Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Check out the new SourceForge HTML5 internet speed test! No Flash necessary and runs on all devices. ×

Comment The law does things in an odd way... (Score 4, Informative) 294

The thinking behind having a patent law are roughly as follows (apologies for huge post, BTW)...

Innovation is discouraged where people who innovate, and pay costs for innovation, have their market stolen by others who copy them; or who are required to keep commercial secrets, running the risks of betrayal, or of trade secrets dying with them inventor (reputed to be what happened with the 'purple of Cassius' deep red stained glass).

The innovation may not necessarily be 'invention' as we know it. if you bought new techniques into your country by studying what people were doing abroad, you deserved to recoup your research costs over a finite time. You could patent an idea in the UK that had been patented elsewhere up until 1968. This is not a UK eccentricity - before international patent treaties, many other countries had a similar approach. So, the idea that a patent was something that exclusively covers something that you thought up is just about 50 years old.

The idea that you could only patent a solid object or a physical process is more recent. This change happened about 1985 to 1995. People could patent something physical, but the physical thing could include a programmed processor. Then people tried to patent the particulars of the processing side, or patent the program as stored on memory as a physical thing, usually as an additional claim as an alternative to some dedicated processor which could be patented under the previous law. I was working in Canon on patents at the time, and saw it happen bit by bit.

There is no abstract reason why patenting a non-physical thing such as an algorithm should necessarily be a bad thing. In practice, there was relatively little established prior art experience, so cunning people were able to patent things that have been common knowledge for a long time, but have no known inventor. Again, this is not new: the Gillette company was threatened in 1913 by a latter-day patent troll patenting their safety razor, which was not protected in US law unless someone could find written evidence that was acceptable in court to prove that Gillette were the owners. Gillette won in the end, but the 'Gillette Defence' is still a term for the enormous cost of proving something in court even though everyone knows it.

The patent is a restrictive rule: it restricts the rights of everyone but the inventor. We may support such laws in the short term to encourage invention and innovation, but this support should always be tempered by a reluctance to restrict the rights of others. There are exceptions to patent law that allow people to use specific drugs for other problems not covered by the original patent. This is intended to allow re-use of existing compounds, rather than requiring the invention of a second-best compound to get around the existing patents.

In then end, the case for or against allowing software patents hangs on whether they do more harm than good. The experiment since they came in is almost exclusively against them. Software is usually well-protected by obscurity for several years because reverse engineering is hard. An imitation product will always lag behind the true one, provided the product is still being developed. If you wanted a logical argument against software patents, you might argue that the Church-Turing thesis covered a machine that could calculate anything that was calculable, and so should anticipate and cover all possible programs. This judge is arguing from a different direction, but the argument has similarities, but with the human mind is replacing the Turing-complete machine, and language is replacing algorithms. Judges can't just call laws into existence, even on the grounds of extreme obviousness, but they can put put ideas such as this, and they will become law if they stand the test of time.

Let's all hope they do.

Comment Re:Not buying it (Score 2) 145

It is a reasonable explanation. Memory has parity bits. There are random faults from the various sorts of noise you can get in semiconducting circuits, but if you have some safety-net that will catch the occasional flipped bit. Your computer will be catching these sorts of errors all the time. The problem with cosmic rays is that they are very energetic, so they can pass through a lot of matter, but when they collide they generate a tight cone of ionising particles that knocks out electronics in a small region of circuitry. This can flip a number of bits in the same region of memory, so it can become possible for the memory to get corrupted but the parity bits (or Reed-Solomon codec or whatever) to think that everything is ok. This is still unlikely, but it is much more probably than if events were happening at random. There is nothing sensible you can do about this other than run the same calculation a second time and see whether you come up with the same answer. This is what we used to do with large codes that ran on Cray YMP's back in the 80's, and cosmic rays set the limit on complex calculations.

Putting it in a lead case? That makes it worse. If you have cosmic rays, you either have to go into a deep mine to shield them, which is what they do with neutrino experiments but it a bit impractical for a server; or to put it in a very light case and hope the cosmic ray goes straight through.

