Wednesday, January 7, 2009

News Roundup 3

...At least I think it's the third one... It's been a while since I got any keyboard time. I never get much at home; I primarily write these at work, and edit and publish them at home. I've only recently found out that Blogger/Blogspot isn't blocked at work (having inadvertently stumbled upon one of their blogs), but I try to login to as few sites as possible at work, keeping in mind that communications channels can be monitored and logged at the server level, which is probably offsite, at corporate HQ or something. I don't know enough about browser security to know what is and isn't encoded, and to err on the side of caution, I prefer not to let sensitive login information go out over the Net here. Anyway, onto the news.

DRM-free iTunes

So, it seems that iTunes, arguably and at least perceptually the largest legitimate distributor of digital music on the Internet, has abandoned DRM entirely. This is a very bold move for a company which is known for setting trends. The original Macintosh brought desktop computing home in a way IBM didn't think of. Microsoft might have stolen the GUI concept from Xerox before Apple, but Apple did it right first. Fast forward 20 years - the portable Mp3 players were out years before the iPod. First one I saw was Creative's Nomad, a 4GB hard drive in something that looked like two Discmans back to back, ugly as sin with a $450 price tag - and I wanted one. But no, Apple hung back until they could accurately gauge consumer interest, and when the iPod came out, it was what everyone wanted, and they've led the game since. Likewise with cell phones. If they ever make a game console, I imagine it will be pretty impressive. (For a Microsoft product, the Xbox 360 is very good - if Apple's console is to the Xbox 360 what Mac OS X is to Windows Vista, we should all be in for a surprise.) For all this praise, I've never actually owned an Apple product. While I like what they're doing, I don't agree with their approach to certain things. Who I am, I can never be a "Mac user"; the most I'll do with them is appreciate from the outside.

That said, digital music has always been about music lovers. The last big thing, the CD, was the brainchild of the music industry. Actually, at the quality they wanted and the size they wanted, they'd only get 8 minutes on the disc, so I heard. They compromised on both (increased the size and decreased the quality) and we wound up with 5" discs that hold 80 minutes, much less than their predecessors, the cassette tapes, blanks of which came in variable size (limited by the amount of tape on the reels) and sold up to 120 minutes between the two sides. But with digital music, we had these CDs (or CD collections) and we had computers with CD-ROM drives, and hard drives were (and still are) getting bigger. We were willing to use 700MB per 80 minutes of music for our storage, impracticle as that would have been, but the technology just wasn't there. "CD rippers", as they were called, were not very good and failed often, and were not officially supported by any major company, and certainly weren't part of Windows Media Player, as they are now.

Long story short, Mp3s came about, but it wasn't through official channels. The MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards were hacked, and an audio format was born, not from a corporation or the MPEG group, but by "regular" people. The music industry ignored it, claiming that Mp3s were much lower quality than CDs. They were smaller in file size, but the quality was the same to most ears. By their claim that Mp3s were such low quality, the music industry all but gave permission for people to share them online. After all, if they were such low quality, they would want the popular songs passed around online. Remember that in the mid-to-late 1990s broadband access was very limited. If you were willing to spend 30 minutes downloading one five-minute song, it must be good, and if you were willing to do that for such a low quality song, you'd probably buy the CD, right? Wrong. DSL got big, a nerd named Shawn Fanning made a program called Napster, and everyone was off to the races. The record industry found itself fighting two battles. Their first battle was a PR battle for the CD format, to claim Mp3s were worthless. Their second battle was to stop people from swapping Mp3s over the Internet. But they really had no way to do that. Only the FBI really tracked people swapping files, but that wasn't music, that was kiddie. They were only willing to use this technology on stuff that was really, really bad, and with the RIAA swearing that Mp3s were far inferior in quality to CDs, it didn't look very serious.

