Friday, May 7, 2010

Don't like Google's new sidebar? Be a pirate!

It's been a shamefully long time since my last post, but you can thank (or curse) Google for shocking me out of my complacency. You see, I've been a loyal Google user for pretty much as long as Google has existed. A long time ago, back in the early days of the interweb, when computers were powered by sabertoothed squirrels running around on stone wheels, I used a search engine called WebCrawler. It didn't have a fancy search algorithm, and was basically just a text match. But it was clean and simple, and because the web was a much simpler place back then, it mostly did what I wanted it to do. But then WebCrawler was bought by a different company, and played corporate musical chairs for a while, and the site suffered because of it. (And WebCrawler is still around, but as one of those search aggregators that grabs results from search engines like Google and Bing.) I started looking for a new search engine.

I tried Yahoo for a while, and AltaVista, and a few others, but none of them really worked for me for various reasons. Yahoo, in particular, grew ever more cluttered with things that had nothing to do with searching the web. And then I heard of this new search engine called Google. It was still in beta at the time, but it looked promising. It claimed to use back-links to prioritize search results based on popularity, and it was mostly free of the clutter that had been accumulating on the other search engines I'd been using. So I gave it a try. And in over ten years, I haven't looked back.

Until this week.

Apparently under pressure from Microsoft's Bing, Google has decided to "improve" the design of its search engine, and has been conducting an "experiment" in which it has been more-or-less randomly picking people to try out its new interface. I wasn't one of those people, and have been blissfully unaware of it until this week, when Google decided to roll out the changes to everyone. I used sarcastic quotes around "improve", because the change involves a new sidebar on search results that a) can't be minimized or removed, and b) duplicates the functionality of the inconspicuous bar at the top left of the page. And I gave the same treatment to "experiment", because the people at Google, in their wisdom, didn't provide these guinea pigs any way of providing feedback as to whether they liked the change or not.

The frustrating thing is that many of the people who are still using Google instead of Bing do so exactly because Google is everything Bling Bing isn't -- simple, streamlined, and elegant. If people wanted Google to be more like Bing, they'd just use Bing. I'm baffled by Google's logic here. And I'm apparently not the only one. Do a quick search for "google everything sidebar" and about 90% of the results will be pages complaining about the change, or asking for ways to remove it -- which you can't except by using an extension for Firefox or Google's own Chrome web browser (which is a bit ironic, I think). Those who use other browsers or who don't want to add yet another extension to Firefox are pretty much stuck with it...

...unless you're a pirate! (Or a hacker, a Swedish chef, a Klingon, or Elmer Fudd.)

Google is (for now, at least) still using it's classic, sidebar-less results page for non-English language, including the oddball English variants like "Bork, bork, bork!", "Elmer Fudd", "Hacker", "Klingon", and -- me fav'rite -- "Pirate". So if you hate the new sidebar but still want to stick with Google and don't mind a more playful interpretation in the presentation of your search results, just go to Google's Search Settings and pick a language of your choice other than plain English. And I don't know about you, but it's a pirate's life fer me. Arrgh!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh, Yeah... And It Plays Games, Too!

Last year about this time, I wrote an article about my Mom getting a Wii, and praised it for being able to appeal to all generations, even those whose most recent video gaming experience was Breakout on an Atari 2600. After a year, she's still playing on occasion. It really is a great little game console. I'm planning on getting Punch-Out!! when it's released in a couple of weeks, so I can let my nephew beat me up.

But as great as the Wii is, I got myself a Playstation3 for Christmas, and I'm in love. Sales for the system lag slightly behind that of the XBox 360, though sales for the Wii are more than double that of the PS3 and XBox 360 combined. But in my humble opinion, the PS3 is much maligned, and I suspect the slower sales may be due to people thinking of it as a game console. "But it is a game console!", you're thinking. Well, yes and no. The PS3 does play games, and some are actually quite good. The Playstation3-exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4, LittleBigPlanet, and Resistance 2 are all excellent, as are the non-exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Grand Theft Auto IV. Another PS3 exclusive, Final Fantasy XIII, is set for release late this year, and the previews are fairly impressive.

