Be Wary of Digital Rights Management (DRM)

I have just been reading an article in which Bill Gates is justifying the introduction of digital rights management into Windows Media Centre. In essence he is saying that the content producers own the Intellectual Property (IP) and can put whatever rights they like on it. If there are no restrictions the the Media Centre will play the content, but if the producer has put restrictions on it using DRM, then the media centre will respect those rights.

I have just been reading an article in which Bill Gates is justifying the introduction of digital rights management into Windows Media Centre. In essence he is saying that the content producers own the Intellectual Property (IP) and can put whatever rights they like on it. If there are no restrictions the the Media Centre will play the content, but if the producer has put restrictions on it using DRM, then the media centre will respect those rights.

There seems to be a large flaw in this argument which is what makes some people (myself included) wary of Digital Rights Management. IP holders are granted the rights that they have to control content by the state to give people an incentive to innovate. But those rights are not absolute. There are certain freedoms that everyone has (like allow people to include small extracts of a whole work for use in a new work). The issue with DRM is that is does not necessarily also enforce those freedoms. So if a content producers adds DRM to his IP and then distributes he may give you less rights than you are legally entitled.

Debugging is my pleasure

About a month ago I decided the time had come to find out why, when I attempted to blank a cd in my cd rewriter, cdrecord (the program I was using to do this) hung – and then could not be killed off because the operating system thought it had outstanding I/O in progress.

This meant getting down to a copy of linux source code, building a system with some debug statements in it and finding out what was going on.

It was a hard three weeks, but I have eventually proved that there was a hardware problem with my drive. I must say, it was one of the most satisfying activities I have undertaken recently.

About a month ago I decided the time had come to find out why, when I attempted to blank a cd in my cd rewriter, cdrecord (the program I was using to do this) hung – and then could not be killed off because the operating system thought it had outstanding I/O in progress.

Continue reading “Debugging is my pleasure”

WYSIWYG v WYSIWYM

I was thinking the other day about the way we produced documents in the mid 1980’s. It was kicked off by hp setting up a competition to find the oldest laser printer still working, because I headed a product development centre in those days and we had purchased one. I had been thinking of buying a line printer in order to enable our programmers to print out their code and put it into binders. I was approached by our hp saleslady, who enticed me with a fast A4 printer. I had thought this would make it simpler to print code on A4 and put them in smaller binders rather than the large binders we needed before, and duly purchased one.

I was thinking the other day about the way we produced documents in the mid 1980’s. It was kicked off by hp setting up a competition to find the oldest laser printer still working.

I headed a product development centre in those days and we had purchased one.  I had been thinking of buying a line printer in order to enable our programmers to print out their code and put it into binders. I was approached by our hp “saleslady”, who enticed me with a fast A4 printer. It had been the custom to use specialist line printer paper and purchase special binders to store it it, but I had realised this would make it simpler to print code on A4 and put them in standard binders rather than the more expensive specialist ones, and I duly ordered this new printer. It turned out to be one of my better decisions.

What I had not counted on was that we were introducing VDUs on to everyone’s desk for the first time, and therefore suddenly there was a lot less of a requirement for producing paper code listings. However, one of my team created a set of macros for nroff which enabled people to write documents in a text editor, which when processed produced very high quality documentation on the laser printer. For a number of years my team produced documentation that looked as though it had been produced at a professional print shop – when the rest of the company were still using IBM manual typewriters and snowpake.

It was not until several years later that we stopped using that system, at the point when it started becoming feasible to put a PC on everyone’s desk running Microsoft Word. Although we could now do graphics easier (the only large achilles heel of the nroff system) we lost a lot in the consistency of our documentation.

The closest today in lyx. a WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) type of system – but I have a slightly different vision. I would like something that

  • uses docbook xml as the native underlying language
  • provides template based style sheets (using xml formating objects?) which can show how each sort of document should look on screen and printer
  • provide WYSIWYG editing of the style sheets.

UPDATE June 2010. Some years later and I haven’t done anything with this thought. The one big change is SVG (scalable vector graphics) which in essence is a text system to embed drawings.

 

UPDATE November 2012:  I have just come across latex – but perhaps more importantly the tikz library package that allows you to draw high quality graphics in that environment.  A few experiments later and I am able to produce some high quality documents in a house style.  Its not what I was envisaging in 2004, but interestingly the underlying quality of those original 1980s days is surpassed and for the first time with graphics support all in a mechanism that can be properly version controlled with git.  I am developing my house styles as I write this and intend to make it my primary writing environment for the future.

A Nice Little Earner (for my Energy Supplier that is)

Now I know energy prices are rising, but 25% increases each. That is ridiculous.

So I sat down and calculated exactly how much Gas and Electricity I had consumed last year, then took the current tariffs after the price rises and calculated how much I should pay for the year. I then either took off what they owe me (I am in credit on Gas) or added on what I owe them (not so good in Electricity) and calculated my monthly payments to make me break even at the end of the year. This turns out to be a modest rise in electricity £52 per month to £58 per month, and a fairly large decrease in gas (from £75 per month to £52 per month)

Now I know energy prices are rising, but 25% increases each. That is ridiculous.

So I sat down and calculated exactly how much Gas and Electricity I had consumed last year, then took the current tariffs after the price rises and calculated how much I should pay for the year. I then either took off what they owe me (I am in credit on Gas) or added on what I owe them (not so good in Electricity) and calculated my monthly payments to make me break even at the end of the year. This turns out to be a modest rise in electricity £52 per month to £58 per month, and a fairly large decrease in gas (from £75 per month to £52 per month)

I then rang them up to ask how they calculated their numbers. Do you know what they said. “There is something funny with our calculations sometimes it gives numbers that are too high. What do you want to pay”. I told them the result of my calculations, and the call centre person said “yes that seems about right” to both numbers.