If you have a sever which seemed to be working, then did something mad, then went back to working again; and it was in a rack of other similar devices, so you can be sure nobody unplugged it to plug in a vacuum cleaner, or something like that, then the only explanation that remains for me is cosmic rays.

Comment It will happen. But it won't be easy. (Score 4, Interesting) 42

At the moment the sensible money is on silicon. Make silicon circuits 10% smaller or 10% after and the whole of electronics benefits. If you try to do the same thing with carbon, then you have to re-invent many of the fabrication processes from scratch before you can make a single useful gadget.

In the long term, carbon is a no-brainer. It has a huge band gap will lets it be stable at high temperatures. It can bond to itself and be a super-resistor, a resistor, a semiconductor, and a conductor. Down the middle of carbon tubes it may even manage to be a superconductor. You could make a memory element using a few tens of atoms. Can you imagine having a mole of bits? On the other hand, trying to make a conductive track by doping silicon gets harder and harder as the size drops, and there are problems getting the current to turn corners in a single crystal.

So, what do we do in the middle-term? We can make something that is probably bigger than is ideal using the existing silicon technology. We will find a niche market that needs the same simple thing replicated lots of times - and non-volatile memory is the obvious choice - and leave making a carbon microprocessor for when we have more of the other bits working. That is what people have been predicting for years, and now they are actually beginning to do it.

Why are they dong it now? Well, I can remember over the past 40-odd years people saying you cannot get Si fabrication much below 10 microns, and then there were limits making them below 1 micron, and then you absolutely could no get below 0.1 micron. And as long as Silicon technology oprogressed, it was the better short-term investment. But as we go on, the next-generation silicon plants will be more expensive, the rewards are getting smaller, and the chances of some unexpected breakthrough dwindle. It is a good time for something to give.

Comment G-force limits, too (Score 5, Interesting) 441

This is probably old data, but few pilots in special, elasticated suits can get beyond 10g without blacking out. As we approach our limit, our peripheral vision goes, so even if we don't black out, we are not working well if we keep this up for long. It is possible to make conventional airframes that can take 25g if you don't have to cut big holes in the airframe for the cockpit. So, a computer in a plane built for a computer ought to rule.

Comment ..then the Brexit campaigners have already won. (Score 1) 68

This is the sort of thing that Europe does right. The IWF's reaction is interesting. There is the first, knee-jerk "Nonsense! Britain has the finest tradition of free speech in the world!" speech. This is followed by a gradual retraction, and policy change. Nothing dramatic, but enough to do the job.

Some say the UK should get out of Europe for the sake of the economy. There are people who could make savings if we did not have Europe's about laws, anti-pollution regulations, employment law, human rights regulation, or green policies. Their businesses and investors would be better for it, locally and in the short term; and the rest of the population can go hang. These people already have too much influence over our lives though their money, and they always want more. It's not about immigrants filling up our A&E departments, taking our jobs, and/or living on the dole. They like migrant labour. But they see a chance to cut costs.

If you are in the UK, please don't vote more power to these people.

Comment Re:The summary answers the question (Score 1) 287

Yup, it's what you don't know that will get you. Plus they still find active virus samples in old graveyards and things like that. It is also a stupid virus. It was unpleasant in its day but it had one form, stuck to one species, and was not particularly infectious. It was the first eradicated disease because it was simple. If you are an evil mad scientist, you won't reach for the smallpox tube. AIDS is a pretty class act. The common cold is awesome. I don't think smallpox matters much either way. A labelled tube in a lab is the safest form. I wouldn't destroy it just as I wouldn't destroy an old book if it might be the only copy. The gene mapping might not tell us everything: there might be a gene folding that we aren't replicating properly. But we could probably go to an old London graveyard or crypt and find some more if we really wanted.

