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Week of 26 December 2005

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Monday, 26 December 2005
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09:06 - I took a half day off yesterday for the holiday, which puts me even more under the gun to meet our two-chapter milestone deadline for the new astronomy book. Fortunately, my editor is reasonable, so sliding by a few days won't be a problem. Still, I want to get this right from the start, because this is going to be a very different book from what O'Reilly is used to producing. That means we'll have to coordinate carefully with their production folks to make sure things turn out properly.

Barbara and I both got lots of good Saturnalia loot. One of my gifts, which I'd asked for, is what will certainly be the most challenging book I've ever attempted to read. It's called The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, by Roger Penrose, and the title says it all. The Amazon.com review says in part,

"If Albert Einstein were alive, he would have a copy of The Road to Reality on his bookshelf. So would Isaac Newton. This may be the most complete mathematical explanation of the universe yet published, and Roger Penrose richly deserves the accolades he will receive for it. That said, let us be perfectly clear: this is not an easy book to read. The number of people in the world who can understand everything in it could probably take a taxi together to Penrose's next lecture."

I took that as a challenge, figuring at the very worst I'd at least be able to make it through the first couple of chapters before I started to breathe hard. Then I opened the book to a random early page, and saw this.

I've revised my estimate. Now I'm hoping to make it through the first couple of pages before I start to breathe hard. Still, there's nothing like a challenge.

12:48 - Oh, yeah. I forgot to post the picture of Malcolm lying in wait for Santa. I'd told him how good reindeer were to eat.


Tuesday, 27 December 2005
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08:56 - Malcolm almost caught a reindeer Sunday. I was preparing as usual to take the dogs out for a walk. I opened the front door, and Malcolm instantly spotted a tiny reindeer on the front lawn. He took off after it, accelerating from 0 to 60 in about 0.8 seconds, and nearly got the reindeer before it ran up a tree. I never realized that reindeer had such bushy tails. Or that they could climb trees.

The MPAA is going to love this. A Red Chinese shareware company is distributing what amounts to enhanced commercial versions of DVDShrink. Like all such programs, these strip out encryption, region coding, RCE, prohibited user operations, and all that stuff that should never have been put on the DVD in the first place. Some of the versions offered also have other capabilities, such as splitting a source DVD-9 disc into two DVD-5 discs, both with the full menu structures in place.

The MPAA hasn't learned the fundamental lesson: it's not possible to unexplode a bomb. When DVD Jon released the DeCSS code, it was no longer possible to depend on DVD encryption to support the old business model. That's why the movie studios are so desperate to replace DVD with either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD.

It has nothing to do with higher resolution. Almost no one cares about that, as the poor sales of HD TVs illustrate. Television was a revolution. Color television was a second revolution. HD TV is ho-hum. People happily download MP3s and rip their CD collections with lossy encoding. Most people are as satisfied with a VHS-quality copy of a movie or a compressed DVD-quality copy as they would be with the original DVD-quality disc. Good enough is good enough.

No, the reason for the push to Blu-Ray or HD-DVD is that the movie studios fondly hope that the new encryption technologies used with these new generation discs will prove to be uncrackable. That's wishful thinking, of course. It's impossible to devise unbreakable encryption for DVDs for one simple reason. Human beings are not equipped to process digital video and audio signals. At some point, those digital signals must be converted to analog if we are to be able to see and hear them. That simple fact means that the movie studios are on a hopeless quest, regardless of whether they succeed or fail at bribing Congress to enact the so-called "analog hole" legislation.

Even if HDMI and similar digital copy protection technologies were universally implemented, I know several people who could easily bypass them. And all it takes is one person with the knowledge and the tools and the desire to bypass the copy protection, and that copy protection might just as well have never been implemented.

Recognizing this, the MPAA has demanded that its bought-and-paid-for congress-critters enact Draconian penalties against peer-to-peer file sharing. That's a losing battle as well. P2P is yesterday's news. F2F (friend-to-friend) darknets are the new threat. Why bother to trade movies on-line nowadays? Not only might someone be watching, but the quality of most on-line copies is sub-VHS, and it takes quite a while to transfer a movie even at broadband speeds.

