Friday, December 30, 2005

Comparing 2005 Mashups to 1950s Rockers:

I'm always pleased to remember that in the 1950s when I saw teenagers on every street corner singing in harmony and playing music (usually very badly), I knew I was viewing the start of a big trend. In the 1960s and 70s, when the world was full of skilled rock groups, I knew where they had come from. So now, let's compare todays' Mashup artists to those rockers.

The Web is full of clever artists who photoshop images together, or superimpose audio tracks, or combine and modify other art to make derivative videos. Sometimes they do all three to published works, to create a new thing of beauty. And the big music and video companies go right after them, suing to make them put their derivative art away.

In ten or fifteen years, some of today's Mashup artists will occupy positions of power and influence. I have no idea what they'll actually do, but I wonder if they'll want to get even? (A little perspective – until about 1930, most of the world assumed that modifying other artists' art was a reputable thing for an artist to do. Until about 1900, Western Europe and the Americas acted the same way.)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Roll your own (lousy?) newspaper:

Google has given me a great way to follow news. They even solve one of my pet peeves, that most newspapers will cover a breaking story and then never tell you, months later, what happened to it.

My new Google weapon is News Alerts. They allow me to specify a search for each alert. I let Google run the search once a day on new news and email me the hits. I have five alerts going right now (I wonder what's going to happen to Deborah Davis?), and they're turning my email into an informative read. Ten or fifteen Alerts could make me a well-read, well-informed citizen.

But here's the depressing part: News Alerts will tell me about topics I'm aware of. Who's going to fill me in on topics I don't know about, when all the good newspapers go out of business? 2005 was a bad year for newspapers. But I believe that the commercial news sources we all rely on are paid for by those papers. And the intelligent decisions about what news to feature are still mostly made by newspapers. I fear the day when papers will be obsolete.

UPDATE: My Google Alerts have been scammed! I received an email, formatted to look exactly like an alert, referring me to some dubious medications. When I looked closely, I realized I'd never made an alert for “Jason somebody”, and deleted the email spam.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How do you pronounce “Bollwage?”

THIS MESSAGE IS COURTESY OF now really, do you expect a radio announcer to read an advertisement perfectly if it's written entirely in upper case, sprinkled with out-of-place commas and generally expressed in bad syntax?
A company that feeds a lot of ads to our radio station does think that way. I believe they run a special program to put their copy all in upper case, and then turn a second grader, loose on, it with a special, “comma” marker. When the ads come into our sales department, I expect somebody to do a little proofing, rescue the abused commas, and notice – just notice mind you – that the ad wants everyone to come to a church on Main Street in some town that's never identified.

Evidently I expect far too much. So thanks, everybody, for listening while I unload a little steam. But let me tell you about Mayor Bollwage.

Elizabeth's Mayor Bollwage is serious about combating drugs and educating kids. I know, because I read an ad about it last week at 8:20 a.m.. But before I read the ad on the air, I reviewed it, fixed the meandering commas, and asked myself, “How do you pronounce Bollwage?” A quick trip to the internet yielded a phone number, so I called him at home, and he was there, QUITE surprised to hear from me, but happy to tell me his name is pronounced “Bowl' wage”. So there. I put a little note on the ad about how to pronounce his name, just where that note should have been in the first place.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Don't Interrupt me!

As a consultant I've had several opportunities to work at home. If you work at home and you have family, you must expect interruptions for family needs. I had one friend who put a lock on his home office to keep home life “out”. Some people find the interruptions quite aggravating, and rent offices away from home to “draw the line.”

After I had been interrupted a few times in my home office, I drew a parallel between home and office work that really resolved this issue for me: If you're an employee working in an office, your boss can interrupt you. There's nothing a family member can do at home to compare with such interruptions. Family interruptions are a positive pleasure in comparison. Let me tell you about the last two times - when I was an employee, not a consultant - that my boss stepped into my office.

There he was, suddenly looking over me as I rushed to meet the days' critical deadline. We had a new, nasty vice president of engineering, and it looked like Tom was feeling the pressure.
“I need a five year plan!” he said.
“Tom,” I replied, “I have no idea how to make one.”
“Just make something up, anything! I have to submit a plan today.”
Now I understand the value of long-term planning, and I've done a lot of it in the computer business, but I would pity ANYONE who took such plans seriously. Things change much too fast. I tried to explain to Tom that since we were doing software testing, we needed to wait to see Development's five year plan. Presumably we would test whatever they thought they could create.
“That doesn't matter,” he said, “Just do anything that looks reasonable.”
And so I did. An hour later I emailed him a spreadsheet with project guesses, proposed staff size, guesses at the time needed to test each item. I felt I had produced something consistent and at least possible. Then I returned ruefully to trying to meet today's critical deadline.

A week later I was striving to meet the day's critical deadline when Tom appeared in my office, looking tense.
“I need you to join me in a meeting for a few minutes,” he said. So I did.
In this meeting, I was introduced to our new, nasty vice president of engineering. He waved a few pages at me. “I have a few questions about your five year plan,” he growled. Within minutes, I realized that my plan had not been consistent enough. The guy was on to every inconsistency and I got grilled for each and every possible issue. Why did I think two people could test X? Shouldn't they need far more hours to do it? Etc.

Now I'm sure you know that I wanted to say “Tom just told me to throw some numbers together, make up anything!” Unfortunately Tom is one of the nicest managers I ever worked for, and I decided I could not possibly try to throw him to the wolf. So I stood there and took it, acknowledging errors, making corrections, and getting ever more bloody for over an hour. Now THAT's what I call an interruption!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Guy with Gun (on floor of Car):

I can't tell you how many, many TV shows and movies I saw in the sixties and seventies, where somewhere, somehow, the good guy got into his car and drove off alone; and then a bad guy emerged from the back seat, gun in hand, giving orders. The sight of that hood rising up out of the deep made my spine tingle in horror, which eventually gave way to anger at the stupidity of the conceit, and finally to admiration of whoever thought up the idea.

I used to make mental notes to check the floor in back of my car when I got in. Spacey guy though I am, only no reminders were necessary. If a guy's hiding on the floor of your car in back – assuming your car's not so full of junk there's no place to hide – you'd see him for sure. Maybe in some two-door cars you might be able to miss the sucker. I don't know. And look at the entire situation from the bad guy's point of view. You crawl into the back seat and lie there face up, gun in hand. Then you get borrrred and start to doze off. And then suddenly there's your quarry, peering down at you with HIS gun in hand.

The good guy has all the options once he sees you. He can shoot, run, or get into the car and THEN shoot. So perhaps we can see why the movie mavens were never accused of teaching copycat crimes to car-hiding teenagers. In fact the movie-makers had dreamed up the perfect idea:
  • Inspiring horror (a little)
  • Almost believable
  • Totally impractical.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Heyyyyyy, Jakoviak!

When I was twelve and in sixth grade, I heard a number of my classmates do a strange thing. They would, from time to time, seemingly without provocation, suddenly shout “Heyyyyyy, Jakoviak!”

As an outsider and a nerd, I was in no position to inquire about their strange actions, but I found the exclamation quite nice, and soon you could hear me making the same shout at random moments: “Heyyyyyy, Jakoviak!”

As you can imagine, my choice of TV programs was way off the norm, but one evening during a sports presentation, I saw an ad for a popular brand of beer. Someone in the ad yelled, “Hey, Getcha cold beer!” When I heard this, chills ran down my spine. The words were quite different, but the overall sounds and speech rhythms were the same. I believed that when I said you know what, that they had of course heard me say “Hey, Getcha cold beer.” And of course I realized my companions had been quoting this ad.

I'm going to try to convey to you the depths of my embarrassment, but I doubt I'll succeed. I knew at that moment that I, a teetotaler, had allied myself with the twelve year old beer drinkers in my class. Waves of remorse and embarrassment swept over me, and of course I never said anything like Jakoviak ever again.

Oh yes, I was also embarrassed not to have understood them correctly in the first place.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Buy Anything From Anywhere!

Here's an idea for a new web site. Whoever creates it will soon be rolling in dough. I was inspired to grasp the simple, essential concept by listening to a Richard Vobes Podcast. Vobes was buying a PC computer game, and he was unsure whether it would run on a kid's computer. The game had many requirements – CPU, RAM, disk, graphics ... . What really bothered him was the “not returnable” statement on the box. He explained to the salesman that in Britain, everything is warranted to be usable if purchased for the intended reason. Eventually he got a grumpy admission that if the game did not work he could return it. He said that he later checked this issue with his lawyer, who agreed with him.

Wouldn't it be lovely, I asked myself, if I could always buy something in a place whose laws gave me the best protection against a defective product?

So that's the idea: a web site that lets you buy anything from anywhere. The site might even advise you which country to use for each type of purchase, and you could decide whether the extra shipping costs – plus the carrying charge that will make the web site owners rich – is worth it. Simply put, this would be a website that lets you pay a premium when you buy, to lower your risk.

By the way: after this website becomes a success, I expect some small country, Monaco perhaps, to modify its warrantee laws so that you would of course want to by everything from there. There's got to be an angle to make this work...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Humans “overimitate:”

The New York Times discussed what I suspect is a very important study that seems to show a difference between humans and chimps. A certain Derek Lyons constructed this experiment (based on the work of others). Here's the idea: suppose you make a transparent box containing food, with a bolt that needs to be removed so you can open the box. If you “show” someone how to open the box by performing several useless steps as well as removing the bolt, then hand them the box, what will they do?

