Trends & Quick Takes
Too Tired to Rip?
Leander Kahney tells an odd story in a January 25 Wired News article, “Pay service turns CDs into MP3s.” Nova Spivack, “a well-heeled New Yorker and technophile,” was dying to own an iPod—but he “couldn’t face the chore of converting 1,000-plus CDs to digital format.”
RipDigital to the rescue. “For about a dollar a disc, the company converts entire CD collections to MP3 files, all nicely organized by artist and album.” A few days after Spivack boxed up the CDs, he got them back with an external hard drive containing all the MP3 files, burned at a “near-CD” 224k rate. (At that rate, most people will not hear flaws, on most music, under most circumstances.)
Spivack says he had “my collection on my iPod” ten minutes after plugging in the hard drive and the iPod. Maybe. Assuming an average length of 40 minutes per CD, that’s not possible: Apple doesn’t make an iPod with enough capacity for 1,000 average-length albums ripped at 224k. But Spivack is delighted. “Having digitized his collection, Spivack tossed all the CD cases in the trash.” He’s “never going to touch another CD. I’m not even going to look at another CD.” Whatever.
RipDigital initially targeted DJs, radio stations, and “institutions like hotels and libraries” (which leaves out a teeny-tiny issue about libraries being able to circulate ripped music!), but were surprised at how much demand there was from “audiophiles” and collectors. Well, maybe not audiophiles: True golden-ears money-no-object audiophiles would consider any lossy compression, including 224k MP3, as an unforgivable sin against the music. And a true collector cares about the liner notes and other stuff that you lose when all your music is on a disk.
Truth in reporting: Most of the music I listen to these days is on CD-Rs, in audio CD form but expanded from 192k and 320k MP3 files ripped from our CD collection. But I’m not a true audiophile by a long shot, at least not by today’s standards.
Joe Wilcox at Jupiter Research was surprised anyone would pay for RipDigital’s service. “Wilcox said he ripped 400 CDs of his own on a Sunday afternoon. ‘It’s not that painful,’ he said.” He also doubted that CDs are doomed, since Jupiter predicts that downloading will represent a single-digit share of the music market for “the next several years.” Again, I wonder about some of this: Even at the most generous definition of “afternoon,” that’s more than one CD per minute, and I don’t believe that’s possible on a single PC. Ripping isn’t hard or slow (I figure 2-3 minutes per typical audio CD), but it’s not instantaneous either.
Spivack gets the final word in the article, and it places him firmly in the mindset continuum. “I’ve become a total iPod fanatic. In the week I’ve got this, I’ve spent about $500 at the Apple music store. My productivity is going down. Now all I do is play with digital music.” But hey, he’s a CEO (Radar Networks), so who cares?
Isn't political journalism wonderful? The groupthink decides what's going to happen, and they're never wrong. Take, for instance, John Heilemann's “Face Time” column in the January/February 2004 Business 2.0, “Labor's new look.” It was probably written in December. It's about Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, and SEIU's endorsement of Howard Dean for President. And here's the part I just love:
The SEIU and AFSCME are two of the largest and most politically potent unions in the country. By throwing their money and organizing prowess behind Dean, they may have changed his nomination from highly likely to virtually inevitable.
The column goes on to describe how Stern may become a “kingmaker” thanks to his prescient move to back the man who’s clearly going to be the Democratic nominee. Here’s a little more, to show just how detailed and infallible political punditry really is:
Among political professionals, the consensus now is that the nomination is Dean’s to lose. He has the most money, the best organization, and the only message that’s caught fire with most hard-core Democrats. And by winning over the SEIU and AFSCME, he delivered a crippling blow to the candidate I’d argue was his most dangerous rival, longtime union favorite Dick Gephardt.
There it is: The only real nomination battle was between Dean and Gephardt. Kerry was never in it.
It’s finally happened. The mythical five-inch optical drive has become so ingrained among technology journalists that Bill Howard (who should know better) has taken the next step. In “What’s new with notebooks” in the February 17, 2004 PC Magazine, he includes this remarkable sentence: “And 9.5-mm optical drives will replace 12.7-mm ones, letting notebooks with such drives maintain a thickness of just 1 inch.”
Except that there’s no such thing as a 12.7-mm optical drive, at least not in any consumer device. Howard is wrong in both magnitude and actual size. “127-mm” (or 12.7 cm) is another way of saying five inches. CDs and DVDs (and CD-Rs and DVD-Rs) aren’t five inches across and never have been, even though many writers call them either five-inch discs or, worse, five-and-a-quarter inch discs.
