Twitter this afternoon publicly posted its schedule for instituting fixes and changes to longstanding abuse and harassment issues that have plagued the social network for years. The calendar, first disclosed earlier this week in an internal Twitter email obtained by Wired, details nearly two dozen changes stretching from October 27th to January 10th. They focus on a broad range of topics, from non-consensual nudity to hateful imagery and violent rhetoric to more transparency around account suspensions.
Some measures include more proactively banning content on the platform that glorifies or condones violence, instead of simply drawing the line at actual threats of violence. The company will also suspend accounts of organizations that promote violence. Twitter says that on October 27th, its first change will involve expanding its definition of “non-consensual nudity” to include “creep shots” and hidden camera footage. It will also immediately suspend accounts that post this material, choosing to “error on the side of protecting victims and removing this type of content when we become aware of it,” as the company detailed in its initial leaked email published by Wired. Twitter is also cracking down on abusive display names.
Twitter says it wants to be more transparent with account suspensions too, especially following the controversy generated when it suspended actress Rose McGowan last week for what the public assumed was speaking out about sexual abuse at the hands of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. Twitter revealed later on that it was because McGowan had violated an arcane rule around the posting of personal contact information; one of her tweets included a phone number. Twitter’s dedicated support team had to issue a series of tweets clarifying the situation, and it was yet another, albeit more high profile, example of how Twitter uses tone-deaf messaging to inconsistently enforce an already-opaque rule set. The company says it plans to respond to reports faster, provide more reasoning behind its rule enforcement, and provide more detailed information about account suspensions in the appeals process.
“This won’t be a quick or easy fix, but we’re committed to getting it right. Far too often in the past we’ve said we’d do better and promised transparency but have fallen short in our efforts,” the company writes in a statement. “Starting today, you can expect regular, real-time updates about our progress. Sometimes, this may be insight into the difficult questions we’re asking ourselves, even before we have the answers. This is the first time we’ve shared this level of visibility into our work, and we hope it helps build trust along the way.”
We just decided to share our internal safety work streams & shipping calendar tomorrow (10/19). This makes us feel uncomfortable because it’s a work in progress & rough, but it’s the right thing to do: we believe showing our thinking and work in real-time will help build trust.
Twitter has come under intense scrutiny this past year, more so than any time in its more than decade-long history, for its continuous technical, structural, and cultural failures with regards to addressing harassment and abuse on its platform. Starting in the lead up to the US election, and made only worse by the rise of the alt-right and other fringe political movements before and during President Donald Trump’s tenure, Twitter has become a hotbed for vile speech, threats, and the proliferation of racism, sexism, and regressive behaviors.
Twitter has failed to address these issues time and again, seemingly taking measures only when its back was against the wall. CEO Jack Dorsey said as much in a series of tweets on October 13th. “We prioritized this [harassment] in 2016. We updated our policies and increased the size of our teams. It wasn’t enough,” he wrote. “We decided to take a more aggressive stance in our rules and how we enforce them. New rules around: unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual nudity, hate symbols, violent groups, and tweets that glorifies violence.”
For the first time, Blue Origin successfully fired up its BE-4 rocket engine, a crucial piece of hardware the company has been working on for the last six years. Blue Origin tweeted out a video today of the test, known as a “hot fire,” which was conducted at the company’s test facility in Texas. It’s a major stepping stone in the development of the engine, which is slated to play a key role in Blue Origin’s economic future.
Without the BE-4, Blue Origin’s future rocket wouldn’t fly. Currently, the company is developing a new reusable orbital rocket, called New Glenn, which is meant to be powered by seven main BE-4 engines at its base. Together, the engines will create a total of 3.85 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, allowing New Glenn to loft 100,000 pounds of cargo to lower Earth Orbit. Blue Origin hopes to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of the decade, and having working engines is critical for achieving that goal.
But Blue Origin wants the BE-4 to do more than just power New Glenn. The company is hoping to offer the engine to another company, the United Launch Alliance, which is a creating a new rocket of its own called Vulcan. For the last decade, ULA has been relying on Russian-made rocket engines to power its main rocket, the Atlas V. But that has put the company into some political hot water following the Ukraine crisis, since ULA is a primary launch provider for US national security satellites. To solve this problem, ULA decided to create an entirely new rocket that relies on American-made engines instead, and Blue Origin’s BE-4 served as an attractive replacement. In 2014 both companies agreed to jointly fund the development of the BE-4, so that it could power the Vulcan someday.
However, the BE-4’s use in Vulcan hasn’t been a done deal. Blue Origin is a fairly new company, founded in 2000, and it has much less experience with making rocket engines than other seasoned manufacturers. While ULA has always maintained a strong partnership with Blue Origin, the launch provider has also been maintaining a partnership with manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company, which made the Space Shuttle’s main engines, has been developing another engine called the AR-1, which could be used to power the Vulcan too. And Aerojet has been very vocal about its desire for the AR-1 to fly on the vehicle.
ULA has made it clear, though: the first choice for the Vulcan is the BE-4. But there’s been a lot of political pressure on ULA to choose the more experienced Aerojet. Plus, ULA wants to have the Vulcan ready for flight in 2019, so that it can continue launching satellites for the US military without any gaps in access to space. Both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne say their engines will be ready by then, but ULA has been keeping Aerojet around as a bit of a backup just in case the BE-4’s development doesn’t work out.
And Blue Origin has experienced a few hiccups along the way. In May, the company said it had lost some key hardware of the engine in a testing accident. The company has seemingly recovered from the incident, and Blue Origin seems to be farther along in the BE-4’s development than Aerojet Rocketdyne is with the AR-1. Plus, Blue Origin’s potential customer seems to be very pleased.
Congratulations to the entire Blue Origin team on the successful hotfire of a full-scale BE-4 engine! https://t.co/p0haqzfbYn
For more than a decade and a half, Philip Pullman has talked about a companion novel to his acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Earlier this year, he revealed that fans of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass would not only finally get to read The Book of Dust, but that it was a trilogy, with the first installment, La Belle Sauvage, hitting bookstores today.
With the arrival of The Book of Dust, it’s worth looking back on Pullman’s dazzling trilogy. While readers have enjoyed a glut of great YA fantasy novels in the last two decades, His Dark Materials particularly stands out because of Pullman’s unwillingness to compromise a complex ethical and moral story for his younger audience, and his determination to move beyond a simple story of good versus evil.
The Golden Compass kicks off by introducing 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a girl who lives in Oxford in an alternative world where people are accompanied by physical manifestations of their souls, called dæmons. She’s pulled into an adventure to save a kidnapped friend from an oppressive church known as the Magisterium, which suppresses thought and research it considers heretical. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel and the Magisterium are both studying the same thing: an elementary particle known as Dust, which the Church believes is the root of sin. Lyra’s friend Roger was kidnapped as part of an experiment in their efforts to stamp it out.
There’s a moment at the end of The Golden Compass that helps showcase the nuance Pullman injects into this story. Lyra is able to save her friend Roger from the Magisterium’s lab, and reunite with Lord Asriel. He tells her about the nature of Dust, and that he wants to continue his search for its source in other universes. He then severs Roger from his dæmon, which kills Roger and breaks a hole between their universe and another. Lyra can’t save her friend, but vows to stop Asriel, following him into the universe.
