2010-12-23

The Sony Reader Finally Reaches Japan

I was in Bic Camera yesterday, and much to my surprise it seems that Sony has finally released its Reader in Japan. What can I say but, "It's about time."

It's unusual for Sony to release a product in North America much before it's released in Japan; particularly unusual is this four-year gap. (The first Sony Reader in the U.S., the PRS-500, was released in September 2006.) But the story is even more odd because Sony had released a similar E Ink reader, the LIBRIé, in Japan years earlier. I first saw this at Bic Camera, too, but it vanished after a few months.

Was it so poorly accepted in Japan, this mecca of electronic devices and novels published on cell phones, that Sony gave up on the idea here for half a decade, even as the concept roared to success in North America?

I've been through several Sony Readers (a PRS-505, a PRS-700 and now a PRS-350) and one of my complaints has always been the lack of Japanese support. These new models in Japan do have proper Japanese support (including reading vertical columns from right to left—the traditional Japanese format) and have a bilingual menu system (Japanese/English). The price, at about ¥18,000 for the PRS-350, is slightly higher than in the U.S.; this isn't suprising as most things are more expensive in Japan, even when made here.

I wonder if it will be possible to upgrade my U.S. reader to the Japanese software? I'm suspecting at the least that it won't be supported; it may be the case as well that the hardware is slightly different, having more memory for dealing with the much larger set of font data required for Japanese.

Regardless, it's still missing the other thing that would make it truly worthwhile for me to use it to read Japanese books: a good dictionary. It does in fact come with one dictionary, but it's English-Japanese, which is not terribly useful for me. I'm surprised that it doesn't even come with a Japanese dictionary, though not so suprised it doesn't come with a Japanese-English dictionary.

Still, they may add other dictionaries one day, or at least add the option to buy them. (Electronic dictionaries are a big business in Japan, mostly in the form of dedicated devices.) If so, it would probably be worthwhile for me even to buy a new Reader for this functionality.

2010-06-11

How Cameras Work: Part I

I've been an amateur photographer for a few years now and, being of a technical bent, learned far more now that is ever good for me. So when my brother recently bought a DSLR camera to take pictures of his kid, he asked me for a few pointers. I thought I'd put the write-up up here for the benefit of others as well.

Now there's gobs and gobs of information on the net about cameras and taking photos already, of course, which I encourage everyone to pursue, but there's not so much on the surprisingly simple technical details of taking a photograph. Since the dawn of the digital age especially cameras have been getting more and more complex, but, from the user's point of view, this complexity is all just layered on top of the same basic settings we've been manipulating for close to two hundred years now. So here I'd like to clear through the cobwebs of all of those menus and settings and show you the simple bits underneath. Understanding that should help you understand the rest of what your camera is doing.

A camera consists of two basic parts, a body and a lens. These may come as one indivisible unit, such as in a point-and-shoot camera, or the body and lens might be interchangeable, as with an SLR or a DSLR camera. A camera with interchangeable lenses is almost invariably going to be of reasonably good quality (because there's no market for bad ones); non-interchangeable-lens cameras vary from as good as a good DSLR to complete rubbish.

The camera body's primary purpose is to be a light-tight box with a sensor (either film or a digital device) that can record images and a shutter that can fairly accurately open for a set amount of time and close again. That's it. Bodies often have many, many more features, but all the rest beyond being a light-tight box with a shutter are just gravy, and unnecessary for good photographs. On digital cameras these features often even get in the way of taking good photographs rather than helping, for reasons we'll see later.

The purpose of the lens is to focus light from outside on to the sensor, and on almost all cameras this is the key determinant of image quality. If you've got a poor quality lens, you'll get poor quality pictures, no matter how good the sensor. If you've got a good lens, you'll be able to take pictures as good as the sensor allows.

In the case of film, any modern film will record great images. Some of my best and sharpest pictures have been taken with an old compact film camera (an Olympus XA) simply because the camera had a great lens. For digital, well, of course it depends, but as I mentioned above, pretty much any major manufacturer's DSLR from the past five years will be pretty darn good. (Compact cameras, not so much.) Note that there's a lot more to a digital sensor than megapixels. People love comparing that, because it's a simple number that's easy to compare, but I've got plenty of good photographs that I've blown up to 10x15 (inches) and larger taken on my 6 MP Nikon D40; in terms of quality and the ability to work in low light it will easily outdo all or almost all 10-12 MP point-and-shoot cameras.

As with bodies, modern DSLR lenses tend to be very good as well, even at the low end. The kit lens that came with my D40, a cheap zoom that retails for under $150 separately, is surprisingly good, especially given that it's a zoom lens. Making a zoom lens, as opposed to a prime lens (one without zoom) entails a lot of compromises, which is why a $100 prime lens will often produce better images in lower light than a $500 zoom lens. But if you've got a DSLR, unless you're doing a lot of low-light shooting, the standard kit lens will do just fine for a while, by which time you'll know what else you want and need.

So how does all this work? There are really only four settings you're manipulating, though digital cameras, especially in "automatic" modes, can put a very large amount of mysterious crap between you and those four settings. Here, again, is an advantage of DSLRs; they invariably offer much easier access directly to the settings so that you aren't sitting there futzing with menus or waiting for your camera to figure out what's going on while your photo opportunity goes away.

Let me mention first something about exposure. One of the primary technical things you need to do when taking a picture is to make sure that the right amount of light gets to the sensor. The sensor records only a limited range of light values, and if you put too much light on it, called overexposure, you'll get a very "white" picture where areas that you saw as different brightnesses (details within clouds, for example) all turn into one flat white value as the sensor overloaded. At the other end, if you don't have enough light on the sensor, areas in shadows where you saw details will come out as a flat black area in the photograph. Finding the proper exposure can be tricky because, unfortunately, your eyes see a much, much wider range of light values than a camera does. So you usually need to select a subset of the range that you see to record as an image. If you want to capture detail in the brighter parts of the image, often you'll lose detail in the shadows, and vice versa. So if you see an image where the side of someone's body blends into a white wall, don't necessarily think that the photographer did a bad job; it could just be that there were some darker parts of the image where he wanted to capture the detail rather than having it be a flat black.

The four basic settings that determine a photograph are focus, aperture, shutter speed, and sensor sensitivity. That's it. There's nothing a camera, no matter how sophisticated, is doing that's doing anything but, in the end, manipulating these four settings. (Well, in digital cameras there's actually a bunch of work going on related to how digital sensors work, image compression, and suchlike, but that, except in the most esoteric of circumstances, is something generally best left to the experts who made the camera.)

Focus is probably the most familiar one to most people. What people may not be so familiar with is that focus of an image is not a "yes" or "no" issue; it's often the case that part of the image is in focus and part is not. This is due to the limitations of lenses, and is called "depth of field," usually abbreviated to "DOF." Having parts of the image out of focus is so common in fact that it's now turned into part of the art: photographers will often purposely put the background of an image out of focus to highlight the subject. (This is called "bokeh," from the Japanese for "blur." It's often quite noticeable in motion pictures where you can see the focus change from character to character as each speaks.) This is why photographers generally focus on the eyes in a portrait; faces with the eyes even slightly out of focus tend to look odd because those are what people tend to look at first.

Aperture refers to how large the lens opening is (the "f-stop") and thus how much light the lens lets through to the sensor. With almost all camera lenses this is variable via an iris inside the lens; typical values range from f/2.8 or lower (wide open) to f/16 or more (very closed down). Given that often there's never quite as much light as you'd like, why wouldn't you always just use a large (low f-value) aperture all the time? Well, as with all of these settings, there's a trade-off. A wider aperture does let in more light, but also reduces your depth of field, i.e., the range of distances from the camera over which the image will be in focus. With a very small aperture (e.g., f/16) it might be the case that everything from a meter away from the camera all the way out to infinity is in focus, whereas with a very large aperture (f/1.4, say, if your lens goes that wide open) you might be able to get someone's face in focus but not even her hands, much less the far background. So your aperture setting is both a technical (can I get enough light on the sensor?) and artistic (how much depth of field and how much blur of things other than the subject do I want?) decision.

Note that brightness is perceived and recorded logarithmically, not linearly, so aperture (and shutter speed, as we see below) work in ratios, doubling and halving. The step between f/2 and f/4 is the same size as the step between f/4 and f/8, and the same again as the step between f/8 and f/16. (Actually, a single "stop," as we call the standard step size in photography, is half the step size I described above, or the square root of 2—about 1.414—so a typical set of aperture settings available on a lens would be f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22. You'll note that we round off these numbers a bit when we write them down, e.g. f/2.8 instead of f/2.828427....