Comment Hell is Still Other People (Score 2) 270

Don't know His Fryness? You miss out: a good man, even outside his more well-known TV comedy roles. Attracts a lot of the nastier sort of internet trolls who want to make him attempt suicide again.

Much of the internet is a nasty place, and I would not want to live in it full-time. A trolling of some innocent can make me incoherent. A nasty piece of porn can put me off humanity altogether; if they are having fun, why does no-one ever smile? Gaze into 4chan and beyond, and see Hell. But if you totally unplug, you kill the messenger; you remove your levening presence, and leave the mob to their excess. The excess is not the fault of the internet: a lot of humanity could do with improvement, and it is always been easier to destroy than to build. Unplugged you can still read the Daily Mail, but I think you (the public) have more sense. Plugged you can do the same. Keep it all at arm's length. Visit the internet. Re-visit the places you like. Have a look at something new, perhaps something edgy and dangerous, but don't let it bring you down to it's level.

Has El Fry aimed his essay beyond his target? He hasn't actually unplugged by his own admission. Maybe it is easier and more rousing to exhort us to some ideal of total abstinence, but those of us who fall short of this will probably be happier.

Comment Re:Why the jab at Sanders in the summary? (Score 1) 287

Reporter Daymond Steer told Cameron that "Bernie had no interest in the UFO question and gave me a flippant response." His 'flippant response' is not reported so we cannot judge for ourselves. I would have been tempted to say in his place something like "Oh, grow up. I can't release secret documents that don't exist. If I don't release them, you say I am hiding them. There are much more important issues, and I will not be distracted by this". I expect Bernie was a little smarter and a bit less knee-jerky than that; but he can't win and be sensible on this issue, and he opted for sensible. If that is being 'dismissive', we could do with a bit more.

Comment God in, Garbage out (Score 3, Interesting) 720

Drake's equation is the product of a lot of different probabilities - galactic evolution, stellar evolution, planetary evolution, planetary habitat evolution, the origins of life, the sustainability of life to survive to become something we can study. the evolution of species, the evolution of intelligence, the evolution of a stable society, and so on. Each of these factors has large error bars according to the experts in every field. The best average, which is probably meaningless, has it that there are probably hundreds of civilisations in the Milky way, though probably none with contactable distance in our lifetime. However, the only evidence we really have, from our own planet, suggests that life got going so early that the planet's surface was still part molten when it did it. This suggests that, given roughly the right conditions, life may come into being pretty quickly. It then took most of time to get to a state where complexity took off, which suggests (on a population of one, admittedly) that the initial evolution of life is less of a barrier than something like evolving a decent cell wall. It makes sense to look for life on Mars and Europa, though most people do not actually expect to find it.

Yet, we are told there is this one scientist who has a computer model that says the number of possible earths, modelling all these various disciplines, is exactly one, and with no mention of error bars (and therefore God, and hence Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, checkmate atheists). I suspect journalism rather than science is happening here. However, if it is the scientist, and he really claims one person can outsmart everyone else in all these fields, then he really needs to show his working. Science is not a democracy, and one person can beat the majority. But it is pretty damn rare. And most of us do not claim to know what most of the mass of the Universe is just yet, let alone how many lifeforms it has made.

I am not saying God does not exist. Proper science has the humility to recognise the limits of what it can measure and understand. But this is just someone standing on science and using it as their pulpit.

Comment Why were those cold fusion experiments done?. (Score 1) 344

Here's something that the original article did not really discuss...

Most of science proceeds by small steps. Someone notices an anomaly. Someone manages to repeat it. Someone manages to extend the current theory to fit it. Someone may come up with a radical theory that also fits. Someone finds another prediction from the radical theory, and looks for verification of that. And so it goes on.

We know that there is a large potential barrier to getting light nucleii close enough to fuse. We can whack a few particles into each other in colliders and explore quite how hard they are. This tells us about the particles and forces involved, but colliders use a lot of energy, and we get almost none back from any fusion. We can try things like stellerators or tokomaks, which are designed to provide lots more collisions of one particular type much more efficiently, and work towards break even. The two positive nucleii will repel each other, but we can replace the electrons with mesons, which are more massive and sit a lot closer to the nucleus, so that gets around some of the electrostatic repulsion; but mesions have a short half-life so we have to keep making the things. All this is not very successful, but it is logical.