Some years later, of course, the record industry began to recognize Mp3s as a viable means of listening to music. Even though the bitrate (amount of data per second) was about a tenth that of CDs (and keep in mind CDs were themselves inferior to the industry's ideas about digital music), they were all but forced to concede that the human ear just can't tell the difference, and most music lovers can't afford equipment that will make a CD sound better than a well-encoded Mp3. Suing people (or threatening to do so) wasn't working as a deterrent, so they began offering a legal alternative. Apple was one of the first to offer reliable music downloads from most record labels - to this day, only a few smaller ones hold out. The Beatles, for instance, will never be on iTunes, they say, because of a dispute over the name Apple. Apple promised them in the 80s they'd never use the name for music. With iTunes, they casually forgot about that, and John Lennon's band ain't too happy about that. But for the most part, you can get your favorite music on iTunes.

But the music industry has always been two steps behind the so-called pirates. While a pirate gets unrestricted Mp3s which can be used any way they like, the iTunes user can only use their iTunes songs on the computer they downloaded them on, and a couple other devices, and can only be burned to CD with certain restrictions. (Once something's on CD, it can be ripped to unprotected Mp3, but going from Mp3 or even iTunes' AAC files to CD "pads" the data to fill the space of a CD, and to rip that back to something like Mp3 means the whole track, including the "padding", is recompressed, meaning you lose a lot of quality.) So while iTunes was a good idea and worked for some people, it was widely argued (and irrefutable) that you could buy a CD and rip it to Mp3 for not much more than downloading restricted tracks from iTunes - or you could just download the songs for free, albeit illegally. Sony made a much bigger misstep - they planted computer viruses on several CDs under the idea that anyone sticking a music CD in a computer was going to rip it and share it online. They thought they'd kill piracy at the source, but as soon as word got out, many people just stopped buying Sony CDs and started downloading (mostly, illegally) the albums. The Mp3s didn't carry the viruses, and you could play and rip the CD just fine on a Linux computer. Linux, unlike Windows, doesn't take viruses. That is, how a virus works, to do damage and spread, Linux just ain't set up to allow that, like Windows is. So again the "pirates" win.

So now Apple's selling DRM (restriction) free music. They aren't the first - Amazon's done it for a while, for one - but again, Apple's looking at what works and what doesn't. Selling music with restrictions doesn't work. Hasn't worked. Well, it's made them successful, but they must be seeing now they could have done much better had they been DRM free from the get-go (although, the record industry most certainly would not have allowed that then). Now when you download from iTunes, you're getting about the same thing as when you download from illegal sites and services, except now you have a guarantee of quality and authenticity. Oh, and they're still using the AAC format, and the songs probably still contain your personal information, you know, so you don't go sharing them. But that shouldn't deter an honest customer, and if you're paying a buck per song as opposed to freeloading, you're somewhat honest to start with.

Porn industry now wants federal bailout

I'm not entirely sure MSNBC are being completely serious here in reporting that Hustler and Girls Gone Wild are asking for $5 billion from the government. Oh, I'm not surprised; the porn industry, much like pro wrestling, in fact, will do anything to be noticed or recognized by the general public. What the hell, I'll throw 'em a bone and drop 'em a mention. I'm nobody famous to start with. Anyway, Larry Flynt claims that the bad state of the economy means folks are spending less on pornography products.

Mr. Flynt, lemme tell you why your economy's hurting. Ain't got a thing to do with the economy, but economics does come into play. A pornographic DVD costs about $40, about twice what you pay for a Hollywood blockbuster on DVD. Granted, the porn DVD might be four hours long, so per minute it might be cheaper. But still, $40 was what we paid for DVDs before Best Buy and Walmart told us we could get them for under $20. Suncoast, FYE, and other mall-type stores sold most of the DVDs when the format came out, and they set the prices that high. The prices are still that high in those stores. It disgusts most people. We've come to expect to pay no more than $20 for a DVD. Walmart spoils the hell out of people with its $13, $7, and $5 bargain racks and drop boxes. Best Buy runs $10 sales regularly. And used DVDs are cheaper still. So nobody's gonna pay $40 for a DVD that, on top of the cost, they're only gonna watch in private, they aren't gonna watch it with their siblings or parents, and they ain't gonna put it on to occupy the kids - it's a different kind of DVD.

On top of that, commercial porn is pretty extreme... extremely tame, that is. It's commercial pornography. It's regulated. Everyone knows the most common laws. No kids, no animals. The animals part is easy. The kids thing, they have to verify each actor is 18 or older... they have procedures to do all this, get them certified. Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing, but with all the red tape, there's only so much they can do.

