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.")