Today I learned that one of the key themes in the electronica soundtrack for the film Liquid Sky is an arrangement of a 1723 piece by baroque composer Marin Marais. Compare for yourself: Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris, Noon and Afternoon from Liquid Sky.

Liquid Sky has always been one of my favorite films. The plot’s ridiculous. But the music, the art direction, the costumes, the acting, it’s all beautiful and unique. A particularly heady film for 1982. Sadly my love for the film is not shared by all.

I came to all this while listening to Nicolas Jaar’s essential mix, excellent listening itself. He mixes the baroque piece on top of some Aphex Twin around 19 minutes in.

  2012-05-25 18:28 Z

Last Sunday I had the pleasure to participate in making an aerial map, a very detailed overhead image of Dolores Park taken from 200’ to 400’. The fine folks at Public Laboratories have published the result. A couple of direct links: a full page slippy map and aerial video. I also got a nice single shot of the new Dolores Park playground (full size).

This kind of mapping comes from Public Laboratory, a cool non-profit helping ordinary people make their own aerial maps. You don’t need a satellite or fancy cameras on a plane to make a “satellite map”. All you need is a kite or balloon, a cheap point and shoot camera, and a little software.

I particularly like how low tech the setup is. The lift comes from something as simple as a mylar balloon filled with helium (we used a car dealership ad balloon). No fancy cradle, just some rubber bands holding the camera to a plastic soda bottle with the soda cap as the clamp. And no special camera, just an ordinary consumer camera set to continuous drive with another rubber band holding down the button. Launch, fly for awhile, pick the best photos, then stitch them together into a map. (That last part takes some effort; you can do it by hand in Photoshop or use the MapKnitter web app).

The Dolores Park shoot was mostly for fun, a nice way to be outside on a sunny day and excite a bunch of kids. But Public Laboratories participates in more serious projects too, like documenting the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A key thing about this kind of mapping is anyone can do it relatively cheaply and quickly. You can also fly other sensors, they’re doing a lot of work in environment monitoring,

Many thanks to Stewart Long and Bobby Sudekum for letting me tag along on the fun photo shoot.

  2012-05-18 17:07 Z

Big patent drama in little business: flight planning software vendor FlightPrep has succeeded in bullying free website RunwayFinder offline with a patent lawsuit. It’s not much different from all the other software patent nonsense that goes on, but what makes it poignant is it’s in the small world of general aviation where we’re all supposed to be friends and where no one is making much money.

What follows is my opinion. I'm not a lawyer nor an expert in patent law. I do understand something about software design, though. If this patent affects you, please seek appropriate legal counsel, don't take my word for it.

Long story short, FlightPrep got a flight planning patent a few months ago and started going after every other online flight planning service. They convinced SkyVector to license, FlyAGoGo shut down, and they sued RunwayFinder claiming $3.2 million / month in damages. RunwayFinder would be lucky if it makes $500 / month in advertising and seems to be a hobby project for its founder. Rather than risk the lawsuit hanging over him, he shut down.

The lawsuit is over patent 7,640,098, a flight planning patent that was originally filed in 2001. It’s a divisional patent that had a lot of trouble being issued, the actual claims that were granted seem to come from September, 2005. There’s lots of prior art: RunwayFinder itself launched in July, 2005 (see also August, 2005). There’s older prior art too, FalconView and AeroPlanner are two names that come up.

The patent itself is very specific and I think most software would not infringe. For instance, the primary claims (1, 11, and 21) all contain specific language about “housekeeping frames,” but who uses frames to do anything? The patent also describes lots of other implementation details that do not seem necessary or even a good idea. FlightPrep themselves makes very broad descriptions of what they own, but it’s not what the patent says.

Finally, as is typical with software patents, most of the claims granted seem obvious to someone with ordinary skill in the art. The patent appears to me to boil down to “draw some lines between points on a map”. It’s hardly novel to apply line-drawing to aviation maps in particular. RunwayFinder itself was very nicely done, but basically was the obvious “Google Maps for aviation” implementation.

Of course none of this armchair analysis helps RunwayFinder; once a patent is granted, you need an expensive lawyer to challenge it. What puzzles me is what FlightPrep thought they’d gain by forcing a small free site offline. My guess is they’re bolstering their patent before going after Jeppesen, the only flight planning company making real money. Then again Jepp can afford lawyers.

Update: nailed it! FlightPrep did go after Jeppesen and AOPA, and Jeppesen has responded by telling FlightPrep to take a hike.

Update 2: this story is getting some play and some of the commentary has been quite hostile towards FlightPrep and Stenbock & Everson, the plaintiffs in the patent suit. While I'm upset about what's happened to RunwayFinder too, I think it's wiser to speak respectfully of our colleagues in aviation software. I am hopeful they will see how fruitless pursuing these patent claims will be, undo the damage they've done, and go back to concentrating on making products for pilots.

Update 3: Flightaware declined to discuss licensing the FlightPrep patent. FltPlan has refused. SkyVector has shared more of their story about why they licensed.

Update 4: I'm about to leave on a 3 week flying trip and can't stay on top of this story. No more updates. I expect things to quiet down, but this story isn't really over until Dave is free of the lawsuit and can bring RunwayFinder back online.

Update 2011-03-29: After three months offline RunwayFinder is back online with the statement "sat down with FlightPrep and FlightPrep agreed to dismiss the lawsuit! The exact details of the settlement license are confidential."

Update 2012-05-13: FlightPrep sued Jeppesen in late 2011. Also RunwayFinder shut down in 2011; I don't think it ever really recovered from the discouragement.
  2012-05-13 16:24 Z

I have an increasingly bad feeling about Apple’s efforts to control what software runs on the computers they sell. Not just the business implications, but technical issues.

