Archive for November, 2006

reading on the road

November 25th, 2006

I saw a site a while back that was about organizing a community effort to record books on tape, and thus offer a library of audio books for all, free of charge. The other day I was looking for it and I couldn't remember what it was called, so here's a sticky note for your monitor. The site is LibriVox (ie. "free speech") and is an effort to record texts in the public domain, taken for instance from Project Gutenberg.

Now you may be wondering why anyone would listen to recordings of text instead of just, you know, reading it. Well, lately I'm satisfied that I have a sufficient amount of reading to do for school and so I don't feel an urge to do more reading on the side. So this way I get the same benefit of the text, just without the arduous task of turning pages ;) Of course, other consideration enter into this, you don't have to sit up to read, you can even 'read' in the dark, falling asleep (which I'm testing as a new cure for insomnia). Equally, reading on the road is entirely possible, both walking and biking (which again I intend to test in the near future). It's a nice change from listening to music on the mp3 player, which tends to get dull after a certain period of time.

Finally, audio books are easy to come by if you can get them online. Dead trees have to be loaned, ordered or purchased first.

spamming as a career choice

November 25th, 2006

I was reading an article on spam, and suddenly it hit me, why didn't I get in on this cash cow? Think about it, it's a pretty interesting problem to work on, very hands-on technology. And it's interesting from a psychological point of view, because spamming is an epic battle between the good and the bad. :D It is a point of ingeniousness on part of the spammer to circumvent every obstacle he is made to cross. This is a pretty exciting mix of technology and psychology, on either side of the fence. And plenty of cases to boost your ego, whenever you successfully draw up a successful obstacle, or you overcome it. Then of course it's the money, which we keep hearing is good, but since spammers probably don't file tax returns, we don't really know.

Although, the problem doesn't really evolve much, does it? The point of spam (and spam itself) is pretty much what it was 10 years ago, just that the method of getting it to the public have become clever. But it's still doing the same thing they always did, so once you've gotten sick of that, there's nothing more to sink your teeth into, no other goal that you could pursue.

Besides, the problem itself, while being circumstantially interesting, is not in itself an interesting problem to solve. It's basically mailing out envelopes, or sending out the traditional junk mail letters. Just doing it in a highly organized and automated way.

Another downside is that it's not a socially applaudable career. You won't be getting any good references from spamming when you're applying for your next job. The average person from the current generation of young adults is expected to change their career 4 times in the space of their work lifetime. But going from spamming to something new might be tricky, because your past x years are poorly accounted for, unless you state that you were in the business of spamming, which may be frowned upon.

So though I've never evaluated spamming as a career choice before, I have now, and it may just look a little more appealing than it really is.

why software patents are idiotic

November 23rd, 2006

If there ever was a case that illustrated why software patents are idiotic, it is a story from today's slashdot. In a bold move, a company has filed a patent claim for linked lists.

Just to recap for a moment - patents are meant to protect new inventions, so that when you make a brilliant new discovery, like say, the light bulb, and someone wants to take that idea and get rich you can say "hang on, I was first, if you want to use the idea you'll have to license it from me".

Linked lists are as old as computer science itself, however. No, scratch that, they're a fundamental principle, in fact. They are what the Pythagorean theorem is to mathematics. The patent claim in this case is not for linked lists in general, it's for lists linked in more than one direction, which is just a common variant of linked lists. But here's the kicker, the patent was granted. That means the data structure I was taught in college (and which every comp sci student is taught) is now to be considered hands off. :( So if I write an application using linked lists, I am liable for patent infringement. It's a good thing patents are not backwards enforcable, or my old assignments in college would come into question. :lala:

Software patents, of course, are only applicable in the one country crazy enough to accept them, the United States. The idea was rejected by the EU some time ago, but another round of lobbying over patents in Europe is on the cards.

The point of a patent is to protect innovation. In this case, the holder of the patent is able to sue any company or individual for using linked lists, but that kind of case would be completely useless, because of the prior art principle. If a patent is granted and it is then proven that someone has used the idea before the patent was issued, then the patent is invalidated.

Other ideas already patented are Adobe's tabbed window panes (as used in Photoshop) and Amazon's one-click shopping.

Unlike DRM, patents are not such a big consumer problem, they apply more to developers. But it means that if a company is granted a patent for "lossy compressed music files" (mp3), and uses this idea in a program (Windows Media Player), then anyone else wanting to play back these mp3s can't, in any way, make this happen. Because the limitation isn't on the format itself, it's on the idea that such a format can exist. So noone can even come up with a different format for music files, the whole thing is restricted. This is not a good example, because a) there's lots of prior art for music compression and b) I took this from thin air, so it may not be that realistic or representative. Nevertheless, this is how the mechanism works and so for open source software, which often strives to provide alternatives for common commercial software, software patents is a minefield.

iriver, you rock. again.

November 22nd, 2006

I mentioned the scourge of DRM in the past and it's interesting to see that things are developing. For one thing, I've really taken to Magnatune after Amarok added the plugin and the other day I purchased this album (apparently 10% of the sales through amarok go to the amarok project, neat). publishes a list of non-DRM music stores which is very handy. Apparently, eMusic sells songs for 25c to iTunes's 99c and without DRM, I might just register over there and look around.

Another most welcome development is iriver deciding to abandom the DRM on their mp3 players, which places them back in my good graces. Their newest players state the system requirements as Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, no more Windows Media Player baloney. Which means that when the time comes to replace my ifp 895, I probably will go with a third iriver. And that's five sales in all, including recommendations I've given to other people.

And here's a very well written article about why DRM is bad, including an instructive video by the people at Last but not least, Lawrence Lessig's lecture on free culture and the evolution of cultural freedoms.

If you're more into books than music, Telltale Weekly has a collection of cheap audiobooks you can download in mp3 format. Some are indeed free, and if you read my impressions on Kafka's Metamorphosis on this blog in the future, you'll know why.

Finally, this isn't a DRM issue, but it's closely connected to it. Record companies lament about losing money lately, and they try to make you care about their profits by saying that the artists you love are not getting paid for their work. Well apparently, it's true that artists aren't being paid, but that this is not a recent development, and has little to do with profits and all to do with their corporate policies. In contrast, Magnatune (and possibly others) pay artists 50% of every sale, so for those who care about artists, it's a pretty good incentive to shop there instead.

people say the darndest things

November 21st, 2006

On a forum today I got this strange message, I don't know what to think of it..

During a lot of time, I was thinking you were a girl. Don't ask me why, but I did.