Here's the flip side. Here's what's sapping all their money away. It's the Internet. Like with the music, you can get all your commercial porn for free in much the same way. Those $40 DVDs? They can be downloaded for free. No brown bag shipping, your postal carrier doesn't get suspicious, and nobody has been sued for downloading porn that didn't feature kids or animals or rape or other crimes. The government don't care that you download a Hustler DVD. But the problem is bigger than that. High speed Internet plus the growing popularity in digital cameras that double as cheap camcorders means anyone - literally anyone - can whip up a video in ten minutes (as long as it takes to do the deed) and upload it in half an hour, as long as they have high speed Internet. They don't even have to be 18, let alone prove it. Say you download a video made by a pair of 16 year olds. Can you tell they're not 18? Do you really care? Sure, it's technically wrong, but if you don't know, is it so much worse than a video or picture of an 18 year old posing as someone much younger? Because that happens in the industry, and as long as the actor can prove he or she is actually 18, it's legal. A girl can be short, like midget height but not a dwarf, have a flat chest or a near-flat chest, and shave down there, and do a movie, in the role of a 12 year old. She's 18 and has the papers to prove it, but you can't tell she's not 12 by looking at her. What would you rather be caught looking at? What appears to be a 12 year old girl (who's actually 18) or what appears to be a college girl (who's actually 16)? I know what I'd rather be caught with, and it's the same as what I'd rather look at. Still, the point remains, anybody can make porn now. Anyone can get viewers. Selling it is another matter entirely.

Bottom line is, there's much less money to be made in the industry. If the economy was better... that would just mean people were spending frivolously, not that porn's any more valuable because people have money. It don't change the fact that you can get the same stuff and better stuff online for free. Oh... and in commercial stuff the women always fake it, and just about any guy who's not a virgin can tell. It's much more interesting when it's real and you can tell it's real. The industry can make money, they just need big changes in how they do things. Like any other business, really. Change, or be left behind.

Brave techies can try Windows 7 legally

Following, or perhaps to plug a leak, Microsoft has announced that they will allow anybody [brave enough to try] to download Windows 7 from their website. It's an early beta version, so it's not guaranteed to do anything for any particular system configuration, but the average Joe with a modern PC should at least expect it to boot.

Windows 7, Windows 7... what is Windows 7? In layman's terms, it's the next version of Windows, following Vista. The 7 represents (besides luck, which Microsoft will bank on - bank on it) the internal software version. Windows started using version names like most programs; Windows 3.1 was the last. Windows 95 and 98 also belonged to the Windows 3 family, as did the first Windows NT. Windows NT 4, Windows ME, and Windows 2000 represent Windows 4. XP is 5 and Vista is 6. I think. It's really confusing. What this means is that Windows 7 is a whole step above Vista, but since Windows 98 was still in the Windows 3 family with Windows 3.1, it doesn't seem to mean much. And that Vista, like ME before it, proved that newer is not always better. Especially when it comes to Microsoft.

7 isn't a lucky number for Microsoft. Windows Media Player 7 came shipped with technologies based upon the crackpot idea that if Windows Media Player refused to play .AVI files (which pirated movies come off the Net in) that people would give up and buy the DVD. Real smart, Microsoft - all ya did was send the business over to RealNetworks and Apple, as the RealPlayer and QuickTime could still play .AVIs. It's because of WMP 7 that WMP is still not trusted, to this day, why a lot of folks' favorite media players resemble WMP 6.4 (e.g. Media Player Classic, or even VLC, to an extent). WMP 7.1 quickly came out, able to take .AVI files again, but the damage was done. And then Internet Explorer 7 was the first version to come out that people really didn't care about. In the Internet Explorer vs. Netscape days, new versions of one would offset the userbase of the other. Now with Firefox, new IE versions 7 (and 8) didn't touch Firefox's userbase. Maybe if IE 9 includes ad blocking... nah, Microsoft'll never pop that titty out of their mouth. They want their share of the advertising revenue. Mozilla might not be invited to those parties, but something tells me they don't care. And now Windows 7. Third time's a charm?