But the PS3 is much more than just a gaming console. If that's why you're buying it, then it's possible you may be happier with a Wii (for games that bridge the generation gap) or the XBox 360 (for more hard-core and adult-oriented games). But since getting the PS3, I've used it much more as a multimedia entertainment center than a gaming console. For starters, it's one of the better Blu-ray players on the market, at a cost somewhat less than most mid-range standalone players. Regular updates ensure the system is compatible with the latest Blu-ray specification. Further, it supports numerous audio and video formats, allowing you to store your audio and video collections on the hard drive for instant access. (For open-source fans, the PS3 doesn't currently play Ogg Vorbis audio or audio or video in the Matroska container, though the latter may change since the newest version of DivX supports Matroska with h.264 video and AAC audio.) Video file playback is very nice, and I particularly like the video thumbnail search feature with adjustable time increments. The PS3 also supports UPnP media servers, so you can even stream audio and video from a computer on your network.

Downsides? Well, there are a few, though most of them may eventually be rendered moot by future updates, or can be easily bypassed. Subtitle support for video files (not DVD or Blu-ray) is currently fairly poor. If you absolutely must have subtitles in your avi and mp4 videos, you currently have to re-encode the videos to hardcode the subtitles. As previously mentioned, while the PS3 supports the most common audio and video formats, support for open-source formats is currently relatively poor. h.264 video encoding is not currently supported, though this may be corrected in future updates, particularly if PS3 adopts the new DivX standard. Also, files cannot be modified on the PS3 — video titles cannot be changed, ID3 tags on mp3 files cannot be added or modified, etc. This can make managing audio and video collections stored on the PS3 difficult. You can add and delete files, but that's all. Of course, if you already have your collections organized, it's not an issue. And since the PS3 supports UPnP, it's easy enough to simply store your collections on your computer and stream them to the PS3. And speaking of collections, it would be nice if the PS3 supported sub-level grouping, such as by artist then album, though this isn't as much of a deficiency as a potential feature.

As for hardware, I have few complaints. Recent versions of the PS3 use more efficient processors that produce less heat, and so fan noise which was apparently a problem on early versions is practically non-existent. The Bluetooth controllers sync effortlessly with the system, which is one of my primary complaints with the Wii. My one gripe is that newer versions of the system only have two USB ports — older versions had four — though this can be easily overcome with a cheap USB hub.

If you're thinking of getting a PS3, I'd highly suggest buying the cheapest version available. Two versions are currently in production, and are identical except for the size of the hard drive — one is 80GB, and the other 160GB. Assuming you can tell one end of a screwdriver from another, upgrading the hard drive is extremely simple. For the difference in price between the two versions, I bought a 320GB drive and an enclosure, which gives me 5x the storage when the original 80GB drive (now used as an external USB drive) is plugged in, as opposed to the measly 2x storage of the more expensive version of the system.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Another small victory for freedom over Big Brother!

I'm not usually one to support socialism, but... Congratulations, French Socialist Party!

A bill that would have created the world's first government agency devoted to tracking Internet activity and punishing Internet piracy was unexpectedly defeated in the French National Assembly yesterday, primarily by members of the Socialist Party who had opposed the bill from its inception.

I personally find this a bit odd since the French Socialist Party, like all democratic socialist parties, tends to be in favor of government regulation. I'm not usually one to support socialism (which may be my biggest understatement of the day), but in this case I don't care. For today, at least, I have nothing but love for the Parti Socialiste.

Of course, the defeat of the bill might have been helped a little by the National Assembly being nearly empty at the time, since the bill was expected to be passed with little opposition. The vote was 21-15. The Assemblée Nationale has 577 members, so it seems apathy won the day.

While the bill will almost certainly be brought before the legislature again, it's good to see that a few legislators are still championing freedom and common sense. After all, the measures enacted by this bill would have been easily bypassed simply by using public Wi-Fi hotspots, an anonymous proxy, Tor, or any of the other commonly used methods of ensuring Internet anonymity. And it wouldn't have done a thing to stop streaming of pirated media, which is becoming fairly popular.

