Kudos to Ikea

I visited Ikea today.  It has been a while since I was there last and I was surprised to see that Ikea is taking some very positive steps to  conserve the environment.  Firstly, they have replaced almost all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps.  All the lamps that they sell now only have CFLs and they are pushing CFLs hard as a more energy efficient technology.  In the US, in particular, the adoption of CFLs has been very poor because people tend to prefer yellow light instead of white light.  I personally prefer white light, but there are CFLs available now that are close to the warm yellow incandescent bulbs.

The second thing that I saw at Ikea is that they have stopped giving plastic bags for free.  You can either get a reusable bag that you can bring on future trips to Ikea or you can buy regular bags for five cents.  I saw stores charge for bags for the first time in Europe and it always dismays me to see departmental stores use plastic bags so liberally, underfilling them most of the time and also using two bags for safety when one would suffice.  It is good to see Ikea bringing over some of the European ideas about conservation to the US. Kudos to Ikea!

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Free Culture

cover2.gifI picked up Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig recently. For those who don’t know, Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is also one of the biggest voices in favour of electronic freedom and the founder of Creative Commons. I have been following his blog for a while and what other prominent activists have been saying about him. I have been meaning to read this book for a while but I never got around to it.

Though I have formed quite a strong opinion about the importance of freedom of electronic media and the Internet, I sometimes find myself unable to fully convince others about it. Through this book, I hope to both educate myself and also be able to provide compelling arguments to others when they attack me about the need to be able to protect property in a world where copying bits is almost trivial.

I will do a more thorough review of the book once I have read it entirely, but from what I’ve read so far, I have found it to be extremely compelling and even entertaining. It can be said that I do not need any more convincing and someone who is more skeptical than I am may not agree with Lessig’s point of view, but I believe that it will still give the skeptics a lot to think about.

Privacy? Or Piracy?

There has been much discussion lately about the personal customer information contained in the DRM-free AAC files being sold through the iTunes store. The privacy advocates are complaining that these files reveal too much information and are a potential risk should these files get stolen.

I am no Apple apologist, but I have say that in this case, the complaining just seems to be whining to me.  For years, advocates of freedom were asking Apple to make the music store DRM-free.  Once Apple and EMI did that, people are not complaining that the DRM-free files contain personal information.  If, as the advocates claimed, having no DRM is abour fair use and not about being able to pirate copyrighted content, why complain that there is personal information contained in these DRM-free files?  The argument about personal information being revealed if the files get stolen is ridiculous because no one can seriously expect not to reveal personal information should their computer/files get stolen.  Everyone keeps personal information on their computers, what makes these music files so special?  As far as I know, these files only contain the name and the email address, both of which are usually public knowledge anyway.  If someone wants to be sure that they don’t inadvertently reveal information, they can easily keep all their data on an encrypted disk.

Another claim that is being made is the consequence of having one of these files stolen from the buyer and being made available on P2P networks.  Does this information imply non-repudiability?  I am more inclined to agree with Command Line (TLCP 2007-06-10), who says that we should wait and see the implications of this before we jump to any conclusions.

What is Microsoft up to?

I have to admit, I cannot make sense of the recent moves made by Microsoft in the open-source software world.  A few months ago, they signed a patent indemnity deal with Novell, agreeing not to sue Novell’s customers for patent infringements.  At that time, it seemed like this was just a scare tactic, not unlike what SCO has tried to do in the past.  Last week, however, there was more news from the Microsoft camp.  Microsoft signed similar deals with Xandros and LG Electronics.  Both Novell and Xandros have stated that their agreements with Microsoft do not implicitly mean that Linux is infringing upon Microsoft’s patents.  This seems quite counterintuitive to me — if there is no known patent violation, why would Novell and Xandros get into such an agreement with Microsoft in the first place?

A recent article in New York Times points out how Microsoft has changed its tune in the last 16 years.  In 1991, when Microsoft was a much smaller company, trying to compete with the IBM and Novell, Bill Gates spoke out against the issue of being able to patent obvious software techniques.  Now that Microsoft is a behemoth with a large patent portfolio, it is going after others for patent infringement.

It is unclear to me how Microsoft can hope to gain from these patent claims.  Having recently being on the receiving end of a patent infringement lawsuit, Microsoft fully understands the waste of time and money that goes into litigation.  Also, even if Microsoft does go after the companies/people who they claim violate their patents, they cannot hope to extract too  much money out of it.  Their only hope is to scare people into paying license fees, but that ploy also cannot work for too long without actually providing any proof of patent infringement.

To be certain, there is one aspect of these agreements that the Linux community does not talk too much about and that is the actual effort to improve interoperability between Windows and Linux.  Microsoft has ignored open source and discounted the viability of Linux for a long time.  Linux has not reached a stage when it cannot be ignored any longer, so Microsoft needs to deal with it by being able to work with Linux instead of working against it.  To this end, they have hired a Linux veteran to lead the interoperability effort.  The cynic in me, however, cannot help doubting Microsoft’s stated intentions.  Microsoft has a reputation for embracing and extending global standers and their competitors’ technologies.  This could be more of the same.

