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.

Another great idea from Microsoft...

Noise Could Mask Web Searchers' IDs
New Scientist (03/07/09) Marks, Paul

Microsoft researchers say that adding noise to search engine records could protect Web users' identities, and that implementing such a technique would be a major step toward provable privacy. Records of Web searches are extremely useful to software engineers looking to improve search technology, and can provide valuable insight for scientists exploring digital search behaviors. However, attempts to make search data anonymous have been mostly unsuccessful. Microsoft researchers Krishnaram Kenthapadi, Nina Mishra, Alex Ntoulas, and Aleksandra Korolova say they have developed a safe way to release search data. The researchers propose publishing data associated only with the most popular queries, so that specific, rarely performed searches, such as for individual names or unique interests, cannot be used to identify people. The researchers also inserted noise into the data by adding digits to the data's figures. Korolova says that adding the noise gives the data provable privacy, and the amount of noise added defines the level of privacy that can be guaranteed. She says the added noise strikes a balance between guaranteeing privacy and providing useful data sets.

View Full Article

Ok... I'm all for privacy. One of the strengths of the Internet and particularly the World Wide Web has been anonymity in communication. Online, you're not young or old, male or female, white or black or Asian or Hispanic — unless, of course, you want to be. You're your ideas and beliefs, and the anonymity of the Web enables you to express those ideas without prejudice or fear of repercussions in the "real" world (unless you live somewhere like China or North Korea where Internet activity is actively monitored and the free exchange of ideas harshly supressed). Sure, there are always consequences to actions or words, but online those consequences are limited to heated exchanges of ideas and at worst social ostracism from a particular online community.

Because of the hodge-podge of technologies cobbled together to create the current Internet, most of which didn't have security as a priority, we've lost some of that anonymity. Companies and other organizations can glean a disturbing amount of data about our real-world identities and online activities from various sources, including the Web searches mentioned by the article quoted above. Security and privacy certainly need to be concerns in the design of future Internet technologies and our usage of current technologies.

But what is Microsoft's innovative answer to the problem of data mining Web search results? To withhold information and falsify the information provided. Genius!

The first half of this "solution" is nothing but common sense. If data mining of personal information is a problem, then the sources of that information should be particular about what information is provided, and to whom. On the consumer side, we implement this idea by not agreeing to Terms of Service that do not protect our privacy. On the provider side, organizations refuse to publish information that might result in bad press or a decline in customer confidence.

The second half of the so-called solution is profoundly stupid. Records of Web searches can be quite valuable to legitimate research. There's absolutely no point tp publishing these records if they're intentionally falsified. Falsifying the data renders it completely worthless to real research, while making it only somewhat less attractive to those who would use it for less noble applications. You might as well not publish the information at all. So how, exactly, is this a solution?

Way to go, Microsoft. I'm looking forward to your next big idea. By the way, how is that "Life without walls" ad campaign going? Because it seems to me that without walls you don't really need Windows...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Brief History of Time (Battlestar Galactica Style)

In case you missed the last couple of episodes of BSG, here's the long view of what's been going on for the last few thousand years...

Cylons were created by humans on Kobol, and were the 13th tribe that left Kobol for whatever reason everyone else left Kobol, apparently. They've never actually explained exactly what happened on Kobol to prompt the 12 Tribes to leave and form the Colonies. (Maybe the toilet in the cellar backed up. Trust me, something like that makes you want to move out quick.)

The Cylons go to Earth, stay there for quite a while, and forget how to resurrect when they learn how to procreate sexually (and who can really blame them?). They develop their own Centurions, who naturally rebel, and the two sides nuke each other. The Five were warned of the coming apocalypse by messengers or "angels" only they could see or hear (which sound remarkably like Head Six and Head Baltar). The Five manage to escape at the last minute (actually a little after that) by having rediscovered resurrection technology.

Earth is now uninhabitable, so they head out to find out what happened to the other 12 Tribes, and warn them of the dangers of creating a slave race. Unfortunately, because they lack FTL drives and have to take the scenic route (which takes about 2000 years, though it seemed shorter to them because they were going really fast, which actually makes sense it you ask Einstein), they arrive just a little too late, as the Colonies have already developed their own Centurions, who naturally rebelled (as Centurions are wont to do).

In an attempt to end the First Cylon War -- which at the time was obviously known as merely The Cylon War, or possibly the Great Cylon War, or maybe even the Cylon War to End All Cylon Wars... wait, where was I? Oh, right -- the Five make a deal with the Centurions: "Stop the fighting, and we'll help you make humanoid Cylons like us, which you've been attempting unsuccessfully with the ship hybrids". So the Centurions end the war, and the Eight humanoid Cylon models are developed.

Except that now the Ones (a.k.a. Cavil, a.k.a. John) think mommy Ellen is playing favorites, and kills his brother Abel... er, I mean Daniel. So now there are only 7 humanoid models, rather than 8, except that there are really 12 (instead of 13) if you count the Five.

Following along so far? Oh, well don't worry. You can go back and re-read it later. Continuing right along...

John/Cavil/One/"Cain" realizes he's in hot water for killing Daniel/Seven/"Abel", and he's still pretty steamed at his mommies and daddies for giving him a pink, fleshy body instead of a Mighty Morphin' Rock'em Sock'em Robot body, so he suffocates the Five, uploads new personalities, and covertly drops them in the Colonies hoping that they'll realize that humans are stoopid and Cylons rulz. w00t!

Then, because he's still a self-hating sadist, he nukes the Colonies in an attempt to destroy that which reminds him of the things he hates most in himself -- those fleshy, weak, emotional humans. Of course, he makes sure that his mommies and daddies aren't killed in the attacks, because he's still not done punishing them for making him. He never asked to be born, after all. (Which, of course, he wasn't, but do you really want to split hairs with a megalomaniac spoiled brat in an old man's body who'd rather nuke you than look at you? Didn't think so.)

And that brings us to the miniseries, which gets good ratings. So season 1 got the greenlight, and earned critical praise. So that led to 3 more seasons and a couple of web series, as well as an upcoming spin-off and made-for-television movie. Which brings us to the present, in which the Centurions have rebelled (as Centurions do) and the Cylons have split into two groups: the uglies and the pretties, with Three/D'anna/Xena-the-Warrior-Princess taking a radioactive sabbatical on Earth. The pretties have made nice with the Colonials, the Five are back together (minus Anders' brain), and everything is slowly falling apart.

Which is all right, though, because it's all happened before, and will happen again. And they have a plan.