As I said previously, I think we may be taking the wrong approach when it comes to intellectual property. Certainly the current measures used to curb piracy are largely ineffective. Of course, that's in no small part because those making the laws often don't fully understand the technical issues involved. Hopefully, the French legislators will wizen up a bit by the time this bill again rears it's dumb, ugly head. If it is passed, it would set a dangerous precedent for other nations to follow suit with equally misguided and ineffective Big Brother Internet monitoring agencies.

Listen up, my French friends — the freedom of the Internet is resting on your shoulders.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Symantec's Antivirus Secret?: Linux!

I know this is April Fool's Day, but I assure you this post is legit...

I don't normally watch 60 Minutes. I did see a few segments of 20/20 a couple of weeks ago that were fairly interesting, but I generally avoid news commentary programs altogether. I simply prefer unbiased news, and don't feel like I need some talking head interpreting the news for me. 60 Minutes, however, grabbed my attention a few days ago with a report called "The Internet is Infected". The report focused on the Conficker worm, which it called "one of the most dangerous threats ever", and its primary source was Steve Trilling, a vice president of Symantec, the company that develops Norton Anti-Virus.

Which, if you ask me, is a bit like asking Tylenol about headaches, or Allstate about driving without car insurance. If you'll notice, not once did the report say that Conficker only targets Windows computers, or that computers running Mac OS X or Linux are unaffected. Either 60 Minutes is completely ignorant of any other operating system other than Windows (which is actually a faint possibility), or it intentionally misled viewers into thinking all computers are at risk for the sake of ratings — and possibly advertising revenue from Symantec. Symantec isn't exactly an unbiased source, since it makes more money when people are more concerned about viruses. Of course they're going to say that Conficker is a serious threat. If CBS had gone to, for example, the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team or Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Emergency Response Team for its information, the report would probably have been a bit more helpful, and certainly less biased.

The Conficker virus is fairly widespread and could potentially cause some problems depending on the instructions sent to it by its designers (which, by the way, is apparently scheduled for today). But Windows users are actually fairly safe as long as they follow a couple of very basic steps to secure their systems: use automatic updates to get the most current patches for Windows, and run an up-to-date anti-virus application such as AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, Avira, or Avast. If you're already infected, most major anti-virus applications including AVG, McAfee, Norton, and Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool can remove Conflicker. Mac and Linux users don't have to be concerned at all, of course, since Conficker simply doesn't affect those operating systems.

But that's not really the point of this post.

Watch the 60 Minutes report, and pause it at 3:03. Now take a close look at the monitor on the right. That's right, folks... Symantec uses Ubuntu Linux! Don't believe me? To the right is a screencap of the report at 3:50. That's certainly the Gnome desktop environment, and you can just make out the Ubuntu logo on the menubar in the top left corner.

Now why would Symantec use Linux, when less than 30 Linux viruses have ever been identified, and none of those are currently a threat? Compare that to the 461 Windows viruses currently active out of over 100,000 known, with new viruses being identified daily. Maybe — just maybe — Symantec isn't completely confident that their own product will protect their systems if they use Windows.

To be fair, Symantec does produce anti-virus software for Linux — but it's part of Symantec AntiVirus, primarily designed for corporate users and servers. Symantec doesn't make a Linux version of the desktop-oriented Norton AntiVirus. And yet they apparently use Linux desktops. If Symantec uses Linux desktops, it seems like they'd make a Linux version of Norton if Linux actually needed anti-virus software, doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Intellectual Property an Invisible Dragon?

In his essay "The Dragon in My Garage" from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan uses the analogy of an invisible, intangible dragon to examine belief in the absence of evidence. As a Linux user, the concept of intellectual property is one with which I'm quite familiar, since how FOSS and freedom of information can coexist with intellectual property rights is a commonly recurring discussion in the Linux community. But I'm beginning to think that intellectual property is like Sagan's dragon — despite overwhelming belief, intellectual property might not really exist.

The first step in examining this idea is to look at the basic concept of property. Most of the world recognizes the existence of personal property rights (even if some individuals or groups don't always respect those rights), so for the purposes of this discussion I'll ignore those philosophies (such as communism) that don't. Personal property rights are usually seen to be based on the sovereignty of the individual, a concept often attributed to John Locke — the 17th century philosopher, not the character from Lost, though I think the latter would agree with the concept. According to Locke, an individual "has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did". Essentially, an individual owns himself, and therefore anything that is produced as a result of his labor. In terms of physical goods, application of this idea is fairly straightforward: if you produce it, it's yours to keep, sell, or trade. Wages and salary are simply selling one's labor (and the results thereof) to an employer.

