Category Archives: News

A bit about copyright

Copyright was in the news again recently. Researcher Rufus Pollock has written a new paper in which he both qualitatively and quantitatively makes a case for limited length copyright being a better incentive than perpetual (or lengthy) copyright for the creation of new works (the goal of copyright). If you don’t want to read the full paper a review of it is available from ars technica. Pollock has also written in the past about the value of the public domain. Though his most recent paper is not as strong as other critics of current intellectual property policies (see Boldrin and Levine who suggest it provides no incentive and that it be abolished altogether) it provides an important (and perhaps more reasonable point to start discussing the purpose, success and benefit of intellectual property to society.

Happy Birthday Square One

Today is the twentieth birthday of Square One Television, the 1980s and 90s television show produced by Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now Seseme Workshop). Many of us remember watching both Square One (for math) and 3-2-1 Contact (for science) as children. To some extent educational science programming continued after the discontinuation of 3-2-1 Contact, both Newton’s Apple (for adults) and Bill Nye (for students) continued the trend of high quality educational science programming, though both of those programs have also ceased production. Yet there has never been another successful attempt at educational math programming that I’m aware of. The same fate was met by Ghostwriter (for reading/writing) and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego (for geography/social studies) which were also popular educational PBS programs. Although these programs may sometimes have been of dubious educational value, they were certainly more educational than much of what is found on afterschool television today and they were enjoyed by a great many people.

Aside from a reprise in this creative and clever educaitonal television writing for school-aged students (most educational programming these days seems aimed at the pre-school to 2nd grade crowd) I would hope that the producers of these early pioneering shows would see fit to release DVDs. Much of this programming is still used in schools because nothing better has come along and the episodes would also be enjoyed by a wider populace which either remembers them or is looking for quality educational programming. Until the day these are available on commercial DVD I’ll have to be satisfied by the tape collection which I have traded with other collectors and converted to DVD.

For more information on Square One Television visit the fantastic Square One Television fansite and forums. For more information on 3-2-1 Contact and early science programming read 80s Science TV at Inkling Magazine.

Bypassing Macrovision protected content with a consumer electronics device?

I was recently reading this CoolTools article in NetworkWorld where Keith Shaw was explaining some of the gadgets he found at CES. One of the things that caught my eye was his explantion of the Streaming Networks iRecord Personal Media Recorder.

What caught my eye was his explanation that this device would allow you to “connect a DVD player…and press the record button…[to] instantly record the video’s content onto your video iPod.” Appaerently you can do the same thing with a PSP or any USB storage device. This is interesting to me because most DVD players, at least those sold in the US, output an analog copy protection system (Macrovision) when playing back digital content protected by a digital copy protection system (CSS). While such analog protection is easily removed by devices designed to do so and can be ignored by digital recording software most digital recording software and hardware manufacturers have been pressured (perhaps with legal threats, I don’t know) into detecting such copy protection on analog inputs and refusing to record. Either there was some misinformation in the NetworkWorld article or the iRecord was ignoring this protection.

I needed to look into this further so I checked out the Streaming Networks page for the iRecord. This page also blatently talks about recording DVDs though the analog inputs on the device. After some further poking around on the site all I could come up with was an FAQ entry explaining this is legal to do (good thing Fair Use still works to avoid analog copy protection, too bad the same can’t be said of digital transcoding thanks to the DMCA…)

The next stop was a CNet review which stated emphatically that “it can record protected DVDs” this seems to put the issue to bed. My only question now is how they avoided having to enforce the Macrovision protection when everyone else does. One potential answers lies in an older cached copy of the CNet review which states “In accordance to the terms, you won’t be able to get this [Macrovision protected] video off of your USB device (iPod, PSP) as you can with other recorded content.” This no longer appears in the current version of the article. Perhaps the information was incorrect and the Macrovision protection is ignored, but perhaps this just isn’t being talked about.

St. Paul, Minnesota Explores Municipal Fiber

Being someone who believes that while municipal wifi is nice it is overhyped and should come after fiber to the premesis (where I do much more computing anyway) I’m excitied to see that the nearby city of St. Paul, Minnesota is exploring municipal fiber.

