When Patents Attack

From This American Life's latest show:

In early July, the bankrupt tech company Nortel put its 6,000 patents up for auction as part of a liquidation. A bidding war broke out among Silicon Valley powerhouses. Google said it wanted the patents purely to defend against lawsuits and it was willing to spend over $3 billion to get them. That wasn't enough, though.

The portfolio eventually sold to Apple and a consortium of other tech companies including Microsoft and Ericsson. The price tag: $4.5 billion dollars. Five times the opening bid. More than double what most people involved were expecting. The largest patent auction in history.

That's $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don't want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won't build anything new, won't bring new products to the shelves, won't open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That's $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That's $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.

The big companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft — will probably survive. The likely casualties are the companies out there now that no one's ever heard of that could one day take their place.

This American Life did a bang up job taking Intellectual Ventures to task this weekend for basically being in the mafia business. It's a pretty amazing story, especially when they try to find one of the "protected inventors" that IV claims it helped out. Well worth listening to.

Unifying Bash History

A question came up in our Linux User Group IRC channel about the seemingly random mess that is your bash command history. As I googled around for the answer to what was going on I came across this snippet of pure joy.

If you add those 2 lines to your .bashrc what you get is a unified bash history. All commands from all terminals get saved in real time and are made available to all other terminals.

It's pretty great, though it does make you realize that some times you really did rely on the old behavior. The up key no longer does exactly what you are used to.

Standing Desk

After an interesting conversation last weekend about sitting vs. standing while doing computer work, I decided to jerry-rig a standing setup at my desk at work to see if it would work for me. I'm now at the end of the first week of at least 2 weeks experiment, and some interesting things so far.

You need to get used to standing. I sort of knew this from vague memories of working at a deli in the high school / college era. Day 1 is pretty brutal, and you find yourself only able to do it for about an hour at a time. You also are spending all your time thinking about standing, as your body is really not used to doing this on it's own. Don't worry, that changes over time. By Day 3 doing 3 hour stints (which between meetings and lunch is about the longest run I'm going to get anyway) is fine. If your back starts hurting (it will, it's not used to it), sit down until it doesn't any more.

Context switching is different. I can't yet say better or worse yet, just different. There is inertia involved in sitting down, or more importantly in standing back up.

Pair Programming is easier. There is just a different notion of space in standing vs. sitting, so showing someone something else seems less intrusive.

There is no afternoon slump. I'm someone that definitely suffers from that afternoon slow down where you get kind of sleepy. That's entirely gone away.

Sitting starts to feel unnatural. By friday, I was just itchy to get back on my feet after any time I was in a meeting and needed to sit down. That wasn't entirely expected, but I think it's a good thing.

I'm going to run this experiment another week, then if it looks like I'm able to get back to the same concentration levels standing as sitting, I'll look into a more permanent standing desk setup (probably also one at home). I'll also probably get another pair of shoes, as doing A / B swap of shoes is really helpful when you are on your feet all day. I'm actually less tired when I get home, though it's possible that's just a result of it being a change of any sort, not specific to the kind of change it is.

If nothing else, it's good to try something different from time to time just to shake up your world a little bit.

Did Netflix not anticipate this?

Being mad at Netflix for raising their prices back to roughly what they were 4 years ago is now pushing Google+ out of the meme-cycle. At one level, this is really pretty silly. $16 / month is cheaper than any cable subscription. So thinking about it rationally, no one should be upset.

But they are, in droves.

And before dismissing the folks that are as a bunch of whiners, it's worth understanding that our brains have some wiring for perceived fairness. This is best demonstrated with the Ultimatum game, where a researcher gives a sum of money to 2 people under the following rules. Person 1 decides how the money will be split up. Person 2 decides whether or not to take the deal. If Person 2 rejects it, neither get any money. The results are interesting.

People felt like they understood their relationship with Netflix. Service A for Price B. Everyone was happy. Netflix just changed the pricing dramatically (not in raw dollars, but in percentages, which is actually the way our brains tend to process things), but didn't change anything about the value of the service. It's the same reason that people hate cell phone companies and cable companies (service doesn't get any better, but the price keeps going up), or big media companies that want you to rebuy your same content in a new format every few years. Inversely it probably explains why people are in love with our smartphones. Yes, the consistent pressure to upgrade is expensive (way more so than netflix), but the new version has lots of great new value in it. That's a deal that we see as fair.

Rands in Repose: Bored People Quit

This was a very solid top item on Hacker News today:

Much has been written about employee motivation and retention. It’s written by folks who actively use words like motivation and retention and generally don’t have a clue about the daily necessity of keeping your team professionally content because they’ve either never done the work or have forgotten how it’s done. These are the people who show up when your single best engineer casually and unexpectedly announces, “I’m quitting. I’m joining my good friend to found a start-up. This is my two weeks’ notice.”

You call on the motivation and retention police because you believe they can perform the legendary “diving save”. Whether it’s HR or a well-intentioned manager with a distinguished title, these people scurry impressively. Meetings that go long into the evening are instantly scheduled with the disenfranchised employee.

It’s an impressive show of force, and it sometimes works, but even if they stay, the damage has been done. They’ve quit, and when someone quits they are effectively saying, “I no longer believe in this company”. What’s worse is that what they were originally thinking was, “I’m bored”.

Boredom is easier to fix than an absence of belief.

For the engineering sector, this nails it, and matches well with a tweet I saw yesterday:

@johndbritton: Q: "Do you know any good developers that need jobs?" A: "No, that is an entirely unheard of scenario."

This all especially struck a chord as I've been organizing my Google+ circles, and noting how large the population of used to work at my employer is.


The Sun with a cell phone camera

This isn't a very good picture, but it's notable for being taken just by putting my EVO up to my solar telescope and taking a picture. It does give you the sense of some of the more spectacular features going on on the Sun on Saturday. The bright spikes coming off the surface of the sun (the bright round disc) are real features, the rest of this is optical artifact.  Ironically, Sunday was actually a very quiet day on the Sun. Maybe it needed a day of rest.


July is a tough meeting for MHVLUG, people are off on vacation, and our turnout over the last few years has been pretty low. It's one of the few times we drop below 20 people. As Ben was putting together the schedule this year, we were getting no luck having speakers stick for the July meeting. So I suggested something a little different, lets do the Arduino Documentary, and then encourage people to bring in Arduino projects to show off. It would give me motivation to work on my own projects, and should be overall quite fun. If nothing else, I'd finally have my lighting strips wired up.

It was an amazing success. We had at least 40 people there (which is more than we've had at any meeting in a long time), lots of new faces, including a few boy scouts working on their robotics merit badge. The documentary was well received, done at 6:35, and we had people buzzing around asking questions until well after 7:30. I got to show off what I did, and get some good feedback from others. And many, many times I heard from people how excited seeing all these projects made them. I think lots more people are going to be building Arduino projects over the next couple of months. This is definitely going to become an annual thing.