The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron

In February of 1975, I read The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron by Fred Saberhagen in Galaxy magazine. This not-so-recent news story reminded me of it.

Perhaps I need to explain. The resolution of AoAA hinges upon a point of intellectual property protection, i.e. how would a publisher of dictionaries or encyclopedias protect themselves against profiteers making unauthorized copies? In the future, imagines Saberhagen, it would be possible to take a reference work, fiddle with the verbiage with a computer, and produce a derivative work that wasn’t exactly a copy. How would the original authors unmask such villains?

The solution, of course, is to introduce “bugs” on purpose — imaginary words in dictionaries, or places in encyclopedias. As a reference work, it’s OK, since nobody would have a reason to look up such imaginary words or places. Nobody reads through such a work. But any derivative work that would happen to contain the identical “bugs” would clearly be derivative.

Back to the present. Affinity Engines sues Google over Orkut. It is a derivative work, they claim, because it has the same bugs.

In addition to nearly identical text found in similar features in and Affinity Engine’s social-networking products, the suit cited several identical software problems in each company’s service.

How long before all software products design in bugs for bizarre use cases, designed specifically to track plagiarism? Or does this help explain the so-called “bugginess” of so many software products?


Kim's teeth

Gina used to have a recurring dream where her teeth would crumble in her mouth and fall out. Apparently, this is a common dream. Her mother used to have the same dream. And, shortly after Kayla went away to college, she called home to say that she had the teeth-falling-out dream, too.

A few weeks after that, Kim called home. She had never had the teeth-falling-out dream. However, she was sitting in class, and her teeth actually crumbled and fell out. Well, not all of them. Just two of them. And they weren’t teeth. They were caps. Nevertheless, if felt like her teeth disintegrated in her mouth, and the pieces came out.

Our dentist is Mark Dunayer He’s awesome. I always use Dr. Dunayer as the quintessential example of excellence in any field. When we run out of medical reasons to go to the dentist, we occasionally opt for some cosmetic dentistry, just because the experience is so satisfying. If you don’t look forward to a dental appointment, you owe it to youself to schedule some elective dentistry the next time you’re in the New York metro area. But I digress.

We were of course, surprised that Kim’s teeth had come undone. “Don’t worry,” we told her. “Dr. D will put things right.” And, of course, he did.

But this post isn’t about dentistry, it’s about Open Source business models. As with software, you could view dentistry as a service business or a product business. You could think of it as buying a filling, which comes with free installation — or getting a free filling, and paying a service charge for the installation. Or some combination of both. In any case, if the filling falls out in a few weeks, it’ll probably be replaced for free. Three years later, if it needs work, it’s more like upgrading to a new version than “supporting” the old.

How would dentistry work if it had to use an Open Source business model? Well, the fillings or crowns would need to be free. We’d have the option of installing them ourselves — although dentists would sell installation support. And they would also sell “support contracts” for preventive dentistry — cleanings and the like, as well as “bug fixes” — crumbling teeth. Perhaps the amount of money involved would be the same in either case.

So I consider the options. On the one hand, the original dental appliances are free, and I’m paying for a “support contract” in case I need help. On the other hand, I’m paying up front for a “license” to the crown and expecting some kind of implied warranty, for fitness or merchandisability, as the EULA would have it. The difficulty with Open Source dentistry is convincing the market that charging for “maintenance” and giving away the dental supplies doesn’t create a perverse incentive to do shoddy work. Things go wrong with dental work — even the best. It would definitely make sense to buy support contracts for free (excellent) dental work.

How different is the software business and dentistry? Would we be as comfortable paying for support for free dentistry as we are for free software? And then there’s the “free-as-in-freedom” issue. Aren’t there laws preventing anybody from practicing dentistry? Wouldn’t “free-as-in-freedom” dentistry need to abolish such restrictive practices? Or do we think software licenses are bad but dentists should be licensed? Perhaps the software and dental equipment shouldn’t have licenses, but the programmers and dentists should be licensed? Why would we license dentists if we don’t license programmers? And there’s still the “free-as-in-beer” aspect. Now that we’ve convinced ourselves that free software isn’t socialism, I guess it implies that free dentistry wouldn’t be socialism either. Or would it?

I’m confused. But I do know this: if your software fails, you can still chew your food.

Using Open Source

In Adobe Illustrator I type the word copyright into the search box in the Help Center. The page that results includes the following paragraph:

This product includes either BISAFE and/or TIPEM software by RSA Data Security, Inc. This product includes cryptographic software written by Eric Young ( This software is based in part on the work of the Independent JPEG Group. Portions include technology used under license from Verity, Inc. and are copyrighted. © 1994 Hewlett Packard Company. © 1985, 1986 Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Portions of this code are licensed from Apple Computer, Inc. under the terms of the Apple Public Source License Version 2. The source code version of the licensed code and the license are available at This product includes PHP, freely available from This product includes the Zend Engine, freely available at This product includes software developed by Brian M. Clapper ( © 1991 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ©1996, 1995 by Open Software Foundation, Inc. 1997,1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991. All rights reserved.

Many open source advocates, looking inside their own organization (or others), will enumerate the open source software in use to make the case that “everybody” is “using open source”. As I start counting all the open source projects embedded in Illustrator, it seems to exceed the amount of open source software used in many of these “censuses”. By all accounts, Adobe Illustrator is an “open source” product.

Sort of.

And they are not alone. The same exercise with Mathematica leads me to this web page. The list is not as exhaustive as Illustrator, but finding GMP there was certainly an eye-opener.

Can we say that Mathematica is open source? Or “open source friendly”?

This chain of reasoning came about because of this blog post that I stumbled across. Seems like Apple was adding OCUnit to XCode. So I went looking for the equivalent copyright page for XCode (because I know it also uses gcc and gdb at a minimum). I couldn’t find such a page. The best I could find was something that advised me that this Apple product included some (unspecified) open source software, the source code of which was available here.