There is some very interesting physics behind focusing and depth of field of lenses, by the way. I won't go into it here, but it's worth looking up if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Shutter speed refers to how long the shutter stays open and thus, as with aperture, influences how much light gets to the sensor. Low shutter speeds, such as 1/30th of a second (usually marked on the camera as just "30") allow a lot of light; high shutter speeds (say, 1/1000th of a second, or "1000") allow little light before the shutter closes. This is one of the primary means of controlling exposure to make sure that you don't let in too much light, producing an overexposed, very white picture with no detail in the brighter parts, or too little light, producing an underexposed, very dark picture with no detail in the darker areas. But there's also a compromise you need to make here: the longer the shutter is open, the more time things have to move, and so the greater the chance that something will be blurred in your photo. Thus, sports photographers often use quite high shutter speeds to capture an athlete rather than a blur. Even for very still pictures, this becomes critical anyway at speeds of about 1/30 and below, where the movement of your hands and body may blur the entire photo, if you're shooting hand-held rather than using a tripod. In this cases, anything you can do to steady the camera can help: pressing your arms against a table or wall, using the viewfinder to keep the camera pressed against your head, whatever. Also, note that if you're using a telephoto lens (or zoom lens at large zoom), your minimum hand-held shutter speed may be much higher, since the magnification of the image also of course magnifies any movements you make.

Shutter speed interacts with aperture, of course, and is the primary means of getting a choice of apertures. Halving the f-number of the aperture requires a quadrupling of the shutter speed for the same exposure, so if a scene is properly exposed at 1/125 and f/8 I can take it instead at f/4 and 1/500 and get the exact same exposure. I might do this because I'm shooting something moving very quickly and I'd get too much motion blur at 1/125. or I might want to reduce the depth of field to blur the background in a portrait, in which case I might even go further, to f/2 and 1/2000.

Sensor sensitivity also determines how much light you need to make a properly exposed image, and as with the other values, has its trade-off. The more sensitive a sensor, the more noise you'll have in an image. (This is seen as grain in film images, or just "noise" in digital images.) Sensitivity is generally measured in ISO units, and typical values range from 100 or 200 (not very sensitive, but very clean) to 1600 or more. While for a roll film camera you pick your film and are stuck with the same sensitivity for the entire roll, digital cameras have the advantage of being able to change the sensitivity from shoot to shot. (Many cameras even have a convenient automatic mode that will use a low sensitivity when there's plenty of light, but automatically raise it in low light.)

As with aperture and shutter speed, sensitivity as logarithmic; the standard steps are usually 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and sometimes 3200 and beyond. But one thing to be careful of is that in the digital world sensitivities and noise for a given ISO vary from camera to camera. For sensitivity this is a fairly small variance; "ISO 200" on one camera may be the same as "ISO 125" on another. But the amount of noise varies a lot: ISO 1600 on a good DSLR may produce an image with less noise than ISO 800 on a point-and-shoot with a smaller sensor. The smaller sensor will, however, produce greater depth of field at the same aperture. And, of course, as yet another part of the trade-off, larger sensors usually cost considerably more than smaller ones.

So these four settings, focus, aperture, shutter speed and sensor sensitivity (ISO) are what you have to work with. Anything else you're fiddling with is just changing one of these. But how do you use them? As this has gotten quite long already, that's going to have to be the topic of a second post next week.

2010-06-02

To What Did I Just Agree?

Sony the other day sent me a note (hours before the event) saying that they were changing their PlayStation online agreement and I needed to agree to the new one. No indication of what the changes were, of course, just a lot of text, without even an agreement checkbox, actually. (When and how—and if—I agree to this, I don't even know.)

I hope I didn't give them my immortal soul.

But the problem of these extraordiarially long agreements for simple consumer transactions, and the power imbalances inherent in them, has been well known for a long time and discussed extensively.

Which got me wondering about this power imbalance. It's not just that the other side has a lot more lawyers than I do (an infinite number more, actually, if you consider that to be the result of division by zero), but also that my choices are limited, essentially, to "accept or don't buy that $10 downloadable game." Were I negotiating the kind of contract I negotiate in business, say with a potential employer or employee, both sides are a lot more equal in that I can return a copy of the contract with additions, changes and strikeouts, and suggest that we work from there instead. Negotiations then proceed. But that's not going to happen in the consumer world.

With a consumer contract, since the vast majority of consumers are willing just to click the box regardless of consequences in order to avoid the hassle, the few people who are willing to take the time to read the contract and perhaps disagree with a few terms have no real way to compel the company to change it. Companies with large numbers of consumers can easily afford to ignore those people since it costs them only a few small sales. How can we fix this?

Here's my crazy idea. For these on-line contracts (and perhaps this could be done with paper, too), force everybody to read and truly agree with them by having them, after reading each paragraph, answer a short, simple multiple choice question about that paragraph.

If contracts were less enforcable without this evidence that the consumer had read and understood every provision, a lot more consumers would default to not making the purchase because they aren't willing to deal with the hassle of proving they'd read and understood the long contract. That would cause pain to those who write long and complex agreements, and provide a lot of encouragement to those selling goods of relatively low cost to write short, simple ones instead.

I'm not sure that this is an idea that's ever likely to be put in to practice, but it's an interesting thought.

2010-06-01

It Just Got Personal

Through the usual weird six-degrees-of-separation-chain-of-links that happens on the web, I happened to run into the diaries of someone raised by dominionists.

In case you want to get on with life instead of following the links, dominionism is essentially a totalitarian movement to have the world ruled by radical Christians of the U.S. flavour. It's in no way a majority, or even a plurality, but it's far from just a cult.

Reading about this fellow's experiences, I came across a quote from this post that chilled me to the bone:
[O]ne time in 5th grade, I had made a comment that was in fact seen as socially acceptable by the dominionist group that raised me...that I hoped that "godly people took over and did to the atheists what Hitler did to the Jews".
Now think about this. My eyes are blue, my natural hair colour is dark blond, and I'm pretty much your standard person of northern European descent. I'm about as white as they come, and by looks alone I'd probably be quite acceptable to pretty much any western conservative movement, from fundamentalist Christians to neo-Nazis. While I've always appreciated intellectually all of the innumerable forms of hatred for a category, whether it be blacks, gays, Jews, or whatever, all the way up to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, I'd never thought of being in one of those groups.

Well, apparently now I am. There really are people out there who would be happy to see me die because I'm an athiest, and they're not the terrorists that Bush & Co. are worried about. Most of them live in "the land of the free."

2010-05-16

Citizen Kane, Depth of Field, and 3D TV

Recently I happened to stumble across a fascinating 1941 article called "How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane," written by Gregg Toland, the film's cinematographer. One of the "rules" (or Hollywood conventions, as he prefers to think of them) he broke was to use mostly large apertures producing shallow depth of field. Typical apertures at the time were between f2.5 and f3.2; he would regularly use f8. (How he managed to do this is an interesting story in and of it self, and makes the article worth reading.) This let him have much larger depth of field; with wider-angle lenses everything from the foreground to the background was in focus.

To this day this is an uncommon technique in feature films. In fact, we've become so accustomed to a shallow depth of field in film productions that in the last decade or so animated works and video games now emulate this. There's no need for or advantage to shallow depth of field, since in these circumstances there's generally no lens involved; it says a lot that people would go to extra work to emulate what has usually been considered a lens deficiency.

This reminded me of seeing a shallow depth of field in an unusual circumstance the other day that really made it jump out. At consumer electronics stores in Japan lately they now have demonstrations of 3D video systems of the sort that use a pair of LCD glasses. Watching an animated feature playing on one, I noticed that it used the "shallow depth of field" technique. However, this produced a rather odd sensation in a truly 3D image. The image felt more realistic than a standard 2D image in that I had a much stronger sense of being to move my point of focus between foreground and background objects and know just where they were in the 3D space in front of me. But as I did this, I immediately found myself discovering that what was in focus didn't shift with what I was looking at, as it does in the real world. This being both unreal and unconventional gave me quite a jolt.

I wonder where we'll go with 3D, particularly when recording through a lens. Will 3D productions widen the depth of field to avoid the unreal jolt? Or will they stick with the narrow depth of field and let that become an almost unquestioned convention in 3D productions as it is in 2D ones?

2010-05-11

Apple & The Dark Cloud of the App Store

Bruce Tognazzini (often known as "Tog"), the well known user interface designer who was once very influential at Apple, recently wrote a column on the issue of editorial control at iPhone App Store entitled Apple & the Dark Cloud of Censorship.