Darknets are the way of the future. Small groups of friends who trade movies directly among themselves and only among themselves. The quality is much higher, and you can't beat the throughput with a stick. If one of my buddies hands me a hard drive full of movies, well that's about 500 GB/s. If I hand him my drive at the same time, that's 1 TB/s.

I was about to say that darknets are proliferating, but that would only be a guess. And that's really the point. I don't know how many darknets exist or how many new ones are formed every day. Neither does anyone else. Nor can anyone ever know, including the MPAA and Congress.

There's a lesson here for the MPAA, not that they'll ever admit it. Their current business model is dead, and they need to devise a new one.


Wednesday, 28 December 2005
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08:30 - One of my readers, who requests anonymity, sent me a link to this posting by security expert Bruce Schneier.

Actually, I was surprised that Internet Explorer was only 98% unsafe. I'd have guessed that IE had at least one unpatched critical bug 100% of the time. I was also surprised that Firefox running on Windows was 7% unsafe. I'd have guessed maybe 1% or 2%.

Of course, the study didn't quantify ease of exploitation. Most critical IE bugs were and are easily exploitable, while most Firefox bugs are difficult to exploit, and often impossible in practical terms.

09:10 - Speaking of which, I just sent the following warning to subscribers:

There's a new Windows vulnerability reported today, which is being actively exploited. All versions of Windows XP, including SP2, are vulnerable to this exploit. No patch is available.

If you use Internet Explorer, you can be infected simply by visiting a malicious web site. If you use Firefox, you can still be infected, but only if you explicitly download or run the infected image file.

For more information, see:



Thursday, 29 December 2005
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10:40 - This latest Windows security hole turns out to be worse than everyone thought originally. For more details, visit the link I posted yesterday and scroll up to see later updates. Microsoft says they're thinking about it, but they don't suggest any useful workarounds other than replacing Windows with Linux (well, Microsoft didn't actually say that, but they should have). Here's a pertinent comment from the f-secure.com blog:

"Do note that it's really easy to get burned by this exploit if you're analysing it under Windows. All you need to do is to access an infected web site with IE or view a folder with infected files with the Windows Explorer.

You can get burned even while working in a DOS box! This happened on one of our test machines where we simply used the WGET command-line tool to download a malicious WMF file. That's it, it was enough to download the file. So how on earth did it have a chance to execute?"

You can block known malicious web sites at the firewall, but new ones are popping up every hour. Apparently, there are now literally thousands of web sites that attempt to exploit this security hole. You can block WMF files at the firewall, but that doesn't really help much because the exploit works even if the file has a .jpg or other extension.

Microsoft needs to issue a patch for this problem Right Now. Incredibly, Microsoft says it may wait for the next Patch Tuesday to provide a patch.

"Upon completion of this investigation, Microsoft will take the appropriate action to help protect our customers. This will include providing a security update through our monthly release process or providing an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs."

That's simply beyond belief. If I were still dithering about converting from Windows to Linux, this by itself would be sufficient reason to make the jump.


Friday, 30 December 2005
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09:20 - Chuck Waggoner posted this over on the forums, and I thought it was worth reproducing here:

For some time, I have maintained that we are at the state where any improvement to either audio or video is indiscernible to all but a very few people with unusually high (and thus not normal) sensory perception.  Although a move to digital will make matters more convenient, improvement in quality is unnecessary and will not be noticed by the vast majority.  I think people are--at least subconsciously--realizing this.

While larger screens are desirable, any other quality improvements will be lost on the masses.  This push for a so-called quality improvement is not the same as the switch from black-and-white to color TV, where the difference was quite noticeable.  There is unlikely to be the mass demand for HD, except in the tech-freak area, who often adopt anything that comes out, regardless of its usefulness.  Only by withdrawing production of conventional DVD’s will the movie companies be able to force a switch to newer technologies--and that may be a suicide risk.