Chimps open the box in the quickest, simplest possible way to get the food. But young children will carefully imitate the shown procedure to open the box, doing the extra unnecessary steps. Lyons believes he has demonstrated that humans have a trait, a desire to over-imitate, that generally turns out well for us. He has illustrated the trait by artificially constructing a test situation in which over-imitation appears to be a wasted effort.

Here, according to the reporter, is Mr. Lyons' take on imitation: "It is so adaptive that it almost never sticks out this way, ... You have to create very artificial circumstances to see it."
I'm afraid that examples of over imitating may not be so hard to find:
  • The very unfunctional clothes we wear to work, especially:
  • Ties!
  • The lack of variety in companies I've worked at.
  • Similarities in supermarkets and stores.
  • The Nigerian Scam...
and I could go on and on. But I'm being unfair. Derek Lyons has constructed an experiment that really shows us we are more “monkey-like” than monkeys.

Incidentally, Lyons' experiment uses 3 and 4 year old children. I wonder how this experiment would go with 6 or 9 year olds? (A New York Times letter-writer reported that adult humans act more like chimps.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We interrupt this blog ...

We interrupt this blog to bring you two (of the many, many) comments about President Bush's assumption of the power to eavesdrop on anyone considered a possible terrorist, without any judicial warrant. Many writers are clearly aware of the central issue: Has the president decided he can do anything he wants, for as long as he wants?

First, from Daniel J. Solove, an item called "Hypothetical: What If President Bush Were Correct About His Surveillance Powers? Here's most of Solove's post:
Suppose the President is right that he has the power to do this based on his "inherent authority" as Commander-in-Chief. The implications are quite alarming. It means that the President, in his sole discretion, can secretly authorize the NSA to engage in electronic surveillance on U.S. citizens until the War on Terrorism is over. This is a war without a foreseeable end. Under his argument, there seems to be no reason why he can't authorize other agencies to engage in surveillance, such as the FBI and CIA. And why does it need to be limited just to wiretaps? Perhaps video surveillance, bugs, searches of homes, gathering documents, and more.

Under his argument, Bush could continue to ignore the requirements of any law that stands in his way. What could Congress do? Congress could try to enact a law to clarify that it wants the President to abide by existing laws. Of course, the President could veto that law, but suppose Congress overrode the veto. According to the President's logic, he could still say that his "inherent authority" allows him to ignore it.

The problem with Bush's argument is that he has articulated virtually no conceivable limits to his power. The stakes of the debate aren't just about what the President has already done. They are about what the President has defiantly declared he has the power to do in the future.

Bruce Schneier has written a long, thoughtful piece on this issue. He shows, among other things, that our government's recent justifications for unwarranted wire-tapping ignore the fact that such acts were judged illegal in 1970 proceedings. I recommend his entire article, titled, appropriately, The Security Threat of Unchecked Presidential Power. Along the way he says:
This is indefinite dictatorial power. And I don't use that term lightly; the very definition of a dictatorship is a system that puts a ruler above the law. In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he immediately started using it to avoid the law.

This is, fundamentally, why this issue crossed political lines in Congress. If the president can ignore laws regulating surveillance and wiretapping, why is Congress bothering to debate reauthorizing certain provisions of the Patriot Act? Any debate over laws is predicated on the belief that the executive branch will follow the law.

UPDATE: And perhaps he also lied to us. It's been pointed out that President Bush used to assure us not to be afraid of the power of the Patriot Act:
In 2004 and 2005, Bush repeatedly argued that the controversial Patriot Act package of anti-terrorism laws safeguards civil liberties because US authorities still need a warrant to tap telephones in the United States.

Read more about it here at the AFP.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Believe everything you read?

Many years ago we lived in a crowded Gradate Student housing project. Among the many unusual characteristics of this living place, I will mention one: the high ratio of dogs that ran free per (human) capita. Whenever I entered the project, dogs approached my car and barked. My worries about hitting them were nerve-wracking.

Then I read something wonderful: another man had been plagued by a dog that always ran into the road and tried to catch his car as he drove past. He also worried he might kill the dog if it caught his car. After many close scrapes, he decided to try something different. When the dog rushed out barking, he stopped his car and let the dog catch it. The dog barked up a storm for a few minutes, lost interest, and never bothered him again!

Well as we readers know, reading is the secret to understanding the world and solving its problems. The “AHA! Bulb” flashed in my head. The next day when I drove home into the project, dogs approached and started to bark. I stopped my car in mid-road and let them enjoy it.

I was at once surrounded by some fifteen dogs, barking, yipping and howling. A few put their paws on my closed windows. One tried really hard to climb onto the front of the car. I waited. They did NOT lose interest. Finally I started the car again and eased it forward at the pace of a snail, trying to give my persecutors every chance to get out of the way. In one block I broke free.

The next time I drove into the project, those dogs moved on my car and started, as usual, to bark. I accelerated away from them as fast as I dared.

Remember Isadora Duncan:

How careful are you about dropping people off and driving away? Sometimes when I drop a passenger off, common sense requires waiting until they are safely in their home or destination. At other times, I try to remember Isadora Duncan.

Isadora Duncan often wore a long, striking scarf. In 1927 at age 49, she died very quickly when her scarf tangled in a wheel of a Bugatti. Now I figure I shouldn't drive off as long as there's the slightest chance my passenger's clothes are caught in the car door. I'm sure you understand.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Most Futile Celebration (Edward MacDowell, 1958):

In 1958, the Columbia University music department planned a large-scale celebration for the 50th anniversary of Edward Macdowell’s death. MacDowell may mean nothing to you, even if you love classical music, but he means a lot to American music departments at liberal arts schools everywhere. In the early 20th century, a liberal arts school would of course have no composers on their faculty, for their connection with art was to discuss it, not create it. Composition smelt of too much sweat, a reminder of the pragmatic considerations that translated art into cash.

And yet it was obvious in some schools that the wall separating ivy from ivory was too high. Intelligent composers had much to teach, and Columbia broke ranks when they invited MacDowell to join the music faculty. His too, too romantic music had a serious reputation in the 1930’s, although now I believe I can hear most of you saying “Edward who?”

So here it was, the fall of 1958, and Columbia invited EVERYBODY in the music world to their celebration. They chose an evening in conflict with a new music concert downtown; they also commissioned many performances of Macdowell, which may have driven a number of the invitees to develop a sudden great interest in the “new music” concert. Columbia laid on big spreads of food, accompanied by several hundred bottles of champagne.

I was among the thirty or forty faculty, grad and undergrad music students who had little choice but to attend the event. There were perhaps another forty people there whom I did not recognize. The event bombed. Nothing underlined its futility more than the dozens and dozens of champagne bottles sitting, untouched, on tables all around the hall. Had we all decided to get stinking drunk – a good idea for the faculty at least – we could not have made a dent in those bottles. It might be fair to say that Macdowell’s rep never recovered from that fall evening in 1958. And the Columbia music department had a hard time living it down as well.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Roll your own (lousy?) newspaper:

Google has placed a choice weapon in my hands for following news. They even solve one of my pet peeves, that newspapers will cover a breaking story and then never tell you, months later, what happened to it.

My new Google weapon is News Alerts. They allow me to specify a search. I let Google run the search once a day on new news, and email me the hits. I have five alerts going right now (I wonder what's going to happen to Deborah Davis?), and they're turning my email into a rather informative read. Ten or fifteen Alerts could turn me into a well-informed citizen.

But here's the depressing part: News Alerts will tell me about topics I'm aware of. Who's going to fill me in on topics I didn't know about, when all the good newspapers go out of business? 2005 has been a bad year for newspapers, but I believe that the commercial news sources that all news reporters rely on are paid for by the ailing papers. And the intelligent decisions about what news to feature are still mostly made by newspapers. I fear the day when we will have made the papers obsolete.

UPDATE: My Google Alert was scammed! I received an email, formatted exactly like an alert, for a subject I'd never heard of (nor made and alert for), referring me to some dubious meds. After I clicked on the link, I came back – puzzled – to the alert, realized I'd never made an alert for “Jason somebody”, and deleted the email.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Labiodental Flap:

If you're lucky enough to be able to access the New York Times online, you can click here to see an image of the new character that will represent the labiodental flap, a sound used in many more languages than the Xhosa 'click'. The symbol for this sound looks like a lower case v whose right side is more like a tilted lower case r. “The sound, a buzz sometimes capped by a faint pop, is present in more than 70 African languages. It is produced by the lower lip moving back and forward, flapping on the inside of the upper teeth.”

Other, rarer sounds await their own official recognition. Meanwhile I wonder how soon we'll be able to see the labiodental flap as a letter in computer displays. It has to be added to many fonts, and those fonts have to be distributed to your computers, players, TV sets and telephones. Two or three years should do it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I watch/hear very few interviews:

Listening to podcasters has reminded me how upsetting an interview can be when the interviewer does not challenge the interviewee. If a person is making false or unsupportable claims, you WANT the interviewer to dig in and call them on it. When I'm convinced I could ask better questions than the Larry King interviewer, I get extremely frustrated and usually change the channel. Where are the intelligent interviewers? (Just for contrast, here's the opposite: an interviewer who seems never to challenge or contradict, and does some of the interviewee's work for him. And sometimes that even works!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reverse gravity:

I’ve been discussing my adventures biking to work on a rural road. On the way TO work, I would quickly crest a hill, and then zoom down a long sharp decline. On the way back, I would painfully bike up the sharp hill, crest it and then coast slowly for half a mile.
The first few times I tried to coast after cresting the hill were very frustrating. My bicycle simply coasted to a stop. Gradually I learned that on the way home, I could start coasting much sooner than I thought. To put it simply, there was a piece of road that SEEMED to be angled down towards my company, but was actually angled down towards home. Which brings us to the truly interesting question:

How do you KNOW that ground goes up or down? Is it possible to be confused about what’s level?