The problem, for those not aware of it, has two parts. First, you cannot download apps for your iPhone (or iPod touch, iPad, or similar device) except through the App Store. (Developers and hackers have ways around this, but the techniques have certain downsides and are more work than most of the general public are willing to do.) Second, Apple's approval process is long, arduous, and somewhat capricious. It can take weeks even to get a bug fix through the process for an application that's already been approved, and many applications that compete with Apple's applications, are of poor quality, or are just not in good taste are not given approval at all. This has been a complaint on developer blogs for some time now, is discussed on Wikipedia, and has even been picked up by mainstream media.

By comparison, handsets and devices running Google's Android operating system don't have these restrictions.

Tog's Take

I certainly agree with Tog that the strict editorial control imposed by Apple is a problem for several different reasons, and I think his solution has some good points, but I think he also goes wrong in many ways in his article.

My less important disagreement is that I don't like his calling this "censorship," and suggesting that this restrains political expression. "Censorship" is a pretty heavy word, applying as it does not only publishers exerting editorial control, but to governments restricting the ability of someone to say something anywhere at all. There are certainly many other avenues in the world for people to publish their political opinions. Should the government, say, force Apple to publish opinions it disagrees with, that would be nearly as bad, from a free speech point of view, as government censorship of opinions. Apple must be free to publish what they like on their platform just as others must be free in the same way. If this hurts Apple's competitiveness (which I think it's clear it does, in certain ways), that's Apple's decision. (Of course Tog, as a shareholder in Apple, has some say in this decision.)

But my greater disagreement is that I think there are other factors in this issue that Tog is downplaying or ignoring. We can't know, of course, exactly what Apple's motives are in exerting fairly draconian editorial control, but I doubt it's strictly to do with avoiding offending users, be they people who dislike porn or people who dislike political cartoons mocking certain religions.

I suspect that the two biggest issues Apple believes it's dealing with is having a good quality user experience for downloaded applications and avoiding legal complaints, as well as informal ones, about content.

The Quality of the "User Experience"

As Tog points out:

Apple is, in my opinion, doing all of us an important service by looking at each and every app to test for conformance to interface and anti-malware standards.

It's true that this is a valuable service, and one that many Windows users wish was available to them, but there's more to it than this.

At the beginning of the 1980s the home video game market had taken off in a big way. One of the biggest changes from previous programmable consumer devices was the ability of third parties to develop and distribute programs. Systems such as the Atari 2600 had a cartridge slot; any company that wished could write a video game, produce it as a cartridge, and sell it. This resulted in an enormous proliferation of software for the platform.

Of course, with such openness came software of varying quality. There were a lot of bad games out there, and a lot of disappointed consumers. Hardware manufacturers in particular appear to believe that this was one of the major factors in the subsequent video game market crash. From that Wikipedia page:

There were several reasons for the crash, but the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games. Hundreds of games were in development for 1983 release alone, and this overproduction resulted in a saturated market.

The market stayed depressed for years, and Atari, the largest and most successful video game manufacturer of the time, never really recovered from this. Dozens of other companies and software development divisions vanished forever.

The recovery eventually came with the Nintendo Entertainment System (note how it was not referred to as a "video game" console) which contained some special locking hardware within the cartridges and the console to ensure that nobody could produce a game for the console without Nintendo's approval. Since then, no major console system has appeared without such hardware or software locks and a strict developer and game approval process (far stricter than that of Apple's App Store) on the part of the console manufacturer.

This persists to this day even with console systems, such as Sony's PSP Go Playstation Portable system, that use only software downloaded from the vendor's on-line store (rather than discs or cartridges purchased through retail outlets) and compete, at least on the games front, with the iPhone. While Sony has introduced a new PSP Mini category of games with a much cheaper and more streamlined approval process, it's still more strict than Apple's.

Now some of you may be asking yourselves at this point why we have such a different situation with personal computers and their software. Computers came out of a different, and much more "high-maintenance" culture than consumer electronics. Computers started out as expensive, complex systems, often from multiple vendors, requiring expert help to install and maintain them, and despite the improvements and expansion of the audience, haven't changed that much. Even with Mac users it's not considered unusual to spend hours debugging and fixing problems with one's computer. When consumers turn on a video game console or a phone, however, even though it's just as complex as a computer, they expect it just to work.

Publication and Liability

While the previous section relates somewhat to how people see an "Apple" product, that side of things goes deeper. As we saw above, Apple exerts a lot of editorial control over what software is available for the iPhone, and even if they were not concerned about the quality of individual applications themselves, it would be very difficult to avoid at least ensuring that applications don't interfere with other software on the phone. Let's say someone downloaded an application that turned her iPhone into a "brick," that is to say, broke the entire phone. Apple no doubt believes, and probably correctly, that fixing this problem is going to end up in their lap, and "buy a new iPhone", or even "we'll wipe the entire phone, including your personal data, and give you a fresh software install" is not going to cut it.

Also, because iPhones (and some iPads) are radio devices, Apple has legal obligations about what what they can permit the device to transmit. If a radio device can be easily tweaked to do something like jam other people's phone calls, the FCC and other national communications regulatory authorities hold the manufacturer responsible. Most radio devices these days allow for a great deal of software control, and Apple simply can't avoid taking all reasonable steps to ensure that software to make its radio do bad things doesn't get on to the phone.

(This problem can be mitigated through "sandboxing" applications—but see below.)

So we can see that, for legal and some eminently reasonable marketing reasons, Apple needs to exert a fair amount of monitoring of and control over what software goes on their phone. Unfortunately, even if you don't care what people think about your company, with control comes potential legal and even criminal liability.

Consider: if you rent someone a car, the brakes fail while he's driving it, and he runs over someone, it's quite possible (and most people would feel reasonable) that you will be considered to have contributed to that injury or death. Even just knowledge of a crime can make you a criminal because you become an accessory:

A person with such knowledge [that a crime is being, or will be committed] may become an accessory by helping or encouraging the criminal in some way, or simply by failing to report the crime to proper authority.

The extreme example of such a situation for Apple would be if they received an application called "Child Porn" which actually did contain child porn, and distributed it through the App Store. I don't think anybody doubts that they'd be held at least an accessory to this criminal act. Lesser situations, and civil rather than criminal suits, may be less of a problem, but it's still a problem, and in many situations you simply can't know to what conclusion a judge or jury will come.

Apple certainly cannot be blamed for taking this into consideration.

Sandboxing

I mentioned "sandboxing" above. This is a technique where you run code in a way that limits what it can do and what effect it can have on the hardware and other applications: essentially, letting it play only in the sandbox, and strictly controlling what effects it can have beyond that.

Even under the best of circumstances, this is a difficult technique—no easier, in fact, than keeping every last grain of sand in the sandbox in a playground. (See the Wikipedia entry for more details.) It's no surprise that Apple can't do this for their native applications, which are what we're discussing here.

However, there is another type of application for which they do do this: web applications used through Safari. And you'll note that these are entirely open: iPhone users can access any web content they wish without restriction. I think that this reinforces my point about liability above.

So What to Do?

I think we can see here that Apple's in a bit of a tricky situation here. As Tog said, "Apple has gotten itself trapped in a box, and it's one that will not neatly unlock." But I think it's clear that they're probably not just being unreasonable jerks here: they have some valid business concerns based on what's happened to others in the past, and they've got some powerful external forces reinforcing those.

My original thought on the matter was to make things wide open, but put apps that didn't come from the App Store in a separate area (a "ghetto," essentially) and have users confirm that they really want to use these. However, the lack of sandboxing is a major problem here: until they overcome that technical hurdle, I don't see how they can reasonably allow this.

So I find myself, though through different reasoning, thinking that Tog's proposed solution is the best one:

The simplest way out of this quandry might be for Apple to expand from having an App Store to having an App Mall, anchored by the App Store and flanked by a small number of independent "boutiques." (No, they would't all be for porn. There could be a liberal boutique, a conservative Christian botique, etc., anything not rigidly corporate-mainstream.)

Apple would require these independents to apply the same stringent interface, safety, and legal standards as Apple, monitoring them from time to time only to the extent that, with parental controls turned on, unsuitable material as defined in their "lease" remains inaccessible. However, the independents, within those few, well-defined constraints, could mount whatever products they so chose. Apple could still, as mall landlord, get a cut of every app sold without getting its hands dirty at the same time.

While I wouldn't put it in terms of "parental controls," it makes perfect sense to have a system whereby users (or their parents, if they're young) would have to agree explicitly to certain terms and conditions for access to each of the non-Apple shops, ensuring that they understand what they're getting into when they enable it, and providing legal cover for Apple if they come across something that they don't like. That would also enable Apple to make its shop even more "family friendly," reducing their chances of getting sued, if that's what they're worried about.