Full-size optical discs are twelve centimeters or 120mm in diameter, just under 4¾ inches. 12.7-mm would be half an inch in diameter. That’s a small disk: Roughly the size of the hole in real-world CDs and DVDs.
For that matter, existing mini-CD-Rs aren’t 9.5cm or 95mm (roughly 3¾ inches); they’re 8cm (just over 3 inches) in diameter. For all I know, 95mm discs might be on the horizon, but that seems like an odd and improbable intermediate given the established market.
I don’t buy the possibility that Howard is referring to the drive size rather than the disc size. Optical drives are almost always designed to fit the bays that used to hold diskette drives; they’re usually some six inches wide. Roughly 15.2cm or 152mm, if you prefer. That’s an approximation; I didn’t open my computer to do an exact measurement.
Who cares? Well, if you’re relying on PC Magazine for tests and all sorts of technological assertions, you should. Lack of numeracy seems particularly unfortunate in technology journalism.
One of those odd dustups in intellectual freedom happened February 12, 2004 in Michigan. A child ordered Asimov’s Science Fiction through QSP, an agency that sells subscriptions as part of school fundraising drives. The child’s parent objected to the content, contacted Asimov’s, then called WOOD TV News 8—which apparently ran a sensational report saying Asimov’s was pornographic: “Full of sexual content,” “an adults-only magazine” that “contained stories about sex, drugs, and molestation.” The story claimed QSP had dropped Asimov’s as a result of the parental complaint.
When I first heard about this, my reaction (as an Asimov’s reader since its inception 27 years ago) was “Whah?” Sure, there are stories that mention sex and drugs. Asimov’s is a science fiction magazine with some of the best writing in the field and a fairly wide-open approach to “science fiction.” I like it the best of the three established “monthlies” in the field. (Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact is the great home for “hard science fiction” and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction does more fantasy.) I’d say perhaps 5% of the stories might shock parents intent on shielding their children from reality, although a higher percentage may be out of reach of most younger children because of vocabulary and sophisticated narrative techniques.
Asimov’s posted a response to the WOOD TV story on its website (www.asimovs.com), noting that the QSP catalog is used to sell magazines to family members and parents’ coworkers, that many of the magazines in the catalogs are for adults (including Esquire, Vogue, Elle), that Asimov’s was listed under “Science/Technology/Environmental,” not under “Children,” and that Asimov’s had severed the relationship with QSP—months before the news report—for financial reasons. The response also noted Asimov’s track record: 40 Hugo awards and 24 Nebula awards for fiction, 17 Hugo awards for Best Editor (out of 26 possibilities!).
The rejoinder notes, “Our disappointment in their distortion of the facts is profound. In our opinion, Ms. Andersen and the News 8 channel are not practicing journalism, but sensationalism. They know, better than most, that ‘sex sells.’”
I have no doubt that reading Asimov’s encourages a youngster to think for herself and add new concepts to his repertoire. I have even less doubt that this constitutes pornographic activity in some minds. I started reading Analog (actually, Astounding at the time) and other science fiction magazines and books before I was a teenager. Somehow, I survived with my morality and ethics largely intact.
When you get rid of old computers—library or personal, desktop or notebook, by selling, donating, recycling, or junking—do you worry about what’s on the hard disks? Should you? Simson Garfinkel thinks you should—and he has evidence that most people don’t pay enough attention to this issue.
You already know that deleting a file doesn’t do much of anything, right? The file’s still there; only the name has changed. Windows FDisk “reformats” the disk—but it doesn’t overwrite most of the data sectors. (In his CSO article “Hard-Disk Risk,” Garfinkel says FDisk overwrites 0.01% of the sectors on a 10GB drive. The article is a year old, but the problem hasn’t changed.)
Garfinkel’s anecdotal evidence began with a trip to one of the “used computer stuff” stores in Silicon Valley. He noted 10GB drives on sale for $30 (which was a bargain a few years ago), and when he asked if information had been cleared from the drives, the staffer said they ran FDisk—which doesn’t do the job. Worse, the warehouse had stacks of $5 disks “as is and untested”—so FDisk hadn’t even been run. He picked up 20 of them just for fun, took them home and did some “forensic analysis.”
