Thursday, December 29, 2011

Is fair use moot in the Internet era?

Today's New York Times has an excellent article on a case in which the court ruled that artist Richard Prince had broken the law by using photographs from a book about Rastafarians in a collage without permission.

The article (and its enlightening comments) goes well beyond this case. It examines the notion of "fair use" of copyrighted material, in which the result transforms the thing used, adding value to the original and culturally enriching society.

But, cultural enrichment is in the eye of the beholder.

Do you think Stephanie Lenz should pay the musician Prince a royalty because his song "Let's Go Crazy" is playing in the background of this video of her baby?

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel answered "no" and the video was restored to YouTube.

That case is pretty blatant -- it did not cost Prince sales and was not intended for the same audience as his recording. But, how about this case -- do you think 2 Live Crew should reimburse Roy Orbison for their sampling of his song "Oh Pretty Woman?"

The Supreme Court decided in favor of 2 Live Crew, ruling that their recording was a parody of Orbison's and was aimed at a different audience.

Regardless of your viewpoint on any of these cases, it is clear that there can be no definition of "fair use" that will satisfy everyone. Indeed, the whole thing may be moot in the Internet era. Do you really expect me to contact the copyright holder and get permission before I use an image I find using Bing or Google to illustrate a blog post?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I cut the cord -- no more cable TV

In this video, Verizon tells us the future of home video will be a wireless LAN connecting our TV sets and other devices to a Verizon FiOS server:

I agree that we will be distributing video around our homes on LANs, but don't expect mine to be connected to a FiOS server. For a start, Verizon does not offer FiOS in my neighborhood and from what I hear and read, they have no plans to do so.

Moreover, if they eventually do offer me FiOS, I suspect that it will be expensive and I will have to purchase a bundle of video "service" -- forcing me to pay for a lot of channels that I will never watch.

But, I don't want video service from Verizon, I just want bits.

I want my home LAN to be connected to the Internet (by Verizon or any other ISP), allowing me to watch ala carte IP video.

I've taken my first step in that direction. I “cut the cord" -- dropping our cable TV service and connecting our TV sets to our home LAN using Roku boxes. We (just barely) get local channels over the air using rabbit-ear antennas.

This set up and the available content is far from perfect, but it is my first step toward unbundled IP video.

Have you cut the cord? How do you like it?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Recommended podcast: Interpreting the Constitution in the digital era

Jeffrey Rosen asks "Can the police, without a warrant, put a secret GPS device on the bottom of someone's car and track him 24/7 for a month?"

If you are interested in legal and moral issues of privacy and autonomy, you will like Terry Gross' interview of George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, who is co-editor of a new book called Constitution 3.0 Freedom and Technological Change.

In this NPR interview, Rosen says that information technologies are "challenging our Constitutional categories in really dramatic ways" and that "none of the existing amendments give clear answers to the most basic questions we're having today." He discusses both current cases with today's technology and speculates on information and biological technology that may become available in the future and raise even thorniner problems.

The interview is 36 minutes 33 seconds, and you can stream or download it or read the transcript here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

James Fallows -- what happens when six years of Gmail is hacked and deleted?

James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, who, in addition to award winning coverage of national and foreign affairs, has been using and writing about information technology for thirty years. (Check this 1982 article on WordStar and what word processing meant to a journalist).

This month in the Atlantic, Fallows recounts the hacking of his wife's Gmail account and the way Google dealt with it.

Everyone in her address book got one of those "I was mugged while in Madrid, please send money" messages and all of her email was deleted. After the account was restored, Fallows visited Google and interviewed security folks there. Here is one quote from the article:
At Google I asked Byrant Gehring, of Gmail’s consumer-operations team, how often attacks occur. "Probably in the low thousands," he said. "Per month?," I asked. "No, per day."
That should get your attention.

I recommend this article -- it is a harrowing story with some practical tips.

It is also a good introduction to James Fallows. If you have not read him, you should.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Data mining for science and marketing

Researchers at Google and the U. S. Centers for Disease Control discovered a correlation between an index they compiled based on health related search terms and the incidence of flu recorded by the CDC.