What the St. Paul Broadband Access Committee (BAC) may not be aware of, but something I suggested they read is Bob Cringley’s article from last year about a new model for municipal connectivity. Instead fo relying on the municipality itself to provide Internet service, arguably with the potential to be a worse system administrator than the RBOCs and cable companies, his suggestion is a public/private partnership. Following his thinking, which comes from Bob Frankston (of VisiCalc fame) and others, the city would install and own the fiber infrastructure from central connectivity points to end users but would not actually provide any Internet (or voice or video service) leaving that up to private providers. In fact, the municipality would not be responsible for any of the electronic equipment either, just the raw pipes (or tubes if you prefer).

The beauty of this solution is that the city will own the infrastructure and allow multiple providers to compete to provide service. That competition, in addition to the fact that providers will not have the large up front cost of installing the fiber itself, should allow for service costs to remain quite low. In addition, with the use of technologies such as optical splitters and combiners it would be possible to get Internet from one provider, voice from a second and video from a third if you so chose. It’ll be interesting to see if this can take off, one thing I know is that I’m not especially interested in having government control the Internet portion of my service, the potential for abuse such as censorship or snooping is simply too great, but I have no problem with them owning some of the last-mile infrastructure if it means I can select from a number of providers!

From congress to you

Because of my historical association with providing an audio recording of the yearly presidential state of the union address to the Internet Archive project I’m interested in avoiding any chance of copyright infringement by getting my audio as far upstream as possible. Last year I wrote to my congressional delegation and asked a fairly simple question about how congressional programming got from the floor to me on C-SPAN (a public-private partnership which does have some copyright issues). I did get a couple of calls asking for clarification on my question. Apparently it’s not one they get asked a lot because they needed to go do some research. Eventually I got answers, but not good ones. I was able to learn about how the house and senate are responsible for creating the video of floor proceedings and even some about the specific departments responsible but nothing about how C-SPAN is able to get a split of that feed or how I might be able to. Anyway, I got busy with other things and haven’t really thought about it until recently when these two things came to my attention.

The first is the METAVID project at the University of California (Santa Cruz) which is capturing, archiving and streaming legislative proceedings. I thought they might have an in to an pre-CSPANified feed of proceedings which is why I looked into it, but it seems they are actually just taking the C-SPAN feed and covering the logo and text which are copyright C-SPAN, not the really copyright unencumbered answer I am looking for.

It also came to my attention that C-SPAN’s president has been out campaigning for “independant camera” access to the house and senate floor. This sounds like a good thing until you look at what it means. It means that instead of the government produced feed of floor proceedings we now get (and which is public domain) what you get on C-SPAN would be under their copyright control allowing for no reuse, etc. As my initial inquiry suggested last year it seems quite difficult to get a non C-SPANified feed now but at least even the C-SPANified version now is at least in murky copyright waters and not clearly owned by C-SPAN. Thankfully the changes proposed by C-SPAN have been rejected by congressional leadership for the time being but it’s critical to remain vigilant. At the very least I would like to think that completely public domain proceedings would be available live on a free-to-air satellite so they could be viewed, archived and distributed by people such as myself without fear of legal attacks.

Strike Three!

It seems we can now add Lenovo/IBM to the list of companies affected by bad laptop batteries. Details on the recall are available at including a small program you can download and install or a place to enter in your battery’s serial number that will tell you if your battery is one of those affected.

Open Source Routing

I’ve written about competition to Cisco products in the past, most recently about a college in Texas switching from Call Manager to the (fantastic) open source Asterisk PBX. It seems there’s more trouble in paradise. The networking market has been moving towards commoditization for some time but remains stratified, for example when Linksys got too close for comfort Cisco bought them out and made it clear such products were not suitable for the enterprise customer.

Another threat should be on the radar at Cisco. A company called Vyatta has released an open source product set to compete directly with Cisco routers called Open Flexible Router (OFR). The software runs on standard x86 PC hardware and is based on Linux but boots up and runs in much the same way a Cisco router does, right down to the command line interface that closely paralells Cisco’s. It seems the marketing is currently targeted and small and medium sized businesses but there’s no real reason that such a company couldn’t convice some educational and enterprise users to switch if they were convinced the support was good enough.

