More file-sharing madness…

I just got back from the ResNet conference at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. Yes, that’s right: Big Rapids, not Grand Rapids. Apparently, they jumped the gun when they found Big Rapids and ended up finding even bigger rapids.

During these four days of good ol’ Midwestern fun (if I never see Ranch dressing again, it will be too soon), residential networking/computing groups from colleges and universities all over the country (and a couple world-wide) come to learn from each other, have a little fun and network (no pun intended). Last year’s hot topic was bandwidth and was a pre-cursor to this year’s hot topic: file-sharing and copyright law.
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It’s Cartoon Saturday

I’ve spent most of the past few Saturday mornings watching cartoons. They’re still showing the old classics and I know what to expect from newer series like the new Batman, Superman, Justice League or X-Men series– darker, more serious animated series that more closely reflect the flavor of the comic books from which they came. But I have to admit that watching other cartoon series take a different twist when you’re older and have a little more perspective:
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The Yay Area

Today was a “me” day. After a lovely breakfast of Egg Beaters and toast, I drove up to Montara Beach, enjoying the windy roads and scenic drive as I neared one of the more isolated beaches near Half Moon Bay (the main Half Moon Bay beach is more popular). I got to sit there for a while, reading Snow Crash and enjoying the perfect weather– sunny with a light breeze, warm but not warm enough to sit there sweating and uncomfortable. After a little while, I decided to make my way back down to the Peninsula, stopping for a tall iced mocha at the local Starbucks, paid for courtesy of the gift card Stanford Federal Credit Union sent me after they screwed up my automatic car loan withdrawal. And I drove back down 92, again enjoying the winding roads with the excellent handling on my Lexus and looking forward to cooking up some dinner and having a good bottle of wine. The only thing that would have been better would have been having the foresight to have enough cash on me to buy some cherries from one of the produce stands along the side of the road. Alas, something for next time.

I realize that I really do like living in the Bay Area. It’s got great weather (sunny and clear without being too humid or hot), great beaches just a short drive away and city life in all different flavors with San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. It’s a great place to be when you’re in your twenties and looking to just live your life.
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Rollercoaster

While I love to read, I often find reading a new book challenging. Starting a new book is like getting on a rollercoaster. You want to take a ride because you’ve heard a lot of about it or it’s the new thing at your favorite amusement park, but first, you have to wait in line. When you do get up to the front, you have to get into your seat, buckle up, and wait for the attendants to make sure everybody is safe and secure before sending you on your way. When you’ve finally started moving, you start that slow ascent, sometimes the wood creaking underneath you as you hear that click, click, click up the incline. And then suddenly, you’re moving. You’re flying down the descent, you’re upside down and sideways. Some parts you like more than others–you feel like you could ride them all day– and other parts you plain just don’t like.

For me, getting started with a new book is a lot like that. I usually enjoy most books I decide to read, but it takes a little while– I have to get into the groove of the author’s writing style, I need to learn the characters, the world in which the book takes place. Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable and sometimes I’m a little impatient. Sometimes, I’m so impatient that I end up forever trying to read a book only to find myself stuck trying to get past those first few chapters. And I don’t even think it’s the fault of the writer– it’s just my own version of ADD perhaps. That’s why I often find myself opting to start books on planes because I have nothing else to do except focus on reading. And suddenly, like taking off on that rollercoaster, I’m completely immersed in the world I’m reading about– picturing the characters live and in color in my mind’s eye, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel. And when it’s a really good book, I don’t want to come up. I want to live in that world forever, explore it until I feel like I’ve completely internalized it and have lived the story myself. When the story’s over and I finally come up, I’m almost exhausted. I feel like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes through that story and have, of course, been changed by the experience.
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Another amusing waste of time using the Internet

QuizYourFriends.com. Create a little multiple-choice quiz. Send it out to your friends. See how they score. Complete waste of time, but very amusing. Just imagine all the dirty, silly, stupid possibilities for questions and answer choices.

Of course, results of the quiz have only proved one thing: knowledge of random factual elements about you is not directly proportional to how close you perceive you are to someone.

