Friday Jun 12, 2009

Goodbye to 68 years of NTSC compatibility

Casio NTSC displays PAL program

This is a big day for technophiles as well as technologically nostalgic. An analog TV broadcast standard which has maintained compatibility for 68 years will end today. A B&W TV designed around the 1941 NTSC standard would have been able to display some broadcasts on channels 2-13 yesterday. A color TV designed around the 1953 standard would have displayed some broadcasts in color yesterday. For anyone who appreciates the engineering required to progress technology while maintaining backwards compatibility, the story of the NTSC compatible color standard is interesting.
...
Some of the disadvantages are unknown, but here are a few problems I forsee:

  • Fewer people will have an acceptable picture. (while the coverage will allow some in suburbs to receive a better picture, rural viewers who had an acceptable analog picture might not receive anything at all.)
  • Portable ATSC TVs will be more expensive and will consume batteries faster.
  • Since battery powered ATSC digital TVs haven't been perfected, they won't work well in weather or other emergencies. This is important because weather radar and other emergency maps provide information specific to a viewer's locale, this is very difficult if not impossible to provide via NOAA or commercial radio. Internet/cell phone services are often the first to go in an emergency and so they cannot be relied upon either.
  • Given the amount of time there was to plan this transition, it was poorly managed.
  • The billions of dollars and years of engineering that went into a slightly higher resolution TV standard could've been been put to a better use. Discounting the money spent by consumers on HDTVs, this project has cost taxpayers approximately $5 Billion. While the recent bailouts make $5 Billion sound like pocket change, this is actually 1/4th the cost of the entire Apollo moon lander program, which was completed in less time!
  • Many devices will go into landfills before the end of their serviceable life. (e.g. almost all battery powered TVs such as the Casio in this photo are impractical to use with any of the Federally subsidized converter boxes.)
  • Newscasters must shave and apply makeup more often.
  • ATSC is heavily encumbered with expensive patents and royalties which, all else being equal, would nearly double the cost of the pocket Casio TV in the above photo. This also means that it may be impossible to create an opensource television or other free (as in freedom) ATSC compatible device (e.g. PVR.)

[Read More]

Sunday Apr 26, 2009

Solaris job trends are up, and other observations about IT's future

A middle school telementor student is interested in pursuing a career in computer science. Her teacher asked the class to clip local job openings in their career choice. Since this isn't a terribly prosperous part of the U.S. midwest, I was surprised to hear that there are a number job opening. But the student learned that inexperienced but highly educated candidates were being brushed aside in favor of those with years of experience. How can I encourage a bright middle school student who intends to pursue an IT career, without being dishonest? I could mention the dearth of IT jobs in the midwest at the beginning of my career and the subsequent boom. I hope career counselors no longer channel students away from their talents towards the "hot job du Jour." My 101 computer science class began with a standing room only crowd, but by the end of the semester it had thinned considerably. Our teacher prided himself on his dropout rate!

I do see enormous untapped potential in IT. For example:

  • We've only hit the tip of the iceberg in the application of data mining to epidemiology, economics and security.
  • Much of the clutter of photos, DVDs, CDs and videotapes will disappear as soon as we can organize this data while keeping the MPAA and RIAA happy.
  • Governments, law, education and medical professions seem slow to adopt information technology. Prescriptions rely on handwritten records, Governments and legal professionals treat FAX (a technology which dates to the mid 1800s) is treated as a secure document transmission medium, while 128bit public key encrypted and signed email isn't!
  • Windows PCs still seem a painful hack. Having watched Microsoft Windows languish nearly a decade behind some alternative OSs (Solaris, AmigaDOS, OpenVMS, OS2, NeXT, BeOS), I have to wonder where we would be if antitrust laws had been enforced before it was too late for these companies? We wouldn't go wrong to redesign PCs from scratch.
  • IT has tremendous applications in transportation and traffic management. Why doesn't my car know what speed I should drive to catch all of the lights green? Why did it take the FAA billions of dollars and more than a decade to replace a dieing air traffic control system?
  • Take advantage of Internet ubiquity. Why are people building datacenters in places with expensive real estate and expensive non-renewable energy sources when Iceland and other places have abundant renewable energy and relatively cheap real estate?
  • Sun Ray has been around almost a decade now yet telecommuting is rare even for those in the IT industry.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, but imagine my surprise when, to illustrate data mining, I found indeed.com's jobsite trawler which showed that jobs in Solaris are on the increase.