Creatives are quite capable of churning out good new content and lots of it.  The death of rock’n’roll was not due to a lack of good new material, it was caused--IMO--by radio stations refusing to play from a broad range of the hundred or more records released every week, and instead, adopting tight playlists of 20 to 30 songs played for months before being removed, and almost never allowing the plethora of good new entries to be heard at all.  That dried up the music industry, the repetition drove audiences away, and ultimately killed the biggest mass-market that radio ever had--and it was HUGE:  ABC supported the development of its television network for many of its early years, including the switch to color, with the massive revenue of its own rock’n’roll radio stations in the top 5 markets.  But just as Jerry P. points out that Microsoft did not grow to be a giant with egregious copy protection and registration schemes, the tightening noose of programming policies at immensely successful radio stations, killed the goose with the golden eggs.

If the radio, television, and movie industries would stop demanding that every product they release have instant-hit potential, eternal shelf-life, and--for music albums--12 hit singles, and instead, nurture a return to producing new product and lots of it, there would be little need for copyright protection.  The focus would be on new product and more of it, not on outrageous legal and physical limitations aimed at squeezing every penny from each existing product in the catalog.

But freedom to create or consume is not what we are about these days; controlling the actions of customers after the purchase, is.

As I've said before, the problem is particularly acute with movies. When a studio invests $100 million in a movie, which is routine nowadays, the economics are all out of skew. There's no reason a good movie can't be made for $5 million, and I'm sure it's possible to produce a top-notch movie on a $1 million budget, if it doesn't require special effects, a large costume budget, and so on. That rules out huge salaries for stars, of course, but then there are any number of extremely competent actors and actresses who'd love to earn $50,000 for a starring role, or $10,000 for a month's work in a supporting role. Just as there are any number of excellent novelists who'd jump at the chance to earn $50,000 or even $20,000 for the movie rights to each of the books in their series. And I can see this coming.

For now, conventional wisdom is that it takes the resources of a behemoth movie studio to turn out a top-notch movie. I don't believe it. Historically, movie studios had it all their own way because of a double-whammy: capital costs and distribution channels. The former is rapidly becoming a non-issue. I can now buy a perfectly good HD-capable camera for $3,500, and my friends at the North Carolina School of the Arts tell me that for $25,000 to $50,000 it's now possible to acquire all the equipment needed to record and edit professional-quality audio and video. And the Internet has eliminated the distribution monopoly the studios formerly held.

Over the coming years, I expect to see an increasing flood of "indie" movies. It'll be interesting.

10:25 - I hadn't seen this:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: A Movie for $20,000
Date: Fri, 30 Dec 2005 09:50:07 -0500
From: Rod Schaffter
To:  thompson

Hi Bob,

Regarding your thoughts on independent filmmakers producing movies for less, here is one that cost about $20,000 to make, and much of that was to purchase the camera.  For obvious reasons it is a not for profit movie, but I'm sure if everyone got paid a similar film could be made for a million or two.

"Revelations was started with a hope and desire to create a low-budget independent film with a big-budget production value. With affordable technology and a pool of talented artists around the world, we wanted to see how far Panic Struck Productions could take it. Everyone involved in the film is a volunteer and no one was paid to work or be involved in this project. The film is a combined effort to artists, industry professionals, and fans, all working together in a dedicated effort to produce a high-end film.

First off, "Revelations" is a non-profit film. That's right, we cannot make money from "Revelations" nor would we want to. Star Wars is a registered trademark of Lucas Film LTD. and it is through George Lucas' kindness he allows young filmmakers to play in his wonderful world. Being huge fans ourselves we would want, if anything, to promote and share the magic and love of the star wars films and what it's creator brought to the industry and audiences around the world.

Revelations will be FREE for everyone to download (and hopefully enjoy) here online."


The writing could have been a little better, but production wise it's very good.