Years later, a Scotsman told me there’s a famous hill in Scotland where gravity runs in an unexpected direction, basically the same phenomenon. How DOES it work? Could trees be an important factor (if they're not straight, but all angled the same way)?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Podcasts and music:

Podcast shows often begin and end with music recordings. I prefer classical music, but I enjoy the off-beat music clips I hear on podcasts. I can’t help wondering, though, how the podcasters “get away with it.” In fact, I understand from a casual comment on a “PK and J” show that podcasters are running a bit scared on this issue. PK and J mused about software they could use to remove musical “bookends” from their shows, to placate the FCC or the RIAA. Not that they want to. They complained that it wasn’t fair, that by playing this music they were helping the artists sell more copies, and that they had a right to play clips of such music.

They’re mostly right, but copyright law is BROKEN so they must prepare to survive the consequences, or to be very very brave.

First, sensible surveys and analyses seem to back up their contention that by making free copies of other people’s music, they are increasing those musicians’ sales. But the big music producers refuse to acknowledge such surveys and – so far – have persuaded congress and the courts otherwise.

Second, there IS a legal copyright exception for “fair use”, but I think podcasters do not understand “fair use” and are not using it when they play partial clips, especially when they play partial clips without commenting on them, and without telling us what they are.

Third, when the RIAA comes after them, their defense rights – summed up by Lawrence Lessig – are that they will definitely be allowed to hire an (expensive) lawyer. So they REALLY need to think about NOT playing other people’s music in their podcasts without permission.

Now in case you’re wondering, on old-fashioned radio we play other people’s music all the time. In theory, the music producers get paid for this. Radio stations pay the RIAA for playing rights. The music producers survey all radio stations occasionally, and base their payments to musicians on these survey samples. This is an antiquated and dumb way to try to pay everyone, and in the age of computers it could be done much better, but basically:
  • Play music on radio – producer gets paid (maybe).
  • Play music on Podcast – producer does not get paid (as far as I know).

I happen to produce a radio music show, but that doesn't mean I’m biased against the musical podcasters. In fact I envy them their right to play Mozart’s delightful scatological canons. I can’t, because my radio station FEARS the FCC.

UPDATE:Here's how blogs avoid using commerically-controlled music.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

What time IS it?

So this is how to drive a few people crazy. Pick a classroom, or a similar hall with a clock, and carefully move the hour-hand so that it is ahead (and WRONG!) by about thirty minutes. The minute and second hands should be right on time. Weird, isn't it:
What time IS it?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Pistol shot!

In the old days when I bicycled to work in the evening, my company doubled in size and doubled its building. The new half of the building was specially constructed to make it easy to assemble a mini-computer system anywhere. Big electrical cables hung from the ceiling, running to ubiquitous junction boxes. It looked very forbidding, and I can’t quite believe it was legal, but, well, we worked there. I had bicycled in around 8:30 P.M., perhaps three weeks after the new half-building opened. It was October, it was chilly and rain threatened, so I brought my bike inside. Two other dedicated employees were there and we were analyzing a software design when we heard: a sudden pistol shot, a loud BANG! What WAS it? We raced around the building looking for a smoldering computer or a fire. Nothing. At last, with some misgivings, we settled down to work.
The other two left around midnight. At 2 A.M. I went to my bike to go home. The front tire was flat as a pancake. I know - now - that you don’t just bring a bike inside on a cold day. If it’s cold and the tires are hot, they may puncture as the temperatures settle. Please don’t ask me how I got home that night.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Evil Trucks:

In my (relative) youth, I used to bicycle to and from work in the evening. Work was 3.4 miles from home, reached via either a high speed road with no sidewalks, or a parallel rural road (with no sidewalks). I preferred the rural road due to the almost total lack of traffic and dogs. There was a terrific hill on this road. One night I was pushing my way uphill home at about 2:00 A.M. when I heard a sound behind me: the loud, grinding motor sound of Evil Trucks.
Now I want to be perfectly clear about this: there was no doubt in my mind, there were several trucks coming uphill behind me and THEY WERE EVIL! I cycled as fast as I could to a turnoff, ducked into the bushes, and waited, heart pounding, while about four construction vehicles drove slowly by.
I waited until the sound of them had vanished ahead of me, and then proceeded after them. I did NOT want to catch up to them. After awhile I crested the hill. I could again hear the trucks. They had stopped next to a newly-built low income housing development. I wanted to turn around and go back, but that meant another six miles of biking at least. Instead I put my head down and zoomed past the evil trucks – and their evil people – as fast as I could. I was afraid they would try to stop me, but they didn’t.

At home, I could think of only one thing: why had I KNOWN they were evil? Why did my heart pound in fear? What was I afraid of? I thought a lot harder about this issue a week later, when I learned that the people in these trucks had come to steal a very expensive, very heavy water pump from in front of the low income housing development. It was actually too bad I’d been afraid to look at them. But now I knew: THEY WERE EVIL! How had I known that from the first? I cudgeled my brain, and I think I know the answer.
If the truckers were going to a big construction site to do something in the morning, they should have been on the parallel state road. Since they were on the rural road, they HAD to be going to a local site. What construction crew, what batch of heavy trucks, has to BE somewhere in a small town in the middle of the night? If a water main had broken in the middle of town, they would STILL have approached it via the state road.
I knew they were evil, because I knew at once that they had no good reason to be on the rural road.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

How DRM Punishes Listeners:

I’m going to bore you about DRM (Digital Rights Management) today. First, here’s a quick quiz: Arnold Able buys a brand new Van Zandt Sony CD and plays it on his computer. Bernie Beeble finds a pirated copy of the Van Zandt songs on the web and downloads them to play them. Sony certainly wants to punish these guys. Which one do they go after?

The answer is, they go after poor Arnold. When he puts his CD in the drive and plays the music, they install software that makes it easy for hackers to control his computer and delete its files, even if he has firewall and anti-virus software on his machine. Sony’s software will also prevent him from copying any digital music CD accurately by adding NOISE to the copy, even if it’s music Arnold wrote himself. Bernie gets a free ride unless Sony (or the RIAA) decides it’s worth it to sue him. The pirates who illegally ripped the music and made it available to Bernie are usually too hard to find, and won’t be pursued.

Ed Felton has written a fascinating and somewhat technical essay about how Digital Rights Management, which is supposed to prevent users from copying music, is instead used as a weapon among music manufacturers. This essay builds upon a theme at his web site, which is that CDs encumbered with DRM tend to punish the people who buy the CDs, but do hardly anything to stem the tide of serious music copying (which is done primarily by commercial pirates and people who do not buy, or know how to subvert, the DRM-laden CDs).

In this case, he speculates about the XCP DRM kit, which Sony included in a number of recent CDs. Sony was quite frustrated that its CDs could not be played in a controlled way in Apple iTunes. Apple however is uses its own DRM to keep other manufacturers out of iTunes, and when RealNetworks reverse-engineered iTunes in order to be compatible with it, Apple threatened them with a DMCA lawsuit, and then changed iTunes to be incompatible again.

Sony vented their frustration at their website:
Sony BMG wants music to be easily transferable to any device that supports secure music. Currently, music from our protected CDs may be transferred to hundreds of such devices, as both Microsoft and Sony have assisted to make the user experience on our discs as seamless as possible with their secure formats.
Unfortunately, in order to directly and smoothly rip content into iTunes it requires the assistance of Apple. To date, Apple has not been willing to cooperate with our protection vendors to make ripping to iTunes and to the iPod a simple experience.
If you believe that you should be able to easily move tracks …

And yet, amazingly, Sony’s XCP CDs actually contained the necessary software to hack into iTunes on an enduser’s computer, in order to be compatible with it. But Sony did not use that capability. Felton speculates that “SonyBMG wanted to avoid the public spectacle of two DRM companies fighting with each other. DRM advocates like to argue (against the evidence) that the only impact of DRM is to prevent infringement. When DRM companies fight over compatibility, this just emphasizes the role of DRM as a strategic tool companies use to lock other … out of markets, and that sets back the cause of DRM. Much better from SonyBMG’s viewpoint, perhaps, to maintain the fiction of one big happy DRM family, even if customers suffer.”

Oh and by the way, the software in XCP that’s capable of hacking into iTunes utilizes software stolen in violation of the LGPL. (This theft meant that no one had to spend many hours reverse engineering iTunes.) Apparently stealing software is okay, as long as it’s done to keep people from copying music.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

How Many Socks …

On Tuesdays I get up early to prepare for my radio broadcast. It’s dark when I open the bureau to take out a pair of socks, and I always think of this puzzle:
A man has twenty red socks and twenty green socks. It’s dark when he gets up. How many socks must he take out of the sock drawer to make sure he has a pair? (Let’s assume the rest of his clothes are black, so it doesn’t matter which color socks he wears.) Obviously the answer is: two. His socks are neatly wrapped up in matching pairs. He only needs to grab a balled-up sock pair. But that’s not the answer I discovered in the back of the puzzle book. Apparently this guy, just like me, simply tosses his socks into the sock drawer. So he has to grab three separate socks in the dark to make sure he has a pair of SOMETHING.

