Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Student annotated video of lectures

Today many universities are doing video of their lectures, and making it available on the campus LAN (or older campus cable TV.) In some cases students are not going to class, but many just find it a useful addition.

I suggest an application where students, while watching the lecture, could press keys on their computer synced in timestamp with the video. They don't need to be online, they just need a modestly good clock. Buttons like "This is important, review this for the final." Or even comments like "I already know this" and "I'm lost."

Students might use the timestamps themselves to build a "best of" video of the lectures, since you could not possibly watch all the lectures to review for the exam. The combined votes of students could be merged to produce a consensus vote on the best and worst parts of the lecture.

The professor could even review these things to see where the students are getting lost, what material they think is most valuable etc.

Of course this could also be done with plain audio of the classes but video would show the course materials and blackboards.

Perhaps one student in the class might take it upon herself to edit together a study video for others to use. They could even charge for it if it were really good.

Internet TV, I'm waiting for you

I’m an earlier adopter with my mythTV box and fast connection. But I’m really keen to see the move to getting TV shows over IP. Cable’s bulk pricing just isn’t doing it for me any more.

I get many shows now via broadcast digital TV, and while I think this is a giant waste of spectrum, while it’s there I will certainly use it. So I’ve started examining just how much I get from my cable. Of course your tastes will vary, but I find I’m starting to care about only 3 or 4 channels. And since I’m paying $45/month plus tax for expanded basic cable from Comcast, that’s a great deal of money per channel. Those channels would be wise to start becoming available over the net, because we early adopters will pay nice prices compared to what the cable companies are paying.

The key is that with the MythTV or other DVR, you stop channel surfing. You pick the programs you like, and it records all of them and you don’t watch random shows. (Except for Tivo-style “suggestions.”)

Even though you limit your TV to just a subset of shows, you quickly are surprised to change the “500 channels and nothing on” problem into “just a few shows and always something good ready to watch.” Surfing and deliberate watching are just that different.

So the shows on cable I’m watching are the Daily Show (and somtimes a few other Comedy Central programs), some SF shows on the Sci-Fi Channel, and Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. Then, during certain events, I will go to the 24 hour news channels, the only things I ever find myself watching live. (Read on…) Now news, as it turns out, is the one thing that makes sense to be broadcast. It’s the only thing (along with its cousin, sports) we all want to watch the moment it’s produced. For the rest the delayed gratification of TV over IP, or even DVD rental through the mail, is just fine.

And indeed, the SF shows and Mythbusters will all appear on DVD 1-2 years after airing. The Daily Show is making itself available via the non-linux streaming media formats in reduced resolution, so it’s not quite ready for me, and it, as a form of news, needs to get to me right away. (The Daily show is on over the air TV in Canada.)

The TV shows on DVD are much better quality than analog broadcast, and of course inherently commercial free. They’re not HD yet, though. And the pointless delay, even though they get more money from people who buy or even rent DVDs than they do from advertisers at broadcast time. There is a 24 hour news channel made by ABC available over the air here.

The point is, if I could get my Daily Show in good quality and a format I can play on my system, I think I would be ready to drop my cable. The rest of my non-network watching would be on DVDs and the other brave shows willing to deliver to me this way, at a fair price — $1/hour for two adults, commercial free, if I buy in bulk. That would leave me without CNN, though the web is mostly substituting for that now, breaking news even faster than it does.

Of course there are people who watch shows from large numbers of channels who love the big bundling. They will hate this idea. But I expect most DVR users are seeing the number of non-network channels they watch drop, and the economics are changing.

(There are some intermediate alternatives. Dish Network has a $27/month package with the channels I want. Sadly, satellite systems don’t interface nearly as well with digital video recorders as analog cable does. Starchoice has a $20 CDN package but it has few of the classic cable channels, though it does provide The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, a couple of 24 hour news and lots of Canadian shows. About $18 USD after taxes.)

Slow RAID for the home network

Hard disk drives these days are cheap. Too cheap, in that while we love paying 30 cents/GB, the reliability is getting pretty poor. Doing backups, especially automatic backups is a must, but what about RAID?

