Random Ideas

Forgive me from straying so far from knitting lately. I just haven’t been doing that much of it. I’m 90% done with a caper hat and about 3/5 done with Thomas’ Aran, but lately I just have not felt the need to get the needles in my hands.

But I did have a random-ass cool idea this morning. I was reading Groklaw, a very excellent web site run by a woman named PJ. Its primary focus is an ongoing series of lawsuits involving a company calles SCO. You can read all about it there.

This morning, she posted the text of a letter written by the Irish Free Software Organization in opposition to the adoption of software patents in the EU. In case you didn’t know, the EU has been struggling with the idea of passing laws to allow the patenting of software for some time now. It’s something that I am very much against, because such laws serve only one purpose: to give very large companies the ability to utterly crush competition from smaller ones.

Anyway, PJ asked for some clarification of this section of the letter:

7. Software is abstract, like math. Software ideas can be described in any number of ways, so searches for software patents would be hit-and-miss. Reliably avoiding patent infringement would be impossible.

My example follows:

Here’s a fictitious example that I believe is described by example #7. (I have
no idea if any software exists that works like this.)

Let’s say I’m an independant software developer and I have just written a piece of software that I believe is original and non-obvious, thus fitting the criteria for patentability. Let’s say my program is written in BASIC, and it takes English sentences and then translates them into colors. This way, you can feed in a bunch of different literary works and then visually compare them without having to read them in their entirety. I do a patent search and don’t find anything else in BASIC that translates literature into colors, so I submit my patent and sell my badass software.

Unbeknownst to me, a Ukrainian programmer had previously submitted a patent for a program written in Java which takes as its input a string of DNA codons (ATA, GTT, etc.) and translates them into sounds. He’s developed this to aid visually impaired pathologists in trying to diagnose genetic illnesses. They can simply take a genetic sample from a patient, and if they hear a particular tone, they know that the patient has Tay-Sachs disease (or some such thing).

The Ukrainian’s patent is worded in such a way as to cover any software device that takes a string of characters as input and produces a wavelength as its output. One could reasonably conclude that my book-to-colors software violates his patent, but it would have been extremely difficult for me to find his patent based on the way I was looking at things. I’m thinking about words and phrases and colors and I’m writing in BASIC. He’s thinking about genes and sounds and he’s writing in Java.

I just made that up for sake of argument, but the idea stuck in my mind all day. Wouldn’t it be cool to take a large body of text in an electronic format and dump it into a program that produced something like a quilt of shapes and colors that represent different qualities of the text like word length, internal cohesion, and subject matter? The really hard part would be creating a parser that understood English (or Spanish, or Portugese, or . . .) enough to get meaningful data out of it. But once you had that, it would be cake to write a program that could convert that information into some kind of visual display with colors and textures and shapes. Then you could throw a whole bunch of books at it and look at the patterns that came out, and say “Oh look, there’s the Victorian mysteries, and over there are the Gospels, and here we have a whole bunch of Arthurian romances.”

Cool, no? And totally doable.

No Responses to “Random Ideas”

  1. David Says:

    Marnie, I think I got part of the idea from reading about a savant whose abilities seem to be based on synaesthesia: http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,,1409903,00.html

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how to flick a switch in my head so that I can 1) remember entire books all at once, and 2) picture them as patterns.

    But I bet I can make a computer do it for me!
    Hm. I might have to start playing with this for real.

  2. Kaetchen Says:

    Ooh, ooh, Marnie makes a really good point. Oliver Sacks wrote about synasthesia in one of his early books, and I can see how you could fold it in with your imagined software.

    Of course, that could be because I am exhausted and seeing pretty purple posies around my monitor.

  3. marnie Says:

    I have to say I think this is pretty nifty. Are you familiar with the phenomenon of synesthesia? (I meant to ask you this the other day, but got sidetracked… look at that chicken!) That’s the one where a person experiences a form of sensory stimulation through a sense not normally associated with it (tasting sounds, hearing colors, etc.) I guess that’s not exactly the same, but it’s sort of random coolness. 😉
    And as we all know, we moms of preschoolers are all about randomness.

  4. nod Says:

    You should work for google with an idea like that. It sounds like the kind of stuff they were talking about on 60 Minutes re: a bablefish type translator that actually works. Wow, then you really could judge a book by it’s cover! I love this idea.