It's tempting to apply this to purely intellectual products as well. After all, what is more purely a product of oneself than one's ideas? But if a person makes a chair, when he sells the chair it changes possession. The person no longer has the chair, and the other person no longer has whatever he exchanged for the chair. This doesn't apply to information. When a person sells an idea, it doesn't leave his possession. This is where the traditional view of property as applied to information falls apart. Information can only be exclusively possessed until it is shared with another — the very point at which the traditional view of property requires exclusive possession. The traditional view of property as a possession doesn't seem to know what to do with property not limited by physical constraints.

Perhaps the problem is that we mistakenly associate property with possession. Property isn't really about possession, after all, but control. A person may own property without ever possessing it. A person can buy an object and resell it without even having seen the physical object. The object is never in his possession, but it is in his control. Society recognizes his right to the property purchased, and therefore his control over it. Conversely, one can possess another's property. If this is done without consent, we call it theft.

Ideas, however, can't be controlled. Benjamin Franklin once said "Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead". The unofficial motto of the free content movement, "Information wants to be free", is simply a restatement of Franklin's observation. Information can't be controlled once communicated to another. A song once sung can be sung by another. A story once told can be retold. Attempts may be made to place constraints on the spread of information, but it can't truly be controlled. If it could, Martha Stewart would never have had the joy of preparing hors d'oeuvres for a few hundred fellow inmates.

So if information can't be exclusively possessed or controlled once communicated to another, can it really be considered property? Where is the evidence that this invisible dragon exists?

But how, you might ask, can information be a product of an individual's effort, and therefore something that the individual may sell, if it's not property? Perhaps the answer is simple — perhaps it's a service. Many of our actions have no tangible product, and yet we still recognize that those actions have value. We're perfectly willing to pay for artistic performance, psychiatric counseling, language translation, babysitting, and any number of other activities that do not involve the production or exchange of property. If information production and communication is properly viewed as a service, the problems posed by intellectual property disappear. As provider of a service, authors, songwriters, programmers, journalists and other information producers would still be reimbursed for their efforts, as would commercial distributors of information. When we purchase a book, we would be paying the publisher for the physical book and the service of distributing the information it contains, but not the information itself. Likewise, the publisher would pay the author for the production of the information, perhaps still based on the estimated popularity of that information, but not for the information itself. So everyone involved in the commercial production and distribution of information would still get paid. But the free distribution of information would no longer be viewed as an immoral or criminal act. We would no longer have to debate why a CD-quality recording of a song copied from broadcast HD radio is perfectly legal, while a digital recording of the same song ripped from a CD and downloaded from a P2P file-sharing network isn't, even though the result is the same.

I, personally, have yet to see any solid evidence supporting the existence of intellectual "property". If we view the production and communication of information as a service, then intellectual property becomes a myth. And I think Sagan would be proud.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What the frak? Sci Fi goes SyFy

It's official. The executives of the Sci Fi Channel are idiots.

The Sci Fi Channel, which is owned by NBC and has been gaining popularity in recent years largely due to the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica — of which the series finale is airing this week — has announced that it is officially changing its name to SyFy. As one article announcing the change put it, "In some universe, the name 'Syfy' is less geeky than the name 'Sci Fi'. Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, is betting it’s this one."

And these are the same people who seem to think that professional wrestling is science fiction. Fiction, sure. But science fiction? Of course, the Sci Fi Channel has, since its premier in the early 90s, shown more than just science fiction. Fantasy and horror have almost equal airtime. But wrestling?