How could this be in this banjaxed economy when even Microsoft's Vista seems to have flatlined? Imagine what might happen when we hit the inevitable turn around. Few were prepared for this economic slump even though signs of it have been lurking in the shadows and blogosphere for years. Even fewer will be prepared for the coming boom in technology and eco-efficiency. I wouldn't be at all surprised if by the time this bright student graduates, recruiters will have to work very hard to get her on their team. The same goes for all of the extremely talented ex-Sun employees who've recently entered the job market. There is a very bright future ahead if we can get past these potholes!

Friday Nov 07, 2008

Visions of a sustainable technocracy

our little girls shadow

Barack Obama's team seems more technologically savvy than his predecessor. In the mid 1990s when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, I was surprised to learn that he didn't have a public email address. At the same time, George W. Bush's democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bollock did have a public email address. Obama's recently launched change.gov website provides a more scalable framework for public input than any past president has ever deployed. I hope he and his staff are able to manage it well. I submitted some of these suggestions to change.gov:

  • Restore the technical advisory counsels that Reagan sacked in favor of lobbyists. Consider appointing optimistic, far-thinking visionaries such as William McDonough and Bill Joy.
  • Rebalance the fiscal value of education and research with the societal value, so basic research on energy, health, economics... and other areas of science which are unlikely to boost an individual stock price in the next 91 days, won't forever sit on the back burner while Europe, India, China and Japan leave us in the technological dark ages. [Read More]

Wednesday Sep 24, 2008

What lies beyond the archaic 8 char FAT filesystem limit?

I took my family out to the Donegal this weekend. By coincidence my Pentax digital camera "rolled over" from IMGP9999.PEF to IMGP0001.PEF just before I took this picture:
Muckrosssun
So now I must move all new files to a new folder or change the names before I rsync to my photo backup space to avoid overwriting old files. Whoever decided 10,000 photos was a sufficient limit for a digital SLR never had kids or lived in such a beautiful country. I'm still amazed at how many modern standards (e.g. ISO-9660, DCIM, DICOM) still bow to the 8.3 limitations of Microsoft's old FAT filesystem. As far as I know, DOS and RT-11 were the only popular operating systems made after 1970 with such a SHRTFLNM.LMT. Solaris, AmigaDOS, VMS, Gem, Geos, even the Vic-20 and Commodore 64 filenames exceeded this limit! Yes, it's possible to work around this limit with CLVRABRV.NMS or DIRECTRY STRUCTRS, but it seems that of all of the Digital camera manufacturers, only Casio, HP and Kodak have reasonably long term naming conventions, but none of them is as forward thinking as ZFS would allow them to be.

We really enjoyed our stay at the friendly family run Ocean Spray Bed and Breakfast on Muckross head, just east of the Slieve League cliffs in Donegal. The fact that there were no nearby restaurants or other late season tourists contributed to that "edge of the earth" feel of Donegal.

Monday May 15, 2006

Zeitgeist exposed! A look at Google Trends

Like Google Earth and other Google products, Google trends presents a simple, understandable and fun interface to an enormous amount of data. I no longer have to rely on "Vogue" magazine to tell us what is in vogue and I can see urban folklore trends before they get to the suburbs!

Some trends follow obvious and predictable events. Notice how the news and search trends for "eclipse" are synchronized and peak at the times of solar or lunar eclipses.

Other trends are less obvious in the time domain but seem to be more localized. For example, my personal experience told me that GNU/linux seemed to be much more popular outside of the U.S. than it is within the U.S. Google trends search on Linux indicates that this may indeed be the case. Look at the top cities and regions:

Google Trends search on "Linux"