Nothing would please me more to see some honest competition between Microsoft and the open source world.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses and a competition on pure technical merit will only improve software on the whole which benefits everyone.  If, however, Microsoft tries to use arm twisting tactics, it is unlikely that Microsoft will succeed.  Unlike Microsoft’s traditional competitors, the Linux corporate backers and the community are too big and too widespread to coerce.

My Brightest Diamond

I heard about My Brightest Diamond for the first time when I looked up The Decemberists tour and found out that My Brightest Diamond was opening for The Decemberists for this summer’s tour. Before I went for the concert, I saw the video for Dragonfly but I was less than impressed.

Watching My Brightest Diamond live was, however, a different experience altogether. Their songs are powerful and with drastic change of rhythm. The use of discordant guitars leaves a memorable impression. Shara Worden’s classically trained voice is beautiful and flows well with the dark and minimalistic sound of the band. She also has an intriguing accent that is reminiscent of Sinead O’Connor. MBD does an excellent rendition of Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter in their live set. It’s a pity this cover is not a part of the album.

DRM is broken

Jeremy Allison, hacker extraordinaire and one of the primary developers of Samba has written an excellent essay about why DRM can never work. In the essay, Jeremy points out the simple underlying weakness of DRM — you cannot have access to the content and protect it at the same time.

I have had numerous discussions with a friend of mine who is not technically inclined about why protection of content is simply not possible. Security through obscurity does not work. Current DRM technologies require the content supplier to provide the decryption key with the content and it only takes one skilled hacker and one poor implementation to get at the decryption key and all locks are broken. The high-profile AACS system used by HD-DVD and Blu-Ray have the provision for revoking keys for software and changing the key for the content. However, this is still limited by how often the keys can be changed. Another option could be to encrypt every single disk with a different key and have the user obtain the key online to use the content. However, producing a separate image for every copy of a disk is not possible. Even if it were possible, it would be a nightmare trying to explain to a regular user why he needs to be connected to the Internet to view the content that he legally obtained. Even if we do assume that users are willing to put up with such a solution, it will still only take one person to get access to the decrypted bits and make them available to everyone.

Why is DRM different from something like secure online banking? Any sort of security mechanism used over the Internet uses encryption based on a key that is known only to the provider (the bank) and the user whereas DRM uses a key that is given to everyone with the content that it is intended to protect. What Jeremy doesn’t point out in his essay is that even if it were possible to have a unique key only known to the content provider and the content consumer, security only exists because the consumer has an incentive to keep things private. Surely, no one has any reason to reveal their own bank account information to the world. However, there are enough people in the world who have an incentive to make the latest HD movie available for free for the rest of the world to consume.

How can the content providers avoid losing business because of piracy? The simple answer is, they can’t. They just have to accept the fact that technology has changed and the rules of the physical world do not apply to the digital world. You cannot take a desk and replicate it and give it away for free, but you can replicate digital data very easily with minimal cost. Once you accept the reality, you have to fit it into your business model and consider piracy as just another cost of doing business. Not every person is dishonest and going to obtain content for free. You have to give an incentive to people to pay for content — free tickets to the theatre or a poster that comes with physical disk. As people have pointed out endlessly in the past, DRM only hurts the honest person who does not have the technical skills to figure out how to use their legally obtained content in whatever way he sees fit. The pirate will always find a way to get content for free — DRM or not.

Update: As hAckz0r points out in the comments, DRM makes it even more rewarding for the pirate to break it. In the cracker/pirate community, what wins you brownie points is the ability to subvert the system. If there is no DRM, there is very little incentive for the pirate to make the content available freely.

The Lives of Others

The Lives of OthersI saw The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) over this past weekend with a friend of mine. I tend to be very picky about the films that I watch in the theatre because I don’t do it too often. In this case, I made an excellent choice after much deliberation over the phone.

The Lives of Others is set in 1984, a few years before the Soviet Union and the Easter Bloc came tumbling down. It follows the story of a drama writer in GDR and how difficult it was in those days for artistes to express their opinion in East Germany. The film shows how the writer is forced to censor his ideas because he would otherwise be blacklisted and forbidden from writing ever again. At the same time, he feels guilty about letting himself be silenced by the Stasi. The film shows the ridiculous limits the government goes to infringe upon the privacy of individuals. The rationale for the surveillance is to cull anti-Communist sentiment, but the real reason is the abuse of power by corrupt high-ranking officers of the Stasi.

As a kid growing up in a Soviet-friendly, socialism-leaning society, we were taught about the evils of capitalism and how the great Soviet Union was making a stand against it. What we were never told was how the people living under a communist regime were being oppressed by the state, even though everyone was supposed to be a comrade. Of course, my views changed when I grew up (though I believe that the state has a role to play in the welfare of the people), but this film really struck a chord in me because it showed me something that happened in my lifetime and the immensity of the destruction of the Berlin wall.

The film also serves as a warning for the post-9/11 world which is increasingly eschewing the principles of free society and free thinking and embracing surveillance as a measure to thwart terrorism. History has shown us time and again that power corrupts. If we keep marching ahead with draconian anti-freedom and anti-privacy measures, we will find our lives being increasingly in control of those who will exploit us for personal gain. George Orwell’s 1984 may be closer than we think.