In the subsequent novels, Pullman plays out an enormous story in which inhabitants from across universes vie for control of existence. Lyra travels to an alternate world, where she ends up meeting a boy from our own Earth: Will Parry. The two are caught up in interdimensional tides as they try and escape the Magisterium and the Authority, the first angel to emerge after the formation of the universe.
Pullman uses Lyra and Will as focal points for this larger power struggle between these two ends. The Authority and its forces rule over the cosmos, using churches such as the Magisterium as proxies for its orthodox views on the purpose of existence. It’s opposed by Lyra’s uncle, a radical scholar who studies the nature of Dust, and who eventually gathers allies to resist the Authority and its Regent, Metatron, to establish a Republic of Heaven. Over the course of the series, Pullman explores the lengths people will go to uphold their worldview, regardless of the cost it extracts from people along the way. Characters sacrifice their lives to protect Lyra and Will, while others die in the cause to kill them. Pullman never uses this to equate the two sides, but shows that while there is good and evil, there’s a considerable amount of gray area in between, which complicates the journey of the trilogy’s characters.
Anti-authoritarianism is a common theme in most YA stories: look at novels such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The 100 by Kass Morgan, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. But Pullman’s novels go beyond the broad strokes of an oppressive government. He looks at authoritarianism through a theological lens, referencing works such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the works of William Blake, which look at the relationship between religious belief and how those are imparted or imposed on those subjected to a church’s reach.
His Dark Materials ultimately advocates for the abolition of rigid, orthodox structures such as organized religion, by pushing against dogma and encouraging rational thinking and logic. As a result, the trilogy is frequently banned over objections about how it depicts religion. The American Library Association ranks the series eight out of 100 on its most frequently banned list between 2000 and 2009.
In recent years, there’s been a global shift away from democratic governments and toward powerful leaders who push a less tolerant agenda, and it spells out dire consequences for human rights around the world. Pullman’s arguments against authoritarianism are precisely why the books hold up so elegantly, 17 years after the last installment hit bookstores, and why the companion Book of Dust is so welcome. It not only adds to Lyra’s story, it promises to continue addressing the inequality Pullman sees in the world.
I spent a good amount of time at Google’s New York City pop-up shop this morning, and while the product demo areas were great — and felt true to what you’d imagine a Google retail store to be — the actual buying process was anything but.
Most of the staffers spread around the Flatiron location definitely seem to be Google employees, as they’re all fairly knowledgeable about the Pixel 2, Home speakers, Pixel Buds, and other new products on display. But when it comes time to buy a phone, you’re handed off to people working on behalf of an authorized Verizon reseller. Specifically, it’s this company right here.
I’m a Verizon customer, and when buying a phone, I generally avoid these resellers and stick to the official, corporate locations. It’s usually a better experience, and at the very least it makes returns a lot easier. If you want to return a Pixel bought at the pop-ups, you’ve got to bring them back to that same pop-up. And if your return period extends to after the temporarily locations close, you’re told to call a phone number to process a return. Yeah… no thanks.
Update: Google has reached out to say that it will reimburse customers who paid extra at its pop-up stores today. “This was an error, which is now fixed,” a spokesperson writes, adding “Sorry for any confusion. We’ll be reaching out shortly to reimburse those impacted.” Our original story, which includes details about the reseller, follows.
But the worst part of this is that these pop-ups, which are basically Google stores in the minds of visitors, are overcharging people for the new Google phones. The one in Manhattan definitely is, at least. All models of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are marked up by $30. The $649 Pixel 2 is marked up to $680. The 128GB model is $780. 64GB XL 2? $880, and it’s $980 for the 128GB version.
To be clear, this is neither the result of sales tax (which would work out to a total of over $700 for the usual price) or a bundled activation fee. Activation fees appear separately on a customer’s bill and are not factored into a device’s pricing.
This $680 price is also shown on Victra’s website — with the activation fee listed separately. Victra is the Verizon reseller working out of Google’s pop-ups.
Apparently they’ll price match the regular rates if you call out this nonsense, but it’s still pretty inexcusable. Not even Verizon itself is charging a penny extra for the Pixels when you buy direct from the carrier. And you’re walking out of here with a Google shopping bag. How is the company okay with this?
The pop-up at least has all models of the Pixel 2 in stock besides the “panda” white/black 2 XL. They’ve also got Google’s first-party cases, which (thankfully) don’t seem to be marked up at all. I’d steer clear of the absurd $50 tempered glass screen protector for the 2 XL, though. It’s from Pure Gear and doesn’t carry any “Made for Google” badge.
Look, Google is free to pursue whatever business deals it wants and go about retail in any way the company pleases. But I’m definitely of the belief that it has made some bad decisions here. These should be unlocked Google Pixel phones sold to you directly by the Google Store. You should be able to get Google’s extended, accidental warranty for the phone at a place that looks like a Google retail shop. But most of all? You shouldn’t be getting scammed out of an extra $30.
By the way, the photos in this article were taken with a Pixel 2. What a camera.
Bids for Amazon’s second headquarters are due today, and all the vying North American cities interested in luring Amazon’s business have sent in their pitches. While some more conventional cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, offered up proposals of 20 possible locations for an Amazon campus in a carved wooden box, others truly went the extra mile, revealing maybe too much desperation.
It’s a game of give and take. With the new second headquarters, Amazon promises to add 50,000 new jobs to the local economy of whatever city it chooses, and invest over $5 billion in construction. In return, Amazon expects cities to offer tax breaks, fee reductions, relocations grants, and more in their pitches. Amazon hasn’t given details yet on when and how it will announce the winner of the bids.
Large cities like Dallas, New York, and San Diego are in the running, and cities both big and small have often ended up padding their applications with gifts, sweeteners, and the occasional flirtation.
New York City
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said that tonight, key landmarks around the city like the Empire State Building, billboards, and Wi-Fi charging stations are going to light up in Amazon’s signature orange color. The four bids that New York is pitching Amazon on — including areas upstate and in the city — just aren’t enough, so New York is also going for frills and extra decorations to pretty up its proposal.
Tucson certainly whipped out the big guns when its economic development group hauled a 21-foot saguaro cactus to Amazon’s main Seattle headquarters via a truck. The plan didn’t turn out the way that Tucson’s economic group had hoped: Amazon refused to accept the gift.
As we noted last week, Kansas City mayor Sly James is not one to let the competition outdo him. He wrote 1,000 reviews about Amazon products, giving them all five stars. His reviews had slick one-liners like, “I live in beautiful Kansas City where the average home price is just $122K, so I know luxe living doesn’t have to cost a ton.“ Of course, in every review, he never failed to drop a mention of why Kansas City is great. Then, he posted a trendy “unboxing” video on social media to share his efforts.
On Tuesday, Ottawans were told to cheer for Amazon during intermission for a hockey game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Ottawa Senators. A gauge showed up on screen, with Calgary at the bottom if the audience made the least noise and Ottawa on top. It being Canada, of course, the message to make noise was reiterated in French: “Faites du bruit!”