Even better for Apple, this would introduce competition into the application approval process. I can't imagine that this is a profit center for Apple, yet it generates an enormous number of complaints and general ill-will from developers. Being able to have a wider range of applications approved, and having more companies working on the approvals process, would almost certainly help the situation. I would not be surprised to see "premium shops" arise that charged developers significant amounts of money for fast, thorough approval: for some developers it would be worth paying more in order to get their applications approved quickly.

Regardless of whether or not Apple picks this particular solution, I think they're going to need to do something. If they don't, now that Android is on the scene, we're likely to see over the next few years whether such strict control really is preferable to a far more open system.

2010-05-02

The Smartest Man in Babylon

Abstruse Goose's comic The Smartest Man in Babylon, which appears to be a comment on copyright, is correct up to the last line:
Now the single "smartest" (and most brazen) thing that any person has ever done...was to convince the world that this abstract sequence of numbers was his property.
Except that he didn't. We did that.

"We," in the sense of people, lawmakers, society, or some combination thereof, in our collective wisdom have decided to award the discoverers of particular sequences of numbers a state-enforced monopoly, for a limited period of time, and with certain limitations, on the copying of these numbers. The ostensible reason for this is to encourage people to spend time and effort discovering (or "creating," if you like) such things.

This general idea makes a reasonable amount of sense, actually. And if you want to know what happens when we don't do this, we have plenty of historical examples to chose from. (Post your favourites in the comments!)

That said, there's no reason things have to be this way. If you feel the current state of copyright law has gone far beyond its original intended purpose and is now doing as much or more harm as good to us (except for certain groups), well, you won't be seeing a whole lot of disagreement from me.

I think one of the key things to remember in this debate, though, is that we, as a society, are in control of such things. And it could well be that all of these young "pirates" who are "stealing" MP3s and the like are simply stepping up and registering their opinion that we need a new balance here. (Or it could be that they are simply naive and don't understand economics very well.) There's no question that we're seeing some sort of backlash against powerful lobbies that are clearly attempting to preserve their own profits gained through rent-seeking.

So let's have a discussion about it. A good place to start appears to be with William F. Patry's book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars. (I myself need to finish it before I can comment well on it.)

So think about it. What do we, as a society, want?

2010-04-29

Peter Watts: Free?

Well, Peter Watts didn't go to jail. (For those not following this, you can do a web search and find the full story. I don't have the heart to look again at those articles.) This is a victory according to some, and I am happy that he can spend Canada Day home this year. Still, besides having to pay a fine and his lawyer, he's now a convicted felon and may never be able to enter the United States again, which is not an insignificant thing for a science fiction author where conventions are an important part of one's career. He certainly didn't get off scott-free.

But a particular line from Madeline Ashby's post on the sentencing rather summed up my view of the whole thing:
What happened to Peter Watts could happen to any of us.
Now I'm a Liberal, which, when I get into conversations with Americans in bars, appears to mean that I agree with right-wingers almost as much as left-wingers and have only a few of my views in common with libertarians. I certainly respect the risks that many law enforcement officers take every day, even those who are border guards on the Canadian border. (I must admit I do not know how dangerous that job is.)

But there's a difference here: LEOs chose that life, and, if the American ideal is to be believed, they did it to protect the rest of us. So why do I feel nervous crossing the U.S. border these days?

Beyond the day-to-day problems of the U.S., the 9/11 moral panic, NSA wiretapping, Bush rather extending (to use a polite term) executive power, Obama continuing that; all of these scare me. When I go there, it can happen to me, or anybody else, from illegal immigrant to full-fledged citizen. (For some it even happens if you don't go near America; just ask all those who've had a free flight to Gitmo.)

This is why, though I've always appreciated intellectually the ideas espoused by people like Scott Greenfield in his blog Simple Justice, I now feel a lot more viscerally what he's talking about.

It's terrible feeling at first, when you live amongst the free, to think, "I could be next." Perhaps you get used to it.

2010-04-26

$200 Million per Arrest

Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. has a fantastic article on the uselessness of air marshals. Best quote:

al Qaeda's most important accomplishment was not to hijack our planes but to hijack our political system.
Edit (2014-09-17): Sorry about turning off comments for this post, but somehow it got popular and spammers started deluging it with comments linking to their own stuff. Weird.

2010-04-24

Only a loser would delay the news for her blog.

Not Always Right is certainly full of social comment, but it invariably makes fun of people who don't understand what's going on. That of course means that, if the Internet is involved, it makes fun of people who don't quite understand the Internet.

That makes me wonder why this exchange is there, since it so clearly does involve understanding on the part of the customer this time, rather than the staff member:
(It is a few minutes after closing time and we lock the door. Moments later I hear the sound of breaking glass. I rush over and see a woman on the ground surrounded by glass. She had tried to walk through the door and broke it.)
Me: “Miss, are you alright?! Are you hurt anywhere?”
Customer: “No! No…I think I’m fine.”
Me: “Miss, let me show you somewhere to sit while we wait for security and the ambulance.”
Customer: “No! I don’t have time d*** it! I have to go write this in my blog!” *runs off*
Was it because she didn't just pull out her Blackberry and Twitter it?

2010-04-22

Is Open Source Worse at Innovation?

A comment on Charlie's Diary from William T Goodall rather stuck in my craw:
I think a new consensus is emerging - that open source is very good at solving some well-defined problems such as building services like web servers and database engines and scripting languages and very bad at things like building UI or innovation. Whereas closed source is very good at UI and innovation.
The irony of this, of course, is that his words come to me via arguably the biggest innovation in the last fifty years: the TCP/IP based Internet.

Those familiar with networking terms will know that "internetwork," often shorted to "internet" just as "network" has often been shortened to "net," is a technical term for a network of networks that can all communicate amongst each other. Let's see why, though there have been many internetworks or internets, this one gets the capital 'I'.

Through an open project, where ideas, standards and code were freely shared, TCP/IP was developed in the early 1970s as one of the world's first internetworking protocols, quite probably the first. It's not clear how much of the early code survives and how widely it was shared; the world was one of few hosts, and divided by a lot of different languages and architectures. Over the next ten years, however, the C programming lanuage and the Unix operating system started to take hold, and expansion in the use of C, in particular, made the open source network stack written by some folks at Berkeley University particularly popular. Probably because of this openness it became the primary research platform for TCP/IP: this is where many of TCP/IP's innovations started and were tested. As well, as commercial interest grew, the code became the base of many commercial products (including the first Windows TCP/IP stack).

Starting from the late 80s, the commercial world came out in force with their own protocols and innovations. Major competitors included not only the big firms such as IBM and DEC, but smaller firms that, for a while in the late 80s and early 90s, came to dominate the microcomputer networking market, such as Novell and later Microsoft. The 90s became a battleground for networking protocols, with TCP/IP fighting it out with the rest.

As it turned out, TCP/IP stayed ahead of the pack by continuing to be more innovative than the rest, dealing with technical problems earlier and better than its competitors. I spent the early 90s working with several different protocols. There were a surprising (to me at the time) number of things that could be done poorly, and most protocols did them poorly, at least at first. Some of them eventually caught up with TCP/IP, others never did, but TCP/IP was always overall the best.

Eventually, whether other protocols could eventually do what TCP/IP did made no difference: TCP/IP spent the 90s wiping the floor with its competition, and as of the early 2000s had essentially taken over the entire world's networking. There have been many internets, but the Internet is a TCP/IP-based one. It's hard to think of any proprietary system developed in the past fifty years that's been this successful, this innovative, and changed the world this much.

For those interested in studying this further, there are plenty of books on the history of the Internet, with varying coverage of TCP/IP versus other protocols. On of my favourites (though it stops in 1995) is Peter H. Salus' Casting the Net.

2010-03-28

Indignation

David Brin has an interesting hypothesis: indignation is addictive.

We know that the same chemical and other pleasure triggers and reinforcement processes that lead us to crave food, sex, and other things we need to survive, are often mislead by things we neither need nor really want to surive (such as heroin, cocane, cigarettes, alcohol, and similar drugs), and in fact these triggers can be self-induced through purely mental activities, such as meditation, prayer, and other religious activities.

Brin proposes that we look to see if indignation can provoke this sort of response as well. Having been involved in many an Internet flamewar, I find this quite plausible myself. It's ridiculous, I know, but I do somehow enjoy getting upset with people and flaming them. (I'm hoping that I now better recognise just what might be going on in my brain with this behaviour that I'll be able to control it better.) The beauty of this hypothesis is that, if true, it well explains so much of what goes on on Fox News. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, as they twist facts to upset themselves, are no different from the crack addict who will do almost anything to get another fix.