Now as it happens, almost all my socks are black. I buy wonderful, comfortable things called the “World’s Softest Sock.” I used to buy them in many colors, but as the washing machine gradually ate them up, I found I had many unmatched socks. So I gradually bought fewer and fewer colors, until now I only buy black. But I do, just, happen, to, have, one pair of very dark blue socks that refuse to disappear or develop holes. So I have to grab three socks and take them into the bright bathroom, to discern whether I have two dark blue socks or at least two black ones. Then I’m ready to roll.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Higher Educa$tion:

Many years ago, friends of my parents moved to a public school district I shall not name. They had two very difficult children. They selected a school system that got excellent academic results, hoping their kids would do well there. After a few months they found out (they thought) why the school system had such good records: the principal met with them and asked them to remove their kids from the school system.

So it is with great interest that I’m following the story of the Roslyn School system on Long Island, which seems to have a very high rank in something that lacks a name. Roughly seven employees have stolen a least four million – possibly more, according to press reports – from the school system. The auditors are being sued for not noticing things like an official taking a companion on Concord flights and staying in $1,800/night hotels. The developers of the accounting software are being sued for making software that was (it's alleged) an easy accomplice in concealing theft. And now you can read in the New York Times that school officials expect to be sued for mishandling the disaster, such that they cannot collect their losses from companies that insured them against theft.

When officials learned that Pamela Gluckin, assistant superintendent for business and finance, had stolen $250,000, they sought advice on how to handle her case, and decided to settle it quickly and quietly, especially since she offered to repay the money. That means they did not promptly notify the relevant insurance companies of the theft, and three of those companies now refuse to pay. Irony of Ironies: It was Ms. Gluckin who kept the policies in force, and had the board known she had actually stolen a million, not just $250,000, they might have acted differently.
Attempts to keep the whole thing quiet were unraveled by an anonymous letter. You can read a lot of the story here in Newsday. Here's my favorite quote from that story:
She was so efficient, school officials now say, that she found ways to exploit the system, inventing phony companies and using district credit cards to embezzle up to $1 million during her 12-year tenure.

She was so effective, officials charge, that some of her schemes went undetected even after the school board caught her the first time in 2002 when, rather than involving police, they forced her to retire a few months later after repaying $250,000.
And then there's this:
Within about a month, the board had its money back and written opinions from two lawyers that it was under no legal obligation to publicly disclose its findings or notify authorities.

"We were very concerned as to what our obligations were," said school board president William Costigan. "She was a trusted employee and we were confronted with the fact that she had embezzled money. We truly believed we did what was in the best interests of the school community."

It was, board members now concede, a costly miscalculation.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Chips among the Raisins:

Picture this: a great pile of cookies, some looking like oatmeal/raisin, some looking like chocolate chips. No matter how careful you are at picking out the chips, you won't get any chocolate if - in fact - the whole pile is really just oatmeal/raisin.

I know. I tried.

Friday, December 02, 2005

How Latka Gravas distinguished man from beast:

Here's how Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman in the TV show “Taxi”) distinguished man from beast:
Here’s how Latka Gravas distinguished man from beast:
“But in my religion, we believe that the only things that separate Man
from the animals are superstition and mindless ritual!”
He was wrong though. Insects are quite capable of mindless ritual.

Our Dog had Two Jobs:

Our lovely dog had two important jobs that she assigned to herself many years ago, when she came to live with us. One was obvious, you could never miss it: watchdog. The other was less obvious. In fact I watched her do it for years before I realized what she was up to. Here’s how it worked: I would come home to find a UPS box on the floor near the front door – my new coffee delivery, perhaps. Right away I would (as usual) walk the dog. As she passed the UPS package on the way to the front door, she would sniff and check out the box briefly but carefully. I never saw her check out any particular box more than once.
Years later it hit me – she had already seen these boxes before I got home! As a watchdog, she would have been all over the front of the house when my wife signed for the package. So why did I always see her check out each box? She was pointing it out to me, making sure I noticed any untoward change in the home environment. That was her second job.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

"a career in the weeklies" (Podcast rec #3):

I've been enjoying a career in the weeklies, a podcast soap opera set in Toronto. There are 18 episodes, and possibly another six on the way. The action concerns a weird "anti news" weekly, the brain child of a strange character named Johnny Whispers. The main character, Eric Shea, is lulled into editing the weekly and getting involved in escapades that range from hackneyed to wonderfully puzzling. Johnny Whispers and the third main cast member, Katrenka von Washing Machine, sound like bad actors with poor timing, but as you hear the same actors play other parts, you realize this group has given a lot of thought to how their character voices could sound; it's all intentional.

Read the promo on the main web page and try the podcast out. They have both hifi and lofi downloads. I've just started the second year, where Johnny W. makes a citizen's arrest of Baby Coco for winning a large lottery ticket (that is, for GAMBLING). It's quite unclear why Katrenka's not visible in camera pictures, or why she has pretended to go to Asia to model jeans. ("What kind of jeans?" "Oh, just jeans.")

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Could B Necszry:

Movie and TV actors mumble a lot, so I really appreciate the closed caption texts you find in most movies and programs. (I do wish that in comedy programs, the punch lines would appear onscreen AFTER they're spoken, not before.) But Live TV poses a serious problem to me, and even more so to people who cannot hear. The texts tend to run WAY behind the spoken words, five, ten seconds. And then to "catch up", whole sentences are skipped and the typist starts falling behind again.

When I saw the closed caption phrase "may not be necszry" during a football game, I realized there's a better way. Realtime typists shld b using SMS abbrevs 2 catch up. In fact maybe the networks should hire young SMS virtuousi to do all the realtime closed captions. With their technique & abbreviations, they can type faster and more succinctly.

A word about Goto-less programming:

A word about Goto-less programming:

Not so fast.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Stealthy Blog Comments:

I just discovered that my other blog, RealIDSucks, has been polluted with computer comments. The comments are designed to pump my ego, but I'm going to delete them anyway. I can resist “Great blog! You've got a real knack for writing the Precision Blogger, keep on rockin! I will definitely be checking in here again soon.” AND, I can resist the link to another web site that follows that comment. I can also resist such blandishments as “Now you've got me thinking the Precision Blogger. I really enjoyed your post about 'this post' ...”

I've complained to blogspot that I deserve a better tool to remove these comments. (A computer can add them pretty fast, but I get to delete them carefully, one at a time.) And I did - with apologies to humans - add 'word recognition', to make it harder for a computer to add comments.

But what really gets me is that I did not know these comments were happening. All blog comments are supposed to be forwarded to my gmail email account. If you have a gmail account, you know that Google does a pretty good job of deleting SPAM so that you never see it. Including, apparently, those computer comments.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Turing Test, Ha!

If you believe in separate championships for women (in chess, golf, etc.) then this headline from the New York Times will warm your heart: “Pinter to Miss Nobel Prize”
But sad to say, the story explains how Pinter, battling esphageal cancer, must pace himself. He will pick up the (sexless) Nobel Prize for literature, but will not “stay for the festiities”, as the Times puts it.

(I've always been impressed by the concept of the Turing Test, but I think a better trial of whether computers understand the world around them is whether they can make sense of understandably brief, unpunctuated headlines.)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The greatest actor (without a nose):

In the NYT review of the latest Harry Potter movie, Manohla Dargis announced that "Mr. Fiennes is an actor for whom a walk on the darker side is not just a pleasure, but liberation. His Voldemort may be the greatest screen performance ever delivered without the benefit of a nose." I mentioned this to one Avraham Yale, who responded, "Well, as long as Michael Jackson wasn't available..."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Claybourne (podcast recommendation #2):

Claybourne is a radio drama set in a remote, rural community in North New Zealand. It is FULL of atmosphere and mysterious matters. Its website says: "Claybourne was a sci-fi / supernatural thriller / soap opera radio drama, recorded and broadcast nationwide in New Zealand in the late 1990s. This is the podcast revival of Claybourne - and quite possibly the first podcast drama serial."

There are 96 six minute episdoes, of which more than 50 are already online. Production values are excellent, it's rather spellbinding, and the NZ and Maori accents are not too hard to understand. You can read text about the drama's setting here, but I suggest you listen to the first two episodes first. The website has a separate page for each episode, with a link (near the upper right) to the next episode. (Go to the archives to hear them all in order.)

Text-only adventures:

Do you remember Zork? Once upon a time MOST computer games were text-only games. You typed a command, the computer made a text response, and so on. A recent note at Slashdot explains that this genre still lives. The item begins "You are at the edge of a clearing with an impressive view of the mountains. A trail splits off toward some standing stones to the southwest, while the main road emerges from the forest to the east and continues westward down the hill, via a series of switchbacks." Slashdot's text suggests there are some diehards keeping an old, outdated thing going, but I found something quite different. I looked into some current text games, primarily because:
  • I figured they must (as ever) be easy to learn to play.
  • I've aways thought of this type of game as 'worksafe", easy to hide on your computer screen. Not that I would ever do such a thing.
Well I got a bit of a shock. The devotees of text-only games have been evolving the genre. There are several fancy engines that operate these games for you, and they look fairly snazzy onscreen, with quite a bit of graphic content. They almost look like computer games! Then I started reading the notes to one of these games, in which the author explained he had added some custom verbs, such as the ability to tell your character to 'think' in case your character knows more about a situation than you do. I looked at the overall interface and realized that text-only adventures have even stepped gingerly into the realm of computer games with steep learning curves! (But I would like to try one of these games if I ever have time.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Goodnight, Cig...