Calgary may have taken a more traditional marketing approach, but it’s still funny. The city opted to tag Seattle streets with persuasive graffiti, and it hung a 200-foot banner near Amazon’s headquarters, a spokesperson for Calgary said. But because it rains so often in Seattle, the graffiti is already starting to blur. But Calgary deserves points for covering its bases.
Pittsburgh has local restaurant Primanti Bros. offering free sandwiches to every Amazon employee who ends up working there. Each Pitts-Burger and Cheese sandwich goes for $7.39 normally, so if each of the 50,000 new employees got a sandwich, that would run for a total of $350,000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hypothesizes.
Hey @BillPeduto, we wanna help sweeten the @Amazon deal! Free sammiches to all Amazon employees when the PGH HQ pops up! DM us to discuss!
Birmingham tried wooing Amazon online and in person. The city set up three giant Amazon boxes around town. It also set up giant replicas of Amazon’s Dash Buttons that send pregenerated flirty tweets to the company, according to AP, like “Amazon, we got a 100% match on Bumble. Wanna go on a date?” Another tweet reads, “We are Chipotle and these other cities are Taco Bell, Amazon.”
Honestly, it’s hard to top this one. This small, recently formed town, located close to Atlanta, offered to rename itself Amazon, Georgia, for the company, as we noted at the beginning of October. Stonecrest’s proposal also includes 345 acres of land if Amazon selects it as the HQ destination.
A former employee at Tesla’s Fremont factory filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the electric carmaker, alleging he was fired in retaliation after seeking protection from anti-gay harassment, TheGuardian reported today.
The defendant, an assembly line worker named Jorge Ferro, claims he was taunted for being gay and threatened with violence. “Watch your back,” one supervisor told him after mocking his “gay tight” clothing, the paper said. After complaining to an HR representative, Ferro was repeatedly moved to different assembly lines, but the harassment didn’t stop.
Ultimately, HR told him there was “no place for handicapped people at Tesla” after noticing an old scar on his wrist, according to TheGuardian. He was sent home, and eventually terminated.
In a strongly worded statement to the paper, Tesla denied the allegations and defended itself against the charges. “There is no company on earth with a better track record than Tesla,” a spokesperson said.
The lawsuit is the latest to paint an unflattering picture of life at the popular carmaker. Earlier this week, three former African-American employees sued Tesla, claiming they’d suffered constant, often daily racial discrimination and harassment, and that the company did little to nothing to stop the behavior.
In both cases, Tesla argued the defendants were actually employed by third-party contractors. To be sure, Tesla’s full-time employees have to sign arbitration agreements that force them to settle harassment claims privately. Even so, the company says it attempted to separate Ferro from his alleged harasser. Ferro’s lawyer told TheGuardian Tesla erred by moving the defendant after he complained. “It’s perceived by many to be retaliatory,” said Chris Dolan, Ferro’s attorney. “It sends a message to other employees that if you complain, you’re the one who’s going to have your job changed. In essence, you’re penalizing the party who’s making the complaint.”
In a statement, Tesla’s spokesperson also attacked the media for reporting on lawsuits against the company, as well as the lawyers for filing the complaints:
“Media reporting on claims of discrimination at Tesla should bear a few things in mind: First, as one of the most highly reported-on companies in the world, anyone who brings claims against Tesla is all but assured that they will garner significant media coverage. Second, in the history of Tesla, there has never been a single proven case of discrimination against the company. Not one. This fact is conveniently never mentioned in any reporting. Third, as we have said repeatedly, even though we are a company of 33,000 employees, including more than 10,000 in the Fremont factory alone, and it is not humanly possible to stop all bad conduct, we care deeply about these issues and take them extremely seriously. If there is ever a case where Tesla is at fault, we will take responsibility. On the other hand, Tesla will always fight back against unmeritorious claims. In this case, neither of the two people at the center of the claim, Mr. Ferro and the person who he alleges to have mistreated him, actually worked for Tesla. Both worked for a third-party. Nevertheless, Tesla still stepped in to try to keep these individuals apart from one another and to ensure a good working environment. Regardless of these facts, every lawyer knows that if they name Tesla as a defendant in their lawsuit, it maximizes the chances of generating publicity for their case. They abuse our name, because they know it is catnip for journalists. Tesla takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously. There is no company on Earth with a better track record than Tesla, as they would have to have fewer than zero cases where an independent judge or jury has found a genuine case of discrimination. This is physically impossible.”
AMC will also be capitalizing on this weekend’s season premiere of The Walking Dead with an extended version of a scene from the episode that will be presented as 360-degree video. The scene in question will be an encounter between Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), and was directed by the show’s Greg Nicotero, with VR filmmaker Kevin Cornish (Teen Wolf VR; Remember, Remember) co-directing.
Already available in the app is a four-part series of Walking Dead experiences called “Attacked,” and a virtual reality “fight camp” featuring the stars of Into the Badlands. A catch-all screening room for 2D content is also included in the app, which features various trailers and a segment from the Norman Reedus open-road series Ride. New, original VR content is planned for future release in the app, and will be tied to The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands, and AMC’s upcoming anthology series The Terror.
While AMC VR may be the network’s first dedicated virtual reality app, some if its shows have already been quite active in exploring the medium on their own. Skybound Entertainment, the production company co-founded by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, has made a point of bringing the property to VR tie-ins, a lineup of new VR games, and is also exploring the medium with other projects like the immersive theater adaptation Delusion. As with many VR initiatives at this point, the AMC app will be an opportunity for new users to try out the medium by leveraging the popularity of the network’s various shows. Along with the expansion of location-based VR like The Void’s upcoming Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, we may finally be reaching a point where audiences of all kinds will have the opportunity to try out and explore virtual reality across the spectrum, from the simplest, promotion-based experiences, to room-scale adventures based on the biggest properties on the planet.
On May 18th, 2012, attorneys for Oracle and Google were battling over nine lines of code in a hearing before Judge William H. Alsup of the northern district of California. The first jury trial in Oracle v. Google, the fight over whether Google had hijacked code from Oracle for its Android system, was wrapping up.
The argument centered on a function called rangeCheck. Of all the lines of code that Oracle had tested — 15 million in total — these were the only ones that were “literally” copied. Every keystroke, a perfect duplicate. It was in Oracle’s interest to play up the significance of rangeCheck as much as possible, and David Boies, Oracle’s lawyer, began to argue that Google had copied rangeCheck so that it could take Android to market more quickly. Judge Alsup was not buying it.
“I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Java before this trial,” said the judge. “But, I have done and still do a lot of programming myself in other languages. I have written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times or more. I could do it. You could do it. It is so simple.”
It was an offhand comment that would snowball out of control, much to Alsup’s chagrin. It was first repeated among lawyers and legal wonks, then by tech publications. With every repetition, Alsup’s skill grew, until eventually he became “the judge who learned Java” — Alsup the programmer, the black-robed nerd hero, the 10x judge, the “master of the court and of Java.”
