Privacy, Accuracy, Security: Pick Two

The Problems with Compulsory Licensing

Millions of people want to download music for, essentially, free. The record companies don’t want them to do this, and claim that they’re losing money and threaten to sue you into oblivion. How do we reconcile these two? One proposal is compulsory licensing.

The basic idea is that a large portion of the population pays a relatively small tax to the government who then gives it to the artists whose work is downloaded. Terry Fisher says that with a small tax on CD burners, DVD burners, DSL, and cable modems (costing the average family ~$50, less than they spend on DVDs and CDs) could pay for all the music and movies plus a 20% bureaucratic overhead.

Assuming this could be made to work, people could be convinced to accept it, and Congress could pass it, there are still three problems which can’t all be solved.


posted July 29, 2003 10:03 PM (Politics) #

Letter from Knuth

Half a year ago I read Knuth’s book Surreal Numbers. Written in the style of a children’s book it explains a new way of doing mathematics using sets, but more generally explores the process of discovering such a method. Knowing Knuth’s ruthless attention to detail and seeing some things that appeared to be errors, I sent an email to him explaining the issues.

I was surprised and excited to receive a handwritten response from Knuth:

Knuth’s responses are written in mechanical pencil and I couldn’t get them to scan clearly so here’s a transcription:

  1. “Not true; you don’t understand the empty set. See Martin Gardner, Mathematical Magic Shop, chapter 1.”
  1. “? They are not on a desert island, they are in Yemen.”
  1. “Live and learn, I guess.”
  1. “Glad to hear it”

end. “Thanks for reading as far as page 110 in spite of perceived errors
Best wishes don knuth”

Some of his responses seem quite dodgy. I didn’t describe the context for the errors, perhaps he’d forgotten some of the details of the book so they didn’t make much sense. Or maybe he didn’t want to correct minor errors in it anymore. (Both of which seem rather likely.) Anyway, it’s still cool to receive a letter from such a great scholar.

posted July 29, 2003 02:19 PM (Superheroes) #

Super Searching

(Updated 2002-07-29, see below.)

The New York Times reports that Amazon is considering a service to allow their users to do a full-text search on the text of all books, and then view the surrounding excerpt. When combined with Amazon’s tabs for Movie Showtimes and Restaurants (including scanned menus), the Times suggests, it almost looks like Amazon is trying to compete with Google.

This reminds me of an idea I had the other day: TV searching. Google hooks up a bunch of their machines to video capture cards and begins recording all the TV channels. Then, they make a full-text available using the closed captioning information.

So, let’s say you’re curious about Howard Dean’s stance of smallpox vaccinations. You Google TV for “Howard Dean smallpox” and get back a bunch of animated GIFs showing key scenes (basically a still whenever the picture majorly changes) from the surrounding show, perhaps with a short textual excerpt from cleaned up closed captioning data. You can quickly scan and pick out the one you want — an interview with Dean on Meet the Press. Google then streams the TV excerpt to you live so you can see and hear first-hand what Dean said.

Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Giving people access to the content they see on TV would go a long way towards this.

If Google isn’t up for this, maybe the Internet Archive is. They have a Television Archive of news around the world after September 11. What about the rest of time?

Update: Rob Hague points out AT&TV, an AT&T Cambridge research project which did essentially what I describe. The screenshots look awesome.

Joel Abrams and Paul Bausch pointed to TVEyes, whose free consumer service will email you an excerpt whenever a selected word or phrase comes through in the closed captioning. Apparently they also have for-pay services that do more.

posted July 21, 2003 02:00 PM (Technology) #

Dodging Trains

Yes, it’s time the exciting impressionistic story of why this site is now up.

9:40a: vorpal, the server that hosts essentially all my sites goes down. vorpal has been pretty reliable, at least compared to my other machines, but that’s not saying much. I guess it was almost a year ago that it decided to start frying memory over 128MB. And, of course, it didn’t run all that well with only 128MB. But otherwise it’s been pretty reliable.

(vorpal is a Dell PowerEdge. Even though it was supposedly under on-site service warranty, Dell was pretty useless in fixing things.)

My older machines were much worse. Every couple weeks they would require rebooting of some sort. The irony is that my old machine was running fine, and hadn’t been rebooted in a long while.