Vista, for everything wrong with it, is a fundamentally broken OS. It's like what Mac OS was ten years ago. Sure, it looks pretty, but it can't do squat. At least it won't do what you want it to, the way you want it to. You have to learn the "Mac way". Same with Vista. You have to forget what you know and learn to do things the "Vista way". I say... "Uh-uh." I do things MY way. Even Windows XP doesn't always agree with me, but between nLite and a few other programs, I DO do things MY way on MY computer. (OUR computer, should my wife happen to read this.) But Vista, it's exceptionally bad. Take for instance my 750GB SATA drive. SATA's a relatively new hard drive technology that lets data transfer faster. Took me hours to get it working in my BIOS. I almost sent it back. For some reason, Windows XP has no problem with it. But Vista won't touch it unless I reformat it first. Nice, in theory, but it's almost filled with my stuff. Where will I PUT all that stuff while it's reformatting? Therein lies the problem with Vista. "We see you have a drive. We know it's SATA. We speak SATA. But we won't allow you to USE your drive until WE put OUR mark on it... and by the way, that involves erasing it." Before I drop the almighty HELL NO... would I have to reformat it every time I install Vista, or just once? (This ain't the C drive, the system drive, the drive I'm putting Windows on, by the way, this is just a data dump drive. Nothing gets installed on it.) Also, some genius (read: asshole) up in Redmond decided to dump XP's support for sound cards or motherboards' audio components made before 2007 or whenever Vista came out. In other words, I get no sound. Speakers don't work, headphones don't work. My motherboard was... well I bought it in 2005, so it was probably made in 2004... maybe 2003. Socket 939 Gigabyte nForce 4... you figure it out. Still decent, but in 2009 it's dated. And it wasn't blessed by Redmond, so I gets no sounds in Vista. XP don't mind it though.

One more F.U. before I play nice again. This ain't the first time Microsoft's let the public try an operating system before it came out. They did it with Vista, too. No problems there, aside from, well, what I said above, but just a couple months ago, they released the new Xbox 360 OS, Dashboard 2 aka "NXE" or "New Xbox Experience" early. When you install it (simply copy it to a flash drive or burn it to a CD and stick it in the Xbox) it gives you a bunch of crap to read. Nowhere does it say you get kicked off the paid Xbox Live internet service for three weeks until the OS gets force-fed to every 360 connected to the Net (3 months later, my brother-in-law's 360 still runs Dashboard 1 (aka the "blades"), but his isn't online). Nowhere at all. Nor does it give you a chance to reconsider, it just installs and restarts. And then every time you log in it spent 5 minutes looking for Xbox Live and not finding it. So now 3 months later, Microsoft's offering another OS for brave geeks to test... F.U. Microsoft.

Now, as promised, I'll try to play nice. Obviously Windows 7 needs to succeed. It needs to replace Windows XP on the desktop. Here's what needs to happen for that to come about. It's real simple. First of all, it's gotta run just as well on anything XP runs on. That has got to be a given. If I have a computer running XP and XP works with all my devices, Windows 7 needs to do the same thing. I can't install Windows 7 and have it tell me it doesn't like my printer or my camera or my flash drive, or my SATA drive, anything. It's gotta just work. All the basics need to be there. Because if they're not, I'm gonna go right back to XP and it's gonna take a small miracle to get me to try Windows 7 again. First thing they need to do is take all the drivers off the Windows XP disc and make them work with Windows 7. Maybe Windows 7 has some better drivers. Fine. But it comes on a DVD. It's not quite 4GB. There's room on the disc for both versions. Get everything working with the XP drivers during install. A couple days later, pop up a bubble saying "We have Windows 7 drivers for the following devices. This... that... the other... Would you like to try?" Then - and this is important - ONE at a time, starting with LEAST important, you upgrade the driver. If it works, the NEXT DAY, you offer to upgrade another driver. If it doesn't work, we go back to the XP driver. Once all drivers have been updated or tested, it gives you a report. Either all your devices work under Windows 7 drivers, or some (or all) need the XP drivers. The program then gives you a file, maybe even offers to burn it to CD (maybe you can even re-burn your Windows 7 installer DVD) and this lets it set the driver version during install, so you have the best working drivers next time you install.