Most missed question: “What’s Sindy’s favorite TV show?” Most common answer: Smallville. Correct answer: ER. Yes, people, I have a great and perhaps very unhealthy obsession with the show and its cast. Yes, I read a lot of fan fic and am endlessly amused by the show. But no, it is not my favorite show. Remember: Sindy is about more than eye candy and special effects. Smallville is fun to talk about, make fun of, drool over (thanks to Tom Welling and Michael Rosenbaum), and speculate endlessly over the Superman mythology, but it’s still a silly show (and lately, a doomed one based on the overconfidence of those who produce it– not that I want it to be cancelled any time soon). The real things that keep me coming back to the show are A) handling the relationship between Clark and Lex, and B) Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of a morally ambiguous Lex Luthor and how he eventually comes to live a life marked by evil.

ER, on the other hand, has a great mix of the soap opera element (i.e., following the personal lives of the characters) and still focusing on the actual people that pass through the ER. I am highly amused by shows like Smallville, but at the end of the day, I love me some heart-wrenching drama about real people, real situations, and real problems. And as the commercials always say, ER is the finest hour of television.

File-sharing: missing the big picture?

File-sharing is still a hot topic in the news. On one hand, most of the media out there is still touting file-sharing as “piracy” and “theft.” Both the complaining parties (mostly the RIAA and the MPAA) and self-proclaimed file-sharers are arguing that file-sharing continues simply because people can get away with it. Record companies are attributing the drop in CD sales over the past two years to file-sharing, not to the drop in CD production overall (fewer titles) and very real recession from which the country is suffering (which has spanned the past two years while file-sharing has been around since 1998).

At Stanford, the Daily publishes articles and editorials regularly on file-sharing and University policy, often causing many headaches for the administration and legal counsel. There is much argument over Stanford’s, not to mention any University’s responsbilities and policies as an ISP and under Title II of the DMCA.

However, most of this media coverage is missing the big picture– nobody should be talking about whether file-sharing is illegal when it comes to copyrighted material. It’s illegal. End of story. What the discussion, the argument, the media coverage should really be about is whether it should be illegal and what millions of people continuing to share digital music and video files says about the future of file-sharing, copyright and the entertainment industry.
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Two things

Two things I am very enamored with right now: SecondSpin and CDDB. Yes, both have been around for a long time, but I just got some CDs I ordered and am happily listening to them on my computer while at work.

For those of you not in the know, SecondSpin is the largest (according to their Web site) buyer and seller of used CDs, videos and DVDs. Because CDs are so resilient, it really doesn’t reduce the quality of the product when you buy it used. Sure, the jewel case might be a little worn or scratched and the liner notes may be a little wrinkled, but hey, they’d get that way after a few months of use anyway and paying half or even less than half of the new price is worth it. It’s especially great for:

  1. CDs or DVDs that you want, but are not willing to pay full price for. Case in point: my newly procured copy of Center Stage.
  2. Older CDs or DVDs that you want to get either just to have or to fill out your collection. Case in point: my newly procured copies of old Erasure albums that I was missing.

The other magical thing I am enamored with is CDDB. It’s very convenient to pop your CD into your computer (or stereo system that has CDDB recognition) and have album art, album information, and track titles all show up in your player. It’s also very convenient when creating compilation CDs or mp3s– no need to rename files or put in your own ID3 tags.

Magical.

Ta da!

Going to Stanford during the beginning of the digital music revolution, I was taking advantage of MP3 technology early on. Back then, when we wanted to create digital copies of our CDs, we had to rip the songs off of CD, converting them to WAV files and then encode those WAV files to MP3 files, each step requiring a separate piece of software. In fact, MP3 codecs were hard to come by, so we had a little pirated utility. And I have to admit, since I knew the old skool way to do it, the few times I have encoded music since then, I would do it this way.

Oh, but how times have changed. I recently reformatted my hard drive and thought that it might be time to join the rest of the world in my MP3 encoding ways. I recently bought an IPod (which is awesome) and that comes with the MUSICMATCH Jukebox software. It has a handy little utility that “records” the CD, automatically creating MP3 files that are then added to your music library. While CD burning and music software has been doing this for years now, I have to admit that I’ve only just started using this feature and find it very convenient.

