickal mercury

After sitting on a library waiting list of over eighty patrons long, we finally got a hold of Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, the second book in a swashbuckling historical fiction trilogy entitled “The Baroque Cycle”. Stephenson is to be commended for being able to mix irreverent, wanton violence with minute 17th century trivia. Add in alchemy, banking, 14 bars of stolen gold, and a dash of cryptography, and you have a bizarre but good tasting literary recipe.

The good news is, at 815 pages, The Confusion is a hundred pages shorter than the first book, Quicksilver. There is also less inane chatter about the monarchy and how life was like before the Industrial Revolution, so more things actually get done. Half-Cocked Jack sails to Asia and even Mexico in a high-tech ship, while Eliza manipulates the burgeoning financial markets of Old Europe as France and England square off in battle.

The series remain geeky, with many obscure references to both Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and actual historical events. Neal Stephenson has started a wiki called MetaWeb for providing backstory on his books.

He even writes items for it, making him one of few authors that have annotated and commented on their own works.

Salon also ran an interview on Stephenson, where he talked about the monumental sea-changes in the 1600s that gave birth to modern finance and even computer logic: [via ]

“There was a review of ‘Cryptonomicon’ with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, “This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into.” I’m turning into one. I’m in this history book club, which is not all geeks but it’s definitely got some serious geeks in it. It’s been going for four or five years maybe. We’re all consistently dumbfounded by how interesting history is when you read it yourself compared to how dull it was when they made you study it in school.”

Stephenson explains to Wired how fame and fortune changed hands from the blue bloods to the crafty commercants:

“Bills of exchange weren’t a new concept. They had been around for centuries at the time the book takes place. They were the basis for the medieval economy and the rise of the Italian banking houses. It is, however, a new concept to the nobles to whom Eliza’s explaining it, because according to the code of behavior of the noble class, they’re not allowed to dirty their hands with commerce.”

Recording the rearview mirror

I’ve noticed that many bloggers (myself included) often talk about significant events in their childhood or distant past.

But what of the children of the blogging generation? They will have recorded these events in their present time. What will they be talking about ten years from now, since all the reminiscing material has already been blogged?

Or perhaps they will see their past in a different light. It is said that human memories build on each other, each memory assimilating facets of another. Perceptions change. An event that was considered traumatic at first may be seen positively in retrospect. Like a rearview mirror, maybe our pasts are not what we think they are.

Critical Thinking: When thinking attacks

Yet another resource to put in the Critical Thinking file. Maybe I should create a category for it. Nahh, I’m thinking too much.

McGee’s Musings points out Shermer’s “How Thinking Goes Wrong”, an excerpt from his 1997 book, “Why People Believe Weird Things.” He lists 25 fallacies:

Problems in Scientific Thinking

  1. Theory Influences Observations
  2. The Observer Changes the Observed
  3. Equipment Constructs Results

Problems in Pseudoscientific Thinking

  1. Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
  2. Scientific Language Does Not Make a Science
  3. Bold Statements Do Not Make Claims True
  4. Heresy Does Not Equal Correctness
  5. Burden of Proof
  6. Rumors Do Not Equal Reality
  7. Unexplained Is Not Inexplicable
  8. Failures Are Rationalized
  9. After-the-Fact Reasoning
  10. Coincidence
  11. Representativeness

Logical Problems in Thinking

  1. Emotive Words and False Analogies
  2. Ad Ignorantiam
  3. Ad Hominem and Tu Quoque
  4. Hasty Generalization
  5. Overreliance on Authorities
  6. Either-Or
  7. Circular Reasoning
  8. Reductio ad Absurdum and the Slippery Slope

Psychological Problems in Thinking

  1. Effort Inadequacies and the Need for Certainty, Control, and Simplicity
  2. Problem-Solving Inadequacies
  3. Ideological Immunity, or the Planck Problem

I wonder what A+ professionals preferred

Possibly the most unscientific of polls, but the Training Company polled 200 of their students to see what they had on their MP3 players. The Register reports:

Job: Microsoft-certified professionals
Top three bands:

1. Britney Spears
2. Dido
3. Beyonce


Job: Linux
Top three bands:

1. The Orb
2. Underworld
3. Kraftwerk

Security, developers, database administrators, project managers and CIOs were also featured.

In other news, A+ professionals were said to prefer “Happy Birthday”, “London Bridge”, and the “My Little Pony” Original Soundtrack.

Sub pagina

AKA, the seedy underbelly of book publishing.

I’ve always wanted to write a book. It’s a sci-fi novel with a twist. I even have a few pages done, and a tentative name. Then again, who of us haven’t wanted to write a book?

The number of books available are staggering, to the point it made an exasperated Martin Luther to exclaim, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing.”