Judge Alsup would like everyone to know that he doesn’t know Java.
Not very well, anyway. He can, however, definitely code. He’s been coding in BASIC for decades, actually, writing programs for the fun of it: a program to play Bridge, written as a gift for his wife; an automatic solution for the board game Mastermind, which he is immensely fond of; and most ambitiously, a sprawling multifunctional program with a graphical interface that helps him with yet another of his many hobbies, ham radio.
His interests have served him well on the judicial bench, informing his outlook on the multibillion-dollar intellectual property cases that come to him. The fortunes of tech companies can rise or fall depending on his rulings. Oracle v. Google has wide repercussions for big companies and smaller developers alike, to say nothing of the $9 billion at stake. The yet-to-be-totaled billions Alphabet is seeking from Uber in the ongoing Waymo v. Uber suit could make or break Uber as a player in the nascent self-driving car market.
By sheer coincidence, these major cases have wound up in the docket of maybe the one judge in America capable of understanding their technical details: a judge who can code. Alsup’s long-cherished hobby illuminated issues at the very heart of Oracle v. Google, and his off-hours tinkering with photography, lenses, and the science of light will inform him in Waymo v. Uber, a case involving LIDAR, a laser-based technology for self-driving car navigation.
The tech industry has long despaired of the law’s inability to comprehend it, making much of the legal system’s struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of progress. The belief that the law will never “catch up” to technology is borne in part of tech exceptionalism, a libertarian elitism that derides any kind of legal or regulatory impediment as Luddism. But it’s also fueled by genuine frustration with the state of law. The patent office is perceived to be rubber-stamping obvious technologies. Supreme Court justices appear befuddled by the basic process of coding. And attorneys stack juries with non-technical jurors who return massive verdicts for patents on online shopping carts.
In this landscape, Alsup is an outlier — a mystifying exception to the accepted wisdom that the law cannot make sense of the fast-changing tech industry. Alsup’s secret is simple: he’s a lifelong geek.
Alsup is notorious among San Francisco’s attorneys for the early hours he keeps (and forces upon the lawyers who appear before him). At 9AM, most of the judges’ chambers at the federal courthouse were still dark, and doors were closed. But when I got to Alsup’s chambers, the door was flung open and the bustle inside suggested that everyone had already been at work for hours.
A white-haired man with rectangular wire-frame glasses and a soft Southern accent, Alsup is of normal stature, but his imposing presence leaves you with the impression that he towers over you.
Alsup’s chambers have many of the classic aesthetics of the legal profession: the shelves upon shelves of leather-bound books, the stained wood paneling, a small black-and-white portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging over an intimidatingly large desk. Off to the side sits a sofa strewn with dog toys. Alsup’s Jack Russell Terrier, who he often brings to work, was not at the office that day.
The judge sat me down on the sofa and walked me through his programs on a 2011 court-issued Dell laptop. He couldn’t run the same programs on his desktop computer, he said with some irritation, so the Dell was here to stay. “It’s the last one that will support QuickBASIC, which is kind of a shame, because it’s the only language I really know.”
The judge is not a hardware fanatic. He uses computers and whatever smartphone the court has provided him with. He has a court-issued iPhone, but if the Northern District of California issued him an Android, he’d use an Android, he said.
I asked him if I could put his code on GitHub, and he asked me what GitHub was. In lieu of that, he handed me printouts of his computer programs, three stacks of paper that had been neatly stapled at the corners. The one on the top, he apologized, had several dependencies that he hadn’t had the time to print out. Long before he became the judge presiding over Silicon Valley, Alsup had been a hobbyist operating in isolation; he’s a geek, but he’s a geek from another era.
Alsup was born in 1945 in Jackson, Mississippi, the son of two rural Texans — a nurse and a civil engineer who got his start under Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Even as a boy, Alsup displayed the freewheeling curiosity and technical bent that would characterize his later life. He spent much of his childhood alongside Hubert Feild, now a professor at Auburn University. Friends since the age of six, the two built forts together, buried time capsules, launched lighter-than-air balloons made of laundry bags, shot flaming matches from clothespins (an Alsup invention), and had “dirt clod wars,” which, Feild said, were “not recommended.”
“Bill was an extremely bright kid,” Feild said. Alsup taught himself piano, but, dissatisfied with the sound, modified the instrument by pressing thumb tacks into the hammers that strike the piano wire. His hack made the piano sound like it came from a long-lost cowboy saloon. “I still have recordings of Bill playing classic songs (such as those by Ray Charles) on his ‘new and improved’ version of his piano,” Feild said.
But if there was one gadget that caught the boys’ imaginations, it was ham radios. The two spent hours listening to shortwave broadcasts, combing frequencies on a Zenith Transoceanic radio with a seven-foot telescoping antenna. They tuned into faraway stations like Radio Moscow, Radio Quito, and Radio Havana, but most of their time was spent listening to the amateur radio operators — the so-called “hams.”
“As we listened to the conversations from hams in various states in the US as well as foreign countries, it was as if a ‘new world’ had been discovered beyond the confines of Mississippi,” Feild said. He would listen as Alsup, who became a licensed ham operator while still in high school, carried on conversations from his bedroom with far-off interlocutors, sometimes in Morse Code.
“Bill had, and continues to have, a very strong influence on my life,” Feild said. “For the last 20 years or so, Bill and I talk via ham radio each Saturday morning.”
After high school, Alsup began as an engineering major at Mississippi State, intending to be a civil engineer like his father. But this was the ‘60s, and the civil rights movement was in full swing: the March on Washington happened during his freshman year in college; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in his sophomore year. As Alsup took an interest in broader legal issues, something clicked. “I wanted to be another Atticus Finch,” Alsup said to me. After college he attended Harvard Law School, and went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
He set up shop in Mississippi doing civil rights work, but found it financially unsustainable. Eventually he and his wife relocated to San Francisco in 1973, and over the years he worked both in private practice and at the Department of Justice. In 1999, he was commissioned as a federal judge by President Bill Clinton.
In the Northern District of California, Alsup has a fearsome reputation among lawyers. His early hours are the bane of attorneys, who are forced to argue motions as early as seven, sometimes even earlier if the judge sees that everyone is present. Litigators are timed down to the minute, and juries are let out at the exact time he specifies.
In the second Oracle v. Google trial, he refused to allow lawyers to continue to question Eric Schmidt past 1PM, even though this meant that the president of Alphabet would have to return to court the next day. The business of a $570 billion mega corporation would have to make way for jurors picking up kids from daycare, putting dinner on the table, and catching the train for a long commute back home. “I know the witness is a busy man,” Alsup said. “But the jurors’ time counts a lot more right now.”
He keeps his courtroom significantly colder than the rest of the building; it’s rumored that the air conditioning is cranked up high to keep the jurors awake. If someone coughs in the gallery, Alsup pauses the trial to demand to know who did it. Once the cougher is identified, the judge produces a cough drop — he keeps them by the judge’s bench for such eventualities — and the cough drop of shame is passed down through the ranks of attorneys and into the gallery. If the cough persists, the cougher must exit the courtroom, as swiftly and as quietly as possible.
