Podcasts

Have you tried listening to podcasts yet?  Don’t know what a podcast is?

Podcasts are similar to radio or TV shows, but you download them to your device to listen/watch later, or stream them.  There are podcast programs built in to most smartphones, and devices like Apple TV.  There are many excellent and mostly free choices available for whatever computer you use.  The podcast program keeps track of the list of episodes currently available for each show, downloads or streams them to you, and plays them for you when you are ready.  It’s sort of like a digital video recorder for radio.

I use Downcast on my iPhone.  I use that instead of the Podcast app that Apple provides because it works better, or at least did when Apple split podcasts from its music player app.  Downcast keeps up with the list of episodes available for each podcast, and downloads each new episode onto my iPhone as it becomes available.  Later on, usually in the car, I listen to the unplayed episodes in the order that they came in.

There are podcasts about just about everything.  In my case, I’ve followed shows about drum corps, classical music, technology and news.  Some are available in video form – I save those for watching via Apple TV (which I love, BTW.)  Most are really well produced, professional shows, and they vary in length from a minute to more than an hour each.

Most podcast programs include a way to search for shows. Perhaps the easiest way to find them is using iTunes and the iPhone to subscribe and listen.

Here’s the one’s that I currently listen to:

  • Freakonomics Radio – “The hidden side of everything.”  This one makes you think.  I can particularly recommend the latest episode, This Idea Must Die, which presents several discussions of commonly accepted ideas that should be retired.
  • NPR’s Story of the Day – a 4-8 minute story selected from the day’s broadcasts on NPR.
  • POP ! TECH ! JAM – “The independent audio magazine devoted to mashing up pop culture, technology and more.”  A fun show by two NY Times writers.
  • Reply All – “a show about the internet.”  Short (<20 minute) segments about various things happening on the Internet.
  • Serial – “Serial tells one story – a true story – over the course of an entire season.”  The first season was investigated a murder and conviction in Baltimore, and caused a national sensation.
  • StartUp Podcast – “A series about what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one.”  This was started by Alex Blumberg, of This American Life and the business-economics series Planet Money.  Relatively short (<20 minute) episodes, with an almost no-holds-barred discussion of real issues facing people getting started in business.
  • This American Life – “This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners.”  The podcast is the same hour of material, usually uncensored.  Consistently excellent story telling.
  • APM: Composer’s Datebook – “Reminding you that all music was once new®”  A short (2 minute) presentation of classical music and/or composers that were premiered or born on this date in history.
  • APM: Marketplace Tech – a daily rundown of (computer) technology news.  5-8 minutes each.
  • HDTV and Home Theater Podcast – “a podcast about High Definition TV and Home Theater. Each episode brings news from the A/V world, helpful product reviews and insights and help in demystifying and simplifying HDTV and home theater.”  About 45 minutes per episode.
  • Kim Komando Live – Kim is a syndicated columnist who calls herself “America’s Digital Goddess”.  I mention her podcast last because I like it and dislike it.  You’ll have trouble finding a direct subscription link from her site, because she is more active than any of the above at “monetization”, working to get money from subscribers.  The podcast is short (usually 1-2 minutes), but almost half is a commercial for something that she is selling.  She is also more paranoid, maybe justifiably, than most of the other techies I listen to.  Use the search function in your podcast program to subscribe instead of paying, unless you  want to support her financially.
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Better sounding music

Neil Young has a new venture called “Pono“, which is marketing a high-resolution portable audio player and online music store. This got a warm reception on Kickstarter, raising more than $6 million. I don’t expect most casual listeners will care, having been lulled into the cheap convenience of MP3, iTunes and streaming music. What HAS surprised me is the “audiophile” response, which is generally negative. The reaction seems to either be “Meh!” or “snake oil salesmen!”.

My first surprise came from the HT Guys, who run a terrific podcast about home theater.  These are ex-Sony guys who worked on (I believe) digital theater sound systems, so I think they know something about high quality audio.  When they talked about Pono, their basic question was “why?”  What we have is good enough, you probably cannot hear the difference, what’s the point?

