Tech and IT

What happens when you drop the SOPA in the shower?

Unless you’re living under a rock (or a Luddite like my wife) you’ve probably heard something about SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA.  SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, while PIPA represents the Protect Intellectual Property Act – lawmakers just love their acronyms.  Personally, I think they should’ve called it the Destruction Of Online Foul Unacceptable Stuff (DOOFUS), or maybe Protect Online Files from Internet Technology (PROFIT) – at least it would’ve hinted at what the bill really aims to protect, or even Semi-Legal American Persecution of Online Foreign Fraudulence (SLAPOFF).

At their heart, both SOPA and PIPA aim to address the same problem: there’s an overabundance of online piracy.  Big media companies are convinced they’re losing billions, and they’ve convinced lawmakers that the US economy, democracy, and the lives of kittens everywhere hinges on the ability to protect intellectual property by throwing away more than 220 years of due process.  The Bill of Rights ensures the accused are innocent until proven guilty; SOPA and PIPA ignore that and put the burden on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and content owners (e.g. people who put stuff on the intarwebs – from youtube and wikipedia to sites like mine and even people who post in Internet forums).

Pretty much anything Congress or the Senate puts together reads like it was carved in bark by a three-year-old in native Swahili, then translated to Occitan before being translated into English.  While SOPA is a tad too complicated to sum up, I’ll do my best: these two bills allow Intellectual Property holders (movie studios, recording studios, etc.) the ability to accuse web sites of piracy.  It’s not the accusation that’s the problem – it’s the power said accusation levies against the accused.  Under SOPA, service providers would be required to block access to accused sites, search engines like Google must de-list accused sites, billing services and credit-card companies must block any payments, domain ownership transfers to the accusers, and a hundred fluffy kittens must be killed, all without a court order.  OK – I made part of that up.  They’ve actually dropped the domain ownership issue.

If you dig into it, there’s a lot of good content on SOPA/PIPA from both sides (mostly from the truthful open-internet supporters, rather than the communist pig dogs promoting SOPA/PIPA).  What troubles me, particularly from an author’s standpoint, is that Big Media not only had a key hand in writing these bills, but worked very hard to push them through the process before anyone could complain.  It’s easy to sit back (particularly several days after Dark Wednesday when most lawmakers have rescinded support for SOPA/PIPA) and talk about how much the process works, how the people’s voices have been heard, how the little guy has won and we shouldn’t ever worry about becoming some warped, dystopian society run by corporations.  Nobody sane supports piracy save pirates and people who think it’s their right to have free stuff, and most would agree the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is far from perfect.  Big Media doesn’t exactly have a good track record of fairness – Warner Brothers even admitted last year to submitting DMCA takedown notices for files they didn’t even have the rights to.

The issue is far from over, regardless of where these bills end up in the coming months.  The evolution of technology is forcing content owners and big media to adapt or die.  Survival by litigation is nothing new, but it provokes the kind of innovation-stifling idea-killing future where everyone will end up eating Soylent Green.

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Just how big is Adrien Brody’s nose?

Personally, I blame Avatar and James Cameron for the explosion of 3D.  Film critics seem to think it’s the beginning of the end (first cgi, and now 3D?  We’re doomed!)  I happen to think that 3D is mind numbingly awesome, but I’m also amused with cereal-box toys and bubble wrap.  The truth of the matter is that the “new” 3D isn’t going away anytime soon.  Love it or hate it, 3D is the wave of the future.  For a 160-year-old technology, that’s pretty impressive.

We should start with some basics.  If you already know how 3D works, you can skip the next paragraphs  Though I might say something clever, but hey – it’s your loss.  Viewing 3D requires the ability to calculate depth using two images, which is why we have two eyes.  The visual cortex of your brain is performing on-the-fly geometry to figure out that your keyboard is close, but your monitor is further away, and that cup of tea you just made is so far out of reach you’re going to have to get up to get it.  (Go ahead, I’ll wait here.)  To simulate 3D, images need to display two slightly skewed views of the same scene to each eye.  Roughly a quarter of the population can’t even see 3D effects because an eye doesn’t work right, or both eyes don’t focus in sync, or the image is interpreted incorrectly in the brain.