Several drives had source code from local companies. One had a confidential biotech memorandum. One had internal corporate spreadsheets. He was intrigued enough to try buying disks elsewhere, and picked up large quantities of drives on EBay. With help, he analyzed the content of more than 150 hard drives; between one-third and one-half still had significant amounts of confidential data. Only 10% had been properly sanitized.
What data? One disk had apparently been in an ATM and had loads of financial transactions. Two had more than 5,000 credit card numbers.
Another had e-mail and personal financial records of a 45-year-old fellow in Georgia. The man is divorced, paying child support and dating a woman he met in Savannah. And, oh yeah, he’s really into pornography.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As he notes, there are dozens of programs to clean your hard drive by repeatedly overwriting data files with random bit patterns. Some are designed to assure that deleted files on an active system stay deleted; others, “disk sanitizers,” overwrite every block on a disk drive repeatedly, then fill the disk with zeros. Ideally, the programs come on a bootable floppy or CD-ROM; boot, verify, and your disk will soon be truly unreadable. (Norton SystemWorks and Norton Utilities include a file-wiping utility that overwrites a file up to three times, meeting DoD standards.)
NIST continues to do interesting work on compatibility and survival rates for optical discs. A one-page “Quick Reference Guide for Care and Handling” if you plan on archiving CDs and DVDs is available at www.itl.nist.gov/div895/carefordisc/disccare.html.
The 11 “Dos,” 10 “Do nots,” and four “CD do nots” all make sense if you plan true long-term retention—including storing discs vertically, cleaning them using radial strokes (from the center of the disc toward the outer edge), and avoiding pens, pencils, or fine-tip markers (other than those specifically designed for such use) to write on the label side. The recommendations also emphasize the fragility of the label side of a DVD, and recommend gold reflective layer CD-Rs for archival purposes.
One recommendation is to not use adhesive labels—and I think that’s right if you plan to keep a disc around for decades. (I certainly agree that you should never try to peel off or reposition a label.) For everyday CD-R use, however, where you don’t expect the CD-R to last more than a decade or so, I believe today’s CD/DVD labels are sufficiently well designed to be more beneficial than harmful. At least I’m not going to stop using them on my own compilations—but none of those have archival value. Similarly, while upright storage makes sense for the years, horizontal storage within cases shouldn’t do much damage for a few days or weeks. Also, I’ve found that the simplest and most effective way to clean grungy NetFlix DVDs—and one of the two ways NetFlix recommends—is a quick spray of window cleaner, wiped off radially.
The February 17, 2004 Wired News article by Katie Dean is a classic good news/bad news story. The title is “TiVo gets huge horsepower boost,” but that’s misleading, since only one of the four units discussed carries the TiVo brand.
The good news: digital video recorders (DVRs, or PVRs as I’ve called them in the past) will be capable of high-definition recording in the near future. That means much larger hard disks, since it takes roughly 9GB to store one hour of HDTV—already MPEG2 compressed, since that’s how HDTV is transmitted. Two of the units have been out since December, the other are either out now or will be soon. Dish satellite subscribers can get the $1,000 DishPlayer, which has a 250GB hard disk and three tuners (so you can watch one program and record two others). LG will offer what may be the first retail HDTV DVR, a $1,000 unit with a 120GB hard drive and three tuners. Finally, DirecTV subscribers will be able to buy a $1,000 TiVo unit with a 250GB hard disk and four tuners, two for DirecTV and two for over-the-air HDTV.
The bad news: All of these units include robust user restraints (“copy protection”), using existing flags to restrict use of HDTV output and (probably) the Broadcast Flag to limit use of over-the-air signals. The only way you’ll get the quality you’re paying for is if the display or other device has the right “clearance” and Big Media has decided that you should be allowed to watch the content you’ve already paid for in the manner you desire.
You should be able to find FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell’s speech, “Preserving Internet freedom: Guiding principles for the industry,” on the Internet. It’s not long (six single-spaced pages); it was given at a Silicon Flatirons Symposium on February 8, 2004.
Powell is impressive in his call for an open internet with little or no government regulation. He even comes up with four “Internet Freedoms”:
Ø Freedom to access content: Consumers should have access to their choice of legal content on high-speed connections.
Ø Freedom to use applications: Consumers should be able to run applications of their choice.
Ø Freedom to attach personal devices: “Consumers should be permitted to attach any devices they choose to the connection in their homes.”
