Danny Glasser is typing…

During my Microsoft career I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that resulted in patents for which I am listed as an inventor. Setting aside the issues surrounding software patents and patent trolling in general, what pride I possess in any patent attached to my name has almost nothing to do with the patent itself, the filing and granting of which are largely the work of attorneys. The pride comes from utility of the work that spurred the patent application and my personal contributions to that work.

I care little about the several patents where I am listed as a co-inventor along with Bill Gates — for example, 8,341,405: Access management in an off-premise environment — despite whatever reflected glory there is from my association with him in the patent records. These patents were part of a “forward patenting” project into which I put minimal effort, so I deserve little if any credit for any inventions that ensued.

Conversely, the patent of which I am most proud is for an invention of which I was responsible for the initial conception and implementation and that remains broadly in use today. In the US patent database it is 6,519,639: System and method for activity monitoring and reporting in a computer network, but to everyone else it is known as the “typing indicator.”

I’ve been thinking about this patent recently because today is the twentieth anniversary of the launch of MSN Messenger 1.0, the product in which the typing indicator debuted. While MSN Messenger is no longer in use, the typing indicator was quickly and widely copied and is still a feature of nearly every chat and messaging app. Whether you use Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype, etc., or a customer support website’s chat plug-in, you encounter the animating dots or “[name] is typing…” message that traces its origin to this work.

David Auerbach explained the typing indicator’s history in detail in Slate five years ago, so I won’t repeat it all here. The summary is that prior to MSN Messenger, real-time chat apps either didn’t indicate to you whether the user on the other side was responding to your message (IRC or AIM), or else they showed you every character that the user typed in real time (Unix talk and ICQ). When we were developing MSN Messenger, we believed we could do something better; something that would give you real-time feedback about whether the other user was typing, while being relatively network efficient and providing the other user a semblance of privacy with their thoughts and typos. I designed and coded the implementation for the detection and communication of the typing indicator, and slapped on a rough UI to create a proof of concept. Once we confirmed with self-hosting that it worked well, David and others designed and implemented the polished UI that shipped in MSN Messenger 1.0.

Since the typing indicator patent covers only the detection and communication mechanisms and not the user interface, David and others who worked on the initial implementation are not listed as inventors on the patent. This does not diminish their contributions to the work. MSN Messenger 1.0 became better known for Microsoft’s IM interoperability battle with AOL, which David has described in his essay Chat Wars.

The reason that the typing indicator patent is significant today — July 22, 2019 — is that the initial application was filed on July 21, 1999, the day before Messenger’s launch, and a US patent typically expires twenty years after filing. This should mean that the original patent protection is no longer in effect as of today, except that Microsoft’s lawyers filed several continuation patents, most recently 7,418,495, so the typing indicator patent has a little bit of life left in it.

That said, Microsoft has never pursued anyone for infringing this patent as far as I know (which is not far). In many cases Microsoft has patent cross-license agreements with the the other products’ owners (e.g. Apple in the case of iMessage) that render the issue moot. Also, it’s possible that newer implementations of the feature don’t infringe on the specific claims made by this family of patents, but I have no idea if anyone has bothered to verify this.

Several years after MSN Messenger first launched, still in the pre-smartphone era, I employed the typing indicator as an example when I visited my child’s first-grade class for one of those “What your parent does for a living” sessions. I created these mock-ups of an IM session to demonstrate to six-year-olds how it worked, and printed them poster-sized:

Hermione poster

Harry poster

[The text of the typing indicator was then “is writing” because pen support had been added to Messenger.]

The quality of these mock-ups should illuminate why someone other than me implemented the shipping version of the typing indicator UI.


Blog In One Place, Finally, After Fifteen Years

In February 2004, as I was about to start a twelve-week parental leave, I created my first personal blog. After an extremely brief flirtation with Blogger, I settled on LiveJournal. I was part of the team in MSN that was building Microsoft’s own blogging/social product, then called MSN Spaces, and wanted to immerse myself in the experience and technology of blogging.

The LJ blog stayed active only until December 2004, when MSN Spaces launched and I started a new public blog there. (Prior to MSN Spaces’ release I’d also been self-hosting on an internal-only version of the site.) I wanted to migrate my LJ blog entries to my MSN Space, but the Spaces team didn’t provide a migration tool and I didn’t want to do it manually. So the LJ blog co-existed with my Space, but was no longer updated.