Second, we need a transition mode. Full learning mode means you turn the OS into an XP clone. It's Windows 7 under the hood, but looks and feels like XP. Every time you go to do something, it offers to show you how the same thing would be done in Windows 7. You can tell it you know and it won't ask again, you can say "not now" to do it later, or you can look, and a Flash video or something would come up and show you. It ain't to my benefit that Vista moved everything around. I like how XP works. However, Vista is a little more approachable to Suzy Q Soccermom than XP, and that's a good thing, in the grander scheme of things. XP could pretend to be Windows 2000 and it did it quite well. Why can't Vista pretend to be XP, even if just for a while while the user learns the new stuff? Windows 7 ought to do this. As an extension of this point, not everybody wants a pretty OS. Yeah, we might all want a picture of our kid or a nice nature shot on the desktop, yeah, but the entire OS? Yeah, that's good for the soccer moms and junior high kids learning computers, but businesses and nerds alike want something more serious. Gates said 25 years ago that his vision was a computer on every desk running Microsoft software. We're there. We were there 10 years ago. Now they need to acknowledge that not everybody's the same, and give more people what they want, more choices.

Windows 2000 was the first really good version of Windows, and the only reason most of its users now use XP is because after the first service pack, it really had everything Win2k had, but a couple more features and looked a little better. Windows 7 needs to put the legacy of Win2k and Windows XP first, the productivity and efficiency second, and aesthetics a distant third, if it's to succeed.

Congress asked to delay the Digital TV conversion next month

Now what the shit is this? People are whining that their TV won't work after the change. The project's out of money. I say let them whine. These aren't real people who have anything to say worth hearing. These are just people looking for something to whine about. If it wasn't this, it'd be something else.

They've only been talking about doing this for over a year now. Several channels run a feed about the conversion; I know The CW runs theirs hourly, and it's very hard to miss. So people know. They've known for over a year. I would say that if you don't know by now, you haven't been watching TV, and you don't have any place to complain about not having TV in a month and a half because... you don't watch it now.

On top of that, the government is willing to pay for your conversion box. The basic model costs $40, the value of the voucher. There are more advanced models, but if your needs are simple, just get the basic one the voucher covers. All you're responsible for is the sales tax. Even if it's 10% it's only $4. If your TV's not worth $4 you don't deserve to have it. Don't you pay that much for batteries anyway when they go out?

And then you don't even need a converter box if you have digital cable or satellite, or a digital TV. Here's the real issue. Local TV stations which broadcast via antenna are going to switch to digital. Most already broadcast in digital as well. They're just going to stop doing analog. ALL this means is analog TVs (SDTV=analog; HDTV=digital, for the most part) receiving analog broadcasts are going to not be able to do so in March. If you have an analog TV and you get cable or have satellite, you're fine. If you have digital TV and have a digital antenna, you're fine.

Who relies primarily on an antenna anyway? Well, at work, we do. We have a tiny little TV with bunny ears on it. We can pick up four stations. We haven't got a converter box. If I had been working here six months ago, I would have applied for a coupon and bought a converter box. I'd have eaten the $4 so my coworkers could still have TV after the switch. Because I knew about this for months. But I'm relatively new here, and now that there are no more coupons, it isn't an option. Besides, some speculate that since the place has satellite TV in other areas, they'll hook us up. (Yeah, right, eh?) Me, well, I got my flash drive and (for now, until it's over) my Babylon 5 episodes. I watch TV and whatnot on the computer.

All that being said, removing access to a technology that seems to work fine is stupid. What, really, are we going to gain by cutting off analog TV? You ask me, I think this whole thing's funded by Sony or someone selling HDTVs. Maybe the HDTV makers, a few cable companies, and DirecTV and/or Dish Network got together and whipped this stupid mess up. Nobody should be forced to upgrade. But it's been on the table for over a year, they're willing to pay for your upgrade, so I say quit bitchin and take it - or shut up and enjoy the snow on your TV come March.

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