Why exactly do the Sci Fi Channel execs think this branding change is a good idea? Well, here's a quote from Sci Fi Channel president David Howe:
When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it. It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.
So... The name is changing because that's how it's spelled by the lol-crowd? And they think this will somehow make them cooler? Yeah. I'm sure changing the spelling but keeping the same pronunciation will really make a difference in the minds of the people who weren't previously watching the network.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how you spell it, it's still Sci Fi. If the network wants to draw a larger audience, the best method would be to show more quality programming like Battlestar Galactica and the new seasons of Doctor Who, and less garbage like wrestling and most of the infamously unwatchable movies produced by the channel. Why, for example, did Sci Fi pass on the television rights to the Star Wars movies, allowing the Testosterone Channel (otherwise known as Spike) to pick them up? Why does the channel not show more movies like Alien, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Terminator, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Donnie Darko, The Sixth Sense, The Thing, Groundhog Day, Twelve Monkeys, or The Exorcist? All of these would be a perfect fit for the Sci Fi Channel, but instead I see most of them aired on channels like Spike and USA Networks — which incidentally is also owned by NBC. Meanwhile, the Sci Fi Channel shows Alien Apocalypse, Alien Express, Alien Hunter, Alien Lockdown, Alien Siege — are we seeing a trend here? — and, of course, professional wrestling.

Science fiction can be cool, as evidenced by Battlestar Galactica and the previously mentioned blockbuster films. Changing the name of the channel in an attempt to seem cool or hip won't draw more viewers. Playing quality programming that targets its primary audience will. You don't have to be an overpaid network executive to see that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

iPods and Ubuntu Linux: Yes, you can!

Apple sucks.

I don't mean Apple products. Macs are a bit pricey, but they're very reliable. OS X isn't my cup of tea, but it's a solid and attractive OS. And the iPod set a standard for mp3 players that its competitors are still struggling to meet.

No, when I say "Apple sucks", I mean Apple, the company. And why, you ask, do I say this even though I freely admit that I like its products? Because Apple, even more than Microsoft, likes to lock you into using their products by making them interdependent on each other and incompatible with other hardware and software. The iPod is an excellent example. You can't just use any file manager to add or remove files from your iPod, as is the case with most other mp3 players. You have to use a program specifically designed to work with iPods, which typically means iTunes. You can use other programs, of course, but because of Apple's secrecy when it comes to interfacing with the iPod, few of them come close to matching the functionality of iTunes. Unfortunately for Linux users, Apple hasn't seen fit to release a Linux version of iTunes. So it's a good thing we have gtkpod. (Ubuntu users can install it by clicking this link.) According to Wikipedia's comparison of iPod managers, gtkpod is the only such application that matches the features of iTunes when it comes to managing your iPod — except possibly for a Java application called MediaChest which I was hesitant to try because of its unimpressive website that uses a Java applet that failed to run in my browser. (Oh, the irony.)

In keeping with the Linux philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well, gtkpod isn't fancy. It doesn't play music or videos, display photos, or manage your media library. It doesn't rip songs from CDs or transcode movies to an iPod-playable format. It just manages the files on your iPod. So if you use Linux and want to rip songs from a CD, complete with album art, to add to your iPod, then you need a couple of other programs.

First of all, you need an application for ripping CDs. A number of such apps are available, but the simplest is Sound-Juicer. (Ubuntu users can install Sound Juicer by clicking this link.) You might want to change some of the preferences as far as where and how songs are ripped, but the basic operation is extremely simple: insert a CD and click "Extract".

Of course, it would be nice to include album art for the mp3s you want to put on your iPod, so you have something nice to look at when browsing your music using Cover Flow. For that, we need another separate but incredibly simple application called Album Cover Art Downloader. This program pulls album cover art from any of several websites including Amazon and Yahoo, and like Sound Juicer, it's operation is exceedingly simple. Just select the mp3 files to which you want to add cover art, and click the download arrow.

Now that you have a number of mp3s with cover art, open gtkpod and plug in your iPod. The program will automatically detect your iPod. To add files to the iPod, simply make sure you have your iPod selected in the left pane, click the large "Add Files" or "Add Folder" button, and after you've selected the files to be added, click the large "Save Changes" button. Unlike some other iPod managers, gtkpod is equally capable of adding videos and photos to your iPod.

And if you're interested in converting DVDs or video files to play on your iPod, Handbrake is your new best friend. Ubuntu users can get the latest version by adding the Handbrake PPA to your Software Sources, and you'll probably want to install the unstripped versions of the ffmpeg libraries as well.