I figured the folks at HydrogenAudio.org, an online forum that focuses on high quality digital audio stuff, would be all over it.  They were, but in a very negative way.  I haven’t really found anything positive yet.  Here’s one thread.  The general objections seem to be this:  uncertainty about music pricing; emphasis on 24/96 or higher recordings won’t really show people better sound, but will cost more; will the recordings actually be better quality that what is available now; why won’t they sell us non-lossy music now for a reasonable price?

Here’s another review: http://audiophilereview.com/audiophile-news/more-thoughts-on-pono-one-week-in.html.

So, what’s the big deal?  Did you know that you are used to listening to low-quality sound?

People have different ideas of “best” sound.

  • For some, vinyl records will always be best – pure analog, warm sound, plus more space to print art and notes.  Sorry, not for me.  That warm sound is RIAA equalization, which bumps up the low-end of the spectrum to account for shortcomings in the playback.  Turn up the bass on lots of stuff, and it sounds better.  Plus, ticks, pops, warps, skips – remember those?  Remember having to clean your record before you played it (if you cared about that sort of thing?)  For awhile, though, people actually spent money on decent turntables, receivers or amplifiers, and quality speakers.
  • CD.  Very high quality copies of recordings, perhaps limited depending on how they are produced.  Not “master” quality, but pretty good.  Oddly, CD brought with it compact size, and portable players and earphones became the rage.  Now you didn’t need big speakers and a receiver, just a CD walkman.  People had great quality in their hands, and were already getting used to lower quality.
  • High bitrate MP3 or AAC.  This is today’s digital download standard (iTunes, Amazon), although a surprising amount of lower bitrate stuff (128k) is still sold.  This uses generally perfected algorithms to remove “unneeded” parts of music recordings and shrink the size of the recording file to a small number.  Many people cannot hear the difference, or don’t know what the deficiencies are.  If you listen on earbuds, or even in most cars, this is probably good enough.  But, you have the world at your fingertips with an iPhone, iPod, computer or little digital player.  Convenience trumps quality.
  • Lossless digital files.  FLAC, APE, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and others.  These created a smaller digital copy of a recording, without removing any musical information.  These are available in a number of quality levels, from CD (16/44.1k) to “audiophile” (24/96k, 24/192k, etc.).  The two numbers express how the audio is sampled; higher is supposedly better.  Engineers will quibble about the “best”.  The rest of us may not be able to hear the differences.  There are a small number of online sites that let you buy lossless music: HDTracks.com is one good example.  However, it is hard to buy mainstream, CD quality lossless music.  People like me end up buying the CD, then make the lossless digital files from the CD.  There is no good standard for getting copies of the album art and liner notes that come in the CD case.  Everyone does it a different way.  Lossless files take much more space on a listening device, another drawback.

Music streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio use lower quality lossy streams.  Kind of AM Stereo quality – not quite FM.

An interesting wrinkle is that the recording industry doesn’t always sell us the best copy of their work.  It took years for them to figure out how to “master” CDs that wouldn’t sound like fingernails on a blackboard for some people.  Sometimes, the original tapes they had were in rotten shape.  So, when they have an incentive to go back and re-do an old recording for new technology, sometimes they find better source tapes, or spend the time to eliminate noise and distortion, or otherwise produce a better “master”.

I hope that Pono is great, and causes some people to return to caring about higher quality music reproduction.  I’m not holding my breath.

If you’ve gotten this far, maybe you care.  I avoid buying digital music from iTunes or Amazon because it is lossy.  I buy CDs and rip them using iTunes into Apple Lossless format.  Some music goes on my iPhone, the rest is played on our main music system using Apple TV.  I’ve experimented with FLAC, but find a fair amount of uneven support for it on different devices that support DLNA (my TV, audio receiver, Blu-ray player).  Most of the IOS DLNA or FLAC apps I’ve tried haven’t been very good, but I haven’t tried most and don’t like to pay.  So, today I convert the FLAC files I get into Apple Lossless using dbPowerAmp.

Another cruel reality – as humans age, their hearing range decreases on the high-end.  They can still appreciate good sound, but can’t hear some of the detail that younger people can, if the recording includes it!

