Isn’t it time to move on?

Today, Microsoft has finally released their long coming upgrade to the venerable XP line. I’d say that now is the perfect time for you to move on. No, not by upgrading your box from Windows XP to Vista, but by keeping your $200+ dollars in your pocket, and shifting to an operating system where the authors still work for you.

I’ll make a specific recommendation: try out Ubuntu Linux.

Ubuntu is an African word, meaning “humanity to others”. It’s a software product with a philosophy, one that goes beyond the basic ideas of free software. In their own words:

The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Philosophy: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.

More than just a philosophy though, it’s a great product. The basic distribution fits on a single CD. It installs quickly and painlessly. It has versions which are optimized for the desktop and for servers. The desktop version includes OpenOffice (which includes a wordprocessor, spredsheet, presentation software and a database, with the ability to exchange documents with Microsoft Office), Firefox for web browsing, Evolution for email, and software for goofing around with pictures and ripping and playing CDs. The server version includes all the software needed to create a LAMP webserver (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP), and can IBM’s DB2 and other databases like Postgres. You can install any of over 16,000 ported packages to either of them.

And mostly, it just works. Gnome, the desktop environment provided, is very nice and should seem very familiar to anyone used to Windows or the Mac. If you use your computers primarily to access the web, send email, do some light word processing, or even some heavy word processing, you’ll probably move relatively effortlessly to Ubuntu. As you gain more experience, you’ll probably find that you want to learn more, and luckily, the Ubuntu community websites provide excellent help. Just surf over to help.ubuntu.com and start reading. You may find that you have to invest a little bit in learning, but this time is far from wasted. You’ll begin to find that you can do all sorts of things with Ubuntu that would have been difficult with Windows Vista.

Cast off your shackles. Try something new!

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection

Apparently, this memo has been out for a while, but I hadn’t seen it before. I know, I like to rant about Microsoft a lot, but it’s really quite interesting.

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection

Some quotes:

… so far no-one has been able to identify any Windows system that will actually play HD content in HD quality, in all cases any attempt to do this produced either no output or a message that it was blocked by content protection. While it’s not possible to prove a negative in this manner, it’s certainly an indication that potential buyers may be in for a shock when they try and play premium content on their shiny new Vista PC.

Protecting all of this precious premium content requires a lot of additional technology. Unfortunately much of this is owned by third parties and requires additional licensing. For example HDCP for HDMI is owned by Intel, so in order to send a signal over HDMI you have to pay royalties to Intel, even though you could do exactly the same thing for free over DVI (actually you could do it better, since DVI is provides a higher-quality link than HDMI). Similarly, since even AES-128 on a modern CPU isn’t fast enough to encrypt high-bandwidth content, companies are required to license the Intel- owned Cascaded Cipher, an AES-128-based transform that’s designed to offer a generally similar level of security but with less processing overhead.

In order to prevent tampering with in-system communications, all communication flows have to be encrypted and/or authenticated. For example content sent to video devices has to be encrypted with AES-128. This requirement for cryptography extends beyond basic content encryption to encompass not just data flowing over various buses but also command and control data flowing between software components.

In the interest of fairness,
here is Microsoft’s reponse. Some notable quotes:

Windows Vista includes content protection infrastructure specifically designed to help ensure that protected commercial audiovisual content, such as newly released HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, can be enjoyed on Windows Vista PCs.

This is simply nonsense of course. All available evidence is that the primary added “feature” that Windows Vista has is to degrade or prevent the playback of protected content. Microsoft has delivered a feature which no consumer demanded, and expects us, rather than the content providers to pay for it.

I’d go through more of the absurd marketing speak, but frankly, Gutmann does a much better job of it than I could. His rebuttal is contained at the bottom of his paper. Be sure to read it after Microsoft’s response.

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Addendum: Another terrific quote which accurately reflects the futility of DRM, even in the abstract:

In order for content to be displayed to users, it has to be copied numerous times. For example if you’re reading this document on the web then it’s been copied from the web server’s disk drive to server memory, copied to the server’s network buffers, copied across the Internet, copied to your PC’s network buffers, copied into main memory, copied to your browser’s disk cache, copied to the browser’s rendering engine, copied to the render/screen cache, and finally copied to your screen. If you’ve printed it out to read, several further rounds of copying have occurred. Windows Vista’s content protection (and DRM in general) assume that all of this copying can occur without any copying actually occurring, since the whole intent of DRM is to prevent copying. If you’re not versed in DRM doublethink this concept gets quite tricky to explain, but in terms of quantum mechanics the content enters a superposition of simultaneously copied and uncopied states until a user collapses its wave function by observing the content (in physics this is called quantum indeterminacy or the observer’s paradox). Depending on whether you follow the Copenhagen or many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, things then either get weird or very weird. So in order for Windows Vista’s content protection to work, it has to be able to violate the laws of physics and create numerous copies that are simultaneously not copies.

Folding Paper in Half Twelve Times

On Mythbusters tonight, they covered an interesting myth: that it is impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times. My strange brain full of trivia made me exclaim “That myth was already busted, and by a high school student!” Indeed, a few minutes with a search engine revealed the story:

Folding Paper in Half Twelve Times

Note: Britney Gallivan not only busted the myth, but also derived a mathematical model that tells you why it is so hard to fold paper, and establishing limits on the process. That is how she was able to fold a long strip of paper a remarkable 12 times. The Mythbusters glossed over this nice bit of math, which in my mind really deserves more notice.

The Mythbusters did try folding a rectangular piece in alternating directions, beginning with a piece that basically covered the floor of the huge hangars in Moffett Field. They managed a respectable, but not record breaking 11 folds. Nice.