Oh, yes. I'm sure there'll be a lot of that, too. But even if everyone gets paid--novelist, screenwriter, producer, director, actors, cameraman, sound man, editors, etc.--it should still be possible to put together a top-notch movie with a contemporary setting and no special effects on a month-long schedule and a $1 million budget. Just off the top of my head:

$100,000 - overhead (legal, administrative, office staff, etc.)
$100,000 - rights to author, screenwriting, producer, director
$100,000 - actors
$100,000 - technical staff (cameraman, sound, gaffers, etc.)
$100,000 - props, costuming, equipment depreciation/breakage, etc.
$100,000 - location costs (hotel rooms, meals, rentals, etc.)
$100,000 - editing, post-production, titles, etc.
$100,000 - DVD production, artwork, promotion
$100,000 - miscellaneous
$100,000 - reserve for contingencies

Adjust categories up or down as appropriate. Pick a good series of mid-list mystery novels, and plan to do twelve 2-hour programs over the course of a year. Sell them to PBS or A&E for one-time broadcast rights, and strike a deal with them for sharing DVD purchase revenues. Rinse and repeat. Yeah, I can see this happening. As a matter of fact, the Brits have been doing it for years. Some of the best TV series ever made, such as Upstairs, Downstairs, were made on shoestring budgets with generally unknown actors. That can work here, too, and in spades.


Saturday, 31 December 2005
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14:44 - You know, I really wonder about the MOCP (mainstream on-line computer press). Here's a headline and leader from C|Net.

Year in review: Not business as usual for Microsoft

In 2005, the software giant shifts strategies, embraces open standards, and recognizes a new rival.

To state what is obvious to anyone who isn't terminally stupid or in Microsoft's pocket, Microsoft embraces open standards like the Wehrmacht embraced Poland, or perhaps like Dracula embraces a crucifix. Even someone who looks kindly upon Microsoft can't possibly believe that Microsoft embraces open standards in any way, shape, or form. Open standards are a lethal threat to Microsoft. They know it, we know it, everyone knows it.

So why does the MOCP let Microsoft's spin doctors get away with this crap? They can't all be in the pay of Microsoft, can they? Surely not. I suppose it's possible that they're all terminally stupid, but I think it's more likely that many simply don't want to risk offending Microsoft. They covet opportunities for exclusive interviews with Gates, Ballmer, and other important Microsoft employees, and are afraid that criticizing Microsoft will lose them that access.

There are exceptions, certainly. Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols comes immediately to mind. But for every SJVN, there are many lapdogs, idiots like David Coursey, who swallow what Microsoft feeds them and regurgitate the Microsoft party-line pretty much verbatim. But fear of retaliation and general credulousness can explain only so much. I really wish someone would investigate some of these so-called "journalists" to find out if they're in the pay of Microsoft or simply terminally stupid.

I suspect that, if we dug deep enough, we'd find that many of them are in fact in the pay of Microsoft, although it might be difficult to prove. I wouldn't expect Microsoft to engage in anything as obvious as direct payments to their lackeys. Instead, I'd expect Microsoft to pay them off more subtly. There are any number of ways to do that. Microsoft can pay them ten times the going rate, for example, to write an unneeded and unwanted whitepaper. Or have one of the many Microsoft front organizations hire them for a make-work consulting gig at a high hourly rate. Or offer them a huge fee to speak at some conference or another. There are any number of ways to put money in their pockets essentially undetectably, which is exactly what I believe happens a lot more often than most people might think.

As to Coursey, I think he's probably just terminally stupid.


Sunday, 32 December 2005
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09:40 - It's that time of year when it's traditional to make New Year's Resolutions. I realize that most people fail to carry out their resolutions, but I'm made of sterner stuff. Here are my Resolutions for 2006:

 1. Continue smoking
 2. Avoid exercise
 3. Avoid losing weight
 4. Eat more fatty foods
 5. Avoid getting organized
 6. Ridicule the Politically Correct at every opportunity
 7. Speak my mind on political and social issues
 8. Boycott the RIAA, MPAA, and Sony
 9. Write two or three books
10. Have fun.

A year from now, I'll tell you how I did.


Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.