Out of earshot, when the jurors are closed off inside their deliberations room, he can be harsh to attorneys. But the judge that jurors see is a grandfatherly, solicitous Southern gentleman, one who takes the time to ask after individual jurors and to thank them for the time they’re putting in.
When one of the Oracle v. Google jurors was stung by a bee during the trial, Alsup asked her if she could still follow the proceedings. When she hemmed and hawed, he said, “Let me rephrase. Can you understand what is going on just as well as you could before you were stung by a bee?”
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation.
The American system allows attorneys a great deal of power over who gets to be a juror. That’s why a jury in a software copyright trial taking place in San Francisco, California, the tech capital of the world, ended up with zero jurors with experience in the computer industry. But attorneys can’t pick the judges they end up with. And the litigators in the tech-dominated Northern District of California have learned they can’t pull a fast one on Judge Alsup.
Oracle v. Google is a vast, sprawling piece of litigation over the Android platform, one where the billions of dollars at stake were the least-significant possible consequence of the lawsuit. There’s a reason why over 70 notable computer programmers signed onto an amicus curiae “Brief of Computer Scientists” to the Federal Circuit, and later to the Supreme Court, in an attempt to explain the technical question at the heart of the case. Each one of them feared what Oracle v. Google could do to their profession.
Oracle brought multiple patent claims and a copyright claim against Google in 2010, only to lose across the board in 2012 in a trial presided over by Judge Alsup. But Oracle appealed, and the Federal Circuit ruled in its favor. When Google tried to appeal again, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and sent it back down to Judge Alsup at the district court. The case was tried again in 2016. Again, a jury came back in favor of Google, and again, the appeal is pending before the Federal Circuit. After seven years of litigation, the lawsuit at this stage has boiled down to a single question: did Google’s use of 37 Java APIs infringe Oracle’s copyright?
Software copyright is difficult to grapple with. When it comes to music, movies, literature, paintings, and even Bikram yoga, it’s pretty easy to have an opinion about whether something has been copied. Software, on the other hand, was an awkward late addition to the original Copyright Act of 1976, shoehorned into section 102(a) as a “literary work.”
Copyright is only supposed to cover creative works, not what’s useful or functional. That’s why the functional elements of anything — from mannequins to accounting ledgers to computer program menus — are barred from being copyrightable.
Is code a functional tool, or is it a creative expression? To the extent that code “conveys meaning,” it does seem like an art form with a valid claim to copyright. Think of programmers who refer to “elegant code” or “badly written code.” But when that code is being executed to move a robot arm to pick up and fasten a bolt, that seems entirely functional — and therefore, not the kind of thing that can be addressed by copyright.
You can’t copyright a urinal. But you could probably copyright a sculpture of a urinal. And like Duchamp’s famous work, code is both, at the same time.
“You’ve seen courts wrestling with [this] for decades,” says James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the Cornell Tech Institute who once worked as a Microsoft programmer. “It turns out that actually carving up a piece of software into those functional and nonfunctional parts is really hard,” he says. “It requires a really nuanced understanding of just what is doing something and what means something in software.”
The Oracle v. Google case concerns a specific component of software: the application programming interface. APIs are a collection of well-defined interactions, a sort of shorthand to quickly access services, libraries, other functionalities. APIs have been compared to dictionaries of words with their definitions, but John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, says they’re more like collections of proverbs or idioms. You don’t need to know idioms to be able to speak grammatically correct English, but as many ESL students know, you’re going to have a hell of a time communicating without them. An idiom might be a lovely turn of phrase, but the more common it is in a pool of speakers, the more it simply serves as a shorthand for something that might take more time to spell out. Similarly, APIs often condense commonly used or particularly complex code.
This is the question at the heart of Oracle v. Google. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act excludes copyright protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation.” Is an application programming interface a process, system, or method of operation? Or is it a creative expression that warrants copyright protection?
When Google first created Android, the company made the decision that it would be compatible with Java, a popular programming language. By using Java, Android could tap into an existing community of developers, and maybe even their existing code. Anyone could write in Java, but Sun Microsystems, which had developed the language, maintained strict control over Java Standard Edition and Java Mobile Edition, which allow Java code to be deployed on desktop computers and mobile phones.
After negotiations to license Java broke down, an army of engineers at Google wrote a clean room implementation of Java SE — meaning that the code was reverse engineered by a team that was forbidden from accessing the original code. Oracle acquired Sun in 2010, and in a matter of months, filed a lawsuit against Google over Android.
Google’s reimplementation of the Java APIs was almost entirely written from whole cloth. But it shared declaring code — code that identifies the names of other constituent parts of code — with the APIs of Java Standard Edition. Not only that, the structure, sequence, and organization of the implementation looked similar. And then there was rangeCheck, the infamous nine lines of code. They made their way into Android by way of Joshua Bloch, who had, suspiciously, previously worked at Sun Microsystems and had authored many of the Java APIs. (This was only an unfortunate coincidence, Judge Alsup later determined. Bloch had continued to contribute to OpenJDK, the open-source implementation of Java, after he left Sun for Google, and his code had wound up in both Android and Java SE through innocuous circumstances.)
In order to be compatible with Java, certain calls to certain APIs should look about the same. For example, the method that finds that maximum value in a set of numbers is quite sensibly named java.lang.Math.max. Oracle argued that Google could have just called it java.lang.Arith.larger.Google argued that the Java APIs were similar to the QWERTY keyboard layout. Sure, a keyboard could be organized any other way, but keyboard manufacturers keep making QWERTY keyboards, because people are used to that setup.
Languages build on top of other languages, and part of that means that their APIs look similar. The Java regular expression API is a reimplementation of Perl 5 and the Java string formatting API is a reimplementation from C. This is one of the reasons why programmers get up in arms about Oracle v. Google; it just doesn’t make any sense to police Google for something that everyone else has been doing for forever. There is a general consensus among software developers that Oracle was wrong: that APIs are meant to be used, that to restrict their usage would subvert their purpose.
Indeed, even Oracle had a hard time being consistent about its own position. In 2015, a corporate witness for Oracle said in a deposition that the Java APIs and the Java language — which is free to use — were “inseparable,” only to backtrack after his lunch break while sweating profusely.
When Oracle v. Google went to trial the first time, in 2012, the jury found in favor of Google on every patent claim. But the copyright question had since split into two stages. Were the claimed elements of the APIs copyrightable to begin with? And if they were copyrightable, were they fair use? The first question was decided by Judge Alsup; the second was by the jury.
The jury was hung on the question of whether Google’s use of the Java APIs was fair use. But it turned out not to matter, it seemed, because Judge Alsup ruled that Oracle didn’t have copyright in the declaring code or the structure, sequence, and organization of the implementing code. There was no infringement because there was nothing to infringe. And this was, Alsup concluded, because structure, sequence, and organization for API implementing code was functional rather than creative in nature.
In a case where witnesses and lawyers had struggled to explain APIs, comparing them to everything from file cabinets to electric wall sockets, Alsup’s opinion was distinctive for its meticulousness and technical savvy. For pages on end, it describes how code works, from the difference between source code and object code, to classes, declarations, headers, subroutines, methods, interfaces, and packages. It even includes sample code.