I don't think I need to explain the gentle, rhythmic, quieting allure of "Goodnight, Moon" to native English readers. The book jacket is undergoing a little surgery his year. The photograph of Hurd cheerily grasping a cigarette between the fingers of his right hand has been on the book for at least two decades, but now, due to the miracle of photo editing, the cigarette will disappear. You can make a case for this change:
Kate Jackson, the editor in chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said it only recently came to her attention, at a meeting to discuss how to publicize the book’s 60th anniversary in 2007. The company was about to reprint the hardcover and paperback editions, so "as a quick fix, we adjusted the photograph" to eliminate it, she said.

"It is potentially a harmful message to very young kids," Jackson said, "and it doesn’t need to be there."

Is it good to erase the cigarette? Here's what I think: George Santana said (something like this, the quote can be found with many variations): "Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." I say, if we erase history, we'll ALL be condemned to repeat it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mor about Rotkits. Rootkits.

I started discussing the vicious DRM that Sony software installs with some of its audio CDs here, on November 7. In an update, I referred, with an inspired error, to Sony's "Rotkit". Since Rootkits do tend to rot your computer, I'm going to stand by my new word. Don't buy CDs that come with Rotkits! (They will likely have the letters "DRM" on the cover somewhere.)

Life in a Cervical Collar:

A "Cervical Collar" is worn around the neck. It limits head movement somewhat, and tends to make me feel like there's one more garment I really ought to take off, each time I remove my coat. I'm living with a pinched nerve, as it happens. I was suffering alone, getting through my usual work and responsibilities despite some remarkable shoulder pains, when I happened to remark to my wife that I was really okay as long as I remembered not to move my head in certain ways. "Then why don't you wear a collar?" she asked.

Now the collar has two benefits:
  1. It prevents me from getting into some pain.
  2. Better yet, the collar brings me loads of sympathy.
No one knew I was suffering! Since putting on the collar I've been offered much kindness and useful advice.

The next time I have an ingrown toenail, I plan to wear the cervical collar again. (Around my neck.)
"Were you in an accident?" people will ask.
"No," but I hope to feel better soon."
"Well good luck then, I hope you feel better."
And of course I will.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pointing the finger at Microsoft and the Antivirus companies:

A few days ago, I asked why Microsoft was not responding vigorously to the discovery that Sony was subverting their operating system to keep people from copying CDs. Bruce Schneier, security expert, has now written eloquently on this subject, also pinning the anti-virus companies to the mat. His article is a clear, non-technical summary of what Sony was up to and how the world is responding to it. And I think he raises all the right questions. (Here’s another source for the same article, from Schneier’s blog.)

If you’ve played recent CDs from any of the major music businesses on your computer lately, you may be at risk from this software. You can find instructions for checking this spyware here, in Ed Felton’s blog. In addition to leaving your computer open to all sorts of hack attacks, the Sony software won’t even let you copy a music CD that you own outright. It inserts noise during the copy process, even if you recorded your own composition and you’re now copying it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Time Flies:

This is not a post about who likes eating arrows. Rather, it's about a SkyScan Clock. The clock is billed as an "atomic" clock that sets itself to accurate time via a radio signal. The manufacturer's website points to a government web site where we learn that it's not really Atomic. An "Atomic" clock will keep incredibly accurate time based on an oscillating atom, Cesium maybe; such clocks do not need to check a radio time signal. Most radio-driven clocks are not also atomic. But there IS a radio signal that clocks can sync to, and that's what Skyscan does.

Clocks that keep such accurate time are less expensive than ever before, and also less necessary (your cell phone does the same thing, and will usually do it better). But the idea of the Skyscan is appealing, and I had the pleasure of relying on one in a building I often frequent. But I stopped relying on it when I saw another SkyScan clock - the same model - that had a different time, three minutes faster. And I felt like relying on it even less when I noticed that the hour hand pointed to the middle of the hour when the minute hand was on the twelve.

Now the manufacturer can explain all that. Low batteries, or a clock positioned such that it has trouble getting the radio signal, leads to inaccurate time. Unfortunately the clock doesn't TELL you it's having this trouble (I think it should display a bright red warning), so you better check it against (sigh) another clock. And of course the hands can get out of position, that just means they need an adjustment, which the manufacturer will do for you if you don't feel up to it.

Yesterday I glanced at that clock and my brain had a hard time focusing on it. I looked again. Oh no! The minute hand was going round and round the clock very rapdily, faster than a normal second hand (the second hand did not move at all). The hour hand was moving in sync with the minute hand, and the clock appeared to be searching for a moment in time that simply did not exist, the "fifth of never" perhaps. We put the poor clock out of its misery by temporarily removing its batteries. I think I'll rely on my cell phone.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Another software war story: Good meeting notes.

In 1982 I was managing several software projects at an "office software" company. I worked closely with the (marketing) product manager for these products; we had a good relationship. At this time, one manager in corporate headquarters held life-or-death approval over many of our decisions, even micromanaging a lot of user interface issues. So one day Tom and I drove to HQ to meet wth her and see if we could persuade her to our point of view on at least a few matters.
She swept into the meeting wearing a beautful fur coat. When I commented on it, she said, "I bought it the moment I discovered my husband was cheating on me." Nonetheless she was in a good mood. We talked for two hours, went over all our projects, and she gave in on a number of points. Then we got back into my car and headed back to our office. "Tom," I said, "I'll send out a memo to you, to her and my management about her decisions."
"You'll do no such thing!" said Tom. I glanced at him in puzzlement.
"Didn't you notice?" he said, "During the meeting she took no notes of her own. She just shot from the hip. We're free to do absolutely anything we want now. Pretty soon she'll have no recollection what she ageed to."
So we did that, and we got away with it. Tom was right.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Really Bad Carmen:

We know, because we have over 100 years of recordings, that classical music technique has greatly improved over time. Ability and polish that we take for granted today was once unheard of. And orchestral performance is amazingly improved. Orchestras today play much familiar music, but in the past, most music was given few performances by musicians totally unfamilar with it.
In modern rehearsals, the conductor can direct the orchestra to start at "letter D" or at "measure 140", and everyone can start playing some difficult passage together. Rehearsal letters and measure numbering is a relatively recent invention. In Beethoven's time, there was no easy way to start everyone together in the middle, making rehearsal of any kind problematic. Which brings us, finally, to the Opera Carmen.

Bizet's opera, whose music is still so fresh and wonderful today, flopped miserably in its first two runs. Anytime you find yourself enjoying Carmen, ask yourself how those first French audiences failed to catch on to it.

Now it's true that the plot was shocking for its time. And the French were not used to such vigorous music. And maybe it opened in the wrong venue - the Opera Comique - a place for familiy-oriented entertainment. And a lot of the Carmen we enjoy was not present in the first runs. The "recitatives" that string the big numbers together, where a lot of the plot is gently and beautifully sung, were not composed by Bizet, but added later by a friend, Ernest Guiraud. At first those parts were merely spoken. (Today the use of this added music is somewhat controversial. See the wikpedia for lots more fascinating info about the first performances.)

But even after taking all that into account, I'm sure of one thing: those initial perfomances must have been awful. Really awful. I imagine rhythms obscured by instruments playing off the beat; thousands of wrong notes; hundreds of missed entrances; feeble sounds from timid singers. If you ever have a chance to attend, say, a middle school perfomance of Carmen, you'll probably be hearing something a lot better than was heard at the Opera Comique in 1875. Gosh, it must have been really, really bad.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Howard Stern's Worst Nightmare. Perhaps.

Howard Stern's struggles against limitations imposed by the FCC and broadcast radio have seemed like a Gulliver fighting Brobdingnagian giants. But now, moving to Sirius Satellite Radio, Stern is about to battle the Lilliputians. And there are a lot of them. And they might just tie him up.

Stern has demonstrated a remarkable ability to push the edge of the socially acceptable on Radio and TV, while retaining the interest of a large, almost main-stream audience. His new opportunity at Sirius Radio gives him a chance to push against a whole new set of rules, and some people feel that his new-found freedom will enable him to draw large audiences away from FCC-regulated conventional radio and TV.

But if Stern is looking back at his old competition, he's in for a shock. Much of his future competition will come from: Podcasting. (I'm using this currently hip term to refer to people who "broadcast" by making their own audio or video programs that people can download from the web.)

So in this corner we have a famous personality/actor/producer backed by tons of publicity, with a big following and a big audience. In the other corner we have what seems to be annoying static – thousands of amateurs, many of whom have no idea what they're doing, and no easy way to advertise and connect with their potential audience, IF such audience is out there. Here's why these people will give Stern competition:

  1. Just as IBM could not compete with the hundreds of companies that tried out thousands of creative ways to improve on the original IBM PC, so Stern will not be able to compete with thousands of competitors. While Stern has time to try a few ideas, they will try out everything. (By "Everything", I do not mean that they will just out-smut Stern. I expect creative people to try out innuendo-ish ideas at every point of the spectrum, finding all sorts of new explicity-points that large audiences find they can enjoy.)
  2. Podcasters will gradually connect with their relatively mainstream audiences. It took just a few years to connect people whose blogs a hundred thousand want to read with hundreds of thousands of readers, and the Web will figure out how to make similar connections for the upcoming audio and video auteurs. There are already many Podcast directories trying to fill this need.
  3. None of the Podcasters has to "beat" Stern to become his nightmare. As a group, they threaten to splinter and diminish his audience. And if listeners get bored with some of these competitors, there will always be new fresh voices to take their place.