Coincidentally, December 2004 was also the month that I created my Facebook account. I doubt I appreciated then how quickly it would dominate social networking. In late 2004, Orkut was challenging Friendster as the leader in the category.

In 2010, when Microsoft announced that MSN Spaces, since renamed Windows Live Spaces, was going to be shut down the following year, they offered an automated tool to migrate spaces to WordPress.com. In January 2011 I used that tool to create this blog, and my space went away not long after that. I don’t recall now if I didn’t think about concurrently migrating the LJ blog to WordPress at that time, or if no tool existed, but my LJ blog soldiered on in its nearly-forgotten state.

A recent blog post caused me to revisit my LJ blog, and yesterday I thought to myself, “I wonder if a tool exists to migrate a LiveJournal blog to WordPress?” Of course there does. Within half an hour, all of my ninety-something LJ posts from 2004 were inserted into this blog.

I have no plans to edit the content of any of those old posts; they deserve to stand as they were when first written. I might go through and set categories for them, and if I’m feeling ambitious will attempt to fix broken links. Eventually I might delete the old LJ blog, but for now I’ll leave it as it has been. It’s not harming anyone, except possibly me.

Thirty Years Ago Today: The Finale of Miami Vice

With all of the recent hoopla regarding noteworthy television series finales, I feel compelled to mention that today is the 30th anniversary of the Miami Vice finale.

While the airing of Miami Vice’s final episode, entitled Freefallwas anticlimactic — the show had been declining in both quality and popularity for at least two seasons — it was consequential enough that NBC aired the two-hour movie on a Sunday evening, instead of in the show’s normal Friday evening slot. But the significance of Miami Vice was not its death; it was its life. It’s hard to imagine any television show today having the cultural influence of peak Miami Vice. In the mid 1980s, it defined what was cool in fashion, music, cars, and of course television. Don Johnson even made the mullet stylish. For about a week.

One oddity of the Miami Vice finale is that it wasn’t the final original episode of the show to air. Four episodes from the final season aired subsequently: Three on NBC the following month, and one — considered too controversial for prime-time broadcast television — for the first time in January 1990, on the USA Network.

Freefall was far from the show’s best effort; like many of the final season’s episodes, it was a caricature of the elements that had originally made the show a trendsetter. If you’re not familiar with Miami Vice and are looking to see it at its best, check out Miami Vice, Twenty for Twenty, a blog post I wrote back in 2004 on the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere. The post lists my favorite episodes and explains how I chose them. Many of the links in the post are broken, but the content still holds up.

Miami Vice episodes, even the best ones, come across as hopelessly dated when viewed today. Which is kind of the point: A show that was so intrinsically of its time cannot be judged by the standards of modern television. To the contrary, it serves as a finely-preserved remnant of its era, an opportunity for those who didn’t experience 1980s pop culture to gain an appreciation and for those who did to reminisce.

The 1973 Plymouth Fury III: An Unappreciation

A 1973 Plymouth Fury III was my family’s only car when I was a teenager, and consequently was the first car I drove an appreciable amount. The Glasser Family’s Fury III was a four-door sedan — brown with an off-white vinyl top — that my parents purchased new off the showroom floor. It replaced a 1965 Fury III that had served our family well, which in turn had replaced another Plymouth. The nine-year-old car nut version of me accompanied my father to the Plymouth dealer in Brooklyn to check it out in person before my parents purchased it.

Our ’73 was a lemon from the day we bought it; on the evening my father drove it home from the dealership, it stalled out in the parking lot of the Fairfield Towers apartment building that was then our home. Somehow my parents kept it running for ten years and 135,000 miles, through two oil crises, my father’s daily commutes through Brooklyn and Queens, and numerous road trips to New England. Indeed, the only bumper sticker that ever adorned this car was a green and white one reading, “I L♥VERMONT.” For a family with three growing kids, it was, if nothing else, the right size car.

When I turned seventeen and started driver’s ed, this was the car I used to practice and to take my driving tests (failed the first, passed the second). The only “fury” this car ever exercised was upon its driver: Immense and heavy, with loose steering, it was a chore to drive and even more of a chore to parallel park in New York City. Starting the car when its engine was cold required a delicate dance between the ignition key and the gas pedal. The 1970’s-era design touches that I appreciate now, such as its olive-shaped taillights and the turn signal indicators mounted outside the car atop the front fenders, held little appeal for a struggling teenage driver who sole goal was to get his license.