Ø Freedom to obtain service plan information.
All this becomes a little confusing when you realize that Michael Powell is the same person who made sure the Broadcast Flag was enacted—which, of course, pretty much eliminates the second and third “freedoms” when it comes to digital television, and embeds government regulation deeply within the personal computing system. I wonder whether anybody called him on that contradiction?
Lawrence Lessig believes that Ralph Nader was at least partially responsible for Gore losing the 2000 election to Bush. He would just as soon not see Nader run this year, and has said so in his weblog. Many people who believe Nader made that difference and think he’s being a self-centered fool in running again; Lessig’s comments wouldn’t be picked up here just because he takes that position.
Nader argues that running for President is a First Amendment right. That’s true (if you’re American-born and old enough). Based on that claim, a number of people (notably including Aaron Swartz in his weblog) have attacked Lessig and suggested that telling Nader not to run is violating Nader’s First Amendment rights. There have been any number of postings and loads of comments, on Lessig’s blog, Swartz’ blog, Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought blog, and elsewhere.
This argument is bizarre. As Lessig notes, it is not inconsistent with free speech values to criticize someone else’s speech or symbolic action.
Indeed, the whole reason we need a space for free speech is so some people can tell other people that their speech is wrong, or harmful, or both…and then the other people can decide whether to respect the views that were criticizing them. “Free speech” absolutely does not mean that I have to like what you say. Nor does it mean I have to refrain from criticizing what you say. Such an idea insults, I believe, the very notion of free speech: which is to use argument to reach understanding, both about what to do, and about what to say.
Comments provide interesting variations. Bulent Murtezaoglu notes that Lessig could delete Bulent’s comment and ban him from the site without violating the First Amendment, because Lessig isn’t the government. Seth Finkelstein offers a nice comment on the claim that Gore ran a lousy campaign, the major reason he lost: Each individual straw heaped on a camel’s back can say, “Who me? Wasn’t me. I’m just one straw! What sort of a big strong camel is this, if he can’t deal with one more straw on his back? The solution is to get a better camel!”
The oddity here is the concept that any criticism of speech constitutes a denial of First Amendment rights. I’ve seen a similar oddity—claiming that a publisher that fails to publish something is somehow censoring it, or that libraries that fail to buy a particular book are censoring it. It doesn’t work that way. The First Amendment protects your right to speak. It does not protect nor imply a right for you to be heard, or for your speech to be disseminated. And it surely does not say that others can’t call you a jerk and suggest you go home and shut up. As long as those “others” aren’t government agents with the power to punish you for saying something.
If you ever made a cassette copy of a cassette copy of a record, you know it didn’t sound that great—and if you ever looked at a third-generation videocassette copy, you should be aware of generational losses. Theoretically, digital copies shouldn’t lose data. A report of an extended experiment testing that notion appears at www.dslwebserver.com/main/ 100-gen-cdr-test.html; it’s fascinating.
The person took a CD, then copied it to another CD, then copied that to yet another CD, and so on—spreading the generations across three different CD-R burners and three brands of CD-R (two name-brand, one lesser-known). Each copy was done on the fly using Nero Express. The CD-R had 500 megabytes of files of different types. There were no write errors during the process. The tester had software that performs bit-by-bit comparisons. The results—fortunately or unfortunately—were about what I’d expect: The 100th generation CD-R was precisely the same as the original CD-R, bit for bit. “This doesn’t mean that all CD-writers and media are prefect, but it goes to show how mature the technology has become.”
These weren’t terribly high-speed tests: Only one brand of CD-R was rated at 40x, and none of the burners wrote faster than 32x. I’m not sure you’d get the same results at, say, 48x using no-name CD-Rs—but I’m not sure you wouldn’t. (My own experience with music CD-Rs suggests that 42x burns of full 80-minute CD-Rs, using branded data blanks, may yield discs that are less readable than slower burns and shorter discs, but I haven’t done extended tests.)
Ø I don’t know what to say about social networking software yet (and may never), so haven’t said much of anything. (I’m somewhat passively part of Orkut, but no other network. So far, I don’t see the point.) Those who think social networking is something hot should treasure John Dvorak’s March 2, 2004 PC Magazine column. Not because he supports the idea—but because he thinks it’s a “crock.” It’s another of Dvorak’s screeds against us “touchy-feely” utopians in Silicon Valley, and he’s convinced that it’s all about digging into our pockets, presumably for value-added extras. I have no idea whether social networking software really does make any sense, but having Dvorak denounce an idea as absurd is almost enough reason to think it’s worth considering.