In 1853, Willhelm Rollman figured out how to simulate 3D using color-doped lenses to filter out images.  You can blame him for those red and blue glasses.  It wasn’t until the 1890’s that film caught on.  William Friese-Greene patented a technique for viewing two separate movies projected on two separate screens at the same time.  Greene’s method worked really well, but wasn’t practical since only one person could view the picture at a time.  Plus it took James Cameron too long to make Avatar for 3D to catch on in the 1890’s.  Cheap plastic made 3D possible in the 1950’s since movie theatres could hand out disposable red and blue glasses using Rollman’s technique developed a hundred years earlier.  The down side was poor color, but since the world was only black-and-white in the 1950’s it didn’t matter.

Modern movie theatres use polarization (a method of filtering light) to display two images simultaneously.  Those funky cheap sunglasses are attuned to each separate image (try putting them on upside down to give yourself a bad headache).  The up side is that polarized 3D will display the correct color, but polarization causes a loss of brightness.  Some 3D theatres (like Imax 3D) compensate by tweaking the brightness and polarization.  And sometimes the projectionist is a doofus who forgets to remove the polarized lense and you end up watching a 2D movie that looks like somebody smeared engine oil over everything

The human eye sees still images as motion with as few as 24 images a second.  Anything below that, and it looks like the actors have toureetes syndrome.  Our eyes actually see a continuous stream of light, so the more still images we see per second, the more natural it looks and the less headaches we get.  When TV’s went digital, manufacturers had to invent new methods of producing each frame quickly.  Early LCD and Plasma screens couldn’t re-draw the entire image fast enough, and ended up displaying part of the previous frame, which created a “ghost” image that became more apparent in scenes where something was moving across the screen.  Advancements in technology have led to better screens which re-draw each frame faster, and the faster the frames are re-drawn, the smoother the image looks.  For digital TV’s to look decent, the display should refresh at 60Hz at a minimum (that’s roughly 60 still-images a second, though it gets more complicated than that).  Try turning down the refresh on your PC monitor and see how fast you get a headache.  You could turn it into a drinking game!  Just don’t send me the cleaning bill when you puke on the floor.

Fast-refresh TV’s make 3D at home possible.  Since we need to see two images, the TV has to have a way to show each separate image fast enough that we won’t notice.  At 120hz, TV’s can display two images at 60hz each, resulting in theoretical smooth viewing.  This means that any TV running at 120hz is capable of 3D, but doesn’t have to use it.  And no, 3D TV’s aren’t 3D all the time – you still need to have a 3D signal with two distinct images per frame.  Even with a fast refresh, we need a way to filter each image so its only viewed by one eye at a time.  Polarization like they use in theatres requires an expensive coating on the display that increases the price by $1,000 or more.  Manufacturers have been experimenting with shuttering which turns out to be cheaper for the TV, but more expensive for the glasses.  With shuttering, the glasses flicker in sync with the TV as it re-draws each image, filtering out the opposite image for the shuttered eye.  To shutter, the glasses require a power source to flicker the crystal shutter and transmitter to stay in sync with the TV.  Factor in the battery, transmitter, and liquid-crystal shutters, and suddenly you’re balancing the weight of a small European country on the bridge of your nose.  Some displays, like the Nintendo 3DS and a few phones, use a smaller polarized screen to display both images, but it requires the viewer to be perfectly dead center.  A correctly polarized screen can display two entirely separate images at once to two different viewers.  On the plus side, I could finally catch up on Lost while my wife watches boring reality shows!  On the down side, big polarized displays cost more than the annual budget of a small European country (give or take).

Faster refresh in displays means smoother images and a better picture, which is something all manufacturers are aiming for.  As technology gets cheaper, all displays will be 120hz or greater, meaning a TV manufacturer can throw in 3D shuttering at nearly no cost and add a check-box to the feature list regardless of how much the consumer wants 3D.  More TV’s will be 3D enabled or 3D ready, even if nobody uses them.  Polarization will take a lot longer to improve before it becomes cheap enough for large displays, but it’s coming, like it or not.  And as 3D capable TV’s reach a saturation point, movies and TV will start filming in 3D more often.  We may finally get a chance to see just how big Adrien Brody’s nose really is!