One of the problems with RAID, at least RAID-5 is that you need to have 3, and ideally 4 or 5 drives in a machine. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of power, a lot of heat, a lot of noise. And many machines only have two IDE controllers so they can barely do 3 drives and can’t readily do more even if they had the slots and power for them.

So I propose a software RAID-5, done over a LAN with 3 to 5 drives scattered over several machines on the LAN.

Slow as hell, of course, having to read and write your data out over the LAN even at 100mbits. Gigabit would obviously be better. But what is it we have that’s taking up all this disk space — it’s video, music and photos. Things which, if just being played back, don’t need to be accessed very fast. If you’re not editing video or music, in particular, you can handle having it on a very slow device. (Photos are a bigger issue, as they do sometimes need fast access when building thumbnails etc.)

This could even be done among neighbours over 802.11g, with suitable encryption. In theory.

Not that there aren’t some major issues to overcome. The machines must be on most of the time. (A single disk can be taken out of a RAID temporarily, and thus a single machine hosting one disk can be turned off or rebooted, but not for long periods.) If you lose access to two disks (or your LAN) you can’t get access to the data. And it’s going to use a lot of your network capacity, though gigabit networking is starting to get cheap. And the idea gets better…  read more »

Tivo announces exciting new "file copy" feature

(You might want to see Tivo’s actual press release about being able to move programs from a Tivo to an iPod.)

ALVISO, CA — NOV 21, 2005 — TiVo Inc. (NASDAQ: TIVO ), creator of and a leader in television services for digital video recorders, today announced an enhancement to it’s system which actually allows the copying of files from one computer device to another, at least if its one of their partner devices.

The enhancement will include exclusive capabilities such as TiVo auto-sync that will allow subscribers to choose if they want new recordings of their favorite programs easily transferred to their portable devices via their PC. Every morning the devices can be loaded with new programs recorded the night before. This is similar to syncing technology available for decades on most computers, including the linux system Tivo is based on, but now in a revolutionary new feature, Tivo has put it back in.

“Sure, computers have always had the ability to copy and sync files, and we had to take all that stuff out of the Linux OS we built the Tivo on” said Tom Rogers , CEO of TiVo . “By enhancing our TiVo ToGo feature, we’re putting that back in, for our two specific partner devices, making it easy for consumers to enjoy the TV shows they want to watch though only if they have an iPod or PSP —whenever and wherever they want, unless it violates our other restrictions.”

TiVo said it will begin testing the feature in the coming weeks with a select group of TiVo Series2â„¢ subscribers who own the Apple Video iPod or PSP devices. TiVo said it plans to make the feature available to its entire standalone TiVo Series2 subscriber base as early as the first quarter of next year.

Last year, TiVo stopped disabling file copying for all its Series2 subscribers and called it the TiVoToGo feature. The TiVoToGo feature reducing the blocking of the normal ability to transfer TV shows from their DVR to a laptop or PC over their home network. From the PC, subscribers can watch the shows, or transfer them to devices compatible with Microsoft Portable Media Center format. Today’s announcement adds support for the Apple iPod and Sony PSP, as well as the ability to specify Season Passâ„¢ recordings to conveniently transfer to the portable device via the PC overnight. File copying is still blocked for all other devices.

Subscribers will need to purchase certain low-cost software to facilitate this revolutionary concept of copying files. To discourage abuse or unlawful use of this feature, TiVo intends to employ “watermark” technologies on programs transferred to a portable device using the TiVo ToGo feature that would disable the normal ability to have privacy over what programs you watch.

99 cents for a rerun with commercials?

I was amused to hear folks on PRI’s Marketplace radio program say that 99 cents for a rerun on the video iPod was a good price. Turns out that 99 cents includes commercials in that rerun, because people polled said they would rather pay 99 cents with commercials intead of $1.50 without them.

