In Which I Compare the Slashdot Commentariat to the 17th-Century Catholic Church

I am regularly struck, when giving public outreach talks, or when hearing the topic of Dark Matter discussed amongst the general non-Astronomer public, at the separation between acceptance of Dark Matter between astronomers and the general (informed) public. (The general public at large probably doesn’t have enough of a clue about Dark Matter even to have a wrong opinion, alas!) Most astronomers know the evidence, and accept that non-baryonic dark matter is a real component of our Universe. Many in the public, however, seem to view Dark Matter as a horrible kludge, an ex-rectum fudge factor that astronomers have invoked in order to explain discrepancies between observation and theory. Indeed, topics related to this will be the subject of my upcoming August 16 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

For a popular level discourse on the evidence for dark matter, I shall point you to two sources:

And now I can get to the snarky bits of this post. Yesterday, on Slashdot there showed up a post entitled CERN Physicists Says Dark Matter May Be An Illusion. In the paper indirectly referenced by the Slashdot article, a theoretical physicists explores the idea of negative gravitationally charged antimatter and the polarization of the vacuum as an explanation for the rotation speeds of galaxies (the mainstream explanation for which is, yes, Dark Matter).

What’s interesting is the tone of the Slashdot comments. Some are informative, and ask exactly what I ask: what about the Bullet Cluster? However, a fair number of the comments show the same tenor as these excerpts:

I hope so. Dark matter is the ugliest kludge to the standard model ever.

Agreed. I have always had a hard time stomaching the theory that dark matter and dark energy exist. It seems far too much like aether, i.e. something made up to fill a gap in knowledge without much evidence backing it up.

Yay for phlogiston [wikipedia.org] and aether [wikipedia.org]. Dark matter might end up on the list of ideas that physcists turned to in order to explain things that had other explanations. La plus ca change

Dark matter, too, has never been observed, and possesses properties of matter previous unseen or indeed thought impossible, and exists solely to bridge a gap between our model of how things should behave, and how things actually behave. This does not bode well for it.

There is a strong general sense among a large (majority? hard to tell) subset of the Slashdot commentariat that astronomers are all on the wrong track and propping up a failing theory, and that dark matter is a kludge that just can’t be right.

The thing is, they’re wrong. They just know that Dark Matter can’t be real, because they are not comfortable with the idea that a substantial fraction of the Universe is made up with stuff that we can’t see, that doesn’t even interact with light. Much as… the 17th century Catholic church just knew that Galileo (and others) were wrong about Heliocentrism, because it’s obvious to everyday observation that the Earth is still and the Sun is going around it. (Also, the Bible says so.) And, just as the leaders of the Catholic church completely discounted (and indeed refused to look at) Galileo’s observation of Jupiter’s moons orbiting Jupiter (and, crucially, not the Earth), armchair pundits completely ignore (probably mostly through ignorance!) the wide range of evidence for Dark Matter that goes beyond the “accounting error” represented by the motion of stars in galaxies, and galaxies in galaxy clusters. (Those motions are indeed one part of the evidence for Dark Matter, and historically formed the first evidence for it, but they’re far from all of the evidence nowadays.) They cling to notions of how science ought to work, and how the Universe ought to be made up in a familiar way that seems natural to us humans, and use this to assert that an entire field full of scientists must all be on the wrong track for having a different model.

Specifically with regard to comparisons to the luminiferous aether, I would point you to my June 2010 podcast: “Dark Matter: Not Like the Luminiferous Ether”. (And, yes, I’m conscious that I’ve spelled aether two different ways in this paragraph!)

Indeed, I would say that the comparison between denial of Dark Matter and denial of Heliocentrism goes deeper than that. The Copernican Principle is that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of… well, today we would say the Solar System, but in Copernicus’ day that was also what was thought to be the whole Universe (the stars not at the time being understood to be things like the Sun). An extension of this is the Cosmological Principle, which stated succinctly says “you are nowhere special”. We’re not at a special center of the Universe, we’re just at a typical random place in the Universe pretty much like any other. Observations (of galaxy distributions, of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and so forth) bear up this assumption or postulate, which is why we call it a principle. Think about it in broader terms, though. We are made up of “baryonic matter”, which is Physicist for “stuff made of protons, neutrons, and electrons”. In light of the Cosmological Principle, however, why should we expect that most of the Universe is made up of the same general kind of stuff as we are? In the face of evidence otherwise, many still insist that most of the Universe must be made up of baryonic stuff that interacts with other baryons and our familiar photons. Is this not just as much hubris as insisting that the Earth, where we live, must be the center about which all the other Solar System bodies orbit?