It was also the last American-branded car my parents ever bought. In 1983, with their kids through high school and out of the house, they replaced the Fury with a first generation Toyota Camry. My father’s battles with the ’73 were enough to overcome his World War II veteran’s resistance to buying a Japanese car, and he and my mother never looked back. The Fury was dispatched to its second owner for next to nothing.

Given their massive size and notoriously poor quality, I’m not surprised that 45 years later, few running examples of the ’73 Fury still exist. It’s not the kind of car you’ll find in a museum or selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a collector auction. Purchasing one like this example now for sale on eBay would make sense only if I wanted to burn thousands of dollars and get well-acquainted with my local tow truck operators. And become — and remain — single. Still, the pull of nostalgia for one’s youth is powerful, and my mind wonders what it would be like to drive one again.

After More Than 25 Years, I’m Withdrawing My Support from the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association. Here’s Why.

An Open Letter to Stuyvesant Alumni

Today is Giving Tuesday, and in recognition I am making annual donations to many of the non-profit organizations that I support. The Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) has long been one of these organizations, but in 2017, for the first time in more than a quarter century, it is not. This year I am withholding all monetary support from SHSAA and instead supporting Stuyvesant by donating to the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association. I’m also encouraging my fellow Stuyvesant Alumni to do likewise.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Stuyvesant High School. I grew up in a middle-class Brooklyn home, the child of a public school teacher and a salesman. Thanks to Stuyvesant, I was able to avail myself of one of the best possible high school educations. Of the many things I learned in my three years there, perhaps the most meaningful is that I should seize any opportunity to surround myself with the brightest, most passionate people I can find. Nearly every great thing that has happened to me since is due to a combination of good luck and the application of this lesson.

I’ve long looked for ways to repay my debt of gratitude to Stuyvesant, and because I’ve lived far from New York for most of my adult life, charitable giving has been the most effective way for me to do this. Twenty years ago, this led to me to get involved with an effort to establish an endowment for Stuyvesant, called the Campaign for Stuyvesant (CFS). I pledged a contribution that was the largest I had ever given to a charitable organization, and arranged for an even larger charitable bequest. Significantly, as it turns out, I did little due diligence.

Several years later, when I learned of the acrimony between CFS and Stuyvesant’s administration, I started asking questions. Unhappy with the answers I received, I pulled out of CFS before completely fulfilling my pledge. At the time, I made it clear that while I was departing that effort, I would happily jump back in when all of the organizations representing Stuyvesant and its alumni were working together.

So I was thrilled when, a few years ago and more than a decade after I withdrew from CFS, I started hearing talk that the multiple charitable organizations purporting to represent the Stuyvesant community would be coming together under the auspices of the long-standing Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association. I hoped that this unified organization would both serve the alumni community and provide a means for alumni to give back to Stuyvesant, including a renewed endowment effort.

This time, however, I asked questions first, and what I learned troubled and angered me. Lack of transparency about the terms of the merger and the governance model of the unified organization. Lack of clarity about the organization’s finances, both fundraising and expenses. And when other alumni, some of whom had decades-long track records of working on behalf of the Stuyvesant community, including serving on the SHSAA board, pressed SHSAA leadership for more disclosure and accountability, they were treated with hostility and contempt.

The most frustrating part is that this could all have been resolved easily if SHSAA leadership had answered some relatively simple questions, been more transparent regarding its changes and financial operations, made some modest, reasonable improvements to its governance model, and committed to meaningful, ongoing communication with the alumni community regarding these efforts. Instead, they chose to stonewall, and to attack the motives and integrity of anyone who attempted to challenge them. This shabby treatment of alumni continues to this day, as recently more than a few Stuyvesant alumni have been banned from SHSAA’s Facebook group for attempting to raise these issues and hold SHSAA leadership accountable among the community regarding its policies and practices.

You might hear from the current leadership of SHSAA that it is within their rights to run the organization as they see fit, and that they are following the best practices of other (mostly university-level) school alumni organizations. This is both questionable and beside the point. From what I’ve observed, SHSAA is an unresponsive organization that is not effectively serving the interests of Stuyvesant High School and its alumni community. In its present form, it is not an organization with which I want to be affiliated.