As I have written before, the public sure is misjuding this. TV CPMs are about $10, or 1 cent per ad shown to a viewer. So in a half hour program, with about 15 ads, the network and everybody below them would have made about 15 cents to show it to you. 30 cents for an hour long show. At full resolution too, and the ability to record it without DRM to watch later. Yes, Apple gets a cut, is it that huge?

So 99 cents is no deal, though they are actually sacrificing more to cut the price 50 cents and include ads, unless they can target the ads better and thus get more revenue from them. Will you be able to fast forward on the downloaded shows?

My main lament has been about what a bad deal TV advertising is. You get $1.20 worth of programming to watch a full hour of pure advertising. Way below minimum wage.

I want to see TV available for download, but I think instead of this system should give us shows at a similar cost to the advertising based one (plus a retail markup) at better resolution to boot.

Tagging, then and now

Yesterday I visited Tag Camp an impromptu weekend conference on tagging in the spirit of Foo Camp and the Bar Camp I wrote about earlier. User-applied tagging has become all the rage on sites like fickr and I was pleased when one person at the conference saw my name and said, “hey you started all this.”

Well I didn’t really. Tagging is of course an ancient concept, espcially for personal use. And it’s been done formally by professionals like librarians in card catalogs and online databases.

However, back in 1983, in one of my many forays into fixing USENET’s newsgroup system, I drafted an RFC of sorts around the idea of a tag (or keyword) based USENET. I called it K News, or Keyword based News, and posted the KNews URFC

As today, people were of mixed opinions about tagging. You can see some of the discussion via Google Groups. It never went very far, but a standard “Keywords” header was added to the the USENET standard. Some used it but there was no critical mass. I wrote the newsclip filtering language which was able to filter on the tags. And for 18 years we have been tagging posts in rec.humor.funny with tags ranging from how funny the joke is, to whom it might be offensive to and so on. I don’t know how many people really use the tags to filter the group (it’s low volume) but I used them to build the web site for the newsgroup (which is of course

Now, as noted tagging is the hot topic in online community and publishing. I lost faith in the concept, deciding users could not self-tag well enough. However, today the net is so big that even though users indeed do not self-tag well, you get enough people who do tag in ways you like to get useful stuff.

Of course, many of the people excited about tagging are in that state because they see it as a means to find even more cool stuff on the web. I’ve been moving to the camp that wants to find less stuff, higher quality stuff. There’s already too much good stuff to read, too much good stuff I have to discard. I can’t even read the blogs of my friends let alone all the truly interesting folks I don’t know. I hope that tags might help us along that path somehow, though it’s not the area of research right now.

But I thought a pointer to the history might be of use.

What's the deal with IPTV

IPTV is the new buzzword for video over IP, in particular as it relates to DSL/phone companies wanting to compete with cable companies and give you TV using your DSL. (The cable companies are hard at work at giving you phone service over your cable modem.)

I saw a demo of Microsoft’s IPTV product recently. They talked about how they had this slick interface that could show you live thumbnails of what was on several other channels while a bigger box showed your current channel. They said how doing it all at the central server (which could get access to all the live streams independently, unlike a typical tuner card or cable box) allowed this fancy multiplexing.

But then I asked them, “So, do you still watch live TV?” They admitted that, like everbody else who gets a Tivo, MythTV, Ultimate TV or other PVR that they almost never watch live TV. So why demo something that’s the wave of the past? Mostly because it looks cool.

The dream of video on demand has been with us for decades and it’s a cool dream but a silly one. Sure, it would be nice to be able to pull up anything from a giant catalog and watch it, but it turns out that watching delayed, even much delayed is fine. “Netflix is video on demand with a very high latency,” I explained.

So why don’t the cable companies get it? They are going all out to bring us 30 megabit aDSL to deliver this, and that’s great for a lot of other apps, but it turns out that with a PVR, a more modest 3 megabit (or even 1 megabit) can give you TV just fine, with some latency. They should focus there instead of trying to put it all in the central server, where it will surely die.

Wireless protocol for transmission of powerpoint & other slides

At every conference I go to, with a few rare exceptions, we always see people wasting time fiddling with computers and projectors in order to show their presentation, which is (sadly) almost always in powerpoint. Many laptops won’t switch displays until they see a monitor on the VGA port, which makes things take longer.