What a winner. If I had done nothing they were going to change to the new amount at the next monthly direct debit – and I would have been paying £65/month or £780/year too much. At 6% interest (for an average of 6 months) thats £23.40 extra from me. Multiply that by the 3 million or so customers they have thats around £60 million extra – now that is a nice little earner!

My Open Source Philosophy

It may seem strange that someone who has made his living for over 35 years in the software business, with at least 15 of those years in charge of a product for which we charged significant licence fees, should advocate the open source movement and the supply of software for free. This paper clarifies, and then justifies, my stance on this. I hope that in doing so I may add to the debate on the subject by showing why I believe that despite the free availability of software there is still significant revenues and profit to be made by those that wish to supply solutions to the business community for money.

It may seem strange that someone who has made his living for over 35 years in the software business, with at least 15 of those years in charge of a product for which we charged significant licence fees, should advocate the open source movement and the supply of software for free. This paper clarifies, and then justifies, my stance on this. I hope that in doing so I may add to the debate on the subject by showing why I believe that despite the free availability of software there is still significant revenues and profit to be made by those that wish to supply solutions to the business community for money.

Several years ago I was a strong advocate for Microsoft. I was responsible for establishing a PC based office automation environment within my company and I saw important marketing effort advocating a move from the horrors of the DOS environment to the ease of use that the WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, point) environment provided being driven by Microsoft with a pricing strategy that beat its competitors easily. Two specific deals in particular spring to mind. The first was bundling networking within the operating system where previously we had had to purchase a separate licence (DECNET) and the second was to create an office bundle at a price not much above a single application where previously we had been purchasing these items independently. Then, as part of my role to set future direction for a product I was responsible for, I became a beta tester for windows 95 about 18 months before it was released.

So why do I now think differently? The turning point for me came when I discovered Linux and installed it on my PC at home. I had watched Windows 95 move through new releases which added a small amount of new functionality but which required me to pay for another upgrade licence, I had watched licence conditions change so that key office software at work was not available to me at home anymore, I had paid good money (not to Microsoft) for a mail/news reader that didn’t quite do what I wanted but there was no way to modify it and, most importantly, I was suffering from system crashes and there was no way to solve the problem. I realised in Linux I had found a way to provide me with free software and a mechanism for getting complex crashes fixed.

Back in the late 1980s, I had been actively involved in trying to work out how to improve the quality of code that my company produced. I was directed to, and read, Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To me it taught an important lesson. Quality cannot be stitched on to the side of software, it has to be built in by each individual working on it. What open source does, is that by exposing the insides of software to peer review, encourages the producers of the code to consider quality as they go along and also enables code that does not match up to be seen and then improved.

Unlike some, I do not despise people who wish to make a living selling software. I do regard those who abuse their monopoly power and break the law in order to keep or improve their competitive position as reprehensible and I expect the authorities to take appropriate steps to prevent further occurance and to penalise those who do so for their behaviour. But that aside, I regard my use and support of open source a competitive issue and one in which I support the supplier who best meets my needs now and in to the future.

From this perspective there is an interesting balance here. On the one side I get a lot of functionality for free. Not just the kernel but the wealth of applications that come with it. But the downsides are also not insignificant. I cannot run many of my excellent games (although some do surprisingly well under wine), configuration of any particular feature can still be a tortuous process (particularly newer peripherals – like my usb palm pilot:-)) , fonts don’t always perform well (particularly in conjunction with printing). What ultimately drives me towards Open Source is that by giving something of my abilities (from writing software and or documentation to simply searching for bugs or critising it) I am both giving something back for the benefit I have received from the community and I am tipping the balance towards a longer term, better cheaper solution to my computing needs.

Grand Prix Legends

Grand Prix Legends has been the game that has kept me glued to the computer for hours at a time. I started out just driving solo, but once I had discovered onling racing, I spent hours connected to the phone line. On broadband, you can even host your own races. Although I play it less often now, this is still one of my all time favorites.

Grand Prix Legends has been the game that has kept me glued to the computer for hours at a time. I started out just driving solo, but once I had discovered onling racing, I spent hours connected to the phone line. On broadband, you can even host your own races. Although I play it less often now, this is still one of my all time favorites.

What is the attraction? The most important is the physics model. This sim, like no other, accurately models the performance of the car right down to the effects of each individual wheel and the airflow through the engine. This gives a performance and behaviour that feels as close to the real thing as possible. Added to that superb graphics and a reality created through sound used to its utmost and the immersion is almost complete. Make no mistake about it, driving a 1967 formula one car is no piece of cake, and you have to be ready to put in hours and hours of practice to get somewhere. But in the end its worth it.

For me, there is added nostalgia. The sim models the racing year of 1967, just at the time as a teenager I was in to model car racing. My friends and I built a figure of eight track out of hardboard, wooded battens and copper strip, We bought some old post office mechanical counters (from old >telephone exchanges) and made ourselves a control panel with automatic lap counting.

During the summer we would race in the garden with cars that we had built ourselves – right down to re-winding the shop bought motors to increase the power. My car was Dan Gurney’s Eagle Weslake, my friends had a Ferrari, a Cooper (modelling in this sim as the Coventry, and (my memory fades a little at this point) a Brabham(?).

The picture at the head of this post is me leading the pack (2nd overall) on first bend at Kyalami (South Africa)