	Top regions (normalized)       Top cities (normalized)
1. 	India                            Munich Germany 	
2. 	Czech Republic                   Warsaw Poland 	
3. 	Russia                           Berlin Germany 	 
4. 	Indonesia                        Frankfurt Am Main Germany  		 
5. 	Norway                           Hamburg Germany 		 
6. 	Hungary                          Milan Italy 		 
7. 	Hong Kong                        Rome Italy 		 
8. 	Romania                          Helsinki Finland 		 
9. 	Poland                           Paris France 		 
10. 	Germany                          Sao Paulo Brazil
Neither the U.S. nor any of its cities appeared in the top 10! You could almost imagine a correlation between linux and World Cup Soccer position, except that the U.S. will be in the World Cup first round. With the exception of San Francisco, the U.S. is also conspicuous in its absense from a Google trend search on "opensolaris":

Top regions for "opensolaris" searches (normalized)

1. 	Russia 	
2. 	Czech Republic 	
3. 	Singapore 		 
4. 	Hungary 	
5. 	Sweden 		 
6. 	Japan 		 
7. 	Taiwan 		 
8. 	Italy 		 
9. 	India 		 
10. 	Poland
Similarly, judging Java Desktop based on its popularity in silicon valley or within the U.S. gives a skewed answer. It's my understanding that even the linux version of Java desktop had better internationalization and localization than most alternative desktops. This would be easy to overlook in a country where 80% of adults speak only one language.

It's great to see that the U.S. made it to the World Cup first round, but I wonder if something should be done to revitalize "software engineering" there?

Other regional trends

Where are the most "property investment" google searches coming from? New York, Las Vegas, Sydney, London? No, when it comes to property investment, Dublin Ireland punches above its weight. Dublin is also near the top of the list for searches on property in Spain, Turkey, Romania, Orlando and Cape Town. Of course, people outside of Dublin may be using a different search term or language. Colloquialisms and slang also come into play. I was surprised that the southern Wisconsin "bubbler" colloquialism was searched often enough to appear on Google trend's radar but Silicon Valley buzz phrases such as "impactfulness" and "touch base" were nowhere to be found and "dotcom" seems to have moved to Malaysia.

I should be careful about jumping to conclusions based on Google trends. For example, a trend search on "Solaris" shows a spike in March of 2006. The news sidebar shows the sad news that Stanislaw Lem died on 27 March, 2006 after a long writing career. One of his science fiction novels, "Solaris", was made into two popular films. Also, a trend search on "Sun Ray" indicates a promising little spike right now. But look at the top city, New Orleans. When I first saw this I thought, "Of course, after hurricane Katrina turned hundreds of PCs and hard drives into a soggy, corroded mess and destroyed years worth of valuable data, someone decided it would make sense to use Sun Ray ultrathin clients and put the data on higher ground!" Unfortunately, the world hasn't quite caught up to my imagination. This trend seems to have come from a popular New Orleans bar and grill called, "The Sun Ray Grill".

Friday Dec 30, 2005

Predictions: What should happen in 2006?

I'm probably too much of an idealist to make accurate predictions. Some of my April 2005 predictions didn't hit the target. For instance, I would have thought that the U.S. auto industry, having been caught with its efficiency down during previous oil shocks, would have been better prepared for the inevitable rise in oil prices.

O.K. Here are my pseudo-random predictions for what I think should happen in 2006:

  1. \* There should be fewer earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanos, terrorists, diseases and wars. There should be better management of resources when inevitable disasters occur.
  2. \* Other companies should follow the lead of Sun and Intel (yes I can say nice things about one of our competitors!) and allow employees to telecommute.
  3. \* Investors should take some money out of the global housing bubble and put it back into the economy (e.g. R&D technology companies, medicine, charities...)
  4. \* Bubble surfers and easy money speculators should stop creating destructive manias and panics in technology stock and house prices. Instead they should invest money in other, mostly harmless forms of gambling.
  5. \* When the property speculators go home, Joe six-pack should actually be able to afford living near where he works. (The realist in me says that I won't be able to afford buying a home near Dublin in 2006 because: "Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent." - John Maynard Keynes)
  6. \* Because of this desuburbanization and the already mentioned rise in telecommuting, billions of dollars worth of oil should stay under Saudi sand and Alaskan permafrost.
  7. \* It should become profitable to convert unused condos and subdivisions into farms and forests.
  8. \* Efficiency should become the buzzword for 2006. An independent agency should measure performance per watt and landfill footprint of every desktop workstation and server. This should be published and imprinted on the advertised specs for all such devices.
  9. \* SUVs should be required to meet the same safety and efficiency standards as ordinary cars.
  10. \* Irish ferries should stop fooling around with questionable reflagging and circumvention of labor laws and buy a fleet of wind-assisted (kite?) ferries. The money saved on oil should allow profitable first-class service. Ryan Air should see this and be inspired to consult with Burt Rutan about efficient solar (and pedal ;-) powered aircraft designs.
  11. \* Governments and corporations should unhitch themselves from dependence on the products of a single IT company.
  12. \* The internet, and all devices connected to it, should be based on secure and open standards. Identity fraud, spam, spyware, phishing and adware should leave the internet and enter the history books.
  13. \* I should be able to play an American "Finding Nemo" video, a British "Balamory" video and a French "Petit Ours Brun" video in the same player in the same room without running into intentional incompatibilities and international laws.
  14. \* Independent content creation artists should be able to make a living.
  15. \* I should figure out how to fix ordered list display in the canned CSS template for this blog.
  16. \* I should cut down on the chips at the company canteen.
  17. \* Citizens of the U.S. should learn more about what the rest of the world is doing right and vice versa.
  18. \* When jobs relocate, labor should be able to follow. The WTO should focus more on reducing labor protectionism and currency shenanigans and less on banana and steel tariffs.
  19. \* Existing technology should be used more efficiently to reduce poverty and our negative impact on the world.
  20. \* I should learn how to spell Light Emitting Polymer and ElectroCeramescent. U.S. businesses and homes should stop wasting 2 billion dollars per year illuminating the night sky. Irish businesses and governments should figure out how to install daylight sensors on outdoor lights so they don't burn 24hrs/day.
  21. \* The Irish government should use some of the enormous tax windfall from the property boom to fund the medical system and completely revamp the roads, public transportation system, driving education and testing system. The Irish road death rate should fall below one person per day.
  22. \* Given the size of the global property bubble's tax windfall, the streets should be paved with gold.
Happy New Year!

Disclaimer: My blog contains the opinions of a single individual (me). I don't claim to speak for Sun or anyone else.

Thursday Sep 01, 2005

In wake of Katrina, do we need an (Inter)national telecommute day\^H\^H\^H decade?

The availability and cost of gasoline is probably very low on the priority list of those caught up in the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, but it is something that may effect nearly every U.S. resident. Fortunately, many of us have the potential to make an impact on this by using less. Apparently people in other large cities are taking advantage of public transportation and carpooling more often. This is very good, but what of those who live beyond the reach of the public transportation system? Few of us live beyond the reach of a phone line and many of us live within the reach of broadband. So why not iWork? Sun tries to encourage Iwork wherever possible. I wonder if managers of other progressive companies would consider a enabling employees to telecommute, if their job function allows it? What if those companies had support of the President and federal government? Taxes could be configured to provide write-offs for "miles not commuted" rather than "miles commuted."

Could this make a difference? I know it would reduce the financial burden on employees, some of whom are now paying more than $3.00/gallon for the gasoline which is necessary to physically appear at work. It would reduce demand, possibly enough to help tame the spike in fuel prices. And it might just remind OPEC that one of their biggest customers has alternatives.

Tuesday Jul 19, 2005

Happy Birthday Amiga!

An Amiga seascape It's hard to believe 20 years have passed since the Amiga 1000 was introduced. I'm no artist, but here's an image I put together on the A1000 back in the early 90s using NewTek's DigiView demo images and digi-paint.

Here are some of my favorite A1000 features. Even after 20 years, some of these still haven't made it into common desktop computers!