Vicks has taken it a step further by sending ads for a safe home thermometer to mothers in high flu regions of the country. The ads offer the thermometer and give the location of nearby stores that carry it.

Is this a spooky invasion of privacy or targeted delivery of relevant information?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Video chat and the family

The New York times has an article on the way video chat is reshaping domestic rituals like holiday parties and birth announcements. (Skype video chat averages 300 million minutes per day).

It can also reshape every day life. My wife is Chilean and chats with siblings or her mother in Santiago every day. Here you see her talking with her sister Anita, Note that they use both iPads and Skype while they are talking.

She and Anita often chat twice a day and it can easily be for more than an hour. I doubt that they would see each other that much if they were both living in Santiago.

When my grandparents came to the US from Europe, they knew they would never see the people they were leaving behind again. Times have changed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

MIT's online classes will be different than Stanford's

MIT will follow Stanford's lead in offering online classes starting in the spring of 2012. They have not yet decided which classes they will pilot, but the courses will be free and open to all.

Stanford University is already offering three free computer science courses online this term. Stanford's classes are synchronized with on-campus sections and use short presentations punctuated by frequent questioning.

Stanford seems to be sticking closer to the traditional classroom structure and pace than MIT. MIT's press release promises self-paced instruction, interactive, online laboratories, and student-to-student communication. They are building an open source platform for their courses, which other schools will be able to use for their own online offerings.

Neither university will give online students credit, but both will offer certification for the successful completion of a class. MIT students will have the option of paying a small fee for assessment and certification, done by an independent organization in order to avoid confusion with MIT itself. Stanford students can do the same assignments and take the same quizzes and exams as regularly enrolled students, and can get a certificate showing how well they did relative to the rest of the students.

Both schools will study and evaluate their online classes, and Stanford, MIT and the rest of us will learn a lot about procedures and delivery platforms for online education.

(The New York Times covered the MIT announcement).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Louis CK goes direct to the consumer on the Internet

Comedian Louis CK is distributing a high quality, DRM-free recording of a recent concert on the Internet.

After four days, he has sold 110,000 copies at $5 each

After deducting production, Web site and transaction costs, he has a profit of around $200,000 (so far). He says that is less than he would have made had a large record company produced the video, but the public is getting more this way:
  • They are paying $5, not $20 for a CD.
  • They can make all the copies they want to.
  • They can watch it on any device they have access to.
  • It is not restricted internationally.
  • The record company does not have their personal information for marketing purposes.
There has been some piracy -- you can get it for free using Bit Torrent -- but clearly many people prefer the convenience and karma of a purchase. Louis CK points out that the concert is all new material, which to him is life-and-death intellectual property, and he reserves the right to go back to a record company in the future. I hope he doesn't.

<aside to Louis>
Louis, don't forget that this is only the first four days of sales. You have also gotten a ton of favorable publicity -- I must admit that I had never even heard of you before this and now I am going to buy the video. You also learned a lot about producing concert videos and Internet marketing, so you will have better margins on the next one.
</aside to Louis>

This is a cool example of Internet going around the (fat) middle man. Even if you don't buy the video, you should read Louis CK's insightful, humorous summary of the deal.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kickstarter -- "wisdom of the crowds" project funding -- like the Altair

Kickstarter is a Web platform for funding projects in music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields. People post project proposals on the Kickstarter Web site along with a financial goal. The public is invited to pledge financing for the project, and Kickstarter holds the pledges in escrow until the goal is reached.

The funds are only collected if the project meets its financial goal within a set time.

The folks who pledge funds do not get equity in the project, like a venture capitalist would, but they can get perqs like T-shirts or products, depending upon how much they pledge.

For example, I recently wrote a short post on a Kickstarter proposal for the TouchFire keyoard overlay, which claims it will improve touch typing on the iPad. Folks who pledged could either make a small contribution to encourage the idea or pledge more to get a T-shirt or purchase a TouchFire from the first production run.

TouchFire set a fund raising goal of only $10,000, and 3,146 people pledged $201,400 -- twenty times their funding target. (Since it was oversubscribed, the first production run is sold out, but you can place an order for one from the next batch at
Kickstarter is a cool “wisdom of the crowd” way to raise capital, and the crowd seems to like this idea.