It’s hard to imagine a judge without Alsup’s long experience as a coder coming up with such an opinion. Alsup’s background certainly came in handy when he ruled on rangeCheck, the infamous nine lines of code.
“It was the kind of thing I had done many times myself in QuickBASIC,” he says, five years after that hearing. (The judge uses Microsoft’s QuickBASIC, which is an integrated development environment and compiler for BASIC, to program in). “And if you had given me that problem in QuickBASIC, I was certain I could go back within an hour and I would have a working QuickBASIC model of that.”
When we spoke, the judge was careful when talking about Oracle v. Google, since a second appeal is still pending at the Federal Circuit. But it seemed like he was still irritated with Oracle’s attempts to cast the copied lines of rangeCheck as a “big deal.” The coder in him may have even felt a little sorry for the beleaguered author of rangeCheck. The incident bothered Alsup so much that he spent an entire section of his opinion on it. “Oracle has made much of nine lines of code that crept into both Android and Java. This circumstance is so innocuous and overblown by Oracle that the actual facts, as found herein by the judge, will be set forth below for the benefit of the court of appeals.” (The nine lines of code never came up again in the case.)
Alsup’s 2013 opinion in Oracle v. Google is, as Grimmelmann says, “the most detailed, most difficult, most nuanced engagement” that the judiciary has ever had with software copyright. He teaches Oracle v. Google to his own IP class. “It’s a framing of this is how Java works, this is what the different elements of source code are… it’s not just judging the case before him. It’s a piece of writing that’s pedagogical.”
Thanks to the meticulousness of his opinion, a great deal of Alsup’s understanding of Java and of software development remains preserved in the law, and is being passed down to young would-be lawyers. That may be the most lasting mark left by the remarkable ruling of the coder judge — because the judgment itself has been completely overturned.
Alsup’s 2013 ruling in Oracle v. Google went up on appeal almost immediately, and in 2014, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit came back with a shocking reversal, one that resulted in countless law review articles penned by irate scholars of copyright law. The appeals court wrote that Oracle had “unlimited options as to the selection and arrangement of the 7,000 lines Google copied.” Oracle didn’t have to name the function java.lang.Math.max. It could have been called “any number of things,” like “Math.maximum” or “Arith.larger.”
It’s small tells like that one that suggest an overall unfamiliarity with code. (In another part of the opinion, the court says, “Google was free to develop its own API packages and to ‘lobby’ programmers to adopt them.”)
Google appealed the Federal Circuit decision up to the Supreme Court, which declined to take the case. The suit was sent right back to where it started: with Judge Alsup in San Francisco, for a second jury trial, and on May 26th, 2016, a jury found fair use in favor of Google.
Google may have won, but not only is the case still pending — Oracle has appealed again to the Federal Circuit — it’s not clear what the actual effects of the case will be over time. The jury verdict of fair use doesn’t provide any guidelines on when it is or isn’t okay to copy declaring code, or the structure, sequence, and organization of an API.
Whatever insight or clarity Alsup had written into his opinion, built upon his long experience with BASIC, had simply evaporated away, blown to bits by the appellate court.
Alsup is not shy about his coding chops: “I do think I am a good programmer, and I think when you read these programs you can see that — since I’ve taught myself everything — there are some pretty nifty programming devices in these QuickBASIC programs.” He added, “But they’re not Java.”
The judge has been coding ever since he got his first computer in 1985: an old IBM that he’s since consigned to a dark and dusty corner of a barn on his Yosemite ranch. It used a 5 ¼-inch floppy disk and didn’t have a hard drive. You could get the version with one floppy drive, or you could get the version with two. He and his wife sprang for the luxe two-drive version.
The computer came with two books, one about the DOS operating system, and the other about BASIC. “At some point, I looked at the BASIC book and decided I would learn that.” He taught himself straight from the book, which he recalls was “pretty straightforward.”
The first programs he wrote were the example ones, simple routines that did arithmetic. They became increasingly complex: one that would play blackjack, one that played seven-card stud. They were all stored on a 5 ¼-inch floppy disk that was destroyed in 1988 when his two-year-old son ravaged it with the stapler.
“He was so proud of himself,” Alsup said wistfully.
Of all the programs he’s written, it’s his shortwave radio propagation predictor that he’s most proud of — and with good reason. It’s a relatively complex piece of software with multiple dependencies and retro-looking graphic interfaces, including an Azimuthal projection map based on the starting location you pick, complete with colored lines that track the movement of the sun, and extensive databases that he compiled by hand from atlases. (He is immensely proud of the massive amount of time he has spent doing data entry in his off hours, both before and after becoming an Article III judge appointed by the president of the United States.)
The program predicts the best times to target ham radio signals to various parts of the world by calculating between two endpoints that he specifies, or even generating tables of data about key locations he’s selected from all over the globe.
Even in 1995, when he started coding his program, there were commercial versions available of similar programs. But, he says, “I just wanted the fun of being able to see if I could do it.”
He uses his program to calibrate his Yaesu Mk V Field radio to talk his friends all over the world, including his childhood friend “Junior” Feild, and operator friends he’s made in places as far away as Japan and New Zealand. He still spends a couple of hours operating his radio every month, mostly from the Sierra foothills. His call-sign is N6XMW, or as he puts it, “November Six X-Ray Mike Whiskey.”
The judge spent almost an hour explaining this particular program to me, going over each of the various inputs that can change shortwave radio propagation, as well as the science behind it. The interview turned into an impromptu physics tutorial as he patiently explained the solar flux, K-index, and the ionosphere to me.
Predicting radio propagation takes into account more than a few of these constantly fluctuating variables, all of which change depending on where you are and where you’re trying to reach, as well as the time of year and time of day.
Once he puts in the variables, he hits enter, and the computer begins to calculate. “See,” he said. “It’s thinking.”
Indeed, the computer screen is now blank, except for the words, “Thinking…”
During the lengthy demonstration, the program does run into trouble once: a dependency breaks, and for some reason, it won’t let him input New York City as a location. “That’s not good,” he mutters to himself. “Alright… so I goofed up,” he admits to me. We agree to try a different location entirely, and the program runs smoothly from there on.
Alsup has coded in relative isolation for decades, learning from books and compiling databases by hand. It’s a marked difference from the typical practices of the current generation of software developers, whose workflow and habits often tap into a larger community. He doesn’t Google for solutions, he doesn’t check StackExchange, and he doesn’t use preexisting libraries. Everything he’s written, he’s written from scratch.
In fact, Alsup’s closest encounter with the culture and community that has sprung up around programming seems to be Oracle v. Google.
In an infamous exchange in the second trial, erstwhile Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz tried to explain free and open-source software to the jury, starting with GNU, a project integral to Linux that can be loosely described as both an operating system and associated suite of software.
“What does GNU stand for?” Alsup interrupted to ask.
“GNU is Not Unix,” said Schwartz.
“The G part stands for GNU?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” the judge replied. There was some laughter in the courtroom, but it was nothing like the uproar on Twitter afterward, as hundreds of nerds across the world facepalmed. (I even later saw a webcomic about this exact exchange.)