SpotOn3D a bigger menace to virtual worlds than we realized

Not much of a surprise, given that their CEO is a patent attorney, but SpotOn3D is actively pissing all over the virtual world space, trying to claim proprietary rights on lots of ideas for doing things in virtual worlds. As I mentioned in a previous post, software patents are bullshit, and are also a threat. They stifle innovation, because ideas— often broad ideas that are obvious extensions of what already exists— are given government monopolies. Even if the patent would be overturned in court, the mere threat of patent litigation is enough to deter small companies or individuals, who can’t afford to defend themselves, from doing things. At best, they pay protection money to the patent bully defending it; at worst, competitors can be stopped from competing (as Apple is often trying to do with Android-based phones).

It turns out that SpotOn3D has applied for five patents already, and intends to apply for many more.

That makes SpotOn3D at the moment one of the greatest threats to the future development of an interoperable future metaverse. Yes, Tessa Kinny-Johnson may get all teary about being attacked and think that she’s not being appreciated for the development that her company is doing, but make no mistake. Software patents, in a business and software ecosystem dominated by Linden Lab (hardly a corporate behemoth themselves), are a greater danger than they are anywhere else— and they get in the way of innovation everywhere. As such, it doesn’t matter how emotional she gets, she needs to understand that her company is being actively destructive to the development of virtual worlds. More importantly, the community as a whole needs to understand that SpotOn3D is destructive, and Kinny-Johnson and others there need to realize the community understands that.

If they’re going to be patent trolls, if they’re effectively going to try to play the roll of SCO to Linux (who, thankfully, didn’t do much, but then again Linux was already a juggernaut when they showed up), then we’re going to have to call them out in the open as the bad actors that they are. We cannot allow them to hide behind claims of innovation and development, when what they’re really doing is trying to acquire solitary rights of refusal and taxation on innovation and development in the virtual world domain.

I call on all users to boycott SpotOn3D. Don’t give that grid an audience so that it’s worth it for people to buy regions there. I call on all people with regions to move their regions to other grids; look for a grid that provides service, or a grid that’s not supporting a company that’s trying to grab rights of refusal for future virtual world development. And, I call on the developers and other non-lawyer employees of SpotOn3D to go get a job with an ethical company. The OpenSim community cannot afford to allow the patent minefield to grow. That, however, is what SpotOn3D is actively doing. The degree to which they are a menace cannot be over-emphasized. They need to be rejected by the community. We need them to go out of business as soon as possible before they can apply for more patents that we’ll be forced to deal with for the next two decades. What’s more, other companies who might be considering the same sort of “build our investment portfolio” kind of behavior must see that our community will not tolerate this behavior from companies. SpotOn3D must be seen to suffer, and soon, so that other virtual world companies will hesitate before joining the patent fracas.

Virtual World enthusiasts should boycott SpotOn3D

There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.

Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it’s significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I’ve heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could “just run it inside a browser” rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don’t support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you’re just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it’s inside their browser, it’s easier to use than if it’s a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that’s run “inside a browser”, it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That’s changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they’re not there yet.)

Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package… and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it’s a negative; browser plugin installation, because it’s designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What’s more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can’t get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year… but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.

The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn’t that they’ve created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it’s more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn’t approved, however; they’ve just applied for it. It’s possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)

Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren’t a surprising new innovation; they’re things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they’re working in today’s economy, especially with regard to software and “business methods”, is that they turn first-to-market (or “first to claim to want to get to market”) with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That’s completely absurd.

And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn’t have. It’s bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn’t lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.

A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn’t work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there’s always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using “defensive” patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.

Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you’ve done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you’ve open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it’s particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.

So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.