An interesting thing about this idea is, as with drug additions, how far it might lead you into behaviours that, given your background, you really ought to revile. The behaviour of Gretchen Carlson could be an example of this. That she would claim to have to look up the words "ignoramous," "double-dip recession" and "czar" is astonishing enough, but that someone with an academic background that includes an honors degree in sociology from Stanford University and studies at Cambridge is otherwise almost beyond comprehension.

But damn does it make for amusing television.

2010-03-24

"I'm not listening!"

Yes, it's been a while. I'm in NYC, travelling. The United States is perhaps not as bad as you'd expect from reading about it, but I still did view what was apparently an American citizen (he was in the US-passports line at immigration) get fingerprinted and photographed coming into the country. It sends a little chill down your spine when you see that sort of thing; it feels a bit like you're going into East Germany or something.

But reading about this I can only say, "wow." I'm not even big on the whole "huge amount of respect for the President" thing, but you'd think it would seem reasonable that students would be allowed to see and evaluate a statement from the leader of the country that they live in. This is the most shocking thing to me: I'd not really realised until this point how certain groups are really trying to shut down discussion more than anything else. Ironically enough, I've not seen anything like this since totalitarian communism was a major idea in the world.

Were I leading the White House press-release folks, I'd just put out a statement saying that it's very sad that certain parents don't want their children to hear a "work hard and stay in school" message. It seems so simple. But I suppose that that's why I'm not a publicist.

2010-03-07

Hold Onto Your Underwear

Hold Onto Your Underwear is a fantastic essay by Tom Engelhardt. I only wish I could have written that so well.

2010-03-06

Why Students Still Prefer Paper Textbooks

Over at Wharton's blog there's an article called "E-textbooks: The New Best-sellers". The title's a bit misleading, since at this time e-textbooks are not at all bestsellers:
Indeed, approximately 88% of college students own laptops, according to a study by EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, a Boulder, Co., think tank. But so far, few of them download electronic textbooks, even though they could save money. The National Association of College Stores estimates that less than 3% of textbook sales today are digital versions....
Looking at the pricing example they give next, it's easy to see why.
Students get a 180-day license for the book rather than permanent ownership -- which means there is no used-book market for CourseSmart titles.

CourseSmart prices are typically half the list price of a textbook. For example, Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw's introductory Principles of Economics, which has a list price of $220.95, costs $110.49 for the electronic version at CourseSmart. Amazon.com sells the paper version for $168.01 and an electronic Kindle version for $141.56
What they don't mention here is that Amazon sells used copies of the book for anywhere between $100 and $140. That means that there's a market for used copies, and this needs to be factored into the total price. If a student can sell a used copy for 25% of the suggested retail price of the new book (and I suspect he could get more than this), that brings the total cost of a paper copy for one semester to $168.01 - ($220.95 * 0.25) = $112.77, or $2.28 more than the electronic version. It's quite possible, depending on the price a student can get for the used textbook, that this "rental" of the paper version could come out to be less than the cost of the electronic version.

Additionally, when you buy a 180-day rental of the electronic version of the book you lose the option to keep the book if you like it. It's hard to price this option, since there's no real market available for it alone, but it probably has some value. Even if that value to a student is only a few dollars, that again brings the cost of one semester's use of the paper edition down below that of the e-textbook.

It's clear that the publisher's made a mistake in the pricing of the e-textbook here, which is why it's not selling. Looking narrowly at just this particular instance, the publisher would be better off with a price lower than the common discounted retail price minus the typical resale price of a once-used copy. This would encourage more students to rent the electronic edition, and thus reduce the number of used copies available over time.

Publishers are certainly aware of the used book market and how it affects them. So the open question here is, why did they chose to make this pricing decision?

2010-03-03

Reading in the Bathtub

People are always talking about e-books over on Charlie Stross' blog, and occasionally the subject of reading in the bathtub arises. I'm rather a fan of this practice myself and, having switched much of my reading over to an e-book reader, yes, I read mine in the tub.

Everybody worries about dropping the darn thing in, of course. But this is also a worry for a paper book; the real difference is that it costs you a lot more if you drop the reader in. But I think that the risk of dropping an e-reader is less, so from an economist's point of view it more or less evens out. I've dropped paper books in the tub only a couple of times, and the reader is easier to hold, lighter than some books, and, because it's expensive, I tend to be a lot more careful with it. That's not to say if I'm feeling tired I won't hold it over the edge and outside the tub, anyway.

And the nice thing about it is that it's a lot easier to hold and use one-handed (especially when it comes to turning pages) than a paper book. Not only does this avoid the inevitable cramp I get in my hand when reading a paper book unidexterously, but also leaves a hand free to play with my rubber duck.

Alas, we don't yet have a waterproof reader (wouldn't that be prefect for onsen!), though I've heard that some people use plastic bags.

But it occurs to me, we already have radios, televisions and DVD players designed for the tub. Why not an e-reader, too? In fact, what's put me off the tub-DVD-players has really been the low resolution more than anything else: I want a full-HD BluRay system with surround sound for my tub! I've also wanted a computer in my tub for a long time. This would be Douglas Adams' dream bath.

I'm doubting we'll see a waterproof reader in 2010, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one in 2011, and I'd be surprised if we didn't have one by 2012.

The Pirate Experience

Are you the sort of person who buys DVDs? Pays for all your media? Has never, ever downloaded and watched a video?

Well, if you'd like to know what the experience is like, here's a comparsion chart.


(Hat tip to O'Reilly Radar's Nat Torkington on Four Short Links for 2010-02-23.)

2010-02-28

Should this be filed under "terrorism"?

You know you're a geek when you want one of these, for no reason in particular.

It's nice that they state, "To ensure the longest half-life possible, all isotopes are fabricated when your order is placed and shipped directly to you from our NRC licensed nuclear isotope manufacturer in Oak Ridge, TN."

But I wonder if it would have satisfied David Hahn.

2010-02-23

Preserving Digital Antiquity

In a recent comment thread, I started to discuss with Gary Frost how one might archive things for a long time—in essence, make sure that some bit of information we have now might survive for some time and be available to our descendents. (Here I want to append, "If there are any." Is that too cynical?)

I'm hoping that our little misunderstanding turned into an understanding. My main point was that digitised information can, if you maintain it, more cheaply survive local catastrophe than most more traditional forms.

That's not to say that's any sort of panacea. You have to do more work, more frequently, to make that happen. If someone happens to drop a book in a pit it wouldn't be a tragedy; someone else would take it out, more or less intact, somewhat later. (You would be surprised at how many centuries a book can survive in a pit. Possibly as long as a plastic bag.) But putting a floppy disk in your closet can be the kiss of death if, five years later, you have no living computer able to read it.

But, as I said, if you take advantage of the "copyability" of digital stuff, you can keep it for a long, long time, quite cheaply. The key point is that you have a limited amount of time during which you can copy it. In other words: get your stuff into the new format now, because it won't take long for it to become nearly (or entirely) irretreivable.

I'm not sure if this is really the tagline that digital archivists want, but it's the truth: sharks only live as long as they continue to swim.

2010-02-20

Don't comment unless you love me....

Here's an amusing comment policy.

While I think it's perfectly reasonable to reject comments from people who are raving, a couple of points about this seem designed to stifle any dissent. Not including links says that posters are not allowed to provide references to support their arguments, even though that's a cornerstone of any good analysis of a topic. And it's difficult to make a serious argument in one hundred words, not to mention that such a limit prizes quantity over quality.

Do you want to people to read reasoned argument against your posts? Or do you  want only comments saying, "Oh, you're so right"?

I managed to keep the last two paragraphs to one hundred words, and submitted them as a comment. Do you think they'll post it? I think it conforms to the letter of the rules, but not the spirit, so my bet is not.

2010-02-19

E-books...*sigh*

There have been three or four books I've quite wanted to read in the last month that weren't available in DRM-free electronic editions. (For various reasons, mainly to do with not owning the right operating systems, I can't read DRM'd books at all right now.) Tempting as it was to say "what the hell" and find pirate copies, I bought the paperbacks. This was in part because these were from authors that I particularly like and I wanted to signal the publishers to give them contracts for more books.

I've always got several books going at any one time on my Sony Reader (currently a PRS-505). It was interesting to compare the experience for things I could have been reading there rather than in paperback.

Perhaps there is something about the experience of a paper book: I find myself going to those rather than the many unfinished novels in the Reader. But at this moment I'm not entirely clear on whether it's because there really is something better there, or because the paper books I'm carting around with me at the moment are ones I am particularly desirous to read. Perhaps a bit of both.

