I admittedly have little sympathy for those who lose weeks or months worth of work because their hard drive fails or their laptop is stolen. The way I look at it is if you can’t manage to make backups of such valuable work, you deserve the data loss. It’s not like backups are complicated to do these days. Simply copy your precious files to a USB stick or SD card periodically. Flash storage is insanely cheap these days, hardly ever breaks and can be placed in a safe location because it’s so small. It’s also available in adequate sizes nowadays, even though that’s probably not necessary. After all, your typical PhD thesis won’t occupy gigabytes.

All this is jolly good, it just has one fault: you. Sure, if you’re anything like my dad (i.e. disciplined), it will work for you perfectly. But let’s face it, you’re not. And you’ll always remember to make a backup just as you’re getting ready to head out the door, trying to catch a train or plane (where you may lose your laptop, hence the necessity of a backup). A humane computer system would take care of backups for you. Indeed, that’s what solutions like Apple’s Time Machine are about. Coupled with a network-based storage (Time Capsule), backup is an absolute no-brainer. My mom has periodic backups and she doesn’t even know it. I think solutions like this should be part of every computer system. In fact, I wish there was some way to create incentives for software developers to not make their lives easier but the lives of their users.

For instance, here’s another idea that I think should be built-in: version control. Whenever I start a new project, be it a software project, a book, a business in software training or currently my Diploma thesis, the first thing I do is set up a subversion repository (I could use something else, but subversion is what I’m most familiar with). I even keep all the presentations I ever gave at software conferences in version control. That way I not only have instant off-shore backup of my work (because the repository is on a separate server), I also have all the benefits of version control. Not that I need concurrency or merging because I work by myself. What I’m talking about is, for instance, the ability to revert your working copy to a working state when you’ve tinkered with something and broken it. And even if you hadn’t broken it and I decided to keep the modifications, you can still see what those were later in the process. That’s particularly useful when you’re modifying stuff created by somebody else.

You might argue that the casual user won’t need such a feature, but I disagree. One of the biggest improvements text editors have over the typewriter is the fact that you can work with the text before it’s set in stone (in other words, printed on paper). This gives you flexibility and makes you worry less about gettin git right the first time. Why doesn’t that notion extend to a larger time scale? Many applications nowadays have an undo feature. Why doesn’t that feature work two months after the fact? And please don’t quote me some implementation detail… disk space is cheap! I’d rather trade in some UI glitz for a feature like this.

Just don’t make me think about this stuff, please.

100% unnecessary

November 21, 2008

There’s a disease that has befallen the Western world. I call it percentitis. The syndrome is quite simple: Every relation, ratio, growth or decrease of some sort is quantified in percent. I think it’s unnecessary, even misleading sometimes, and just a futile attempt by the marketing drones at making boring things sound interesting. After all, “I agree 100%” is just another way of saying “I agree completely” and “I got this blender for 50% off” isn’t really that much better than “I got this blender for half the price.”

You might be right in saying that’s nitpicking. However, by far the biggest beef that I have with percent is when it’s used for quantifying an increase or decrease:

BigCorp has grown continually by 7% each year for the past four years.

Compare and constrast this with

BigCorp has grown continually by factor 1.07 each year for the past four years.

I know it sounds weird because we’re not used to saying it like that. But these incremental percentages would be just as weird to somebody who’s never heard of them. After all, they’re specifying what’s essentially a factor in (x-1)*100%. Indeed the percentage form drops an in my mind important information, the 1. I know it’s implied. I know that everybody should’ve learned this in 8th grade math. But why do we deliberately obscure the fact that it belongs there? For instance, imagine that you’d like to calculate the overall percentage by which BigCorp has grown over the total of four years. It’s ((1+p)^4 - 1)*100% where p is the percentage. Compare and contrast this with q^4 where q is the factor in the second statement. The result for this example is 1.31 or 31%, by the way, and not 4*7% = 28%, as somebody might naively think. Again, people should know the difference, but maybe they don’t. If we actually used the factor form, they might not be fooled in the first place.

Percentages might still be useful when talking about fractions, but then again, I don’t get why we don’t say 0.57 instead of 57%. It’s not really shorter or any easier to understand. I suppose it’s the same reason why we say 1000 km instead of 1 Mm (that’s a megametre): convention. So there we are. Percent: it’s absolutely useless. Don’t need it and don’t want it.

I’m quite happy with my MacBook Pro 15″ (Core2 Duo, late 2006 model), but recently the left cooling fan started to make grinding noises at medium RPMs. It’s fine and quiet at 2000 RPMs and it makes the normal noise when it’s maxed out, but in between you think you’re operating a coffee mill and not a laptop. I figured the fan’s ball-bearing is shot and I better have it replaced before it grinds to a complete halt. However, Apple’s 1 year warranty is long over, as is the extended warranty (2 years) that dealers have to give for all electronic items in Germany. So this might turn out to be more expensive than expected. In addition to that, I’d have to take the laptop to the local Apple dealer and repair shop which takes time, not to mention that I’d be without my main computer for two or so days. All that just for a simple operation that I could just as well do myself.

