Misc: February 2009 Archives


February 26, 2009

OK, so everyone knows about Lolcats, but have you seen Rolcats:

The caption on this is "Cease your protests, the deal is done! You are to make a fine wife for uncouth American businessman!"

I don't speak Russian so I don't know for sure what the story is. My sources tell me that these are genuine Russian lolcats, but that the translations are totally bogus and that the sense of humor is generally different.


February 22, 2009

I generally hate On the Media, and today's piece on the DTV Transition didn't disappoint:
Brooke Gladstone: Could you tell me again why we're doing this?
Kim Hart [WaPo]: Sure. Well, this was all part of a plan that was designed to reclaim the spectrum that the over the air broadcasters and network broadcasters had been using for over half a century. The reason they wanted to do that is because they wanted to give them back to public safety organizations so they could use them for their first responders communication networks as well as make some money for the government and sell them at an auction to wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T.
BG: Now what we're talking about, obviously, is switching from over the air broadcast, once accessible to anyone who has a bent coathanger and a TV to digital reception, which most people get through cable or satellite receivers. How many people still rely on the rabbit ears?

KH: Well anywhere between 10 million and 20 million households, especially in rural areas. Internet doesn't reach all the way out to where they live and in some markets this is their main gateway to information, local news, and emergency.

To listen to Gladstone, you'd think that DTV was going to mean that you couldn't get TV over the air, but of course this is completely untrue. To recap, in order to transmit television signals over the air you need to encode them somehow. Digital and analog are two different methods of encoding the information—and of course there's more than one way to do each of them, with the US and Europe using different standards. Digital transmission has some advantages, including more efficient use of the channel bandwidth and more flexibility, which is why we're cutting over to it. Unsurprisingly, if you have an old analog set, you won't be able to receive digital signals. This would have been just as true if, for instance, the US had decided to switch from NTSC (the American standard) to PAL (the European one). Actually, it's sort of a minor miracle that the black and white to color transition was performed in a backward compatible way, due to some very clever engineering. [*].

So, while it's true that people generally get digital signals through cable or satellite that's because the cable and satellite providers have switched over already (and why? because it's better), there's absolutely no technical reason why it can't be used for over the air transmission. It's just a matter of having a compatible receiver. In fact, if you'd just stop being cheap and fork over for a new TV with such a receiver, it would work for you already. The whole point of this elaborate converter distribution program is to let you receive digital signals without forking over for a new TV. So, it's hardly like all those poor people in rural areas are suddenly going to be cut off from all communications in some post-video-apocalyptic nightmare.

While I'm on the topic, I don't really think it's accurate to imply that the point of the switchover was to reclaim the spectrum for public safety applications. Obviously, that's a bonus, but it wasn't my impression that that was the primary driver.


February 21, 2009

A couple weeks ago I was on my way home and then this came on the radio and I about drove my car off the road. Here's BBC's summary:

In two editions of Heart and Soul, the BBC World Service explores the controversy in the United States between creation and evolution and investigates a spectrum of beliefs.

To gain insights into the minds of the personalities involved, the BBC gave microphones to two of the key players from very different viewpoints and asked them for their reactions through a series of encounters and interviews."

In this second programme we hear from Dr Henry Morris III. He is Executive vice President of the Institute for Creation Research, founded by his father. He believes a literal interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis, suggesting that the Earth, life and humans were created over six days less than 10,000 years ago.

Not to go all PZ Myers on you here, but this is nuts. As far as I can tell, Morris indeed believes that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, but, put simply, he's wrong. Yes, it's true that a bunch of other people agree with him, but they're wrong too. Yes, yes, it's of course possible that the entire universe was created with fake evidence of age, but there's no evidence for this whatsoever absent Morris's preexisting religious commitments. We might as well consider the possibility that the world sits on the back of an invisible turtle. So, while I don't dispute Morris's right to believe what he believes, it would be great if the media would stop acting like it's in any sense epistemically valid.


February 20, 2009

The Ninth Circuit has enjoined California's law banning the sale of video games to minors. [ruling] . Maybe I'm just cynical, but arguably this is a good outcome for the authors of the law. After all, if it's upheld, it becomes a political non-issue, since there's not a lot of constituency for allowing children to buy violent video games. On the other hand, if it's struck down they get to run against the activist courts, pass revised versions of the law which will get struck down, etc. (Cf. the communications decency act, flag burning, etc.)

February 18, 2009

When I initially read the NYT article on Boxee, a piece of software that aggregates content, including content from video streaming sites like Hulu, my first reaction was "how long till this gets shut down". Boxee's whole reason for being is to provide a unified interface for all your content, but that inherently disintermediates Hulu and their content providers, which want you to go through their interface, see their banner ads, ads for other shows, etc. So, it's not too surprising to see that Hulu is cutting off Boxee users:
Later this week, Hulu's content will no longer be available through Boxee. While we never had a formal relationship with Boxee, we are under no illusions about the likely Boxee user response from this move. This has weighed heavily on the Hulu team, and we know it will weigh even more so on Boxee users.

Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence -- bumps and all -- we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via Hulu.com and our many distribution partner websites.

It's unsurprising that the content providers want some sort of return for making their content available on demand through a seamless interface. Rather than something like Boxee which is sort of a hack on the existing web on demand services, I would expect one of the content providers to do a deal with Netflix, whose subscription service would let them compensate the content providers on an ongoing basis.