  • Keyboard garage (keyboard slid under A1000 to free up desk space)
  • Pre-emptive multitasking (This is the main reasons I didn't a Wintel computer until after Windows 95. Even with no MMU, once you're used to being able to run multiple applications, you can never go back!)
  • 12 bit (4096) color graphics. As you can see from this picture, Hold And Modify (HAM) mode looked a little fuzzy, but it was much better than the ASCII art which was common on other desktop computers!
  • When you want to turn it off, you just turn it off. No start-shutdown, no wait, just switch it off. I'm not sure how they accomplished this.
  • Case retaining Long filenames. (P.S. Yes I know windows enventually kludged around the 8.3 rule, but try this on a Windows XP box:) Start->Run and type "Command" to get a DOS prompt C:\\cd "Program Files" Too many parameters - Files In command.com, XP retains a limit that the VIC-20 overcame back in 1980, for backwards compatibility?
  • Forward<->Backward linked list file block allocation. Forget FAT, if something goes wrong with an AmigaDOS file, you have a chance of recovering.
  • IFF. IFF was a good container for the multimedia file types of that time. The anim compression was clever in being able to run full frame animation off a floppy at a reasonable frame rate on a 7 Mhz processor.
  • Slideable virtual screens It seemed intuitive to be able to grab the title bar and slide the entire screen down to reveal another screen, and another....
  • Hardware mouse graphics. Somehow it felt like I had more control over the mouse when drawing or painting because even if the processor couldn't keep up, the mouse would not stutter.
  • Unix like filesystem layout. Devs:, Fonts: and Libs: each lived in an appropriate directories. There was a also a startup file for the system and a startup for each shell. I still remember the BYTE magazine review where the AMIGA was criticized for not having an "AUTOEXEC.BAT." Some people just don't get it!
I hope some of the best features of the Amiga eventually make it onto a more modern hardware. Until then, you can always try UAE.

Thursday Apr 21, 2005

Is there a future in near offshoring?

When someone told me about this plan to float an IT company a few miles off the U.S. shore, I didn't know what to think. Quite a few questions crossed my mind. Why? Seacode seems to be attempting to take advantage of low offshore labor rates while dodging immigration law by a scant 3 miles. Isn't the U.N. recognized limit now 12 miles, with a 200 mile economic exclusion zone claimed by many nations? I certainly don't want to get bogged down in maritime law.1 According to the sourcingmag article, SeaCode's captain says the advantage is that when "

You want to collaborate with your engineers, it won't mean a three-week trip to India.
 If you're in LA, it means a 30 minute boat ride...
"

Where I come from we do that kind of collaboration with a newfangled gadget called The Internet. Yes, offshore communication and collaboration must be carefully managed, but I can only think of a couple of practical reason why you would want to create an artificial corporate colony so near to the U.S. The first reason would be to avoid the tangle of draconian U.S. laws which are choking the IT industry. I once asked a small business owner how he handles tax, liability, patents, export restrictions, labor and environmental laws. He said that it is a mess and no one will do anything to simplify it until Microsoft moves its headquarters a few miles north to Canada. For example, employees of U.S. based companies can't necessarily freely upload a patch for a bug and link to it without expensive legal review and "proof" that the patch can't be downloaded by citizens of certain nations. Employees of most non U.S. based corporations have no such restriction. SeaCode's founder's are primarily focused on sidestepping immigration law. Ironically this is the one area of law where the U.S. is actually less restrictive than many outsource recipient nations.

The second advantage I see is that, if SeaCode is well designed, it could be the kind of weird manmade environment a few of us geeks might actually enjoy, though some of us might prefer an underwater colony, or a base hovering at one of the moon's Legrange points.

SeaCode's captain Cook and Mr. Green have an interesting idea, but it seems to be based on some false assumptions. That U.S. labor, tax and immigration laws are easily evaded, and that imported labor can magically defy the laws of economics. The founders seem to have overlooked the possibility that one reason Indian engineers can work for lower wages is that the cost of living in India is considerably less than it is in L.A. If a ship 3 miles from Los Angeles can be supplied in such a way that employee/residents can have a comfortable life on 1/5 L.A. wages, well then why doesn't all of L.A. move out there too? Some L.A. residents might actually prefer living on a barge just upwind from L.A. Like many offshore enthusiasts, Mr. Cook and Mr. Green also overlook the "flyover country" between L.A. and New York City, which also has substantially lower cost of living and therefore lower labor costs than either coastal megalopolis. This labor pool could become even more cost competitive if it could operate under the same tax and legal framework as the offshore IT shop.

If there is a need to get outside of the complex U.S. legal system without going too far, SeaCode should consider that the U.S. shares long borders with two large nations and has within its borders territories which fall under an alternative legal framework.

If SeaCode is a success, its founders might want to consider the weight, size, power usage and other advantages of Sun Ray which has made it popular in similar environments. I wish them luck, but for now, all I ask is for a small ship and a GPS constellation to steer her by, and I'll work from three miles offshore.

