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Week of 8 May 2006

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Monday, 8 May 2006
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09:40 - Barbara is getting ready to leave on a bus tour up to Michigan with her parents. For the first time, I think I've convinced her to leave her beloved Pentax 35mm SLR bodies at home and take only digital cameras. Her primary camera is the Pentax *ist DL with two zoom lenses that cover a 35mm equivalent of about 27mm to 300mm. As backup, she'll take the little Concord 5345z point-and-shoot pocket camera, which is only about the size of a thick deck of cards, but takes surprisingly good images.

C|Net reprints a New York Times article entitled Someone has to pay for TV--but who? My first reaction was to wonder why anyone should pay for the crap the commercial networks run. Barbara watched the penultimate episode of Left Wing last night. She'll watch the series finale next week, but that will probably be the last commercial network TV program we watch, ever. We'll still watch the occasional Masterpiece Theatre or Mystery! or Nova on PBS, but as far as the commercial TV networks go, we're finished.

Nowadays, we're reading more and what time we do spend watching television is spent on quality programming, mostly British. We have no plans to move to digital TV, let alone HDTV. We don't care if Blu-Ray or HD-DVD wins the format war, because we'll never buy either one of them. And we'll boycott products sold by the MPAA and RIAA. The Sony rootkit fiasco was the last straw as far as Barbara was concerned. She dropped her membership in the record clubs she belonged to, and decided not to purchase any more music from RIAA companies.

She did mention yesterday that she wanted the latest Mark Knopfler album, which has just been released in Britain and isn't yet available in the US. I visited Knopfler's web site yesterday hoping to find a PayPal "tip jar", but there wasn't one. I wish all musicians would sell their CDs directly. Failing that, they should all have tip jars on their web sites, where fans could send them money directly.


Tuesday, 9 May 2006
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08:37 - It may not be a cure for cancer, but Wake Forest University researchers have made what appears to be a huge breakthrough. They injected white blood cells from cancer-resistant mice into ordinary mice infected with an aggressive cancer, and cured those infected mice.

11:23 - I see that Warner has decided to sell downloadable movies via Bittorrent. I predict they won't sell many. If you download a Warner movie, you can't burn it to a DVD. You can view it only on the machine that you downloaded it to. So, let's say Barbara wants a copy of Good Night, and Good Luck. Here are some of her options:

o Log on to the Warner web site, and buy (rent? lease?) the movie at its retail price of $28.98. Wait 10 or 12 hours for the movie to download, and then watch it. Ooops. This isn't really an option, because Barbara runs Linux, so she couldn't watch the movie on her computer. Actually, she probably couldn't download it to her computer, either. Oh, well.

o Order the movie from Amazon.com for $14.96. Receive a DVD that she can play on her computer, our DVD player, or anywhere else. A DVD that she can make backup copies of, lend to a friend, or do anything else she pleases with. A DVD that includes cover notes, special features, and so on.

o Rent the movie from Netflix at a net cost of perhaps $1 to $1.50.

o Borrow the movie from a friend at a net cost of $0.

Which makes me wonder what the studios are thinking. If they really want to explore downloadable movies as a business model, I have a couple of suggestions for them.

First, get rid of the DRM. Although the studios refuse to understand, people want things their way. They want to be able to play a movie where they want to, when they want to, as many times as they want to, and on whatever equipment they want to. They don't want to buy a locked-up bunch of bits. If you copy-protect your product, people won't buy it. You point to Apple's success with iTunes as an example of DRM being accepted by millions of people, but the point is that iTunes DRM is acceptable only because it doesn't work. People are free to burn iTunes tracks to a CD, which can then be copied just like any other CD. You point to DVD-Video discs as an example of people accepting copy-protection, but again the point is that the only reason DVD-Video discs have been so successful is that their DRM is ineffective. Plot the unit-sales curve of DVDs before and after DVD Jon released DeCSS if you doubt that.

Second, get real about pricing. Just as e-book publishers soon learned that people aren't willing to pay hardback prices for an e-book, you need to learn that people aren't willing to pay DVD prices for an electronic download. Downloadable movies eliminate your packaging, distribution, and channel costs, so price the damned movies accordingly. People won't pay $30 for a DRM'd downloadable movie. They will pay $5 or $8 for an unprotected recent movie they can download and burn to a DVD, and you can make good money at those prices. Include the liner notes and graphics so that people can print them out and assemble their own DVDs. Open up your backlists. Sell old stuff for a couple of bucks, and you'll soon find you're making more money from your long tail than from your recent releases.