I can certainly say that going back to paper books for a bit made it quickly clear what the problems are. They're not infrequently large and heavy, and inevitably your hand starts to hurt pretty quickly if you're holding them one-handed while reading. And when you're reading at the dinner table (which must be OK; I saw it in Brideshead Revisited ), they don't stay open as easily (or at all) on the table beside your plate. (And you can't just wipe off a bit of soup spilt upon them.)

The e-reader, though! The worst thing is the speed, or lack thereof. Page flips aren't instant, which I can usually live with, but my reader is currently taking considerably longer amounts of time to deal with chapter boundaries in technical books, if not in novels. Perhaps it needs a reboot. And when switching between books, well, ouch.

I also do seem to get slightly less material on the page when the typeface is as apparently readable as a paperback (it's hard to say, since I can't set the size exactly, and the leading always appears to be different).

And there may or may not be an indefinable thing that I'm not getting from it that I get from paper. It's hard to say. I may never know until I read the same book on both , alternating every few pages.

I suppose now I'm stuck always thinking of the advantages of one when I'm using the other.

Oh, yes, and I've also gone more than a week without a post. This isn't quite in violation of my New Year's resolution (which was to average at least one post per week), but it does a little bit miss the spirit of it, I think.

2010-02-11

Amazon vs. Macmillan: Something's Rotten in the State of E-book Pricing

The world (ok, really just a bunch of geek bloggers) errupted over the whole Amazon versus Macmillan spat, didn't it?  Some authors got particularly upset (see the TeleRead post below for links). Steven Pearlstein's Washington Post article is probably the best brief overview of the facts.

As far as analysis, the blogokatamari (am I allowed to translate that as, "blogoclod"?) has, as it so often does in matters best analyzed through economics, in most cases entirely missed the point. So far, of the dozens of posts I've read, only Chris Meadows at TeleRead and Lynne Kiesling at Knowlege Problem appear to have any real insight into the economic forces at work here. (And yes, Lynne, I love the word kerfuffle too. Didn't this one produce a brouhaha!)

Let's review the story so far, and please correct me if I've made an error here.

Macmillan has been "selling e-books" to Amazon. I put that in quotes because, of course, Macmillan sends over a single digital copy and allows Amazon to duplicate that copy as it sells it to a customer, modifying the copy to include the DRM specific to that customer.

Up to this point, as with hardcover books, Macmillan charged Amazon a fixed wholesale price for the e-book, which presumably they believed covered their costs. I understand that they also had a recommended retail price for the book, which I believe is also typically the price used when calculating authors' royalties (which are usually specified as a percentage of some price). It seems in this case that for many bestsellers Macmillian was charging a wholesale price of $12-14, and presumably the RRP was something like $24.99. Amazon, however, was selling the e-books for $9.99, and taking a loss on each one.

Macmillan, for whatever reasons (we can discuss that later), would prefer and has succeeded in pressing upon Amazon a replacement of this wholesale/retail system with an "agency model," whereby Macmillan sets the retail price, and Amazon pays 70% of that to Macmillan, keeping 30% for itself. Macmillian has stated that it will set its retail prices generally around the mid-teens, e.g., $15.95.

But wait a second. 70% of $15.95 is about $11, which is less than the $12-14 that the publisher was making before. And Lord help us if a book's retail price is set at only 30% more than the $9.99 Amazon was charging: now the publisher makes barely more than $9.

So a publisher is willing to butt heads with a retailer in order not only to have the retailer make more money on each item than it used to be losing, but is also pushing to take a cut in how much money it makes to do so?

I don't know about you, but this strikes me as odd. In fact, it makes certain castles in Denmark start to smell rather sweet.

So what's going on? Macmillan is obviously trying to introduce resale price maintenance here. (And they appear to have successfully done so. Other publishers are following along.) I'm not definitively against that, either; I actually have rather mixed feelings about where and when this can be helpful or harmful to consumers, the market and the economy in general. (Here you might find some interesting insight into the advantages of resale price maintenance.)

But here's where I have some sympathy for Amazon. Macmillan must have known what they were doing. You don't, as a company, blithely give up revenue because you feel it will make the world a better place and unicorns will pop out of rainbows and nuzzle you. You need a reasonably sophisticated analysis, good foresight and a fair amount of guts to give up immediate revenue in order to take a larger market later. I was amazed that a public company could even do this, until I found out that Macmillan is privately held. (Poor Amazon. Being public, they stand little chance. Bezos must be fuming right now.)

And if Macmillan knew what they were doing, they knew that by trying to move to the agency model they were quite directly attacking Amazon itself.

Amazon, not surprisingly, is a company in which information technology weighs heavily. If you think about it, one of the main things they do is replace floorspace, shelves and sales clerks with automation. If they do this well, they can do better than their competitors at giving a shopper a happy experience at minimal cost (to Amazon), which means that they can also sell the item for a little less money than their competitors and still make a profit. Replacing expensive people with cheap robots is a well-known route to making consumers happy (via lower prices), certain company stockholders happy (they own stock in the company that did this), and improving the economy. (Well, that last one is a long and complex argument, so either take my word for it or drop it.)

So when Macmillan tries to fix Amazon's margin, they're directly attacking one of the main things Amazon does. They're saying, "even if you can do the same thing for less money, you may not pass the savings on to your customers." What's gotten into their heads?

Not to mention the heads of the authors supporting Macmillan. Do they not realize that Macmillan is pushing to make less money from the books they're selling to Amazon? Surely the authors don't seriously believe that, when Macmillian is bringing in less revenue for a book, they're going to give the author more  money.

At any rate, if there's some truly brilliant business strategy behind this move, it seems that Random House isn't seeing it.

2010-02-10

O'Reilly's E-book Deal of the Day

I'm quite well disposed towards the technical book publisher O'Reilly. I've been a customer of theirs for almost two decades now due to the high quality of their books.

They've always been quite "geek-friendly," too, so it was not particularly surprising (though of course very pleasant) to find that when they started selling e-books, they chose a strict no-DRM policy. That took some of the sting out of the prices; somehow it feels as if, for a $45 paper book, paying $35 for the e-book is too much, though the manufacture and shipping of the paper book probably do cost less than $10.

I received a marketing e-mail from O'Reilly recently with a new, apparently on-going promotion: their e-book Deal of the Day RSS feed. Every weekday they discount one of their e-books to $10. For the more expensive $30 and $40 e-books, that works out to a substantial discount.

Whether they'll be able to make money from this, I don't know. But in my case, at any rate, it's certainly generating sales they would probably not otherwise make.

$10 or less is about my "worth taking a chance" price point. At that price, if the book looks moderately interesting and appears to be more or less relevant to my needs, I'll probably just buy it on the spot, even if I don't intend to read it immediately. For books costing much more than that I need to have a reasonably serious need for the book, and I also need to look through it (and perhaps check out some reviews) to investigate its quality. I may do this right away or, if I don't have an urgent need for the book, I'll likely put it on my "things to look at later" list, especially since in the fast-moving field of computer books a new edition or better alternative might appear at any time.

As I've mentioned previously, Skip's comment here is important. Even if the book is one I would later buy after doing the research, that's only going to happen if it comes to my attention again at the appropriate time. And even when I try to make sure that this happens, it often doesn't. I have a long list of interesting-looking books spread across various to-do lists, calendar entries and other files that fell into that "not ready to buy yet" category and remain unbought, some of them years later.

So what has O'Reilly's program sold me so far? Beautiful Testing (RRP $40) fell into the "check it out first" category and would have gone on to my to-look-at-later list if it hadn't been $10. I still don't have any idea when I'll have time to read it, but it's there whenever I care to get to it, and even if I never read it, I'm not out a huge amount of money. Apprenticeship Patterns (RRP $24) is a book I don't need now, but might need in the future. It too would have gone my to-look-at-later list, and might never have gotten off it, but it's worth $10 now just because I might need it later, or just get even a few good ideas out of it for myself. The Art of Concurrency is not worth the RRP of $36 to me (I'm already quite familiar with the subject matter), but might have $10 worth of useful new information. The New How (RRP $20) is a book which I probably would not have bought at all for more than $10 (and it just barely scraped in at that price). The topic matter is interesting to me, but not something I'm likely to use any time in the next few years, and I have no idea if the book is any good at all.

So O'Reilly's come out with $40 in revenue from me this year so far, as opposed to some possibility of $40 and a lesser possibility of $24 at some indeterminate points in the future. That's certainly left them ahead in this case.

But I'm only one person. The real questions here are, does this marketing strategy have the same effect on other people, and how much will O'Reilly lose from people who delay a full-price purchase they'd otherwise make on the chance that the book may come up on the daily discount list soon?