Look out, Howard! Something new and awful is gaining on you...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Spam Poetry:

I just received an Email that slipped through my spam filter by including a lot of almost reasonable text. After telling me to go to a web site I would never touch, the email continued (not quite poetry, not quite totally hypnotic):

I don't miss jumping for three or four weeks..
Doesn't Sarah remember shouting slowly?.

Then came THE PARENT. (Now, you need to know, I love the parents of the children I teach.) This parent arrived on the scene with her son who had Down's Syndrome. She wanted a piece of software with REAL photos, one on each screen with the word in text and the word spoken aloud. I looked at her and thought to myself, 'B-O-R-I-N-G. The child will NEVER respond to that.'

John was enjoying sleeping near the tree.. i need to get a pedicure. my feet smell and itch. She has disliked cooking for a day or two.. tomorrow i will wash my hair and go to the salon. Those janitors aren't missing sleeping right now.. They have loved dancing.. Wasn't Dick missing talking on the street?. Were those pilots practicing praying?. Bye,

(These texts are probably cribbed from fairly random web sites. I found the original of the paragraph about the PARENT here.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A technical Writer who Read Minds:

I once managed a group of writers and support people for a large, vaporware computer system. (In the software biz, "vaporware" refers to software that simply does not exist, despite claims, demonstrations, schedules, delivery notices, reviews, progress reports and even sales to the contrary.) At one point when it seemed possible the developers where actually going to write some code, I was authorized to hire another technical writer for a desperately needed user manual. One engaging middle-aged man I interviewed addressed a common concern. Since the developers had written nothing down, he might have to spend hours talking to them to figure out how the system might work, to document it.

Now you might think that's a good idea. In fact sometimes the user manual is written first, and no code is designed until the user manual makes good sense. But in this more common case, the development mamagers were very jealous of their developers' time, and would begrudge very little of it to any writer for any reason.

"But that's Okay," my interviewee explained, "I can read their minds and figure out what they're doing without talking to them!" It won't surprise you to know that I reacted to this statement by thinking: (if he can read people's minds, why can't he read my total disbelief at what he's saying?) Well in fact he launched into an explanation of how his mind-reading might work. In the process he drew similes from classical music, religion and humor, mentioning ideas I agreed with in just about all my main areas of interest. And he'd never met me before. I was quite impressed.

I did not hire him for that job. My feeling was that on a totally chaotic vaporware project, with most people acting quite irrationally already, if he COULD read what the developers were thinking he'd go crazy. A few years later I was on a different project where I really wanted to give this guy's skills a try, but unfortunately I was no longer able to find him.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Psssst! Microsoft!

Why hasn't Microsoft issued a statement about Sony's DRM software? Do they think it's acceptable or not? Why isn’t every techy reporter in the country hounding MS for a statement? MS's silence has been defeaning.

I'd like to hear them say that such software should be removed at once, but perhaps MS is too deeply involved with enforcing DRM to take that position.

Microsoft has NEWS pages, where such a statement might appear. Check out their main web page, or their security & privacy news page, or their legal news page ... NOTHING ( as of November 7).

(Background, if you’re not familiar with this story. The above link explains in great technical detail how, when you place a Sony CD in your Windows computer that enforces control over copying audio, software is loaded that takes partial control of your machine and is very difficult to remove. The software is said to create security holes, and Sony does not really explain to you what it’s installing. A number of virus and hack attacks on computers use software techniques similar to this software. Alex Haberman has a somewhat less technical explanation in Ed Felton’s blog, here.)

Oh, and just my two cents-worth: if you think it might be reasonable for Sony to install software on your computer to monitor your actions in order to prevent you from misusing their CDs, please imagine what your computer would be like if fifteen different companies each loaded software on your PC to do something similar. Would there be any CPU cycles left over for you?

Update, Nov 10: Yesterday Microsoft issued a statement. I don't know how to find it at their website, but here's a report by Paul F. Roberts at eWeek, brought to my attention by Mike Masnick of Tech dirt. The title of this piece is "Microsoft 'Concerned' by Sony DRM," and clearly MS is temporizing, although they do say (according to Roberts) that the security of its customers' information is a "top priority".

Update, Nov 14:Well, they did it. MS announced their anti-spyware tool will remove rotkits. Good for them!

That's Unheard Of:

Are you familiar with: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” If you are, you've enjoyed the pendantry of trying to "fix" a sentence with a trailing preposition. (By the way, the original may not have been coined by Churchill, and the original form is uncertain, as discussed in a web page called Churchill on Prepositions). Also, I believe pedants will agree that 'will' is correct in the above epigram, not 'shall'. Anyway, here's a sentence that might be fascinatingly hard to fix:
That's unheard of.

Let's start with the Yoda-ese:
Unheard of, is that.

Obviously we've made no improvement. The "of" governs nothing and still hangs at the end of a clause. Our next attempt should get you thrown out of any Writer's Seminar:
Of that, is unheard.

Now here's a real fix, but we have to abandon "unheard":
Of that, nothing's been heard.

The crux of the matter, I believe, is that "unheard" is an unusual word. It doesn't mean quite the same as "not heard". It can be used in some, but not all of the contexts where "not heard" works. "Unheard" is just one step up from an unword.

In search of Podcasts, first recommendations:

The term "Podcasting" refers losely to making one's own radio broadcasts, in the form of audio files that we can download. At least a few thousand people are creating podcasts in English. You can search for them by category, and there are several podcast directory sites to help you find what you might possibly want, such as Podcast Alley and (which is actually a directory of podcast directories). Some of the music services, and some podcast sites, make it particularly easy for you to get their programs. In some cases you can "subscribe" and then you'll get weekly or daily downloads to your mp3 player.

Initially I thought that looking into podcasts would be a terrific waste of time. When I want to find a new blog to read, I quickly scan random blogs (or everything on somebody's blogroll), maybe a hundred of them. I can't see doing that with audio, you really have to LISTEN and it would take far too long to scan many podcasts.

But on the other hand I like to listen to audio books as well as music. I recently found a website called IT Conversations, whose rather modest goal is to place audio recordings of all (I'm not kidding) conferences online. They also record many interviews, and they've recorded conversations with many of my heroes in the software business, including
Larry Lessig, Bruce Schneier, Paul Graham and Joel Spolsky. That whetted my apetite, so I started browsing the directories and looking for things I might enjoy. Quite by accident I quickly found a remarkably good humorist, Cayenne Chris Conroy, whose weekly half hour show, Teknikal Diffikulties, I really enjoy. It's clear that a decent script is written before recording begins; the production values are good; the humor is amusing and delivered, in a variety of voices, with excellent timing. Conroy is whimsical, which - I'm afraid - particularly appeals to me.

I now have a false feeling that it will NOT take long to find some more enjoyable shows. We'll see how long it takes me to get disillusioned. Meanwhile I'm adding a Podcast Roll to this blog (You'll see it at left above the blogroll). IT Conversations and Teknikal Diffikulties are its first two members. (I'll only recommend podcasts that we can download free and play on any old mp3 player.) Although I'm not ready to recommend any more podcasts yet, I have definitely enjoyed sampling some others. For some unknown reason, most of the ones I like are produced in the midwest.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Unexpected Implications of Software:

In about 1990 I was shocked to discover that Intel ships software products with no warrantee. They do not even warrant that a program will work if used in the routinely expected way. Their position is that there is no "expected way" to use a software product, and what one person thinks is a natural use, a team of 100 testers may never have noticed. And when several software products interact (by plan or accident) there's no telling how they might affect each other.

It took me awhile to see it, but I believe Intel was right. Which brings us to two of this week's remarkable news stories.

First, a systems internals guru named Mark Russinovich carefully analyzed what happens when you insert a Digital-Rights-Management Sony audio CD into your computer. These CDs intend to restrict you from making what Sony regards as illegal uses of the music. He found that the CDs install what some might call "malware" often used by hackers to control systems. You can read about his discoveries here, in detail. In brief, the software modifies the Windows operating system at a low level in order to conceal files on disk and programs that are running, from all but the most astute users. Sony's not the only music publisher doing this kind of thing, and it's going to be a big story, expecially since Sony apparently does not get your permission to modify your system this way (possibly publishable in California by $10,000 per infraction). Worse, their software apparently makes it easier for others to add their own "cloaked" software to your system, once the Sony software's in place. But that's not important now.

Second, there's the company Blizzard, which operates the massively online multi-player World of Warcraft game (aka "WoW"). Blizzard also puts software on your computer to watch and possibly control what you're doing. Their software may fall into the category of Spyware. Blizzard insists its "Warden" software is a good thing. They are trying to prevent you from cheating at WoW by running programs to give you an unfair advantage over people playing manually. You can read about that here. It's not clear whether Blizzard is wearing a white hat or a black hat, but that's not important now.

So what happens if you play Sony's DRM music AND go online to play WoW? Well the Sony software makes it easy for you to cloak your "unfair" programs that give you a gaming advantage so that WoW's Warden software can't see them. There's your unexpected consequence.