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Hello from the Future!

Apple may have captured the world’s attention with the iPad, and Amazon has crammed thousands of books in a package weighing 8.5 ounces, but Microsoft gets the award for grandest future vision.  And they seem to have all the elements in place to pull it off.

Microsoft Surface is amazing, and I really want one.  Though at $7,500 I’m not likely to replace my kitchen table anytime soon.  Still, it would totally make board game night awesome.

Omnitouch can make anything into a computing surface – though I’m pretty sure my cats would get annoyed if I used them as a keyboard.

And yet, despite all this great technology, we still don’t have flying cars.

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Viruses rarely discriminate.  The only prejudice most malicious software harbors is a penchant for processing.  If it runs, it infects.  Always.  For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to expound on the differences between a virus, trojan, bug, zombie, or any of the countless ways malicious code can get into your gear.

I’ve been in far too many discussions with Mac users claiming Macs are immune, or Linux users claiming nobody writes viruses for Linux, or Windows users who say Virus software isn’t needed if you’re careful.  Art is subjective, software isn’t, and the plain truth about code is that it infects.  While there are still a few instances of college kids hacking away code for relatively benign purposes – like turning everyone’s computer clock back six months, or setting home pages to gay porn sites just for laughs – the truth is malicious software is big business.  Infected PC’s send billions of spam messages every day without their users ever knowing they were even infected.  And if you’re in the business of writing malicious code, you target the biggest install base – Windows-based PC’s.

But big install targets aren’t the only targets.  Macs are just as susceptible to infection as PC’s, but being a lower percentage of the PC market, there simply aren’t as many people targeting Macs because there’s less return on that programming investment.  The more popular Macs become, the more that will change.

Do yourself a favor and don’t be a fool.  Your computer use habits only matter if you never connect to the internet, never read e-mail, and have no means of installing software – which probably means you’re using a calculator.

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Mork calling Orson, come in Orson…

Happy Birthday, e-mail!

40 years ago this month, MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson sent the first ever e-mail message between two computers.  Moments later, his inbox was filled with discounts for sexual enhancement drugs and trips to Tahiti.

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How to kill your company

I’m not sure what’s infected businesses lately, but there seems to be a surge of mind-numbingly retarded executives making mind-numbingly retarded decisions.

First we have HP, which seems intent on removing itself from the Fortune-100 list.  The past year has been filled with blunders like failure to capitalize on the Palm buyout (which they paid too much for) with a tablet that was too expensive and poor competition for the iPad.  Killing it and dumping inventory in a fire sale seemed more like the kind of thing a stubborn 5-year old would do when told their toys are inferior.  The HP tablet wasn’t that bad.  Then there’s the PC-spin-off fiasco which caused stocks to take a nose-dive and the stockholders to can Leo Apotheker because they were tired of his crap.  Let’s hope the new CEO can do better – she’s only the third in 11 months.

After buying Sun in 2009, Oracle began screwing over MySQL users because Larry Ellison just doesn’t understand open software.  He’s too busy suing his neighbors over their trees.  That hasn’t stopped him from making some questionable decisions that’ve infuriated the Oracle user community.  Quadrupling the cost of MySQL support, and adding a host of new commercial extensions doesn’t bode well for the open software database platform.

But that’s not as bad as Netflix.  For a company that changed the rental industry with DVDs-by-mail, they don’t seem to understand their core business.  First was a severing of streaming and DVD contracts, effectively doubling the cost of subscriptions for most users.  Stocks took a nose dive.  Then CEO Reed Hastings announced spinning off DVD rentals into a new company called Quickster.  That move would’ve forced DVD and streaming customers to maintain two separate log-ins, accounts, and queue lists.  After a serious beating from customers and stocks, the split is being cancelled and Quickster is no more.  Nothing tells the world you don’t know what you’re doing like reversing big publicly announced decisions.  Quick tip Reed: try discussing business moves with other people before announcing them.

Just don’t ask Oracle or HP.

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