(Also, the local Apple dealer in Dresden isn’t exactly my favourite shop anymore. They used to know my name when I walked in the store, now their sales staff almost makes you apologize for disturbing their coffee break. Typical German service for ya, but certainly nothing I want from a shop selling premium computers. Way to scare off a previously regular customer! But I digress.)

Having decided to do the operation myself, I wondered where I could get the spare part from. That’s when I found out about Apfelklinik, an operation by one Michael Kliehm, selling brand spanking new spare parts for Macs (with warranty!). I wrote him an email ordering the part, wired the money via PayPal and two days later I had a new fan for my MBP. I installed it this afternoon with the help from the excellent iFixit website which has detailed instructions and photos for pretty much all repairable and exchangeable parts. Here’s a (rather crappy) shot I took with my camera phone half way through the operation:

Fan repair

DRM and the iTunes Store

November 1, 2008

Inspired by a great talk by Larry Lessig about how Copyright Law strangles creativity, here’s a little rant about DRM and the iTunes store that turns into a Happy End. (Feel free to skip the rant if you just want to hear the good news).

Back in the 90s, when I was a teenager, my allowance and the money I made from my paper route went  pretty much into either computer or record stores. In the latter I would buy CDs. CDs were great. You could copy them onto a tape, thereby creating one of those legendary mixed tapes that allowed you to endure long car journeys or a day at the beach. Later, you could read audio CDs onto your computer and make your own remixes of your favourite songs or do other silly stuff. Maybe even just listen to the music when lugging around one of those earlier portables. I actually had one of those and the invention of MP3 meant I could bring my favourite CDs on vacation with me by packing just one CD! Life was good.

You could argue that life’s even better today. Now I can buy music off the internet, it’s just a click away. Yes, in a way I enjoyed hanging out in record stores with my mates. But things have changed and we now have fanstatic offerings like last.fm. Feed it with enough information about your musical taste (by “scrobbling” songs while you listen to them) and it’ll happily tell you about artists similar to the ones you already like. It’s like the 2.0 version of your mate that used to take you to record stores. And he’s already made me spend a pretty penny on music. No regrets, though.

Not everything about all this is as great as it sounds. If you’re just a bit IT-literate, then you know what the Digital Millenium Copyrights Act (DMCA) and other similar admendments to copyright law in EU countries have done to the way music has to be consumed these days. It has effectively criminalized circumventing mechanisms that protect music from being copied. With most music available from the iTunes store being protected with a Digital Rights Management (DRM) mechanism, this means no more mixed tapes, no more funky and embarrassing remixes. Yes, I know, you can still make mixed tapes because they’re analogue. What I’m talking about is the equivalent of the mixed tape for the 21st century: a mixed MP3 CD that my car stereo can play or a dirt-cheap MP3 player that I can take jogging with me without risking getting my iPhone/iPod wet and broken. None of those devices can play encrypted AAC files such as the ones you get from the iTunes store and I don’t see why they should have to. The tape deck in my dad’s car stereo didn’t have to either, right?

To give Apple credit, they do allow the mixed tape use case, albeit in a 20th century fashion: you can write DRM’ed tracks to an audio CD a limited number of times. So apparently it’s alright to build DRM circumventing mechanisms into the software if it’s inconvenient enough for the user. Indeed, the EU has encouraged such “voluntary measures” on behalf of the industry in Directive 2001/29/EC (EU equivalent of the DMCA), paragraph (52). So we’re at the hands of what the industry allows to do with the stuff we’ve bought.

Or are we? In Germany at least, circumventing DRM is legal if it’s for personal use (cf. §108b(1) UrhG). Reading Section 1201 which the DMCA added to U.S. Copyright Law, it seems the situation in the U.S. isn’t as favourable, but then again, I’m not a layer. The best news really is, however, that despite the industry’s best efforts, we might not have to live with DRM for much longer. For a while now, there’s music on iTunes that isn’t DRM-protected. MySpace, Amazon and various other people are selling unprotected MP3s as well. So why don’t you buy there, you might ask. Well, for one thing, I actually couldn’t find out how to buy stuff from MySpace. And Amazon.com will only sell MP3 downloads to people located in the U.S. But nevertheless, there’s no denying that DRM hasn’t had the success that the lobbyists had hoped for. I just hope that Apple will see the light and remove it from the iTunes Store altogether.

In the mean time, if you’re in a country that allows the circumvention of DRM mechanisms for private use, you might enjoy Requiem (version 1.8.1 for iTunes 8). It strips the DRM encryption from AAC files, allowing you to convert them to MP3 and thereby use the music you’ve bought in mixed tape scenarious. Unfortunately, due to legal difficulties in the U.S., Requiem currently can’t be obtained from the author’s website. However, both binaries and source code are available from peer-to-peer networks.

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