Just for a moment, please try to imagine every computer in your home and company running cloaked software like this from fifteen different companies at once to make sure you do nothing illegal. You'd have only a few cycles of CPU time left for yourself. You'd have to buy MUCH more powerful computers. Now that's important.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Laser Printer Color Dots, and Publius, the thief:

When I was living in a college dorm - way before the invention of the word processor - we appreciated the communal pencil sharpener in the hall near the bulletin board. One day the sharpener disappeared, replaced by a type-written note. (There were electric typewriters in those days, but most people, including this thief, did not have one.) The note explained that the thief had stolen the sharpener for his private use and had no intention of giving it back. It was signed: Publius.

I added a note below his, in which I pointed out all the irregularities in his typewriter. The 'e' printed slightly below the line, there was a bit missing in every 't', and so on. I suggested that we keep an eye on any local typescript and we would soon identify Publius. The Pencil sharpener returned to its place the next day.

Today we have have incredibly high quality, accurately machined laser printers, mass-produced by the million. Surely, if Publius had printed his note on a modern color laser printer, he could have rejoiced in his anonymity while even adding a small naughty picture to his signature. Yet it turns out his printout would not be as anonymous as he thought. Read all about it here at the EFF website. Many color printers sneakily print their serial number (and more) in microdots on both sides of every page they print. Quote:
The U.S. Secret Service admitted that the tracking information is part of a deal struck with selected color laser printer manufacturers, ostensibly to identify counterfeiters. However, the nature of the private information encoded in each document was not previously known. "We've found that the dots from at least one line of printers encode the date and time your document was printed, as well as the serial number of the printer," said EFF Staff Technologist Seth David Schoen.
I can imagine George Orwell shaking his head and saying "Wish I'd thought of that."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I love my aural memories:

My memory doesn't work terribly well, or at least my personal memories are poorly organized. I'm not much for visual memory either. But there are sounds that evoke entire persons to me, and I love it when those sounds drop into my mind. Sometimes I remember a particular not-quite-right pronunciation of my name, and then the beloved uncle, whose first language was not English and who pronounced it that way, comes vividly to mind, his looks, his speech rhythms, things he said, things about him I then proceed to remember.

When we're singing at religious services, we get to one word every week that one old man always, always mispronounced, singing confidently and loud: an incorrect consonant, producing a striking effect. He passed away more than thirty years ago but with that word, he left me a message. And remember how he talked, an issue he cared about, how he usually looked.

When I'm thinking, if my thoughts utilise a word beginning with Y, "yellow" perhaps, I'll mentally change the sound to a J (as in Jellow) and my thoughts detour to the two Cuban emigrees, both very interesting people (here's one of them), whom I worked with in 1970's.

I look foward to my aural memories.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Coffee Loves Crevices (2):

I blogged here about my frustration trying to clean all the bits of coffee out of my simple Italian espresso-maker. Recently I visited an Italian friend who had exactly what I wanted sitting on his stove: a similar coffee-maker that was round, not octagonal. I told him I knew I could get that shape really clean.

“You’re not supposed to clean your octagonal espresso maker, “ he said, “You’re only supposed to wipe it. Coffee residue builds up over the years, giving the coffee a deeper, more sophisticated flavor.

“My machine is round because it makes cappuccino, and the milk has to be cleaned out. In fact the manufacturer’s instructions say ‘this machine has to be cleaned carefully, unlike our other products.’”

So now I’m not frustrated by my octagonal coffee-maker anymore. But my wife scoffs. She’s sure this “sophistication” junk is just an excuse to be lazy.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Current Dear Abby, comment #1:

I enjoy reading advice columns, and I particularly enjoyed the original Dear Abby. I'm often less satisfied with the advice given by her daughter Jeanne Phillips. Take the first letter in this column, for example. Don't you wish she had added a sentence like this to her answer: Oh, and by the way, just how did you happen to find out your wife had posted a profile in a chat room on a public Web site?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Shave and an Earphone - two bits:

I was listening to a podcast on my mp3 player, but it was time to shave. I went into the bathroom, paused my mp3 player, picked up my electric razor and began to shave. My earphones remained on my ears.

Now - this is definitely a generational thing - I KNEW there was something wrong about shaving while wearing earphones. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my parents would have known exactly why it was wrong, and I could feel it was wrong. Shaving has got to be one of the most boring regular activities in the world, so as I shaved I tried to figure out exactly what social convention I was breaking. But note: I did not remove those earphones ...

After awhile I figured it out. The earphones, by partially blocking my ears, were preventing me from hearing some of the nasty noise produced by my razor. By protecting my ears, they were actually good for me! (I doubt I'll shave like that regularly though.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

A non-psychotropic vulnerability to addiction (?)

Clive Thompson recently published a column in Wired about a fascinating phenomenon: It’s quite common, after getting addicted to a computer game, to suddenly break free of that addiction, go cold turkey and stop playing. Thompson (whose Blog is here) speculates about what makes it possible for game addiction to release its hold so quickly and easily.

I wonder, when scientists understand how games can release their hold on us, whether they might figure out how to place seriously addicted people in a similar artificial framework, enabling them to intensively experience and then genuinely escape their addiction sickness.

Thompson and I corresponded briefly, and he asked a related question: Are any games considered "good" that are not *also* "addictive"? I.e. do we ever play a game, think it's really superb and amazing, but without getting sucked into the "need to play" mindset? Or is good play so inherently seductive that it always has this addictive property?

Now most people do not become addicted to most games, so the question here is whether there are good games that practically never addict people. I thought about this, and I have – I believe – a painful insight to share with you: People will become addicted to any activity that differs from the real world the way games do, to the slightest degree. Games set up artificial rules, esthetics and/or goals. Here are some other examples of non-game activities that fit my suggested similarity to games. You can think of hundreds of others, and we know people get addicted them:

  • playing music
  • chopping wood
  • being absolutely correct about good manners
  • buying shoes
  • ballroom dancing
  • collecting comic books
  • walking or running for long distance or speed goals
  • modeling large chunks of the real world with Lego pieces
  • correcting other people's grammatical mistakes
  • writing letters.

Perhaps the simple decision to abide by rules of behavior or evaluation that differ in an abstract way from the natural world places us at some risk of addiction.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

It would have been a Strange Recital:

If you take lessons to learn classical singing technique, you study a number of ways to make your voice resonate more clearly and pleasantly. One thing you learn is to relax and open the back of your throat. Your uvula rises slightly and your larynx drops a little. Teachers demonstrate to their pupils the value of this relaxation - and the fact that they're not doing it - by pressing down gently on the pupil's larynx. It's often amazing how much this pressure improves the student's vocal sound.

My father imagined giving a serious recital in New York City, at Carnegie Hall perhaps, maybe a Schubert song cycle. He would sing, standing in front of the piano while his accompanist sat on the inevitable piano bench, page-turner on his left. Throughout the recital, my father's singing teacher would be right next to him, pressing gently down on his larynx...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dissing the “Desktop Metaphor”:

I think we’d all be better off if we stopped taking the “Desktop Metaphor” for granted.

Virtually all GUI computers display a “desktop” of choices, and when you hunt for your icons and windows, you're expected to think of them as lying on your desk. Who has ever justified this metaphor? In real life, desktops tend to be a mess. Computer desktops emulate that mess. In 1978, one Jerry Beckman suggested that your main computer screen should look like an office. You would furnish this office with a desk, table, cabinets (with labeled drawers), a closet, whatever suited you; and then you would file data and applications in sensible places. This metaphor would probably make it a lot easier to remember where you put things on your computer. You could go further and design a “home” with separate rooms for each different activity you bring to your computer.

Can't a few experiemntal psychologists find a more natural and productive metaphor for software to embrace? Probably they've done that already, and we computer desginers just won't listen. (See my post yesterday for a similar idea applied to documents.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

A new Shape for Documents:

I read on Slashdot that a certain Barry Norton has proposed we free documents "from the traditions of hierarchy and paper." Norton believes we would be able to write documents that are "far more powerful, with deep and rich new interconnections and properties - able to quote dynamically from other documents and buckle sideways to other documents, such as comments or successive versions; able to present third-party links; and much more."

One of Norton's ideas, clearly, is to let documents take on special structure appropriate to what they're about, but here's another way to apply the idea: documents could be modeled on familiar buildings, even clusters of buildings. Since we understand the structure of common types of buildings, we would know at once where to look in a building-shaped document for specific parts of it. Footnotes and references might be in closets. A novel might use the house model and place some of its parts in the living room, bedrooms, etc. A research paper might be structured like a library or museum. A muck-racking journalistic report might connect the threads of its investigation through sewers to interconnected buildings.

There's a lot to say in favor of using the structure of familiar buildings to make structured information more memorable. Many years ago I came across a similar concept that applies to our computer screens. I'll describe that in my next posting, on Wednesday night or Thursday this week.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

If they answer the phone, what can I say?

Have you ever called a store to find out if they're open? When they pick up the phone and say Hello, it's hard to ask "Are you open?" since it's now SO likely that they are. So here's what to say when they answer the phone:
"How late will you be open?"
That's the no-embarrassment question. And it even allows them to say, "Actually, we're closed," if they're just there to do inventory.

Friday, October 21, 2005

From Desk top to Mountain top:

One of the biggest revolutions in computers that I can imagine would be: genuine three-dimensional displays. Replace that flat LCD screen with a projected, realistic reality, and everything we know about computers communicating with users would change.

Of course we're not just talking about change for the better. Imagine an error message box that seems to fly right at you, stopping just in front of your face, to get your attention. Or the first lawsuit by someone with a fear of heights, who almost fell into their computer when an enormous pit opened in front of them onscreen.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Important, if you drive with a manual clutch:

Does your car have a manual clutch? Mine does, and I've alwys started the car by pressing the clutch pedal down and then turning the key.

