Who really owns purchased media files with DRM?

While I do realize this is a little old, it’s a topic that’s also not likely to go away any time soon. Earlier this month both Electronista and BoingBoing reported on the remote disabling of text-to-speech for Amazon Kindle e-books. The Authors Guild is claiming that text-to-speech is an unauthorized audiobook performance and is thus subject to this particular facet of copyright restriction.

But, in particular, the Electronista article linked above mentions some interesting questions asked of Amazon. I quote part of the article here:

I’m specifically interested because Amazon has announced a “DRM-free” version of the Kindle format and I’d love to sell my books on the platform if it’s really DRM-free. To that end, I’ve put three questions to Amazon:

1. Is there anything in the Kindle EULA that prohibits moving your purchased DRM-free Kindle files to a competing device?

2. Is there anything in the Kindle file-format (such as a patent or trade-secret) that would make it illegal to produce a Kindle format-reader or converter for a competing device?

3. What flags are in the DRM-free Kindle format, and can a DRM-free Kindle file have its features revoked after you purchase it?

An honest company would answer “no” to the first two and the second part of the third. I really would like to trust Amazon here. However, this is the same Amazon that has arbitrarily locked accounts for “excessive” returns, while intentionally not defining “excessive.” Another Electronista article tells the woes of someone who just wanted products that worked. Not entirely unreasonable for a consumer to want, in my opinion.

I am still awaiting an e-book reader that does not support DRM at all, only unencumbered formats like PDF and DejaVu. This is a product I would not mind buying. The music industry learned DRM doesn’t work, the TV and movie industry is assumably not far behind. Why do book authors insist upon trying to hang onto it?

Too hot for Germany?

From the BBC comes this rather chilling story about how Germany may outlaw paintball and laser tag. (A similar story from Spiegel is also avaiable.) The proposed bill comes in response to a school shooting at Albertville School.

Thankfully, lawmakers in the US have had more sense than this. As far as I know, paintball and laser tag are both still legal in all 50 states. As a long-time laser tag player, not only do I think the ban is a bad idea, but I believe that when paintball is outlawed, only outlaws will have paintball.

The lumping of laser tag into the same category is a particularly troublesome one. Most laser tag centers (most notably the corporate-owned Laser Quest chain in the US and Canada) have made ever-so-slight changes to the Player’s Code or equivalents thereof, even going as far as getting rid of “play to survive.” I don’t see how anyone can get the typical laser tag game, which usually has unlimited lives, mixed up with any type of war simulation.

In short, this is an overt move toward a thought-police state, and should be reupdiated as such. If you’re in Germany, please let your legislators know just what a dumb idea this is.

Is new technology in sports cheating?

While browsing recently I happened to find a very insightful article about sports and technology. Several major sports are referenced including golf, swimming, and tennis.

Of particular note is a quote from Martina Navartilova:

To me, using “illegal” equipment is the same as cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Or, put another way, cheating is cheating, whether with drugs or equipment. Navartilova’s reference to what would happen if we allowed major league baseball players to use graphite bats really brings it home. The technology is there, but allowing it would completely change the sport. Heck, we may as well not call it baseball anymore; it would make more sense to just rename the sport “Gone Home Run” because that’s what it would become.

Make no mistake about it: I am a fan of technological advances. I have posted on Twitter at least once how little I will miss CRT-based monitors, film, and magnetic tape-based media. (That could probably be extended to magnetic floppy disks as well.) There is, however, a very thin line between new world records set by performance of the athlete(s), and a new world record set simply because the technology which allowed it has only now become viable.

I don’t follow every sport; however, I do understand what Gary Hall Jr. is saying when he refers to times in swimming being measured in hundredths of a second, because races and world records used to be decided by those kind of time margins. When new world records in swimming are set by a difference of whole seconds in the past four years, you can’t tell me that it’s just the athletes that made it happen.

Is there really a difference between beating a world record by four seconds with steroids, or beating a world record by four seconds with a new swimsuit that simply didn’t exist five years ago?

Microsoft vs. ODF: arrogance on display

I sure picked a great day to read Groklaw. The featured topic today is Microsoft’s attempt to make ODF look bad, using the time-honored FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) techniques.

This article refers back to another article highlighting the awful ODF support in Microsoft Office 2007.2 (aka 2007 SP2). which also quotes an article by Rob Weir. Even for Microsoft, this is pretty damned egregious:

The new entry to the mix is Microsoft Office 2007 SP2, which has added integrated ODF support. Unfortunately this support did not fare well in my tests. The problem appears to be how it treats spreadsheet formulas in ODF documents. When reading an ODF document, Excel SP2 silently strips out formulas. What is left is the last value that cell had, when previously saved.

Sheesh. I write only a minimal amount of software, but I do enough testing to catch First Class Foul-Ups like this. Continuing on:

This can cause subtle and not so subtle errors and data loss. […] In general, SP2 converts an ODF spreadsheet into a mere “table of numbers” and any calculation logic is lost.

In the other direction, when writing out spreadsheets in ODF format, Excel 2007 SP2 does include spreadsheet formulas but places them into an Excel namespace. This namespace is not what OpenOffice and other ODF applications use. It is not the ODF 1.2 namespace. It isn’t even the OOXML namespace. I have no idea what it is or what it means. Not every ODF application checks the namespace of formulas when loading documents, but the ones that do reject the SP2 documents altogether. And the ones that do not check the namespace try and fail to load a formula since it is syntactically different than what they expected. The applications essentially display a corrupted document that is shows neither the formula nor the value correctly.