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Some Interesting Books, Licensed under Creative Commons

Here are a bunch of books that are licensed under the Creative Commons and for the most part can be freely downloaded, read, and even redistributed (if non commercially). They include books that I already have in dead tree form, like Asterisk: The Future of Telephony or Lessig’s Free Culture, but also include books that guys like Tom might appreciate, such as The Book of FIve Strings: Strategies for Mastering the Art of Old Time Banjo or The How and Tao of Old Time Banjo, or The How and Tao of Folk Guitar. Good stuff.

Gutenberg Gems: The Outline of Science, Volume 1 of 4, by J. Arthur Thomson.

The Outline of Science

I like to read old science books. They serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come, or just as often, how ignorant we remain. This book is nicely illustrated tome, briefly covering topics of astronomy, biology, and particle physics. It’s coverage of evolution seems particularly interesting to me, especially for its (admittedly brief, and altogether erroneous) acceptance of Piltdown Man, but also includes interesting bits on the possibility of life on other planets and other fun. Lots of illustrations and photos, lots to enjoy. So enjoy!

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Outline of Science, Volume 1 of 4, by J. Arthur Thomson.

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WordPress 2.1 Ella

The new WordPress 2.1 Ella was released about 17 hours ago, and since this coincided with a few minutes of boredom, I upgraded. Check out the link for details on what’s improved: most notable to me is that it does appear to be significantly faster. I noted a couple of strange things though: the “Press It!” bookmarklet that I often use must have changed, because the old one doesn’t work. I got rid of it, and dragged the new one back to my toolbar, and it works fine.

Had no problems upgrading. Seems like a no-brainer.

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Flatland: The Movie

When I was probably ten or twelve years old, I remember that the book Flatland by Edwin Abbott somehow came to my attention, probably through something related to Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Recreations column in Scientific American. It is an interesting book that tries to present an easy-to-understand example of how we might visualize four dimensional space by hypothesizing a two dimensional world, inhabited by beings who can only perceive the two dimensional world around them. The narrator, who is a simple square, dreams that he visits a one dimensional world, and tries to convince its inhabitants of the existance of two dimensions. He’s then visited by a Sphere, a 3 dimensional being who helps him perceive the three and more dimensions that he inhabits.

It’s kind of a fun book, and being written in 1884, it’s in the public domain and available in a wide variety of formats and sites which you can find on Wikipedia. Interestingly, it’s going to be made into an animated educational film, with Martin Sheen as the vocal talent. Check out the trailer here.

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Mostly on Stuff Related to Origami and Papercraft…

I’ve mentioned it before: when you are interested in as many strange things as I am, web surfing can be dangerous to your time. Lately I’ve been going through my blogroll with two purposes in mind:

  • Delete the stuff that I don’t read anymore, or consider boring.
  • Tag the remaining links with slightly more meaningful tags in Google Reader.
  • Lastly, find more cool stuff by mining the links of blogs I already have.

Courtesy of one of the mathematics blogs (I can’t remember which one), I located The Fitful Flog, a fascinating blog which had many interesting bits of paperfolding. Not the traditional crane stuff mind you, but interesting stuff that used a combination of straight and curved folds to make things that I have known as “developable surfaces”. Don’t know what that means? It means that is has zero Gaussian curvature. That didn’t help? It means that you can flatten them onto a plain without distortion (stretching, compressing, tearing). In other words, it is the class of surfaces that you can get by folding paper.

The thing that piqued my interest was this Champagne Flute, which I folded up…

Flute, Courtesy of Fitful Flog

It’s a very simple pattern, using a series of straight and curved folds. Very neat.

I meantioned this to Tom, who reminded me that the person that probably brought the term “developable surface” into my vocabulary, Paul Haeberli (one of the many notable computer graphics people with the initials PH) had some interest in the topic, and, in fact, had recently received a patent on the topic as well as apparently developing some commercial software for the design of developable surfaces. Very cool. It reminded me of this cool paper from SIGGRAPH 2004, as well as perhaps this successor. It’s all very cool.

Isn’t it amazing where the stream of the web can carry you on a Friday?

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Addendum: Here are some more papers that could be relevent.

Addendum2: I was pondering this paper pattern, and realized I knew how it was created. To prove it to myself, I wrote a little C program that spit the model out in the form that my homebrew raytracing program could render. Voila.

Computer Model of the Flute

The NHL’s All-Star voting disaster

Let’s face it: I’m not Canadian, so I don’t really care about hockey. But still, I found the following story to be both amusing and thought provoking, and i suspect that similar situations can occur in baseball (a sport that non-Canadians enjoy) so I’ll comment briefly.

All-Star games are odd things because they take place between players who the fans select by voting. In the past, ballots were usually distributed by the league, and collected. In recent years, it has been popular to use the Internet to allow fans to vote.

So, we now have a popularity contest decided by vote, where essentially everyone can vote as often as they like, where the marginal cost in terms of times and resources is exceedingly low, and where automation of voting is a very real problem.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Addendum: Check out the entry under “Stuffing the ballot box” to see how the 1957 Major League All-Star voting worked out.

Pinhole Camera

P-Sharan pinhole camera

During a stop to the new Coppola winery in Healdsburg, I noticed that they had a kit for a pinhole camera on sale for a mere $4.99. I’ve goofed around with pinhole photography a bit before, so the allure was too much to resist. A couple of hours later, I had the camera on the right assembled. I’m hoping to run a roll or two of film through it this weekend.

Stay tuned for updates!

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The Mistake Some People Make

You only need to make one mistake when it snows in Portland: that’s trying to drive at all. Here’s a clue: walk to your car. If you can push it sideways away from the curb, you shouldn’t attempt to drive it. Just stay wherever you are at. If you do decide to venture out, at least have the common decency to not insure with the same company as me.

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Thanks to Josh for bringing this one to my attention.