Sailing in the Irish sea
1I was once told that, by maritime law, the only sailing craft I ever fully owned (a sailboard) is classified as "Floating debris."

Friday Apr 01, 2005

High oil winners and losers

Forbes published their picks of companies likely to profit from high oil prices. Predictably, most of Forbes' picks are oil companies. One might ask why $55/barrel wasn't news 10 years ago when it was so easy to predict. Even amateurs can extrapolate from the popularity of Hummer H1s in the U.S. and the growing energy appetites of the developing world. The picture is even gloomier if we consider that eventually, the energy required to extract the remaining oil from the ground will exceed the energy in the extracted oil. This could prevent many "dormant" wells from ever coming back online. But what if we step back and consider the bigger picture. Do oil companies really come out ahead long term, when oil is no longer competitive with biodiesel, ethanol, methanol, gasified coal, solar, wind? Are there any other winners if oil hits $100/barrel?
    My Winner picks (if I had $ to invest)
  1. Alternative energy industries: This one's obvious isn't it? Did anyone else read the Oct 1989 Scientific American article on automotive fuels indicating that no alternatives would be practical unless gasoline reached the (then unimaginable) price of $1.75/gallon? Almost all alternatives are practical now if we can overcome inertia and tradition. And anyone burning oil to produce electricity had better take a second look. Wind is already competitive without subsidies and solar is catching up fast.
  2. Local arts and commerce. Think of how many small cities have had the life sucked out of them by the ease with which we can travel to a big city to shop, see a play or hear a concert.
  3. Sailboat industry: This grew in the 1970s when oil prices rose and faded with the cheap oil of the 80s and 90s. Look for a comeback of pleasure sailboats, sailing freighters, possibly even sailing cruise ships and ferries.
  4. Shoes: I see far more shoe and shoe repair shops here in Dublin than in similar sized U.S. cities. People might walk more?
  5. The auto industry?: Planned obsolescence. Auto fuel efficiency peaked in the mid 1980s, more recent guzzlers will be quickly replaced with hybrids or more efficient cars when oil prices hit us in the pocketbook. Surely the auto industry has planned for this, surely they learned something from the huge mistakes of the 1970s, didn't they?
  6. Airlines?Like the auto industry, this could go either way. Will the industry choose to produce and fly efficient aircraft? My friend's 1946 Beechcraft Bonanza 4 seat airplane still gets better gas mileage than most SUV's, it also goes faster and further offroad. Who knows, with GPS assisted air routes and other technical advances, maybe we will have the flying cars we were promised back in the 1950s. We finally got the picture phone 40 years late and the fax machine finally caught on about 150 years after it was patented.
  7. Network and telecom industry: I'd like to see an estimate of how much oil would be saved if those who could telecommute, did. I sure wish I could think of a good network company.
    A couple of possible losers
  1. Powerboat industry:Some cruisers and cigar boats get less than 1 mpg. The weekly wallet depletion might detract some of the fun of these toys. Sailboats and kitesurfers might start to look more exciting.
  2. Remote Real Estate: The demand for "low cost" vacation property in faraway destinations might fade a bit if it costs too much to travel to that inexpensive destination.
  3. The personal computer:Today's 3Ghz Pentium 4 desktop PCs are the equivalent of the 1969 Pontiac GTO. They compensate for mediocre steering, suspension and brakes by installing a huge hot-burning engine. The GTO couldn't be beat if you were in a fuel burning competition, but meanwhile Porche and others were making cars with half the engine capacity and more horsepower. Ditto for PCs, usefulness won't always be measured in Gigahertz.
Note:These are wild guesses by someone who doesn't claim to know the ins and outs of the stock market or the economic world. They are probably no more able to predict the future than the output of the /dev/random device. Your mileage may vary.
Update 6 April 05:
I like today's newratings.com headline: Greenspan says high oil prices could spur conservation investment. Maybe? Remember, you heard it here first.