So how about a wireless protocol for sending presentations from laptops to projectors or a computer connected to the projector. Over 802.11 or bluetooth, presumably.

Of course, if the presentation is powerpoint or other popular slideshow format, all this needs is a way to transmit the file, and then the control keystrokes. There are already protocols to do this for teleconferneces, where people in another city are watching the slides on their own computer, but I have not yet seen this used at a conference. There could also be a video protocol where the laptop screen is mirrored to the projector through an efficient screen transfer system. These already exist and are free (VNC, for example) but they could be improved by pre-sending the next slide, if it’s static, for instant transition. Fancy animations (which are a curse anywhere) and videos would be a bit slower but should be fine over a good network.

An authentication protocol would be needed, the speakers would get a passcode for access.

Of course, this can also be sped up if speakers are told to set up their laptop in advance, while the prior speaker is speaking, with a good video switch that simulates a monitor so the laptop can be put into external mode. With a wireless protocol, some advance setup would be needed but it need not be on the stage.

Adsense and the advertising/editorial wall

You are probably familiar with Google adsense, which is providing the ads you see on the right hand side of this page. Adsense code examines the text of pages, and tries to match Google adwords bids against it. The publisher of the page gets some undisclosed share of the Google revenue.

Recently adsense has been improving a lot for me, and my revenue from it per day has more than doubled, either due to better ad placement, better share or higher bids — it’s hard to say. It has gotten good enough that one can now readily see making a living as a good web writer through adsense. At an extreme example, my Copyright Myths article, which is admittedly very popular, is now generating over $250 per month in revenue. Just that one article. An author able to generate articles that popular (admittedly difficult, part of the popularity comes from having been around for decades and being linked to from many places) could make a living wage.

On one hand, Adsense seems like a great implementation of the wall that is supposed to exist between advertising and editorial. I have no idea what ads will appear, I don’t control it. I have no relationship with the advertisers, and there are so many advertisers that it would be hard for any one of them to hold sway over me as a writer.

However, there is an opposite factor. Clearly some topics are much more lucrative than others. My jokes and photos pay just a small fraction of what writing on copyright pays, because there are lots of copyright lawyers willing to bid high to advertise to people curious about that topic. My spam essays pay decently because of anti-spam companies. My DNS essays get little traffic, but when they do they get people selling domain names etc.

In the extreme, if you become the big expert on a disease like mesothelioma, the asbestos caused disorder, laywers hoping to sign up clients will pay many dollars for every click. (It was famously the most expensive word in a survey last year.)

So there is a strong push now, for a writer wanting to make a living (instead of one like me getting some extra change) to write about the very specific topics that get high adwords or overture bids.

Part of this is nothing new. In the past the way to make the most profitable magazine was to cover a topic that would attract readers that advertisers want to reach. Some general media, like newspapers, sought only to gain an audience, and advertisers would pay to reach the general audience.

But advertisers don’t want to reach a general audience, or only rarely do they wish to do so. Google has broken one of the great aphorisms of advertising, “90% of all advertising is wasted, the problem is figuring which 90%.” And from this they have a multi-billion dollar business. But how will this affect editorial down the road?

Editing down the funnies to those actually funny

Newspapers won’t like this idea, but the truth is that most of the funnies aren’t funny, certainly not every day. There are some talented people doing comic strips, but it’s hard to do on a 7 days a week schedule, so they are almost all inconsistent.

You can read most of the strips on the web, so the next step is to build a system where we do shared editorial on their quality. People would read the funnies and vote on them. Then, you could present a page which showed you only the ones that made a certain cut. You could tune the cut — “Show me the top 90% of Dilbert, only the top 10% of Blondie” as you like it.

And you could even ask for the top few percent of comics you don’t normally read, though of course some of the jokes only make sense to semi-regular readers, so this won’t always be a winner. But it should be often enough.