I called my dad who was near his office where the machine lives. He went over to see what was the matter. It was getting wedged in the middle of the BIOS startup, a bad sign.

11:00a: I dropped everything to try and fix the machine, it became my first priority. I opened up the other machines and took their RAM, thinking that it may have fried the memory again. I waited for Dad to get back so he could take me to the office. Unfortunately for me, at the same time my brothers wanted to quickly get to their favorite local card shop so they could play Magic: The Gathering or some other CCG. Dad decided he would take me and drop me off first if I walked part of the way there.

The whole way in the car my brothers taunted me for caring so much about your server. First they claimed no one visited my site. When I pointed out that I got several hits a second, they decided that the people who visited my site weren’t important, or could wait. On the way over I thought about historians needing to access my site for research, or people who could use some of my code to solve their problems, or people sending me emails I couldn’t receive.

And I thought about you, dear reader. Yes, you personally, [insert your name here]. I know how sad it made you feel to not be able to access my site. I was determined to do everything I could to get the site back up soon.

Dad decided to drop me off in the middle of some vast executive parking lot. I pointed out that it would only cost him a few minutes to drop me off someplace closer but it would cost me lots of time to walk there, but my brothers would have none of it. So I walked through the heat and the humidity, sweating profusely, and trying to balance my laptop while keeping my RAM from scraping each other or falling onto the pavement.

As I walked through the seemingly-endless parking lot, I dodged cars and trains to get to the building that held my server. As I finally got to the office, walking through hallways in the middle of remodeling and repainting, I noticed that there was no air conditioning inside on the weekends so I undressed some.

I tried all the RAM I had and then some, but my server was beepily refusing all of it, and it soon became apparent that I had no appropriate RAM, and even if I did, it was unlikely to work. It was time for plan B.

I noticed that two servers from failed-plans-of-long-ago were sitting in the corner, powered off. These machines were rather better than the one I was using and had far more RAM (and no RAM frying problem). I decided I’d try taking out the server’s hard drive and putting it in there. There would probably be some driver incompatibilities or something, but it was a lot better than what I had now.

I was half-way through a proof-of-concept of this when Dad arrived. He was hot and grumpy and my phone was in my pants pocket so I didn’t hear his repeated phone calls for me to let him in. When I finally did, I dressed and went down stairs. He was reasonably amicable but when I got upstairs he exploded.

“How dare you touch these computer!” he screamed. I tried to reason with him but he would have none of it. He insisted I put everything back the way it was and let him try to see if he could fix my machine.

This took quite a long time between his nonsensical screaming and ranting and me actually doing the cleaning up. Then I had to set the Internet up for him (the server that was down was also our DNS server, so he couldn’t visit any sites) and then spent another half an hour waiting on hold with Dell. When all was said and done, he had no more luck than me. I again pointed out that switching hard drives would be the best solution, so I spent another long time putting everything back to the way it was before he came.

Amazingly, once I got the hard drive working, the machine booted up the first time and everything Just Worked. (Do let me know if you see any problems.) I began cleaning up as Dad started screaming at me again about how I should hurry up. Finally I finished and I carried the old server back down to the car to take home.

3:00p: I’m back in my air conditioning house writing this story. Oh, what I do for you people…

You called me last night on the telephone
And I was glad to hear from you ’cause I was all alone
You said, “It’s snowing, it’s snowing! God, I hate this weather.”
Now I walk through blizzards just to get us back together

- New York City, They Might Be Giants

posted July 20, 2003 03:33 PM (Personal) #


I just got back from Boston. I didn’t have to show ID either way. Being underage does have some benefits, I guess. (Freedom to travel!)

My ACLU card was there when I got home. I tucked it behind my bootable FSF membership card in my wallet. Citizens (want to be) free, but lawyers are expensive!

In Boston I learned that the fraternal order of police or something give stickers in return for donations to benefit policeman. People buy these stickers in the hope that the police won’t ticket them for minor offenses. My mom apparently saw one Bostoner going “You can’t ticket me; I’ve got two stickers!” and having it actually work. I wonder if my ACLU card will work the same way. “You can’t see my ID; I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU!”

posted July 17, 2003 07:34 PM (Politics) #