Friday Sep 10, 2004

Economics 1.01

Yesterday I was wondering why a 3 bedroom detached house with 3 car garage on 1/4 acre lot a 5 minutes stroll from a beautiful long stretch of Lake Michigan beach...house ...sells for almost exactly the same as an empty boat berth (slip) in Malahide and for less than a public toilet in Dublin.\*

I wondered whether engineers could ever understand the goofy logic of economics, why stock analysts encourage short-term thinking, fluff and downsizing and discourage R&D and innovation, why penny wise and pound foolish is the rule rather than the exception and why governments don't understand the law of diminishing (tax) returns. But then Bryan Cantrill wrote an excellent article on the Economics of software. Bryan, you should submit this to The Economist,The Wall Street Journal, IEEE spectrum or something!

\*I now believe the answer to my real-estate question is a modified realtor's cliche: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCAT-Irrational exuberance.

Wednesday Jul 21, 2004

Sustainable Technology: Open-standards vs Write Only Memory

My second digital 8 camcorder stopped working last week. This just days before my daughter plans to take her first steps. I now have two camcorders which record but are unable to play. Write only memory. This focused my attention on a problem that has bothered me for a while. l b jHow do I maintain electronic images, movies and documents in a form that will be viewable when my daughter is old enough to enjoy them? The image (left) of this young political pundit stayed in one popular consumer format (Kodachrome slide) for 25 years. But in the last 10 years I've had to convert it from NTSC Betamax to Amiga IFF/ILBM to TIFF to JPEG, in order to view it on the latest consumer device. Government archivists and businesses face a similar problem on a much larger scale. Many important documents, images and videos are unknowingly archived in closed formats which depend on a particular vendor supply chain of licenses, software and hardware. Fortunately it is possible to convert between digital standards. For text documents we have multiplatform tools such as StarOffice and OpenOffice.org to convert between incompatible formats and an open (pkzip compressed XML) standard. For images we have gimp and an open-source multimedia library called gstreamer provides a good base for a universal multimedia translator.

Video is more difficult
But video presents unique problems. Transcoding is very time consuming and the numerous digital multimedia physical standards tend to have a short shelf life. Consumer digital 8 seems unlikely to survive as long as Betamax. Lossier small form factor standards seem poised to take the spotlight from MiniDV. Some are even predicting that DVDs will be replaced soon which would make them far more ephemeral than VHS or laserdisc. The interesting thing about this prediction is that it would require considerable investment in internet infrastructure, storage and servers. I wonder what company might benefit from that?

Once you've solved the physical media storage issue by keeping your videos in a fast, secure, persistant, magical "futurenet", you still have the issue of standards. Video is usually wrapped in a container such as Quicktime[tm] or Windows Media Framework[tm] and compressed with various coder decoder (codec) standards. These standards tend to be privately licensed and are seldom available on every platform. There is no obvious way to play certain Intel Indeo[tm] coded videos on recent Apple[tm] computers and it is difficult to find licensed Cinepak[tm] or Windows Media[tm] players for GNU/linux. Current DVD video standards require "analog hole" copy protection schemes such as Macrovision[tm] which is difficult to implement securly across the dozens of video cards that GNU/linux supports. And if the preliminary standard for next generation DVDs is accepted, all DVD-HD capable players will include the cost of a Microsoft[tm] codec license, extending the monopoly into yet another realm.

Pirates or Paranoia?
Digital multimedia allows lossless reproduction and provides the opportunity to bridge divergent international video standards NTSC, PAL, SECAM... but this accentuates the problem of piracy. So copy protection, royalties, taxes and laws were designed and region codes reintroduced an artificial technical barrier to cultural exchange. Such measures are understandable, but by focusing on large content suppliers they may be overlooking some consumer needs. When the owner of a DVD collection moves to a different region does he forfeit the right to view his DVDs? If I create multimedia content in a particular format, does the content still belong to me? Will I be able to legally transcode it without loss to the next format du jour? Will I be able to play it on the operating system and hardware of my choice or record it to VHS for the grandparents? I don't know. The current U.S. political climate appears to favor overturning the Betamax case court ruling which legalized VCRs. Technology companies such as Sun expressed concern over this legislation but few lawmakers understand the significant barriers to technical innovation such shortsighted laws are creating. Would JXTA be considered illegal peer to peer technology? What about the linux/unix `cp` and `mkisofs` commands? When my camcorders return from the repair shop I hope to capture a few favorite clips in an open standard such as theora just in case.
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Today