February 11, 2009

The NYT has a sort of odd article about the expected lifespan of LED lightbulbs:
When a manufacturer says that an LED lamp will last 25,000 or 50,000 hours, what the company actually means is that at that point, the light emanating from that product will be at 70 percent the level it was when new.

Why 70 percent? Turns out, it's fairly arbitrary. Lighting industry engineers believe that at that point, most people can sense that the brightness isn't what it was when the product was new. So they decided to make that the standard.


If nothing else in the lamp fails, like its electronics, the product will continue to work until it becomes really dim. But some engineers are proposing a way to get around even that.

Their idea is that once the LEDs start to emit less light, increase the power to each one to increase its brightness. Unfortunately, that will also diminish the life of the lamp.


Not only would contractors need to use thicker cables, but the utilities would need to create more power, partially negating the appeal of LED lighting in the first place.

I'm not saying that this won't work, but it seems there's a relatively obvious alternative: have the bulb stop emitting light entirely once it gets below some threshold (70% seems reasonable, I suppose). As far as the extra power goes, presumably the tradeoff here is straightforward: estimate how much energy is required to produce a new LED bulb if it's thrown out at the time it gets too dim and compare that to the additional energy that will be required to overdrive the LED once it starts to dim.


February 10, 2009

I'm hoping to pick the brains of readers here. I've gotten interested in clockwork and mechanical logic. Can anyone recommend references on the topic? Optimally, I'd be looking for something that was about how to build mechanical computing devices, but I'd settle for a good book on mechanical clocks and watches.

February 9, 2009

This is an interesting development. The California SoS posts a list of donors to various political campaigns, but it's pretty un-user friendly. Someone has done a mashup with Google Maps so you can see everyone in your area who donated to Proposition Eight. Obviously, this is trivially extensible to any arbitrary political issue; it's just that Prop 8 has generated a huge amount of heat in a relatively tech savvy community. I wonder how long it is before a site like this is up for every issue or, perhaps more interestingly, before you can profile every donation for everyone who lives near you. For all I know you can do it now.

February 7, 2009

Jim Fleming no longer holds the record for the most irrelevant political spam I received. This afternoon I got a message encouraging me to vote Likud on February 10th and explaining how much Tzipi Livni sucks. Now, not being an Israeli citizen, I suspect it's illegal for me to vote in this election. Better yet, this message was in Hebrew, which I can't read, making it even less likely it would influence me; I had to have it translated.

February 4, 2009

I may have been a little quick on the trigger last night when I wrote about EFF's suit against YouTube [*]. Fred von Lohmann responds in the comments section:
Just to clarify a few things here.

First, YouTube has licenses from all the major performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC), so the public performance is licensed, whether it's sung by a teenager or a professional. That means Warner Music must think some other right is being infringed. Reproduction? Derivative work? They don't tell you when they send a DMCA takedown notice or submit a fingerprint for automated Content ID matching.

Second, if you look at the four factors, the video is plainly noncommercial. It certainly doesn't displace sales of any professional versions of the song. And it also doesn't threaten any plausible "licensing" market, since I don't believe that music publishers are in the business of granting licenses to teenagers making noncommercial videos. I think those are the two most important of the factors here, and both favor the YouTuber.

And, finally, do we really want a copyright system that *discourages* people from engaging in this kind of creativity, especially when it doesn't hurt any existing commercial markets for the copyright owners?

I've met Fred and he seems like a pretty sharp guy, so I probably should have assumed that he had a reasonable point.

Anyway, a few notes here. If YouTube has licenses from the performing rights organizations, then (as I understand it), then yeah, this performance would be licensed. And since this is just a cover, then it's not at all clear what about this video Warner has a problem with.

With that said, while the performance itself is noncommercial, YouTube certainly makes money from the video from the advertisements they show on the page. As I understand it, the publishers go after bar owners who have live music, even if the musicians themselves aren't paid, so I'm not sure the situation is that different for YouTube's position vis-a-vis the publisher, at least ethically, which is a different matter from legally (though again, as Fred says, they have a license.) As for what kind of copyright system we want to have, I think it's pretty clear that we do have the kind of copyright system that discourages people from engaging in creativity.


February 3, 2009

EFF complains about YouTube's automated copyright enforcement system:
This is what it's come to. Teenagers singing "Winter Wonderland" being censored off YouTube.

Fair use has always been at risk on YouTube, thanks to abusive DMCA takedown notices sent by copyright owners (sometimes carelessly, sometimes not). But in the past several weeks, two things have made things much worse for those who want to sing a song, post an a capella tribute, or set machinima to music.

First, it appears that more and more copyright owners are using YouTube's automated copyright filtering system (known as the Content ID system), which tests all videos looking for a "match" with "fingerprints" provided by copyright owners.

As I've no doubt mentioned before, I'm no lawyer, but isn't it actually copyright infringement to publicly perform covers of songs written by other people? Now, as I understand it, you would only need permission from the song writer's representative [typically Harry Fox Agency], not the copyright holder on the recording, so maybe Time Warner is out of line here, but that isn't the same as saying it's legal.


February 1, 2009

No real content tonight, but you may want to check out the following:

Also, I'm not a huge football fan, but this year's Super Bowl was pretty exciting, what with a 100 yard(!) interception return, Pittsburgh holding the lead for most of the game, Arizona scoring 9 points in a minute with less then 2 minutes to go up 23-20, and finally Pittsburgh scoring another touchdown with 35 seconds to go, in a play which required instant replay to determine whether the receiver's feet touched the ground in the endzone before he fell out of bounds.