So, I got to thinking. Assuming rational markets. If I’m selling proprietary software in any particular application domain, and there exists some “attributive-licensed” software (MIT, BSD, Apache, etc.) which is superior in some way (faster, more featureful) than the code I wrote / licensed, wouldn’t I include it in my product? And continue to sell my product as before?

In which case, the distinction (technology-wise) between assembling a custom solution using attributive-licensed open source libraries, and buying a commercial product, seems to be ever more evanescent. (Of course, “reciprocal-licensed” (GPL’d) software may be more distinguished in this regard — depending on the nature of the integration.)

Plans B and C

I got back from Boston, and there was a package from Apple.

It was (another) copy of Mathematica.

Academic Edition.

After three separate progressively less cordial conversations, I made (another) trip to Kinko’s — this time to send a return and await my refund.

Plan B involves trying to purchase a non-academic edition direct from Wolfram.

Gina and SKaRey (the teenagers: Sara, Kayla, and Corey) have started a pool on how long it will take to acquire the correct version of this software. The original order was placed on Memorial Day weekend. The smart money is clustering around the Labor Day weekend as the winning date.

This experience has convinced me that Matt Asay gets it right when he asserts that the promise of open source lies in distribution. I’ve got to admit, it has rarely threatened to take me three months to acquire a copy of any open source software package.

And, aggravation aside, according the the Help Desk Institute, on average, a Level I support call costs $25, and a Level II support call costs $100. So, Fedex costs for four shipments plus a couple of hundred bucks in help desk calls. Over one software package. Directly attributable to the licensing model. Which impacts the distribution model.

I would have preferred this (Plan C):

apt-get install mathematica

The binary would have (as it now does) required me to activate on-line. Hit my PayPal for $40 a month. I would have to connect to the Internet once a month to confirm that my account was current. Over 3 years, that’s $1440. (I gave myself a discount because of the reduced help desk interaction and distribution, warehousing, inventory, etc.)

That’s less than my wireless phone plan. That’s less than my cable internet access. That’s less than what I spend on coffee. For those of you who thought I was being extravagant spending so much money on a software package. By comparison, Gold membership in the Mandriva Linux Club is $60/month. (Fair is fair: let’s compare the Mathematica academic edition with Silver membership — Pro is Gold membership).

Seems like Mathematica (on a three year TCO), is way cheaper than Linux.

Or coffee.

What a bargain. If only they had a distribution channel that worked better.

Educational Discount

My copy of Mathematica arrived yesterday. Yay.

Today, I sent it back. Boo.

Here’s what happened.

I ordered it on May 28th from the Apple store. 2-day shipping. Yay.
Then, I got the bad news — they couldn’t ship it on the original estimated date. It would ship on or before the 16th of June. Boo.
On the 16th, I got an e-mail saying that my order had shipped, with the Fedex tracking number. Delivery on the 20th. (That’s two business days.) Yay.
On the 20th, no Mathematica. Boo.
I called Fedex. They advised me that no package was ever sent — I should call Apple. I called Apple. Hmmm. There did seem to be some kind of problem, but they would take care of it right away, and send me another copy. Being the language purist that I am, I did suggest that if they hadn’t sent me the first copy, then they weren’t sending me another copy, they were sending me a copy, but that was just me being exasperating. Because it had been their mistake, they would send it overnight delivery. Yay.
The next day, no Mathematica. Boo.
The following day, I receive an e-mail that “my order can’t be shipped when promised, but will ship on or before June 30th”. Yay?
It actually arrives on June 30th. Yay!
So as I’m installing it, I’m reading the elegant enclosed license certificate — and I notice the sentence which says:

Use Class:Academic
This product was purchased at an educational discount.

Wait a minute. I check the Wolfram Research website — and indeed, the educational discount version of Mathematica is a mere US$895, whereas the standard version (which I, alas, not affiliated with an accredited educational institution, must needs purchase — home-schooling doesn’t count), the standard version is US$1880. Which, in addition to taxes and shipping, was the amount charged to my credit card. Boo.
I call Wolfram Research. Unfortunately, since I didn’t purchase this copy from them, they can’t help me. I need to call Apple. Luckily, by now, I have that number on speed dial.

Now, as far as I know (and I checked with the Wolfram rep I spoke with), the academic and standard versions of Mathematica are identical. The same manual (well, book), the same CD, the same bits on the CD, the same elegant license certificate. The only difference between the two (aside from the US$1000 pricing difference) is the appearance on said license certificate of the phrase

This product was purchased at an educational discount.

And whatever bundle of use rights the existence of that sentence might entail — and I’m not exactly clear on what those might be. In any event, if I’m going to give people a hard time about whether they’re sending me a copy or another copy , I’m certainly not going to pass up the implications of this phraseology.

I’ll spare you the details of the discussions. You would think that the easiest solution to this problem would be to mail me (or e-mail me — and I could print it out) a new certificate with the offending sentence removed. Same license number and password. One presumes a database might need to be updated to indicate that this particular license number had, in fact, paid full price — difficult, but not outside the ken of modern computer science.

Sadly, however, this cannot be an option. Apparently, the “educational essence” of that copy cannot be altered by such a casual restatement. The US$1000 pricing differential requires that there be some kind of ceremony, some form of ritual to exorcise that essence — to create the emotional bonding with the true copy, and to preserve the illusion that some important yet ethereal difference warrants such a pricing gap.

And so, I had to trudge down to Kinko’s with my return authorization and send back my “educationally discounted” copy, and return home to await the identical “standard professional” copy for which I paid. Which will ship as soon as they receive the return.

Overnight express, of course.