The funniest part of this whole thing is that when the software is done recording the CD, it plays a little sound to signal the completion. Amusingly enough, the default sound is the tada.wav file that has been on Windows system since at least Windows 95. It’s almost as if it’s saying, “Ta da! I’ve created some MP3 files! You’re now on the road to sharing copyrighted materials with the world!” Ha ha. It’s like a little magic trick.

Living in Oblivion

The music industry continues to live in denial as it insists on squashing digital music file sharing. Specifically, the RIAA recently filed lawsuits against three college students for operating campus file search software that faciliated file swapping on the campus network, presumably to help students find illegally shared music files.

Ironically enough, one of my coworkers did this in a semi-official capacity, setting up a Gnutella server in our office and advertising it to our student employees. The server was not set up to share music files. Instead, it was set up so that Stanford students could list it as one of their hosts when connecting to the Gnutella network. With Stanford students connecting to a common on-campus host, they would find each other instead of off-campus computers and take advantage of unlimited bandwidth between on-campus computers, reducing traffic travelling in and out of the campus network, traffic that uses very expensive bandwidth the university has to pay for. Realizing how much file-sharing does go on and how much it uses up network bandwidth (despite our packet-shaping efforts), the real aim of this little experiment was to decrease traffic between campus and the commodity Internet, a goal of any good university network and systems administrator. Apparently, the MPAA did not find the experiment as interesting and innovative as we did. They faxed a threatening letter to the university and the server’s network connection was promptly turned off (while most of us were away on Winter break). The decisive action was certainly a shock– while we have, in the past, shut off students’ network connections after the MPAA and RIAA notified us that they were illegally sharing copyrighted materials, staff network connections are rarely, if ever, shut down, especially not without notifying the staff member first. After meeting with many important people, including the Provost and Stanford’s in-house counsel, they decided it was a good idea to leave the server shut down. While Stanford maintains a liberal attitude toward network use, a university provided way to faciliate file-sharing didn’t go over so well.
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Fee for service? Not in education!

Despite the .org suffix for my domain name, I am very much a for-profit person. However, I think there’s little place for a for-profit, fee-for-service model in education. I work for the residential computing group of a university and the department, in turn, is part of larger computing group that aims to serve the academic needs of the university community through the provision of public computer clusters and consulting and technology resources for faculty, staff and students. (This organization is separate from the overall IT organization for the university that is more focused on university-wide systems and infrastructure, such as the network and central databases.)

Somehow, the larger computing group that my department is part of was given the responsibility to turn around a fee-for-service group on campus. They were something like two million in the hole, but the university hoped to give them to us so that we can make them self-sufficient and possibly, profitable. While I’m sure they’re good people and don’t want them to be put out on the street, I don’t really see how the group fits into our department’s, much less the university’s mission as a whole. In general, they provide Web services (Web site design, online surveys, logo design, etc.) to groups on campus that can pay market prices for their services. They are encouraged to conduct business only with university organizations, although they can work for outside clients on a very limited basis (if only to break even).

There are two major problems I have with this model (outside of my own reservations about the quality of their work):

  1. A fee-for-service group of qualified professionals is a great resource for those university groups that can’t afford to, or even want to hire full-time staff for special projects, like conducting an online survey or having their Web site redesigned. However, if they are charging market prices, it makes the entire endeavor less cost effective for the client. Because they are a fee-for-service group, long-term support is either non-existent or existent, but very expensive, cancelling out the value of having the fee-for-service group in the first place.
  2. The group was made part of a regular university department, I’m assuming, to be tied into that department’s and the university’s mission and to take advantage of the management resources available within the department. They are required to be financially self-sufficient (which is good in this economy and the current state of budget cuts), but they still take resources from the department. Besides the management resources required to keep the group running, management has been encouraging “working together,” which essentially amounts to taking homegrown software solutions and other tools built within the department and selling them as part of their services. While we are being monetarily being compensated for use of our products and staff time (as we normally do since we offer them as services for other departments ourselves, albeit at a much, much lower price), they are essentially getting to offer a much more valuable suite of services because of their attachment to our organization. In exchange, the theory is that they offer their own services– free Web design work, consulting, etc. However, since we are a computing group, we already have staff that are specifically assigned to work on those types of projects. So, the question is: is the exchange equal or even necessary?

In my opinion, no.
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