There’s two ways to get software onto a Mac: buy it directly from the developer or buy it via Apple’s Mac app store. App store versions are almost always worse; fewer features, more awkward updates. And now, with the sandbox requirements, total contortions.

I bought NZBVortex via the app store. Version 2.7 was recently released to be sandbox compatible. But for it to work completely you have to download a “helper application” that runs outside the sandbox. It’s a clever workaround, but it’s needless complexity and subverts the whole purpose of sandboxing.

I also bought Alfred, an awesome app launcher. At first I got the free version via the app store but that turned out to be a mistake, because you really want the (for pay) Powerpack but because of the sandbox restrictions the Powerpack is not available via the app store. The Alfred developers optimistically say “the Mac App Store is one of many ways to buy software for your Mac,” and encourage you to buy directly from them. Which works today.

But what if the Mac App Store becomes the only easy way to buy software for your Mac? Gatekeeper is a step down that road; you’ll still be able to run software from other sources, but only if it’s signed by an Apple-issued developer key or you personally disable a security setting. So far Apple’s not dictating policy on what key-signed code is allowed to do. But what if they decide to?

Meanwhile, over in Apple’s actual computer market, iPhones and iPads, total lockdown has been the rule since day one. And sometimes it goes badly. The most recent kerfuffle is over Dropbox signups; Dropbox has capitulated, removing some aspects of user signups to satisfy Apple’s market monopoly demands. And Apple has behaved poorly in the past, for example blocking Google Voice and Camera+ for ridiculous reasons.

I admire Apple. I sympathize with their desire to control the quality and security of software. But I don’t want to have to completely trust them to make the right decisions.

  2012-05-12 16:16 Z

I’m fascinated by the hermit kingdom, North Korea. It’s the world’s most oppressive government, has run its country literally into starvation and ruin and horribly abuses its citizens. And yet it persists as this somewhat stable if entirely isolated country. Also it has nuclear weapons, that commands some attention. So I’ve read a few things about North Korea in the past year, here’s some recommendations.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. A completely fantastic book by an LA Times journalist who has devoted years to North Korea reporting. She tells the stories of six defectors from North Korea, ordinary citizens from the large industrial town Chongjin. It’s a long, heartbreaking read of life in the DPRK around 1980 – 2000. She does a fantastic job capturing what life is like in a totalitarian society, how people really believe in their Dear Leader and the absolute superiority of North Korean communism. At least until the mid-90s when a multi-year famine caused by government mismanagement killed a million or so people and severely starved the rest. Very upsetting to read despite the author’s compassion and skill at nuanced writing; I only made it through because I knew it would end with people escaping North Korea. (Although even that escape is a mixed blessing).

The In Focus photojournalism blog: Inside North KoreaKim Jong Il, 1942-2011North Korea Mourns Kim Jong IlGlimpses of Humanity in Choreographed North KoreaNorth Korea Prepares for a Milestone Year. Pretty much all images coming out of North Korea are heavily censored, but even so there’s a lot of amazing photojournalism done by visitors. Alan Taylor’s well edited photo collections tell amazing stories.

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel by Adam Johnson. Not so much about North Korea as a book set in North Korea. And with a lot of literary liberties, the author is too clever by half. Still there’s something excellent in the alienation of the story and the characters against the backdrop of North Korean totalitarianism, it was a good read.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle. A lovely graphic novel, a French Canadian’s memories of a two month stay in Pyongyang. It’s a bit of a light-hearted treatment considering how awful the place is, but it’s nicely drawn and I appreciated the author’s personal story of his relationship to such a strange place.

An extra set of links.. North Korean Economy Watch, an analysis blog. Korean Central News Agency of DPRK, the official government press outlet. Daily NK, critical news published by defectors and other dissidents. Mourning King Jong-il, a propaganda video; from what I read in Demick’s book these expressions of grief are genuine if coerced. I have more North Korea links, too.

It’s hard to understands how North Korea persists, how Kim Il-Sung’s family maintains control to a third generation and how the country still manages to barely function despite years of complete economic collapse. A key part of it is the utter isolation of the place, convincing most of its citizens that life in North Korea is the best in the world. But that façade is failing between the mass starvation, the rise of communication with China (both illegal trade and cell phones), and the increasing influence of black market DVDs and radios.

  2012-05-09 01:43 Z

Ken and I had a nice little vacation last week, up near Grass Valley and Nevada City. It’s up in the Gold Country, in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento, about three hours drive from San Francisco. In the past we’ve enjoyed going up to Placerville; same idea except the towns are bigger and have more to offer up north.

Not that city life is the primary reason to go to Nevada County. It’s quiet up there, and beautiful; a nice escape from the city. Still, nice to have amenities like grocery stores and restaurants. New Moon is good for fine dining and South Pine Cafe is a great casual breakfast / lunch place.

We had a great stay in this log cabin, a bit south of Grass Valley in Alta Sierra. Really comfortable place and big, could easily host 6+ for a week. Nice creek in the back, chirping frogs, wood stove, hot tub, hammocks, and a well furnished kitchen.

  2012-05-06 17:16 Z
Ken and I spent a week in Grass Valley, up in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento. We're thinking about buying a house up there. Here's where we went.
The map is a screenshot from Google Latitude, a passive location tracker. It's a roughly accurate view of where we travelled; the purple circle is where we stayed. The spray of red south and west from there aren't correct, I think it's iPhone location errors in a rural setting.
  2012-05-02 00:35 Z