In other words, instead of doing what the standard says, Microsoft makes up their own completely different thing and expects the rest of the world to play along and “fix” previously working (standards-compliant) software to interoperate.

Note to Microsoft: This is not how standards work. Frankly, if you don’t intend to support ODF properly, you may as well not support it at all. What your product writes isn’t ODF. When your product reads ODF, it silently discards important parts of the data. (Yes, the formulas in spreadsheets are important. That’s the whole purpose of a spreadsheet program! Otherwise we may as well be using pencil, paper, and calculators.)

The Groklaw article goes on to highlight the failure of Microsoft to properly implement password protection. I personally tend not to use format-specific encryption features in favor of more general solutions such as OpenPGP-compliant encryption, but this is important nonetheless, as (quoting Jomar Silva, as quoted in Groklaw):

I would really like to find a good technical explanation for this, since the encryption and password protection are fully specified in ODF 1.0/1.1 (item 17.3 of the specification), and they are using existing algorithms, very familiar to any developer.

The grizzled veterans of computing will remember Microsoft mucking up MS-DOS to not run Lotus 1-2-3 properly, crippling Windows 3.1 to crash under DR-DOS, and other similar sins. More recently Microsoft states in their end-user license agreement (EULA) for Office that the user is only licensed to run Office under a genuine copy of Microsoft Windows. That is, if you are running Office under Wine, ReactOS, or any similar Windows-compatible replacement code, you are in violation of the license agreement.

The Groklaw article goes on to reveal part of a Microsoft internal memo discovered during antitrust litigation:

Our mission is to establish Microsoft’s platforms as the de facto standards throughout the computer industry…. Working behind the scenes to orchestrate “independent” praise of our technology, and damnation of the enemy’s, is a key evangelism function during the Slog. “Independent” analyst’s report should be issued, praising your technology and damning the competitors (or ignoring them). “Independent” consultants should write columns and articles, give conference presentations and moderate stacked panels, all on our behalf (and setting them up as experts in the new technology, available for just $200/hour). “Independent” academic sources should be cultivated and quoted (and research money granted). “Independent” courseware providers should start profiting from their early involvement in our technology. Every possible source of leverage should be sought and turned to our advantage.

I have mentioned before the “stacked panel”. Panel discussions naturally favor alliances of relatively weak partners[…]. Thus we find ourselves outnumbered in almost every “naturally occurring” panel debate.

The key to stacking a panel is being able to choose the moderator. Most conference organizers allow the moderator to select [the] panel, so if you can pick the moderator, you win. […]you have to get the moderator to agree to having only “independent ISVs” on the panel. No one from Microsoft or any other formal backer of the competing technologies would be allowed -just ISVs who have to use this stuff in the “real world.” Sounds marvellously independent doesn’t it? In feet, it allows us to stack the panel with ISVs that back our cause. Thus, the “independent” panel ends up telling the audience that our technology beats the others hands down. Get the press to cover this panel, and you’ve got a major win on your hands.

This is the kind of marketing and publicity that gets people to say things like “damn marketers” and much nastier things I won’t repeat here. In short, this is Fraud. Yes, with a capital F.

My response to the author of this memo: If you find yourselves outnumbered because nobody backs your proprietary standard, doesn’t that alone tell you something? Nobody wants to be locked into what Microsoft says, at Microsoft’s prices, upgrading when Microsoft says it’s time. The rest of the world has spoken: they want their freedom. That’s why we have ODF, HTML, CSS, JPEG, PNG, Ogg, Vorbis, FLAC, Theora, Speex, the GNU operating system (commonly deployed as the GNU/Linux variant), and OpenBSD.

Were an individual software author to try this type of shenanigans, that author would be branded a sociopath, and rightfully so. Wake up and listen to the masses, Microsoft. Interoperability doesn’t mean “write it so only Microsoft products can read it.”

Longer mealtime, smaller waistline?

Recently on Twitter (from @MyFitFoods who passed it on from someone else with protected updates) I found a chart which compares time spent eating to the national obesity rate. Now while the criteria used to define obesity may be a bit controversial (it’s a simple, no frills, percentage of the population with a BMI over 30) I think it’s good enough to get an idea of the overall trend.

It’s probably not realistic to expect a perfect trend line with a graph like this, and thus I’m not surprised that there are dots all over the place. Canada, Korea, Japan, Poland, Italy, and all three Scandanavian countries in the survey (Finland, Sweden, and Norway) are all below the trend line, while Mexico, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey are above it. The rest of the countries are either on or close to the trend line.

The US does not fit neatly at all into the trend with a sky-high obesity rate of around 34%. But it is obvious that the graph is trying to show that more time one spends at the table, the less likely one is to become obese.

The stark contrast between the US and Canada is puzzling. The US actually averages slightly longer meals than Canada, yet has the highest obesity rate on the entire chart.

I would be interested in seeing a graph sorted by profession. In my current day job (courier) I rarely have time to actually sit down for even a full half-hour lunch. There are days where I do what I know I really shouldn’t and just grab a bag of chips from the nearest convenience store, where usually the closest thing to a meal is a rather expensive bag of beef jerky (also a frequent “meal” of mine). Not surprisingly, even though I don’t consider myself “obese” it’s possible I would fit the controversial criterion used in this study. (I have no idea what my BMI is, but I’m around 5’11” (180 cm) and weighed in the range of 240 pounds (109 kg) last time I checked.)

This is one reason I want to move on to something else, where I can truly set my own schedule and take meal breaks as long as I want. Really, who doesn’t?