Of course, some people have to read the comics before they have been graded. And there are fans willing to do that, but if there aren’t, you can make a trading system that says to make use of the ratings you have to contribute some. (Though if you get too hardnosed about it, people would start to introduce fake ratings to game this.)

User’s ratings would not be absolute, but rather based on their past history, and where in their own spectrum of ratings for that comic a particular rating falls. So it doesn’t help that you rank every Dilbert a 10 out of 10, such scoring would be discarded. Nor can individual comic publishers bump their own ratings on an absolute level, since again it’s a percentile result — they can only promote a personal favourite at the expense of others.

This would not be so hard to code, who wants to code it?

Car stereos interfacing with MP3 players

I wrote before on the ideal car dock for an MP3 player but the truth is we could use something even simpler sooner. On my recent trip, we brought the cassette adapter but there was no tape player in the rental car. We forgot the FM transmitter, but that’s not as good anyway.

So right away let’s see a small headphone plug on the car stereos to do a nice aux input, especially if you are taking away the tape. Duh.

But we can go beyond that with a USB jack, since all music players can plug into that though with different results. A few of them will be clever enough to draw power and recharge from it — indeed, it is time for cars to have USB jacks just for power since now my cell phones and PDA can all charge from that, and use a cigarette lighter plug with USB jack to do so — but we want something with the data.

With some music players, plug into USB and they look like a hard drive with music files on it. The stereo could be an MP3 player, but might have trouble with the DRMed music. We could also leave the MP3 player in control, but develop a protocol for it to stream digital audio to the stereo, and for the stereo to send back commands (FF/Rew, Pause, skip track etc.) to the player. Yeah, you could also do this over bluetooth but why wouldn’t you want power when in the car, so wires remain the right choice.

Perhaps down the road we might see music players splitting into two halves — drive and UI electronics/power. The drive unit, be it flash stick or hard disk, holds your music and files, and the UI unit does the rest, and can be mated with any drive, as can the computer and as can the car stereo.

Peerflix falls down

I’ve written a few times about Peerflix the P2P DVD trading system similar to some of my own ideas. After trying it for a few months, I have to report trouble.

As I feared, as a DVD drops in popularity, it means somebody will be stuck with it. I feel it should be the original contributor but in Peerflix, it’s whoever happens to have traded for it most recently. Back in April, I got in 4 DVD trades for high quality movies 1-2 years in age. In particular for Momento, Mystic River, School of Rock and A Mighty Wind. I have been slow to getting to watch these, so I’ve gotten to see just how many chances there have been to return them.

In 2 months, we’ve seen just a couple of requests for Momento and Mystic River. In all those cases, if I didn’t respond to the request within a short time, a few hours at most, somebody else would send off their copy of the disk and I would remain stuck with it. Of course since I have not yet watched Mystic River, I may have just not been motivated enough to say yes. Today I got my first request to send off A Mighty Wind and did not agree in time. I have not ever gotten a chance to send off School of Rock.

Now for “new releases” this is not the case. The DVDs I contributed that were recent and in high demand did get requested quite quickly. But the lesson quickly learned is that if you want to watch a slightly older DVD, you truly are buying it rather than borrowing it. If rapid watching is your goal, trading off a recent DVD for an older one will leave you in the lurch.

Now it’s true that at video stores, they say that only new releases really draw the volume, so this perhaps is no surprise. But it’s also not a very workable system. I was debating recommending my family in Canada join up, but with the smaller membership group there, I fear it could be even worse. The cheaper plans from Netflix or other competitors make more sense.

Update: I don’t watch DVDs very often due to my MythTV always having good HD shows in it (once you have HD it’s hard to go back to regular TV or even DVD) so I’ve seen frightening patterns. Peerflix put out a recommendation for Memento on their blog, so I now get requests for it moderately often. However, in the past 8 months, I have barely seen any requests for Mystic River, School of Rock or A Mighty Wind, all top-rated films if a few years old. And none of the couple of requests I have seen for these films have come when I was around — and I’ve only been away perhaps 15% of the time at most.

Update2: School of Rock was finally requested in December, I got the Pianist in exchange. Probably another long-term camper.