Like any industry, the book publishing enterprise is not about spreading transcendental wisdom to the ignorant masses, but to make money of said masses of ignoramuses. Guess which retailer sells the most books in Canada? If you thought it was Heather Reisman’s Chapters-Indigo-Coles empire, you would be wrong. It’s the Loblaw’s grocery chain, followed by Walmart; Chapters comes third. Why? Never underestimate the power of pulp fiction and romance novels.

Philip Greenspun spoke of his battles in the 1990s with the publishing company in publishing “Database-backed Websites”. He had to sanitize his politically incorrect writings (including the title), and fight to nix the inclusion of a useless CD-ROM at the back cover, only to have the book languish in the back of bookstores due to laissez-faire marketing.

Alas, books are indeed judged by their covers. Fiction books penned by famous authors have their names in giant, embossed letters. Books are padded with rambling content, or if this fails, printed in thicker paper, to make the book’s spine more prominent on the bookshelf.

So if you’re last name isn’t Grisham or “Higgins Clark”, chances are your like the B-list author Salon featured in March. “What once was about literature is now about return on investment,” ‘Jane Austen Doe’ bemoans. “What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders — or doesn’t move at all.”

Philip Greenspun credited the reviewer feedback at Amazon for getting his book off the shelf and into people’s hands. But even there, authors resort to desperate measures. We caught a glimpse of this when an glitch revealed the names of its anonymous reviewers. Several glowing incognito reviews turned out to be penned by the authors themselves.

And then there are the British authors faking blurbs on fellow authors’ books, even if they were terrible. As one author figured, if she scratched their back, maybe they’ll scratch hers.

Fortunately, it’s not all skullduggery and greed. The Internet has made book promotion much easier, as Greenspun has noticed. Places like – a CafePress for books and music, as it were – has poured ice water on the sleeping self-publishing movement. While admittedly most self-published material isn’t worth lining the birdcage with, it is not without its gems. Matt Brasham, a technical educator, just published a Cisco CCNA book. The electronic version is free. The print version is modestly priced at $20 US, compared to Cisco Press’s $100+ training tomes, and it comes in a higher quality binding ( has prided itself in printing on high quality papers).

It’s also critical to remember, in the end, Greenspun achieved some financial success, if not a spiritual one. Thanks to word of mouth and reviews on Amazon and Slashdot, he sold over 7,500 copies, and was eventually given a very generous offer at another publisher to write a second book.

The story doesn’t end there. The true gem is the secret Greenspun’s ex-Acquisition Editor reveals in a comment at the very bottom of Greenspun’s page, ten years after the fact. He had worked behind the scenes to get a competing publisher to give Greenspun the environment he richly deserved for his second work. In the end, sometimes all it takes is to write a good read.

Keep rockin’ in the free world

Went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 after a day of sightseeing in Chinatown. An entertaining movie, with Moore’s trademark deadpan humour and fast cuts. The beginning was a bit unfocused, especially with a few decidedly cheap shots. It’s when the movie reaches past the one hour mark that its thesis is found; war is waged to profit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

As Michael Moore quotes from George Orwell’s 1984:

“It does not matter if the war is not real. For when it is, victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous…A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance…war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or east Asia but to keep the very structure of society intact.”

When you see the infomercials hawking “anti-terror” equipment, or the mother of a killed U.S. soldier being heckled in front of the White House, this isn’t about politics, it’s about money. Those who dare argue against the Patriot Act or the Second Iraq War aren’t against the men and women in uniform – they’re against the concept of war itself.

As we came down the escalator, a girl behind us was telling her friend that F911 made her feel the same way when she rented Bowling for Columbine. “It makes my blood boil,” she said. “I mean, why do these things have to happen? God, why?”

Regardless of your political leanings, there can be no denying that there are too many unanswered questions, too many conflicts of interest, far too much evidence of deception, and a growing amount of maimed and killed human beings. Why indeed.

Heyyy pepto bismol

“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of people doing diarrhea. I mean, diarrhea is big.”

Bill Gates on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health program, dedicated to finding therapies and vaccines to disease in the Third World. Interview from Scientific American, June 2004.

“Don’t eat spinach, the calcium will make you all constipated. By the time you are 40 years old you’ll have hemorrhoids from sitting on the toilet for too long.”

my mom, self-appointed medical expert

“There are two things you can do if you have a mad crush on a boy, you can ask him to propose marriage and if he won’t, then beat him up, then send him to an island, then surround the island with huge rocks so that he can’t escape, then send him Valentine’s cards that say ‘I HATE YOU!’ but if he does propose marriage then you can kiss him and marry him and move into an apartment and have a baby and bake him a cake that says ‘YOU ARE MY FAVOURITE BOYFRIEND’ in the icing.”

told to Eric Lippert by 8-year-old relationship specialist “Heather”, as recounted in What I Did On My Summer Vacation