I also wonder if Warner has any clue about how Bittorrent works. A Bittorrent client simultaneously downloads and uploads chunks of the movie. In order for that to work, everyone has to be transferring the same file. That means you can't encrypt the movie before transmission, so the only alternative is to encrypt it after someone has received the entire movie file. If, that is, you want each downloaded copy to be uniquely encrypted. If you go that route, you'll find that technically ept people will simply bypass the final encryption and end up with an unencrypted copy, which will be on general Bittorrent sites the same day you release the movie. If instead you encrypt the movie before you transmit it, that means everyone who downloads it ends up with exactly the same encrypted movie. One key unlocks every copy. Again, that movie will be posted in unencrypted form the same day you release it. You can't win, so why bother trying?


Wednesday, 10 May 2006
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11:59 - Barbara is off on her tour, leaving me and our two Border Collies to fend for ourselves. It'll be wild women and parties while she's gone, or it would be if I could stand parties and knew any wild women. I did tell Duncan and Malcolm that I'd try to find some Border Hussies for them.

It's going to be pretty boring around here until Barbara returns late Sunday evening.


Thursday, 11 May 2006
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09:30 - Barbara has been gone for 24 hours, and so far things haven't fallen apart. Barbara laid in a stock of frozen TV dinners for me before she left. I had one for dinner last night. It was labeled "HUNGRY-MAN XXL". I at first took the final letters to be a strange way of writing "30" in Roman numerals, but I later realized it was intended to mean "eXtra eXtra Large". It wasn't.

There was a banner across the front of the package, announcing that it contained "1 1/2 pounds of food". It was larger than I expected, but not as large as I wanted. (I usually eat only one meal a day, so I like lots of food for that meal.) Then, as I was looking for the cooking instructions, I noticed the nutrition information on the back. They claimed this thing contained two servings! Yeah, right. Pull the other one.

At 430 calories per "serving", it's stretching things to define the whole box as suitable for a "Hungry Man", let alone half of it. When I was 18, I'd have had to eat three of these things to be satisfied. At age 52, one sufficed, but only barely. Truth in advertising rules should require them to call this product "Dieting Super Model".

And I see that the MPAA is now using trained dogs to sniff out DVDs in FedEx packages. Presumably, the dogs are trained to detect the various dyes used in burnable DVDs. I find that quite credible. If you sniff a spindle of burnable DVDs, you'll find it has a distinct and characteristic odor. It's not surprising that dogs can be trained to detect it.

But that raises a couple of questions. First, who exactly do the MPAA think they are? They're not the police, nor the government. And yet the MPAA now has customs agents wasting their time looking for burned DVDs in packages when they could better spend that time looking for other contraband. Second, and more important, since when has it been illegal to FedEx a burned DVD to someone?

The only way to determine the contents of a burned DVD is to open the package and play the DVD. That raises all sorts of privacy questions. Will these agents get a search warrant for each DVD the dogs detect? If so, on what probable cause? And what effect will these searches have on package delivery? I'm sure FedEx delivers many thousands of packages that contain burned DVDs every day, and the vast majority of those DVDs do not contain illegally copied movies. Do we really want our packages being opened by who knows who and our discs being examined?

In other news, I'm hearing persistent rumors that the RIAA and MPAA plan to merge, with the merged entity to be known as the Music And Film Industry Association.


Friday, 12 May 2006
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08:40 - This from Svenson.

From:    Jan Swijsen
To:      Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: daynote
Date:    Fri, 12 May 2006 02:38:36 -0800  (06:38 EDT)

Sniffing out DVDs

Even if they get a warrant to open boxes and check the content there is a problem that when the disk finally arrives you don't know what they did with it.

Of course the MPAA are nice guys, they would never even consider adding something like a rootkit to the disk. ....

Nope, I wouldn't put a disk from an opened package anywhere near a computer.

Kind regards,
Sjon Svenson

Geez, even I'm not that paranoid.

Several people have commented that customs agents are legally entitled to search packages. Of course they are. The point is that they have limited resources and their time could be better spent looking for much more important things than illegally copied DVDs.

Several others have commented that they're probably searching for pressed discs rather than burned copies, or that they're looking for only large numbers of burned copies. As to the first, it would be pretty difficult for dogs to detect pressed copies, which after all comprise only polycarbonate plastic and aluminum. There's nothing about pressed DVDs in any quantity that would allow a dog to discriminate them from any number of other common items. As to customs looking only for large numbers of burned DVDs, it would be asking a lot of a dog to ignore one or two burned DVDs but to alert its handlers to a larger number.

Several people have suggested saving ruined blanks, labeling them "MI-III" or something similar, and tossing one in each FedEx package. That's a fine idea, as long as you don't mind having all your packages opened and examined.

Actually I'd be very surprised if all of this came to anything. FedEx, after all, has no desire to have the packages it carries delayed. This looks more to me like a publicity stunt. What's infuriating is that the MPAA arrogates to itself law enforcement powers by proxy.