Yes, the movie (by Sally Potter) gets a blogger's advance screening

Sunday, I was invited, along with a crowd of other local friends and bloggers, to a preview screening of the new art film “Yes” by Sally Potter. I’ll review Yes, but what was interesting was the idea of Sony Pictures doing free screenings of movies for the “blogger” demographic. As I noted earlier, I’m also in this group called the “Silicon Valley 100” where they send us free stuff in the hopes we’ll generate buzz and useful feedback. (The last few products they sent have not been exciting enough to inspire me to write about them, though.)

It makes some sense. Advance screenings to create buzz have been around for a while, and now that you can have an audience of writers whose influence goes beyond their circle of friends, they are a good target to place. Though I also went in part because it was a social event, seeing a movie with a group of folks including friends. It was arranged by Mark Pincus, who loved the movie when he saw it at Telluride and suggested the screening to Sony. Equally important was going out to a bar after the movie.

As for “Yes”, I did find it quite good. It was, however the most “arthouse” style movie I have seen in years, so I doubt it will get great commercial success. Yes is done in verse, a la Shakespeare, but with modern phrasing and perhaps a touch too much rhyme. Though the Bard never had a Scottish dishwasher apply metre as he repeated the word “motherfucker.” But it’s also a good story, with good performances and good music. It has Bergmanesque stylings, and includes a lot of “inner thoughts” voice overs, which normally turns me right off, but at least in a few places, the voice-overs work. Notably when a dying woman gets to tell her story through her thoughts even though she can’t speak them.

Of course, they have picked a terrible title for a movie if they want people to be able to find writing about it on the web. (Drupal doesn’t have explicit tagging yet, and Mark went so far as to push people to use the pre-chosen tag “yes movie” if they wrote about the film.) However, the title makes artistic sense for the film so I can’t fault it for that.

The battle between open source and DRM

I’m writing a larger essay on this topic, but I recently posted the following to Interesting People and it was requested to put it here. It relates to the theme of “light” DRM.

I used to wonder if you made a DRM system that was so well designed that only a serious pirate would notice it was there, if this might be a workable system.

But now I have come to realize that there’s one very important community which a DRM system can’t avoid harming, and that’s the open source
community, who as a largely philanthropic effort build linux, the bsds and much of the software that runs the internet and is thus used by everybody.

One of the pillars of the open source community, written into several of its most common licences, is that the end user must be able to modify the software, both for their own use and to give away to others. Of course, most end-users don’t recompile their tools, but a sizeable number do, and they provide innovations, fixes and improvements that get used by all the users.

There is a fundamental incompatability between this ability to modify and any DRM that has a software element to its enforcement. You simply can’t have them both.

That leaves DRM where all the enforcement (ie. decryption and display/presentation) takes place within physically secured devices. This is not easy to do, and even if done, it bars the open source software from any useful features that might be thought up which require access to the media — only what the hardware permits can be done.

The end result is to largely shut open source software out of the media playing arena, and thus, if you believe in the convergence of media playing devices and computing devices, out of the general purpose home computer arena.

To those who use the open source software, the trouble with this is obvious. But in fact, all must be concerned, as the open source software, aside from being one of the few competitors to forces like Microsoft, is also becoming a source of significant innovation. That old style, garage-based innovation, where a loner or small team develop something new on the cheap which changes the world. DRM systems can be architected to allow a Tivo, but they bar the “next Tivo” which is a loss to all.

So the conclusion is that, as suggested, you can’t pull off the “make everybody happy” DRM. Instead, you get DRM which mostly sits as a barrier not to pirates or users, but to the small innovators of the world, and what a tragedy that would be.

Mailing list wiki combo?

I've written before about the dichotomies between serial and browseable, between writer-friendly and reader-friendly.

One idea that now seems obvious is to integrate wiki functions into a mailing list manager (particularly one that does a web interface to the mailng list.)