2010-02-05

kulula.com's New Livery

kulula.com is a South African low-fare airline known for their sometimes whimsical livery. These new Boeing 737s are particularly cute, I think. And won't Patrick Smith be pleased that they don't use the term "co-pilot"!

Flash and the iPad

The release of the iPad, which is essentially a large iPhone without the phone (or iPod Touch, if you prefer that terminology) has re-ignited the blogosphere brouhaha about the battle between Apple, which refuses to have a Flash player on the iPhone and iPad, and Adobe, the current owner of the Flash technology.

Adobe is starting to deal with this: they now have the ability to take things authored in their Flash developer tools and compile them into iPhone apps. This just seems to provide further proof that Adobe's revenue model is to make money from the authoring tools, not the Flash player, which they give away for free for the highest-volume platforms. (Adobe does make some revenue from selling ports of the player to other platforms, such as some mobile devices, but they also do incur development costs for this. I have no idea if that side of things makes or loses money.)

Given that, why keep the player proprietary? They've already changed their SWF specification license to allow using the specification to create players, which they previously did not allow. The next obvious step is to open source the code to the player (at least as much of it as possible—they may have licensed some technology from others they they cannot open) to try to damp down even further the complaints that Flash is a proprietary format.

Opening up the player is not likely to bring in any more competition for authoring tools; they already have had that for years. (I wrote and sold one myself.) This doesn't even have to kill their business of porting the player, if that's profitable; not every vendor that wants Flash will want to do the port himself. Nor would it stop them from continuing to offer their own plugin (which could include technologies that they can't open) for the best and most consistent Flash experience.

It's true, this could well make for a sub-optimal Flash experience on some platforms where a third party did the port. Still, it's better than not playing on those platforms at all, isn't it?

In hindsight, Adobe probably should have tried to take SWF to a standards track years ago, preempting competition from HTML5 and its associated technologies. Had they done that, they might now be in the position of being the largest provider of authoring tools for the iPhone and iPad. As it is, they're playing catch-up, and as standards grow in functionality, we may see them start taking over the market that previously belonged entirely to Flash.

2010-02-02

We Win Against the Terrorists?

Gosh, darnit, I'm a day late on my pledge[1] to let no more than a week go between posts. You should see what I have saved up (and you will, if you're unfortunate enough), though that doesn't count for much when there's still a huge editing job to be done on the backlog.

But to continue a theme, yet in a happier vein: without the overreaction of the U.S. government to the "terrorist threat," we wouldn't have Achmed the Dead Terrorist. (Let's not skimp on the kudos, either. The terrorists themselves made some small contribution; let's give them a credit as, oh, I don't know, "production assistant.")

Anyhoo, right indeed: this is happy in the way that some Beckett plays could be considered happier than others. And it's also no news to anyone, given the number of views this video has had on YouTube[2]. But still, if we can laugh at our enemies, that's only a step away from being able to laugh at ourselves.
Jeff: So you guys have any kind of motto?
Achmed: Like what?
Jeff: You know, like, "We're looking for a few good men"?
Achmed: We're looking for some idiots who have no future.
Jeff: Where do you get your recruits?
Achmed: The suicide hotline!
----
[1]: Not an Official New Year's Resolution. No Warranties, Express or Implied, will be honoured. This material is Expressly not Fit for Your Implied purpose.

[2]: In casual browsing, I've never run into anything on YouTube with anywhere near a hundred million views.  (Achmed has about 106 million views at the time of writing.) Looking for the most popular YouTube videos ever, I came across the Evolution of Dance, with some 136 million views. Despite no reference to Boy George, he's good (even better than Napoleon Dynamite) but still....

2010-01-25

The Moon as a Soviet Missile Attack

In a half dozen or so places on the web you can find the quote, "The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack during the early days of long-range radar." They mention nothing more than this, but I would guess that they're referring to the October 5, 1960 Thule BMEWS incident. Wikipedia puts it in less dramatic terms (albeit without references):
[T]he moonrise occurred directly in the path of the Thule detection radar, producing a strong signal return. While the computer system never generated an impact prediction, the large amount of data caused enough concern that the equipment was subsequently modified to reject moon returns based on their long (2 second) delay.
So where did this come from, anyway? The 1987 CACM paper "Computer system reliability and nuclear war" (full text behind a paywall, unfortunately) claims that there was
a false alert in the early days of the nuclear age [16, 69, 89], when on October 5, 1960, the warning system at NORAD indicated that the United States was under massive attack by Soviet missiles with a certainty of 99.9 percent. It turned out that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar in Thule, Greenland, had spotted the rising moon. Nobody had thought about the moon when specifying how the system should act.
(This was dramatic enough for the editors, or someone at CACM, to use this as a pull quote.) The supplied references, however, cast some doubt on this in my mind. They are:
89. New York Times. Moon stirs scare of missile attack. NPW York Times (Dec. 8. 1960). 71:Z.

16. Berkeley. EC. The Computer Revolution. Doubleday, New York, 1962.

69. Hubbell, J.C. You are under attack! The strange incident of Octoher 5. Reader's Dig. 78, 468 (Apr. 1961), 37-41.
So, supporting this statement in what is presumably trying to be something along the lines of an academic journal we have, as well as the venerable New York Times, a popular press paperback and the Reader's Digest. Let us pause while we contemplate that last one.

At any rate, as you can see from the title of the Times article, perhaps it wasn't quite such a scare after all. I don't particularly feel right now like paying $3.95 for the full article, but I presume that, in the newspaper article tradition, the first paragraph is a proper summary of the exciting part of the story:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (AP) -- Radar reflections from the moon set off a missile scare at the nation's air defense centers on Oct. 5. The Air Force said today, however, that its equipment had been adjusted to avert more such flurries.
Then again, perhaps the Reader's Digest fact-checking department managed to verify what the New York Times fact-checkers couldn't. I think it's clear which story the CACM went with.

Update:

I have now managed to track down the full text of that Times article, and it turns out that the first paragraph truly was the most exciting one. The paragraph following:
Actually, the scare was only momentary, the Air Force said, since a quick check turned up the error.
Eventually, we find that even in those heady days of the cold war we had someone rather more level-headed than General Ripper in command:
[T]he commander in Colorado, Gen. Laurence Kuter, had found immediately that the reported detection "was totally unsubstantiated by other information sources and in no way indicated a threat" of missile attack.

2010-01-23

Another Terrorist Win

Patrick Smith gets it right once again. Someone mistakenly opened an emergency exit door in an airport, and
"As a result of the defendant's actions, thousands of people were required to evacuate and to be rescreened by TSA, causing substantial delays in the airlines' schedules," District Attorney Richard Browne said in a statement.

No, I'm sorry, Mr. District Attorney, but that's not it. What caused the delays and what hassled so many travelers was not the defendant's actions, but our mindless and hysterical response to them.
Another successful terrorist attack! I just wonder where the terrorists were in all of this. Laughing from the sidelines, I suppose.

2010-01-21

Sights Unseen

The Association of Photographers Gallery (81 Leonard Street, London) is currently running an exhibit of photographs taken by bind people. (The link leads to a short BBC video feature.)

Possibly because I started with a Lomo LC-A (and all that implies, art-wise), various "non-standard" forms of photography fascinate me. As I suggested to Charlie Stross late last year, perefect sight is not a key component of all photography:
[It] isn't out just because of your vision problems; you just need to get a bit more creative, and get into the more interesting areas.... To address the two specific concerns you put forward, there are (and have always been) lots of cameras that don't use viewfinders, including view cameras and many modern digital cameras. As for focus: modern cameras have autofocus; when you're shooting with wide angle lenses at reasonably small apertures scale focus works just fine (you have a huge depth of field, so it's very hard to get stuff out of focus); and with a pinhole camera, the entire image is always in focus.

In fact, your visual limitations might force you into doing something far more creative than you would otherwise. What about making your own photographic paper and doing contact shadow prints in the sun? Or building your own pinhole camera? There's a huge world of photography out there beyond what people usually think of as photography; even the Holga and Lomo stuff is in the fairly "normal" end of the range.
I also mentioned a fellow who makes photos with a Van de Graaf generator sending electricity through the film, and even a wet plate and tintype artist showed up in the comments. (Yes, I think that's very, very cool. Then again, the one cookbook I currently own is one of recipes for photographic film developer.)

So I'm quite excited by the idea of finding some way, other than looking through a viewfinder or at a screen, of deciding what will be captured on film. My imagination ran wild. How do you calculate exposure? Could you make a touch scale for it? Perhaps we should be printing sandpaper, where the roughness or smoothness matches how bright or dark something is?