Ø After my keynote at a recent event, one question was what I thought about Copyright Clearance Center’s role in the rising cost of acquiring scientific, technical, and medical resources. I replied (honestly) that I didn’t know anything about it—but a March 2004 Library Journal news item offers one clue. CCC increased its own fee for content licensing from $0.30 a transaction to $3.00 a transaction as of March 15, 2004, with no press release and a “concerted effort” to alert customers that probably only reached about half of CCC’s academic customers. CCC claims it’s not really such a big increase because the old $0.30 fee was per copy, while the new one is per transaction—so if you’re licensing more than 10 copies of one article at one shot, you save money. And, CCC also pointed out, it’s not a 900% increase in fees—because it doesn’t affect the royalties themselves, and CCC’s fee only represented 2% of a typical university library’s permission fees. So if the library spent $2,880 last year ($48 of that going to CCC), that cost would increase a mere 15% this year (the extra $432 to CCC). So, you see, there’s no cause for alarm: After all, what’s 15%?
Ø RIAA’s ongoing screaming over lower CD sales and its assertion that those losses come from widespread piracy have been covered in Copyright Currents…but I thought it worth noting that CD sales are rising in the U.S., and have been for some months now. Sales for the first quarter of 2004 are nearly 10% higher than the first quarter of 2003, according to SoundScan. Maybe it’s because some decent albums are coming out; maybe it’s because there’s some pricing improvement. Has RIAA backed off on its claims that rampant piracy is killing its members? Of course not; the industry continues to whine and press for restrictive legislation.
Ø The Segway has done so well that Dean Kamen’s had to raise $31 million to keep it going—adding to the $100 million already spent on this marvel. (Details from a February 12, 2004 Wall Street Journal story.) Kamen has usually sold rights to his inventions—which include a portable insulin pump and other truly significant developments—to other companies, but he was apparently as deluded about the Segway’s potential as were Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Sales projections for the first year—November 2002 to October 2003—were 50,000 to 100,000. In fact, no more than 6,000 were sold through September 2003 (when they were all recalled to correct a software problem that causes people to fall off the $4,000 scooters); the company isn’t saying how many were sold after that. What amazes me is that the new investors—mostly friends of Kamen—seem to have the same “This will change the world!” attitude as previous advocates. The people who are taking over operation of the Segway business aren’t shy: Ronald A. Bills says, “This is an amazing, revolutionary piece of equipment that can really bring some value to humans across the globe.” And viewers of Arrested Development get to see just how suave you look riding the device.
Ø Life for EZ-D, the self-destructive pseudo-DVDs, continues to be harsh, according to a January 29 Katie Dean story at Wired News. Twenty Austin grocery stores that were stocking the movies (about 30 of them, all from Disney divisions, selling for “about $7”) have stopped because “It didn’t turn out to be an item that our customers were looking for.” Maybe you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of American consumers.
Ø Two quick Apple-related items. First, a wonderful list at “As the Apple turns” showing some of the silent tracks you can buy at the iTunes Music Store for $0.99 each. The item lists nine tracks, ranging from four seconds (“(Silent) ” by Slum Village) to almost two minutes (“Silence” by Bill Schaeffer). Three tracks are labeled [EXPLICIT], apparently for the dirty non-lyrics the silences don’t have—and you can buy [CLEAN] versions of those three. There’s also a 16-minute silent track by Deuter, entitled “15 minutes silence,” but that’s an Album-Only purchase. At least silence is preferable to what happened when Overclockers.com posted a “barely believable hoax” in early February. The hoaxer claimed he received a Mac dual-processor G5 for Christmas, but really wanted a Windows PC—so he swapped out the insides of the $3,000 Mac and substituted “the guts of a cheapo PC.” (All details from a February 4 Wired News story.) The hoaxer’s email box quickly filled with 1,300 messages including death threats and the like. “You will surely burn in hell for an eternity for this one.” One email said the hoaxer should be hung by his testicles and set on fire; at least one more said he was going to hell. The whole thing was a joke, but even after that was explained, Macmaniacs didn’t let up. “I’m a parent, and if my son did something like this I’d kill him.” The hoaxer’s comment: “Mac users are nuttier than a fruitcake.”
All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.