The two main things Cisco has going for it are the dedicated hardware which allows for (theoretically) more stability and optimized processing and the history of customer satisfaction and excellent support that Cisco has built into its brand. Of course with an open source program such as OFR another company could come up with a customized hardware solution that would erode at least one of the Cisco advantages, the other one will just take time if Vyatta can build a name for quality and stability.

News for campus computing

I don’t know that I can add another publication or website to my list of reading material becasue I’m already so far behind but I found out that there’s an enterprise IT trade paper just for college and university settings. CampusTechnology is a monthly publication with roots going back to 1988 and published by 1105 Media, which is nice to see since the majority of the trade journals are controlled by CMP and IDG.

SHSU switches from Cisco Call Manager to Asterisk

According to NetworkWorld Sam Houston State Univeristy in Texas is moving from Cisco Call Manager to Asterisk for the backend of their VoIP system. The story is being discussed on Slashdot as well.

Score one for open source! As someone who has worked on both the Asterisk and Call Manager platforms I have to say that I much prefer working with Asterisk.

The Facebook Privacy Problem

Regular readers may remember the this short article I wrote on how the information on the internet is going to be a problem for people in the future. Recently the online social networking site made some changes and people could easily see just how easily this information can be disseminated on the Internet. The change was followed by shock and revolt by Facebook users but the changes remain in place as of today. I wrote the following opinion for an online discussion list and thought blog readers may enjoy it as well.

As a Facebook user as well as a graduate student and computer professional the current controversy over the changes made by Facebook are of particular interest to me. My own experience and discussions with other members of the Internet generation leads me to believe that these users still do not see the “privacy light at the end of the tunnel“. Most users remain unaware of the risks associated with putting any kind of personal information on the internet and grossly misunderstand the ability of individuals and organizations to aggregate such data into profiles of users for anything from relatively benign marketing purposes to something more sinister such as identity theft.

The thing that’s really important to remember here is that the changes made to Facebook did not and have not made any information that was previously private available to the public. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the Facebook team as can be read on their blog. In other words the only difference is that you are now presented with a list of all the recent changes your “friends” have made. Of course this information was available to you before, but you had to seek it out on each users’ page. Personally I find the feature to be quite a useful one and think it has been a long time in coming. In my opinion the usefulness of social networks such as this is to allow you to stay current with the lives and events of a great number of acquaintances quickly.

Where the problem comes in is that people have been hiding behind “security through obscurity” for some time. Most users don’t think twice about what information is available (to their friends) on their user page. Suddenly the information in thrust into the light and they are alarmed. Of course their have been newspaper stories around the country warning students that employers can and do look up prospective employees on the internee before hiring to see what kinds of people they are, but in my experience most students feel so removed from the employment process they aren’t concerned about this. Secondly, their is an incorrect perception that Facebook is a closed network. Because of this students feel free to post things they normally wouldn’t want “public”. Still others feel that they will be able to change or “clean” their pages before looking for a job. The problem with this is that I have no doubt this information is being crawled and archived by many people and could still be used against you in the future. Obviously alumni now employed in various field still have Facebook accounts and are typically quite accommodating when employers ask them to look up a prospective hire on Facebook. Still other users may be running bots through the network and collecting as much information as possible about as many people as possible for any number of reasons.

As mentioned by Alessandro in a recent message to the list there do exist a number of granular privacy controls which can be exercised within the Facebook environment. Few students take advantage of these tools as they fail to see the ramifications of having so much information public. My real concern is that this will soon blow over and people will go back to ignoring the implications of sharing so much data with the public. Even after several years of incidents being reported in the media there remains a problem with individuals and businesses understanding that once something is out on the Internet the cat is out of the bag. There’s no going back. By its very nature the Internet is a public place and is going to be crawled, indexed, cached and stored. It amazes me that people (especially those who have grown up with computers and the Internet) still fail to grasp this concept.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the implications of people sharing data on the Internet and certainly not the last. For more thoughts on how this might effect the ability of people to hold various jobs in the future or perhaps change our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior I encourage you to read this short article I wrote on the topic back in March.

Obviously I don’t expect that people will remove all personal data from the Internet, nor do I think they should. Much of the usefulness of computers and the Internet springs from the ability to search vast databases of information. As a Facebook user and someone who has had a personal website for much longer than that I provide a lot of personal information about myself. The key here is for people to understand the ramifications of doing so and, most importantly, to think about what they say and do in public before they do it.