It turns out that many of the photographers are partially sighted. (They may not see a curb in front of them, but they'll see a big freaking wall.) That's something I think is not well known in the sighted community: many "blind" people do have vision: it's just not the sort of vision we sighted people have.

I did wonder about the photographers' involvement in the other half of photography: editing. By this I am not talking about going at your photo with Photoshop. (I, having learned in an analogue world, would call that "printing.") I mean selecting, out of all of the photos you took, the appropriate one or ones for some purpose, as the photo editors of magazines do. (Of course this includes chucking out all the ones that didn't work at all. I'm starting to get good at that bit, I think.)

It's quite difficult to be put on the spot and asked to take a good photograph of some arbitrary subject or situation. The ability to do that is why the professional photographers get paid the big bucks. However, if you take enough snapshots, the million monkeys syndrome will kick in faster than you'd imagine and some of them will be great. I have a book by Christian Skrein called Snapshots that demonstrates this: it's a masterful collection of 500-odd photographs edited from more than a million snapshots, and I can spend hours on a few dozen pages of it.

So we must not forget whomever is editing these selections of photographs. But let's also keep this in mind:

The partially sighted photographers have more visual engagement with the world than you might think, and the fully blind have their own means to see what's going on. Perhaps they can, in some way, show you their view of the world, even though you can no more properly understand it than a blind man can understand colour. As Matt Daw says at the end of the clip:
When it comes down to it, photography is more than the creation of something visual. It's a communication of a moment of an experience, of a thought process, and if that moment has been experienced with senses other than sight, it can still be captured in a photograph.

Kindle and Sharing

On the TeleRead blog there's a post from a fellow who introduced his elderly stepfather to the Kindle. Interestingly enough, though he had no knowledge of DRM, he pretty quickly understood what some of the limitations of the device and system would be.

First (though this is not really DRM-related), when he discovered that he would have to use an "account" for this, he had a privacy concern: would Amazon be keeping track of what books he had bought and loaded on to various devices?

Second, he quickly understood that, unlike with paper books, lending would be a problem: how would he lend a copy to his wife? His stepson suggested sharing an account, and this seemed to be acceptable to him. But then he asked how he'd lend a book to a friend:
When I explained the potential snag here ([you could] add him to your account; but that would mean he could spend your money with it), he matter-of-factly pointed out that if he had a paper book, he could give it to whomever he wanted to.
However, the issue of lock-in (due to DRM and proprietary formats) didn't seem to be a problem: "He is not the type to re-read a book and is not concerned with how accessible a title might be to him 25 years down the road. But he did ask about reading library books."

Publishers, of course, are not going to be happy to hear this. They quite dislike both lending and resale of books, since they consider these to be cutting in to their market for new copies.

I wonder if publishers would be happier moving to a purchase/rental model like that of home video, where as well as having the option of spending $15 to buy a disc, you can also spend $3 to rent it for a week. Even as an anti-DRM guy myself, if the price were low enough I would be fine with "renting" books in that way. While I do want to have a large library of my own always available (for those moments when I get a craving for something in particular), and I own a lot of books I'll re-read, there are a substantial number of books I'd be happy to rent, and in those cases the DRM isn't much of an issue for me.

With anything I buy that's got DRM on it, that is in fact the way I look at it now: I'm essentially "renting" the item for an indefinite period, which means I have no right to re-sell it and will lose access to it one day. (I wonder what happens to all of the DRM'd e-books owned by someone's estate after they die?)

The key, of course, would be to make it cheap enough. Renting a video for $3 is a no-brainer for me (it costs me more than $3 in hassle to download a video, and often the quality is worse); but spending $15 on an e-book without the ability to lend and resell that I get with the $15 paperback is not something I care much for.

Update:

In this comment Skip notes that he will buy an e-book he's not going to read right away if it's cheap enough because that gets it on his list of things to read while his attention is there. I do exactly the same for DVDs: if I come across something I want to see, but it's low on my priority list, I'll buy it anyway if it's less than $10 because then it's there when the mood strikes me. (And yes, amongst the 300-odd DVDs I own, I have a stack of thirty or forty waiting to be watched. Some have been there for years. :-))

The interesting thing he mentions is that if the e-book is too expensive and he passes by the opportunity, it probably won't come again:
So what happens is, the marketing machine will do its job and generate a page hit - I'll go look at a work. If it falls into the category that in the past I would have waited for the paperback, at this point, if it's $10, i go ahead and buy it because that's only a few bucks more than the eventual price I'd have paid. If it's, say, $16 for the electronic edition I'm not going to buy it right now.

So now the publisher has to fund a second PR cycle when the price drop happens, or the odds of me ever buying the book drop drastically, because they're no longer getting the free eyeballs on the product when I go to check out the other new stuff.
This idea conflicts with the traditional form of rental, where you have the item for a limited period of time and then lose access to it. DRM does in theory enable "view once" or "read for one month starting at any time in the future" models, but remember, I think of DRM as giving me something for a limited period of time: if something happens with the device or the publisher, I may lose access to that book even before I've started reading it.

2010-01-15

Unsuccessful Terrorism

While terrorists may be costing us a fair amount of of money, aggravation, and freedom, they do appear to be failing pretty badly in one area: that of blowing things up.

More than two years ago, Lewis Page, an ex-bomb-disposal-operator, wrote an article for The Register describing how incompetently made most bombs are. He's recently written a new article explaining how they really could blow up things if they got their act together, found a few competent people to build the devices, and found some others to deliver them. Given the lack of successful attacks—heck, given the lack of attacks period—it appears as if that's much harder than it looks.

Or perhaps there are some master terrorists somewhere that realize they don't really need to go that far, and that a few clownish failed attempts (which stand little chance of doing much harm beyond the suicide bomber himself) are entirely adequate to give entire nations a panic attack.

2010-01-08

Successful Terrorism

When it comes to killing people using airplanes, terrorism isn't doing all that well. Nate Silver gave us a nice little ten-year evaluation of The Odds of Airborne Terror, and Gizmodo did it up as a colourful chart.

Sad to say, it appears I'll be flying to the United States twice this year, and while I've never been a huge fan of air travel, I'm especially not looking forward to what will no doubt be my most uncomfortable and pointlessly time-wasting experiences yet, given the recent successful terrorism incident.

Oh, what's that? It wasn't successful, you say? As I mention in a comment on Cockpit Conversation, I thought so too.

My initial thought upon hearing about this incident was that it should be counted as a success in counter-terrorism. The passenger screening appeared to be good enough that the perpetrator couldn't manage to bring an effective bomb aboard the aircraft, passengers stepped up to stop him when they discovered what he was doing, and the aircraft landed safely.

Bravo! One attempt at terrorism has little to no effect.

Until the TSA steps in, of course, and decides to make it a lot more successful. Now we have yet more secret rules, an elevated climate of fear, and a greatly elevated level of passenger annoyance and inconvenience, including losing the right to read a book (or was that never a right in the U.S.?) for an hour of one's life.

It makes me wonder if TSA really stands for "Terrorist Support Agency." Terrorists wouldn't get nearly as far disrupting our lives without the TSA to assist them in this way.

2010-01-04

Region Coding

This is hardly a new complaint, and the media companies and everybody else are I'm sure familiar with it. So I'm just venting here. But still....

A year or so ago, I paid about CDN$60 for a copy of the DVD set Smiley's People. It's not a bad production, as I recall; I thought I might watch it again.

Unfortunately, since the last time I watched it, I've replaced my old DVD player with a PS3, bought here in Japan (where I live). While I was happy to thank Acorn Media (to the tune of $60) for making this DVD set available, I can no longer play it. Better yet, I cannot anywhere buy a copy that I can play on my PS3; such a thing does not exist. (There appears to be a region 2 version of the DVD set available, but it's a PAL version, and Japanese (and also American) PS3s do not play PAL discs.

So what am I supposed to do here? Buy another DVD player?

I suppose I could try to find appropriate software to rip the DVDs and convert the output to something I can play on my PS3. Were I in the US or UK, this would be illegal. (In Canada and Australia, apparently it's ok.) I don't know the situation for Japan; does anybody else? It's also a lot of work, for someone who doesn't usually do this.

I could just go and find a BitTorrent site that has these, and download them. That would be easy and free. But that makes me wonder, why did I spend $60 in the first place?

This sort of pain has hit me before, and will no doubt hit me again. I feel as if I'm receiving a very clear message from the media companies: it's not only cheaper, but more convenient to download pirate copies of what I want to watch. I own more than eight hundred CDs, close to four hundred DVDs and as of late a handful of Blu-ray discs as well. Is this really the message they want to be sending someone like me?