The bit that is never explained is why Fleichmann & Pons expected to produce fusion using electrolysis. Or why Rossi expects whatever he does to produce fusion. What was the anticipated process that provides the squish that gets the nucleii together close enough to cause fusion in their experiment? We know a lot about how much energy or force this takes. We also know a lot about the decay particles that we would expect from fusing particular atoms. It could be that there is some entirely novel means of doing this, and some entirely novel decay modes. As scientists, we are required to hold this as possible in principle, but we do not generally do experiments without a credible positive outcome. If you are investigating a small anomaly, such as the 'extra' energy in the F&P experiment, you investigate an unknown: you do not attribute any energy difference in advance to fusion by an unknown process. William of Ockham had a thing or two to say about this sort of reasoning.

Compare and contrast this with the supraluminal neutrinos investigation. An experiment seemed to say that some particles were travelling faster than light. The likely explanation was that there was an experimental error. The error corresponded to several meters in length at the speed of light (a surprising error, but possible) or a timing error (a few nanoseconds, much more plausible), or something else (including the stated remote possibility of a faster that light particle, which would upset a helluva lot of physics, and no-one really believed). They performed tests to verify their surveying and timing assumptions, and found a timing error in their electronics. A lot of science is dull like that.

Comment Re:Improvements to OCR? (Score 3, Interesting) 66

Suppose you had a bit of your handwriting that you could not read. How do you figure out what you wrote. One thing that I do, and you may do too, is to try and imagine writing the thing, and work out the rhythm of what you are writing. If you can get some sense of how your hand is writing, you may see that what was a 'u', or maybe an 'n' or half of am 'm' makes sense because of the way it joins up to other stuff. We seem to have some sort of kinematic two-and-a-half axis model for writing. We use different muscles if we are writing with a pen (fingers and wrist), a blackboard (wrist and upper arm), a spray-can (upper and lower arm), or a tiny engraving tool (just fingers) and yet our handwriting remains much the same. So some computer that can try and fit the same kinematic model should make better guesses for a word it has not met before than anything that just trained on the shape.

This does not directly transfer to OCR. If you have a page of fixed-width text, then every letter has its own little rectangle, and you can either recognize that using the traditional OCR model, or you can't. However, there is something we can do along the same lines. Suppose you have a document that you guess was rendered from PostScript. If you have a guess for a particular word, and the font it was rendered in; you could render that part of text. You can then degrade that rendered image to mimic the properties of the printing and scanning, and check the fit. The best solution will probably be the one that achieves the best fit with the shortest, and hence most probable bit of PostScript. When you have more text, you can pick up hints from the spacing, the justification, and other larger page layout structures.

I actually worked on OCR, and tried both of these once. It might have worked with a large software team, but I hadn't got one.

Comment Re:Where did it all go right? (Score 2) 290

You are talking about the first French attempt, where they shipped in people as they died from malaria. I was talking about the US one, where they cleared the banks of the canal and build mosquito-proof quarters and fever hospitals whoever they went. That one worked. At the time, there was enough forest to retain enough water. Now, the surrounding forests have been felled, and there is a lot more shipping, but that isn't the original designers' fault.

Comment Where did it all go right? (Score 5, Interesting) 290

There are a few examples of engineering projects where everything went right, or at least better than expected. The UK equivalent plane was the Vulcan bomber, which would have been a stealth bomber by accident: only the upright tail gives it away on radar. The AK-47 has it. The London Routemaster bus had it. The Soyuz lifter has it. The Panama canal has it too. Can you think of any others?

More importantly, can we make everything work like that?

Slashdot Top Deals

The shortest distance between two points is under construction. -- Noelie Alito

Working...