This is why I’ve joined a group of alumni, gathering virtually under the name Concerned Stuyvesant Alumni, that is calling for all Stuyvesant alumni to withdraw their support from SHSAA and find ways of supporting the school and the alumni community that do not involve SHSAA. This is a painful and regrettable step, but until SHSAA implements meaningful reforms, it is a necessary one.

I remain hopeful that one day SHSAA will live up to its promise and become an organization we can support enthusiastically and without reservations. As proud Stuyvesant alumni, we deserve nothing less.

Daniel Glasser
Stuyvesant High School Class of 1981

And… They’re Eliminated

Following up to Can the 0-10 Cleveland Browns Make the Playoffs?, Cleveland is now officially eliminated from playoff contention. And it would have been eliminated even if it had managed to defeat Cincinnati today.

Reviewing the Week Twelve games mentioned in the above post as affecting Cleveland’s playoff chances, Thursday’s Chargers’ victory over Dallas didn’t eliminate Cleveland, because it could have been replaced by the Chargers losing to Washington in two weeks. And four of the five games played today went the Browns’ way: Tennessee, New England, Carolina, and Oakland all won. Today’s critical game was Buffalo versus Kansas City, as Buffalo’s victory eliminated the possibility that Cleveland could have won the tiebreaker between them. The only scenario in which this might have been possible is if Buffalo were to lose all of its remaining games. But for this to occur, Miami would have to win both of its remaining games against Buffalo, which would give Miami the tiebreaker over Cleveland.

All of this is moot because Cleveland lost today. Browns fans, better luck next year.

Can the 0-10 Cleveland Browns Make the Playoffs?

In a word, yes.

After Cleveland lost their tenth game of the season to Jacksonville last week, I was surprised to see them still listed as “In the Hunt” on the NFL’s Playoff Picture page. The NFL is careful about this stuff, but I’m loathe to accept it on face value. So as I have done in the past, I set about to prove that this is indeed possible, with the help of Microsoft Excel and the New York Times’s 2017 NFL Playoff Simulator.

I started by separating the AFC into teams that have already clinched a higher seed than Cleveland (surprisingly, only four) and those that haven’t, and assumed the remaining games always go in favor of the former. Of course I assumed that Cleveland wins all of its remaining games. Then I assumed that the teams with which Cleveland is still mathematically in competition lose all of their remaining games against NFC opponents. Finally, I determined the ideal (for Cleveland) outcome of the remaining twenty or so games involving AFC teams. The aforementioned playoff simulator was useful for verifying this work.

Here are the results: If Cleveland wins out to go 6-10, they can end up in a four- or five-way tie for the sixth and final playoff seed (with the Jets, Buffalo, Baltimore, and optionally Miami). In these scenarios, New England, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and Kansas City win their divisions and Tennessee wins the fifth seed wildcard. The remaining six or seven teams (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston, the Chargers, Oakland, Denver, and optionally Miami) all end up either 5-11 or 4-12.

But how does Cleveland win the wildcard tiebreaker with the other 6-10 teams? Since there are three or more teams from multiple divisions, first we apply the division tiebreaker “to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division.” Buffalo beats the Jets and Miami by virtue of the best record against common opponents (being tied in head-to-head and division record) and Cleveland beats Baltimore by virtue of a better division record. Then Cleveland beats Buffalo by virtue of a better record against common opponents (being tied in conference record).

For this to happen, about half of the remaining 96 regular season NFL games have to go in Cleveland’s favor, including Cleveland winning all six of its remaining games after an 0-10 start.

Let’s look at the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (week 12). Cleveland must defeat Cincinnati and at least five or six of the following must occur:

  1. Dallas defeats the Chargers
  2. Tennessee defeats Indianapolis
  3. Kansas City defeats Buffalo
  4. New England defeats Miami
  5. Carolina defeats the Jets
  6. Oakland defeats Denver
  7. Houston defeats Baltimore

It’s extremely unlikely that Cleveland’s playoff hopes survive this week, let alone the remainder of the regular season, for which even one-in-a-million is a generous assessment, mathematically speaking. But it’s possible, which I imagine for Browns fans is worth something.

Here’s a detailed simulation.

Disclaimer: I did not factor tie games into any of my calculations.