The real solution to the copyright pig problem, as I've said before, is to drive the bastards out of business. Stop buying their products. Trade music and videos with your friends, rent them, or borrow them from the library. Don't buy software from Microsoft, or a PC with bundled Microsoft software. Instead, build your own PCs or buy them from a local white-box builder, without an OS. Run Linux instead of Windows and OpenOffice.org instead of Office. Boycott Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Cut off their air supply.

10:36 - How to ration vaccine in a flu pandemic raises some interesting questions about who should have priority for a scarce resource if an avian flu pandemic occurs. It calls to mind the change from "women and children first" to "young families first" when deciding who gets on the lifeboats.

It seems to me that the proposed policy begins rationally enough by allocating vaccine to medical personnel, police and firemen, transportation workers, and so on. (Politicians, though, should be at the bottom of the list, not near the top.) It obviously makes sense to do your best to protect those whose work is essential. But the policy doesn't carry this to its logical conclusion.

Scarce vaccine should be rationed according to a person's value, not his age or state of health. Simply stated, some people are worth a lot more than others, although I'll probably be accused of being Politically Incorrect for saying so. Of course, the trick is to come up with a standard to judge worth. It seems to me that a good first cut would be to eliminate from eligibility government bureaucrats, politicians, the long-term unemployed, and anyone who is on public assistance. These people consume but they produce nothing. Refusing vaccine to this group would help the supply situation, but would not be sufficient.

The next group to be eliminated from eligibility should be those who contribute to society but consume more than they produce. This group includes illegal aliens, minimum-wage workers, and so on. At this point, we're down to productive people, their families, and retired people. If there's still not enough vaccine to go around, we could filter further using income and assets tests, on the assumption that those who have higher income and greater assets are of more value to society. That's not invariably true, of course, but it is a reasonable rule of thumb.


Saturday, 13 May 2006
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09:35 - Barbara is due back late tomorrow night. As is usual when she's gone, the house has come to look like the Dark Gray Hole of Calcutta, so I plan to spend some time tomorrow hosing the place down, burying the dead bodies, and otherwise cleaning up.

I have most of the components either in-hand or promised for at least the first two or three systems we're building for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. The exceptions are things like motherboards and processors for the new Socket AM2 AMD processors and the Intel Conroe (Core 2) processors. I expect to get the Socket AM2 stuff in the next 30 days or so, and the Intel Core 2 stuff in July. That'll be pushing matters somewhat for our mid-August deadline, but there's nothing to be done to speed things up. I also need to order a bunch of small stuff--optical drives, floppy drives, and so on.

Barbara is resigned to having her kitchen table covered in components from early June through mid-August, but eventually all that stuff will turn into six new systems. At some point after that, I'll migrate all our stuff onto the new systems and donate our "old" systems to local non-profits after we clean them up a bit and tweak them.

I'll strip the hard drives down to bare metal and install Linux on them. I'd prefer to install Xandros, but their Open Circulation Edition license specifically prohibits any business use, including by non-profits. So I'll probably install Ubuntu/Kubuntu, SuSE 10.1, or one of the other free distros.


Sunday, 14 May 2006
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11:25 - Barbara is due back tonight. Hurray!

Our friends Mary Chervenak and Paul Jones took me out for dinner last night. It was a nice break from frozen microwave thingees.

I asked them for their take on the avian flu issue. They're both scientists whose opinions I respect, although avian flu is well outside their fields of expertise. Still, they're both skilled at evaluating the reliability of data, so I wanted to hear what they had to say. Neither of them seems particularly concerned at this point. They don't doubt that a pandemic will occur, whether next year, in ten years, or in a hundred, but point out that no one can predict when it will occur or which virus will be the big one.

All of which confirmed my own opinion, which is that it is always sensible to be prepared for the worst, even if it seems unlikely to happen, but at this point extraordinary steps are not necessary. We routinely stay prepared for short-term emergencies. The incremental cost of storing food, water, and other supplies is very small. We keep enough supplies on hand to make us completely self-sufficient for at least 30 days in every respect--a kiloliter of water stored in old soft drink bottles and other containers, canned and dry food, five gallons of bleach and lots of plastic bags for sanitation, basic medical supplies, enough wood to heat the downstairs guest suite, and so on. For urban residents like us, there's little point to being prepared for emergencies that last longer than 30 days, because the cities themselves would become untenable. Evacuation would be the only alternative.

If something bad happens, we'll be better prepared than most people, but I'm not really expecting anything bad to happen. When people say I'm alarmist, I simply respond that I also maintain fire insurance on our house, even though I don't really expect it to burn down.


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