The GNU acronym is recursive, meaning that it invokes itself in an infinite loop — a move that frequently comes up in computer programming. There is a host of recursive acronyms in programming, including PHP (PHP: Hypertext Processor), cURL (cURL URL Request LIbrary), and unofficially, the search engine Bing (Bing Is Not Google). These are bad inside jokes, embarrassing markers of an insular culture that never anticipated having to explain itself in a court of law.
And Alsup, despite having been a coder for so long, did not know what GNU stood for until that very moment. He was a little chagrined about it when I asked. Apparently an engineer friend of his (one of his backpacking buddies) had teased him for the GNU remark. “I did not know this recursive feature of the definition,” Alsup said. “Once it was explained to me, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s kind of cute.’”
Recent shifts in computer programming have made it difficult for Alsup to keep up with his hobby. A few years ago, he made an effort to learn Python, but that fell by the wayside when he “got too busy,” presumably with his day job as a federal judge. Microsoft has since stopped bundling QuickBASIC with Windows, making it impossible for Alsup to run his programs on newer computers.
It’s poetic in its own way: the judge who presided over a major compatibility case is now himself a victim of compatibility issues.
In December, Alsup will preside over Waymo v. Uber, a potentially multibillion-dollar lawsuit in which Uber is accused of stealing intellectual property around self-driving car technology from a division of Alphabet. Waymo doesn’t grapple with core principles of intellectual property law the way that Oracle v. Google does, but like that case, the outcome could change the face of the industry forever.
In our conversations, Alsup has been very careful not to discuss the ongoing Waymo case. But he’s enthusiastic about the science surrounding the lawsuit. This time, it’s his interest in photography and optics that might be most relevant to Waymo v. Uber. In March, Alsup requested that each side name a book or a treatise about LIDAR, a laser-based detection system used for self-driving cars that is at issue in the case, so that he could read up on it. But a court order sternly cautioned the parties not to patronize him.
Please keep in mind that the judge is already familiar with basic light and optics principles involving lens, such as focal lengths, the non-linear nature of focal points as a function of distance of an object from the lens, where objects get focused to on a screen behind the lens, and the use of a lens to project as well as to focus. So, most useful would be literature on adapting LiDAR to self-driving vehicles, including various strategies for positioning light-emitting diodes behind the lens for best overall effect, as well as use of a single lens to project outgoing light as well as to focus incoming reflections (other than, of course, the patents in suit).
Alsup also asked for a tutorial in LIDAR, presented by lawyers from both sides. It’s something he does for a lot of different cases. He enjoys the tutorials, he said to me, and he listens carefully. But still, he suspects that he understands the technology better than the lawyers do in a great number of cases.
He has a long memory for lawyers he suspects of trying to get one over him, only to run into his engineering background and his acid tongue. Like any geek, he bears a grudge against any dodgy obfuscation of technology.
In a case that took place about a decade ago, regarding a patent involving FastTrak (the Bay Area’s automated bridge toll pay tracking device), the two parties had come to a legally binding agreement about the technical aspects of how the patent was to be interpreted. Instead of rubber-stamping the stipulation, Judge Alsup pored over the patent himself, only to come to the conclusion that their stipulation made no sense at all.
“I knew what the technology was. And I told them. And I wrote an order that said I refuse to accept this stipulation, and here’s what it really means. And then they both agreed with me that I was right.”
The parties settled the case shortly thereafter.
“I guess they thought the judge was crazy.”
Alsup’s aggressive handling of attorneys is on full display in Waymo, perhaps fueled by deep disapproval of the millions of dollars that Alphabet and Uber are burning on some of the best litigators in the business. In the past, he’s been open about his distaste for the money that corporations fling around in court. In one post-trial hearing in Oracle v. Google, he snapped, “Do you know how many Social Security claimants I can’t rule on because you’re arguing over a costs bill?”
In Waymo in particular he has called on the press to scrutinize how the two companies behave in court, telling journalists to keep an eye on which party chooses to get rid of jurors with technical backgrounds during jury selection. Meanwhile, Alphabet and even Lyft are fighting to keep portions of the trial closed to press, claiming that valuable trade secrets might be exposed to the public.
A group of media companies (including The Verge’s parent company, Vox Media) has since intervened in the lawsuit, asking to keep the courtroom open. While it’s certain that parts of the lawsuit — which does involve a fair number of trade secrets — will remain sealed, Alsup has been adamant that the press has a right to know as much as they can.
In one hearing, lawyers for Uber asked to appear in camera, making the meeting closed to the public. But once the hearing got going, Judge Alsup concluded that this was an overstep, a use of secrecy that was motivated by embarrassment rather than legitimate reasons.
“Listen, please don’t do this to me again,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of adverse headlines in this case on both sides. And I can’t stop that.”
“The public has a right,” said the judge. Then, in a classic Alsup twist, “In fact, this whole transcript? I’m going to make it public.”
Since 1999, Alsup has divided his docket between two clerks: what he calls the criminal desk and the IP desk. Cases that don’t fall into either category are evenly split between the two.
These days, he often looks for some kind of STEM background for the IP desk. It’s not necessary, but it helps. Bill Toth, the IP clerk during Oracle v. Google, didn’t have a STEM background, but he told me that the judge had specifically asked him to take a computer science course in preparation for his clerkship. When I asked Alsup about it, he laughed a little — he had no recollection of “making” Toth take any classes — but he did acknowledge that sometimes he gives clerks a heads up about what kind of cases are coming their way, and what kind of classes might be useful ahead of time.
Bill Toth is now clerking at the Federal Circuit, for Chief Judge Sharon Prost. He won’t be allowed to work on the Oracle v. Google appeal, of course; it would be a conflict of interest.
The tech community maintains an entrenched belief that the law will never understand what it does, and certainly the higher-level court decisions made in Oracle v. Google do nothing to dispel that notion. Yet Alsup’s very existence is a challenge to this belief: a 72-year-old former engineering student who has been quietly and delightedly tinkering away in BASIC for decades, playing with his radios and his cameras, teaching his clerks and random journalists alike the things that he knows.
In the same patient and meticulous manner that Alsup explained the ionosphere to me, he explained software to the Federal Circuit in his Oracle opinion. And because it was so precise and so specific, he forced the Federal Circuit to engage with software development more than it otherwise might have. Regardless of the Federal Circuit’s ultimate decision, a great deal of Alsup’s understanding of software remains preserved in appellate caselaw.
That opinion is now taught in law school intellectual property classes. As the tech sector attracts more and more money, tech-specialized lawyers are emerging to meet that demand. Many of them will be reared on Alsup’s careful pedagogy — for most of them, transmitted through words on paper, and for a lucky few, transmitted in person.
A few hours after we conclude the interview and I leave the courthouse, he emails me with the subject line “Found the bug,” informing me that he had figured out the error from when he was showing me his shortwave radio propagation program. “I had remmed out earlier a key line for reasons I can’t remember and just reactivated it, so now it’s fixed,” he writes.