But now I know something important: if your clutch is entirely broken, pressing the pedal may not get you out of gear. Unknown to me, my clutch had stopped working. When I turned the key, the car moved forward towards the cement wall in the parking garage, two feet away. (I hit the brake in time.) Now, I'm careful to shift into neutral before starting the car.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tip your gas jockey:

Those trips to the gas station have never been more painful, have they? I remember the good old days when I knew that if I handed over a twenty after filling up, I was sure to get change. Well now's the time to tip your gas station attendant. Hand over an extra dollar bill after you pay for your gas. You'll make some people who are used to dealing with angry and upset customers remarkably happy.

Monday, October 17, 2005

About a small object:

People at the summer camp I attended played the following game: Someone gave you an object that you hung around your neck until you figured out what it was. It might take you minutes, hours or days. This game gave me a special appreciation for small special-purpose objects, whether obvious or abstruse.
I'm fascinated by the little round stainless steel seived basket that holds coffee grounds in a fancy espresso machine. I've blogged before about the curse of every coffee machine, that coffee stains everything and it's worthwhile to hunt down and clean off every bit of stain to make the best coffee.

The little stainless steel basket is easy to clean and does not get coffee-stained. It has to be the most lovable part of any coffee-maker.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Harriet Miers - it's obvious...

I generally stay away from politics, but havng figured out this Harriet Miers thing I feel I ought to explain it to you. The Bush camp obviously figured it would be poor form to try to succeed with two Supreme Court nominations in a row, so they have to lose one or two before presenting their real next candidate. This current nomination is so perfectly in character for our president that it's not totally, immediately obvious that he's trying to lose it.

There was an alternative way to lose a nomination: Our President could have nominated a fine centrist sort of judge eminently qualified for the job and then relaxed while an awesome cohort of special interest groups shot him down. But of course there was that risk - you know - that another fine, qualified judge might actually get onto the court.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Supersizing versus the old-fashioned way:

In these days of supersized meals and snacks, I remember a different sort of restaurant meal. My father complained unhappily, long ago, about a restaurant he visited on vacation. It had been recommended by several friends. Yes, the food was excellent, but it was pricey and the portions were very small. After returning home he learned that he could have asked for seconds (and even thirds) of everything, at no additional cost.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Only decency in reading:

From an associated new release:
Rep. Jonsemil Barkentof of TexArkana introduced a bill today to apply
sensible standards of decency to all printed material. "Let's get this
law passed," he says, "and then let's see what we can do about all those

The new law would require all printed matter to avoid prurient and
indecent words according to local community standards. Authors,
book-owners and publishers would be fined $500,000 for a first offense,
and also forced to erase all the offending words from every available
copy. Asked whether digital words should be counted as printed material,
Rep. Barkentof said "We'll get to that next!" Experts estimate that a
typical local library might be fined upwards of $680 million as
soon as the law passes.

This reporter asked the Representative for a list of words likely to be ruled
offensive. Remarkably almost all of them have appeared in this newspaper. We would list those words here, but the newspaper seems to
have adopted a new policy today...

I'm being ridiculous of course, but not as ridiculous as I'd like.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Only skin deep. Only skin deep!

Real Tech News has picked up the story of stars whose careers will be RUINED by HDTV because they'll look bad in the extra clear closeups. I know HDTV will end a few careers, but I'm highly skeptical of this general concern. Here are three alternatives; I like the first two better, the third not at all:
  1. Acting! Stars who can act don't have to look perfect. Not in 2005.
  2. At last, we'll admit what people naturally look like. For years, we've been trying to look as good as a carefully airbrushed photograph. HDTV may usher in a decade of honesty about how people look.
  3. What an opportunity for the cosmetic industry to invent new kinds of coverup products!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

We like you just the way HE was:

It’s looking more likely that a human will be cloned someday. Suppose that as you grew up, you discovered that you were a clone. What would you do? (I would sue. Somehow. Somebody!)

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Curse of the Futile Web Search:

The web is wonderful when ye search and ye find. It's beyond awful when your attempts to search are drowned in heaps of distracting garbage that conceal the scraps of info you desire. I'm venting...

I joined the NationalGeographic/IBM genographic Project. They've analyzed my cheek swab and given me some information about my deep ancestry. In order to understand what they've told me, to be able to assess whether there's any validity to it, and to be able to trace my ancestor's travels, I've got to bone up on a bunch of biological/heredity/DNA terminology and analysis procedures. So I tried some web searches.

Here's the painful part: all of the hits that looked promising pointed right back to the basic information I got from National Geographic. I've seen the same travel map and the same too brief explanation a dozen times. The people who've already received THEIR analyses from N.G. have utterly polluted the web space writing about their results. I can't get past them to any find real source material.

Oh well. There's always the library and the university...

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Coffee Loves Crevices:

I have one of these simple, inexpensive Italian coffeemakers. I put it away when I got rather snobby about coffee, but recently I took it out and used it a few times. Like the very expensive espresso machines, it forces steam through grounds to make coffee. The water starts in the bottom. The coffee grounds go into a basket in the middle. You set it on the stove and boil the water. Steam passes upwards and collects in the top as coffee. Then it starts to boil and ruin its taste unless you’re really on the ball. But if you catch the coffee as soon as it rises to the top, you’ve got decent espresso.

In one way, this appliance did better than my more expensive espresso machine. I’ve been flavoring my coffee (as I grind it) with cardamom pods or anise seeds. This little coffeemaker brings out the aroma of the seeds wonderfully, a great drinking pleasure. But then it’s time to clean the pot.

You may know this already: ANY kind of coffeemaker works better if it’s really clean. Old bits of coffee degrade the flavor. And coffee collects EVERYWHERE when you make it. If you clicked on the URL above, you may have noticed the octagonal shape. Well that shape produces many crevices and hard to reach surfaces, and coffee collects in them all. It’s a tough, tough, clean, and I think I’ll be happy to go back to my more cleanable expensive espresso machine.

You know what? Those things don’t have to be octagonal. I’ll keep looking, but I want this gadget to be round and inexpensive.

Edited to add: Surprise, this coffee-maker was made hard-to-clean on purpose. read about it here.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Universally misplaced cursor keys:

I learned in the early 1980’s that actual experiments had determined an ideal layout for cursor keys, and boy does this make sense: three keys in a line, with the fourth key placed BELOW (not above, as is nearly universal) the other three. That lower key is handy for your thumb, and if you try it, you'll find your fingers are more relaxed than in the up-arrow-above-the-others layout. Just try to buy a keyboard built that way.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

When you reply to an email, do you edit the quoted part of the message?

Sometimes an email becomes a “thread”, sent back and forth and commented on by several people, while all the previous exchanges become "quotes" at the end (or worse, the beginning) of each new email. The quotes are handy if you forget what it was all about, but usually no one reads them ever, they just multiply. So, do you ever decide to edit them for succinctness?

A little voice may tell you not to change what someone else wrote, but you can make nice “…” marks to be honest about your surgery. Of course, when you notice that one of the quotes of your OWN text says something really stupid, you’ll just fix that without any edit marks, right?
And, I confess, I often fix other people’s spelling and grammar when I quote them.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Enforcing Hotel Privacy:

Have you had the experience of putting privacy sign on your doorknob at a hotel, and then they ignore it, come in and make up your room? My last hotel used a technique that seems a bit hokey to me, but it really ought to work: you stick the privacy sign right into the slot for the magnetic card to open your door. The privacy notice seems precariously held in place, but you know that a cleaning person is certain to notice it! They have to take it out to put their own card in and open the room.
(They made up my room anyway. Argh!)

A thousand movies in the palm of your hand- at what price?

Holographic storage, and other kinds of optical storage are inching closer to practicality. Optical storage offers the prospect of much, much greater data density, and much faster access to the data. Perhaps in ten years you will be able to buy an optical device that fits in the palm of your hand and contains 1,000 complete movies. What should the purchase price BE for such an item, considering that it might be easily mass-produced? It seems unreasonable to sell it for the retail value of all the movies, perhaps $30,000.

When CDs first became ubiquitous there was a similar issue with software. Many useful programs were smaller, and CDs could be sold with 200 programs on them. Columnist John Dvorak considered how to price these things and recommended the following rule: assume that a consumer will eventually use about 5% of what's on the CD, and therefore sell it for 1/200th of its retail value.

Since then, other practical solutions have emerged, for example:

(1) Sell a mass of items on CD, but in a "locked" form, such as shareware demo software. The consumer eventually pays retail to unlock the full capabilities of each item that is seriously used.

(2) Magnificent BLOAT! Programs (and also movies) come with larger files now, making it harder to invent the device that will store 1,000 of them. Movies come with higher resolution (more data), outtakes, commentary, multiple languages, all designed to fill up the available storage.

It's quite interesting that the same cannot be done for songs. Although they could be distributed in higher fidelity, hardly any consumer has the ears and equipment to hear the difference. Eventually bands will release multiple performances of songs together. (Jazz afficionados appreciate multiple takes, and good radio jazz hows will often play the "other" performances that were not released after a studio recording session.) The only other thing to try (I suspect) is to make songs considerably longer. But Western Civilization seems to have preferred (for hundreds of years) songs that are either two to five minutes long, or songs that have a repeating melody for each of many verses, or MacArthur Park.