In particular, one should be able to "cc" a message to sections of the wiki and have it added. For example, to an FAQ section. In addition, readers of a message should be able to promote it into sections of the wiki either by clicking links in the HTML version of the message, or by forwarding the message back to some magic addresses at the mailing list manager.

Thus when sombody on a mailing list makes a useful answer to a question, it could go quickly into a wiki style knowledge base, for easier browsing and searching. Many mailing lists today allow you to search the list archives, but unless you know your vocabulary, you may not find the answer to problems you are trying to solve, even though they exist there.

We strike down the broadcast flag!

On both a personal and professional note, I am happy to report that the federal courts have unanimously ruled to strike down the FCC's broadcast flag (that's a PDF) due to our lawsuit against them.

I participated directly in this lawsuit, filing an affadavit on how, as a builder of a MythTV system and writer of software for MythTV, I would be personally harmed if the flag rule went into effect. The thrust of the case was that the FCC, which is empowered to regulated interstate communications, had no authority to regulate what goes on inside your PC. The court bought that, but we had to show that the actual plaintiffs in the case would be harmed, not simply the general public, thus the declarations by myself and various other members of EFF and other plaintiffs.

The broadcast flag was an insidious rule because, as I like to put it, it didn't prohibit Tivo from making a Tivo (as long as they got it certified as having pledged allegiance to the flag.) It stopped somebody from designing the next Tivo, the metaphorical Tivo, meaning bold new innovation in recording TV.

I would like to particularly thank Public Knowledge, which spearheaded this effort and funded most of it.

Here's an AP Interview with me on the issue.

Annotated TV with a DVR

When people watch TV with a hard disk video recorder, they always watch the show delayed, often by hours or many days. They all watch it at a different time.

It occurs to me it would be amusing to generate a system to allow the collaborative annotation of TV programs and DVD movies using the net, and DVRs like the open source MythTV, which would be a natural initial platform. Users watching a show would be able to make comments at various points in it. Either text comments, along the lines of "Pop-up Video" or even voice comments and jokes, along the lines of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000."

And indeed, people already do this real time. Just about every popular show generates a chat-room for people who watch it live near a computer. However, these are usually quite inane as they are done in real time with no filtering.

Thanks to delayed watching, we could change that. Each suggested annotation would be uploaded quickly to a server handling the particular TV show or movie. This would come with a pseudonym for the author, which would be tied to a reputation. All annotations would be sent out for viewing by a limited audience. For low-reputation contributors, a very limited audience. If that audience hits an "approve" button on their remote when they see the annotation, it would improve the score, and more and more early watchers would get to see and approve/disaprove of the annotation.

Eventually things would build up and you would have a series of highly approved comments for those who want to see a show with comments. I expect most comments would be jokes, but some would also be pointers to useful information or reasoned criticism. Authors might indicate what their goal is so that viewers could tune what sort of annotations they want to see. Viewers could also tune a threshold for how good the annotations have to be to see them.

Authors would indicate if their pop-up should show in a particular place on the screen (so that. like pop-up video, it doesn't block things.) Some viewers, especially those with big screen TVs, would shrink the image and redirect pop-ups outside the show.

However, there are some interesting problems to solve...  read more »

More on Peerflix experiences

Earlier I reported on Peerflix, which is implementing a P2P DVD sharing system with similarities to some of my own ideas. I have tried it out a bit now, and learned a bit more. I also have updated experiences with Peerflix.

The web site is marked beta and still very buggy, which is bad, but my first try on the service was first-rate. I mailed off my first DVD, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on Wednesday to somebody in San Jose (who almost surely got it today) and got the replacement for it — by strange coincidence another memory-related movie called Memento in the mail today. That is faster than most of the services, though people like Netflix could be this fast if they decided to take the same step and trust you when you said you mailed a disk, rather than waiting for it to arrive.

All this is good, but there’s still a killer flaw in the idea of actually selling the DVDs. All DVDs will have a limited lifetime of high-demand. As demand drops below supply, somebody holding the DVD at that time will get “stuck” with it, though you can fix that by being fast on the draw in agreeing to be the one to mail any new requesters that do come along.  read more »

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