I thought back to my last moments in his office. As I was packing up my recorder and notebook, I had called him the “geek judge,” only for him to look perplexed and ask, “Is that a good thing?”
When I insist that it is, he chuckles a little in response. “In my day, a geek was not something you wanted to be.”
Microsoft started rolling out the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update to PCs earlier this week, complete with features like Windows Mixed Reality and people integration for the taskbar. While most of the new additions are obvious, Microsoft quietly added an anti-cheat feature for games.
It appears to be similar to Valve’s own ant-cheating software (VAC), and the system collects data within games and generates alerts when there’s something out of the ordinary. Developers will receive the information if TruePlay determines there’s something particularly nefarious going on. TruePlay is disabled by default at the moment in the gaming settings for Windows 10, but Microsoft is starting to make the API available to developers.
Developers will be able to use TruePlay in their Microsoft Store games, so this is limited to Universal Windows Platform (UWP) games for now. There aren’t many of those in the Microsoft Store just yet outside of Forza, Cuphead, and other Microsoft Studios games, but Microsoft has been trying to tempt developers to adopt its Xbox Play Anywhere system to offer the same game across Xbox One and Windows 10. This might be a useful feature in the future, but as it’s limited to UWP it doesn’t really address the games that people are actually cheating in today.
When Shishir Mehrotra worked at YouTube, he was struck by the relatively pedestrian tools that kept the site running. Mehrotra, who served as the company’s head of product until he left in 2014, managed his team largely using a combination of Google Docs and Sheets. The system worked well enough, but the tools had been built for a previous age. Mehrotra began to fixate on a question: what would documents and spreadsheets look if they were invented today?
Coda, a company Mehrotra co-founded with his fellow former Googler Alex DeNeui, represents his answer to that question. The company, which is announcing a private beta today after three years of secret development, makes a collaborative document editor that combines a word processor and a spreadsheet. It’s a versatile tool that Mehrotra hopes will find a home in companies where diverse teams need regular access to shared sets of data, but want to view and manipulate that data on their own terms.
Mehrotra’s pitch for Coda, which was built under the codename “Krypton,” goes like this: “It’s a document so powerful you can build apps in it.” Open it for the first time and you’ll see a blank canvas that will be familiar to anyone who has ever used Google Docs or Microsoft Word. But drop in a table, add a few rows and columns, and you’ll find a powerful engine underneath. Coda wrote its own, modern formula language design to integrate other services into your spreadsheets. Enter “GoogleDirections” into a formula, for example, and Coda will insert a Google Map with directions from an origin location to a destination.
One of Mehrotra’s chief frustrations with the older generation of documents was what he calls “the game of Battleship” — the need to describe rows and columns in formulas using headings like “A1 to F7,” as in the old board game. In Coda documents, rows and columns are named objects, making formulas both easier to read and write. Your formulas no longer have to refer to “A1:F7”; instead you just type the name of the column.
Excel and other older documents also required formulas to be placed inside of tables. In Coda they can be placed anywhere: hit the “=” sign, and you can bring in data from anywhere else in your document. You might include a summary section in your document that includes a written account of your progress, with embedded formulas that update key numbers automatically as you make progress.
The result is a system that, to date, can be used for everything from bug trackers to wedding planning to Salesforce-style customer relationship management software. The more flexible the system, Mehrotra says, the more uses people find for it. “We think the world runs on docs and apps,” he says. The average office worker has access to company-provided software for tracking projects, clients, inventory, and other needs. And yet, Mehrotra says, “they’ll spend all day long in documents and spreadsheets.”
One place where this is true is Uber, where Yuhki Yamashita’s team has been using the beta version of Coda since July. Yamashita, a senior product manager responsible for the driver experience, says his team used a variety of project-management tools before moving gradually to Coda. A few employees who had expertise in spreadsheets ported over some of Uber’s data from Google Sheets. Then less Sheets-savvy employees began building new views of the data. Yamashita says it has changed the way his team works for the better.
The ability to link documents together, infused with live data that updates automatically, has led Uber to use Coda like a wiki in some cases. In others, engineers build complex views of databases that showcase data with a high degree of granularity, while the marketing team relies on a summary document that only displays key numbers.
Of course, Coda isn’t the first company to attempt a reinvention of Microsoft Office. SmartSheet, which launched in 2006, has 70,000 businesses using its collaborative, cloud-based spreadsheets. Quip, which was founded in 2012, sold its combined word processor and spreadsheet to Salesforce for $750 million last year. But neither of those apps has become a breakout hit in the fashion of other modern workplace tools, such as Slack or Trello.
Investors think Coda can win. The company has raised $60 million in two rounds of fundraising, from investors including Greylock, General Catalyst, Khosla Ventures, NEA, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Reid Hoffman, a partner at Greylock and the co-founder and executive chairman at LinkedIn, took a seat on Coda’s board. Hoffman told The Verge that the increasingly collaborative nature of office work created an opportunity for Coda to carve out a niche. “Our goal is to try to create this new kind of productivity app,” Hoffman says. “And already in the private beta, we’ve seen organizations start adopting it in ways that lead us to think we’re right about this hypothesis.”
Even after three years of development, Coda remains at an early stage. For the private beta, the full experience is available only on the desktop. You can access it on the mobile web, but in read-only mode. The company won’t say when it will be available to the larger public. While it remains in beta, Coda plans to build out its gallery of examples and other help features that will make it more approachable to newcomers.
For now, though, the learning curve is real. The most impressive aspects of the service are the ones that require mastering Coda’s formula language — which could be a hard sell at the typical American office, where workers often only use new tools begrudgingly.
Coda goes against the grain in other ways. Other work-tracking tools, such as Trello and Asana, obscure their formulas and tables behind colorful buttons and widgets. They might be less flexible than Coda, but they also feel more approachable. I’ve built a handful of custom trackers in Asana without needing to rely on the help menu at all; to do the same thing in Coda, I had to spend a fair amount of time reading documentation. In Asana I click buttons and they do basically what I expect; in Coda I type an equal sign and cross my fingers.
But Coda is betting there’s a legion of disaffected Excel jockeys out there itching to make powerful, custom, lightweight apps using a more modern formula language. And if that means investing some time to learn the tool, many will. “People had to learn macros 30 years ago,” says John Lilly, another partner at Greylock. Most people will never need to become Coda masters, he says. Once documents are built, other users in the organization can view and manipulate them rather easily. “It gives you more depth as you go,” Lilly says. “We haven’t had an application creation tool like this since HyperCard. I think we’re going to see lots and lots of good experiments.”
Mehrotra says he’s pleased with the experiments he has seen so far. His daughter, who is 11, is running her school’s Lego robotics team using Coda documents. If he’s worried about Coda’s learning curve, he doesn’t show it.
“I like products where there’s a little bit of depth to them,” he says. “That feeling of, as I become more of an expert, I can do more and more, is a good thing. The tool-centered people are going to say, ‘show me all the features.’ The problem-focused people are going to say, ‘I have this problem. How do I solve it?’ You want to address both.
“One of the reasons spreadsheets run the world,” he adds, “is that they’re super deep.”