People also like the idea of Kickstarter. As of October 11, over a million people had backed projects, 166,823 of those had backed more than one, and they had pledged over 100 million dollars. To put that in context, the 2011 fiscal year budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $154 million.
Kickstarter reminids me of the MITS Altair -- the first mass market hobbyist PC. MITS was a near-broke calculator company when they brought out Altair kits, which were featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine. MITS financed the kits by asking for payment in full at the time you placed your order. I guess they cashed the checks, bought the parts, stuffed them in baggies and sent them out.

I sent my check and got my kit. There was no Kickstarter process to hold our checks in escrow, we were enthused about the Altair and trusted MITS. Those were different times.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

iPad WiFi is poor

My wife just got an iPad – the first tablet in our house.  It was not easy to get it away from her, but last night I managed to take the iPad to bed.  I was expecting an insanely great experience, but my first impression was that network access was slow and flaky.

To test my impression, I compared it to a Dell Precision laptop.  First, I pinged UCLA, a nearby university, 100 times using both the laptop and the iPad.  The average ping time for iPad was 63.7 milliseconds, over twice that of the Dell, and the standard deviation four times as great.  No wonder it seemed flaky.

  Dell iPad
Minimum 18 22.7
Maximum 120 231.9
Mean 30.2 63.7
Standard deviation 14.9 64.8
Next I tested file transfer times (Mb/s), and the laptop was faster:
  Dell iPad
Upload 6.29 1.77
Download 1.83 .17
That was no surprise given the variability in ping times. It doesn't look like I'll be making a lot of Skype calls or watching movies in bed.

My bedroom is at the back of the house, so I checked the signal strength. As shown below, it dropped to around -65 db as I walked from the office, where the WiFi access point is located, to the bedroom.

WiFi signal strength dropped as I walked from the access point to the bedroom.

The laptop is not perfect in the bedroom -- it does better when it is near the access point, but its radio is clearly more sensitive than that of the iPad. iPad Wifi is more like that of a netbook than a laptop.

I measured iPad ping time using Typhuun System Scope Lite, the transfer rate using and the signal strength with Metageek Inssider.

A reader pointed out that the results were affected by my pinging UCLA, which introduced Internet and server variability into the test. I repeated the test, pinging a machine within my house and found the following:

Dell: minimum 1, maximum 90, mean 5.96, standard deviation 12.6 with zero dropped packets (1 sec timeout)
iPad: minimum 5.04, maximum 202.02, mean 18.56, standard deviation 32.49 with 8 dropped packets (1 sec timeout)

Not surprisingly, the iPad remains relatively poor.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Is speech recognition finally going to catch on with Siri?

Everyone agrees that some day we will be talking to our computers -- dictating memos, asking questions, giving commands, etc. The catch is that "some day" seems to be always five or ten years in the future.

People have been working on speech recogntion for a long time. My first exposure was a demonstration of Shoebox, a calculator with speech input, at the IBM pavillion at the 1964 World Fair. In spite of years of research and hacking, speech recognition has remained niche technology.

Have we finally seen the start of practical, ubiquitous speech recognition with Apple's Siri? Maybe.

Siri has a lot of infrastructure support that earlier speech recognition systems lacked. It sends the speech back to a server for recognition and that server has assimilated clues from massive amounts of data on speech patterns. Once recognized, it relies on other services for search and to look for answers to questions. If you ask how far it is from Los Angeles to New York, it will go to WolframAlpha for the answer. Ask it where to get Indian food in your neighborhood and it will go to Yelp. (What will Apple do if you ask where to find bomb-making instructions or dirty pictures)?

Google seems to have the recognition part down, but may be playing catch up with input parsing and answer retrieval.

In spite of Apple's secrecy, Siri has attracted a hobbyist following. Check out this video of a hobbyist using Siri to control lights and other things in a room.

The developer of that app had to jump through hoops using SiriProxy to get it to work. Here's hoping Apple provides tools to encourage this sort of thing -- that might be what it takes to finally get speech recognition off the ground.