-JFS

Photo Software

It looks like I have about 8 gigabytes of photos over >6,000 photos.  Like everything else, I’ve tried several software packages for working with the photos.  I don’t use most of the editing features, other than crop and red-eye removal (when I remember.)  I do frequently need to adjust the photo date, as many of my old pictures didn’t capture it correctly (my old camera would lose the date/time everytime the battery got changed, so lots of my photos say 1/1/1998.)

I’ve been using Google’s Picasa for the past few years.  It has the above mentioned features, and a pretty good facial recognition system for tagging.  As I add pictures, it scans them and identifies faces and who they might be, then I confirm or change that.  This has been really good for requests like this one from Bethany:  “I need a baby picture for next year’s yearbook by tomorrow.”  She was able to easily look through all of the photos where her face is tagged and pick one in minutes.

Picasa lets you upload pictures to the web, and has the ability to import from iPhoto, although it doesn’t do a very good job.  It loses the iPhoto events, albums, faces, etc., and shows them in a mostly meaningless folder structure by date.  Plus, most (all?) of the stuff in iPhoto I’ve already brought in to Picasa, so there are lots of apparent duplicates.  I want to get down to one authoritative collection, get it tagged right, post if online and back it up.

Picasa uploads to Google Drive, and you see it through G+ Photos.  15GB of storage space.

I’ve tried Windows Live Photo in the past.  It has most of the same functions, is also free, and works seamlessly with MS Skydrive.  Since they give 25GB of space, that’s pretty appealing. Of course, it’s easy to get multiple accounts in either service, or you can pay for additional storage.  I don’t think this product works on the Mac, which was a plus for Picasa.

I use an Apple MacBook Air as my notebook machine now, so have moved all of my personal photos here.  I’ve tried iPhoto, which is pretty cool, but locks me into the Apple world.  Still, since I also use iPhone and iPad, and have an Apple TV, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Still, I’ve done all of my tagging in Picasa, and would likely need to redo that if I moved the photos over to iPhoto.  I haven’t looked at Aperture yet.

Now Flickr is giving us 1 terabyte of storage, with most of the functional limits removed.  I’ve only started to look at that system and what it can do.

I’m sure you have a system that you use and love – please let me know in a comment here!

-JFS

Thoughts about “illegal” downloading

Jerry Pournelle made an interesting comment on the 10/22/07 episode (118) of This Week in Tech (TWIT): The RIAA in their recent copyright infringement battles is acting like the authorities in Selma, AL Civil Rights Marches in the 1960s – acting in complete accord of the law, but at the same time stirring up public sentiment against them.  Most recently, the RIAA prevailed for $220,000 against a woman in Minnesota.  She was apparently using KaZaa to download and share music; the RIAA agents observed her sharing some 1700 songs, and ultimately convinced the jury that she should pay $9250 for each of 24 selected songs that she shared.  She claims she never used KaZaa, which doesn’t seem terribly credible given the evidence; assuming she actually was, she might not even have known that the default setup shares everything that is downloaded.  I think the jury award is outrageous, and I doubt the RIAA will ever collect even a small fraction of it.  It will, however, inspire the public to reconsider copyright, and that may not work out well for the publishers.
 
I’ve had customers using KaZaa, which I strongly advise against because so many of the downloads are polluted with viruses, not to mention likely copyright infringement.  Some of these people even thought they were getting music "legally" by buying the premium version of KaZaa.  These people are not criminals – they want to obtain and listen to music using their computers and digital media players.  If you don’t have an extensive music collection or a lot of time, this leaves a simple choice – pay for downloads (if they exists for pay), or use what other people share through a Peer-to-Peer software system (P2P).  Technology makes this possible, but it does run afoul of the civil law of copyright.  Many people disregard the copyright law, either because they don’t care, or because they don’t understand.  Does this make them criminals?  I don’t think so.
 
Should it be okay for a well-funded coalition of corporations (like the RIAA) to use the legal system to extract huge judgements from individuals for violating copyright law?  If the individuals are getting actual money through this violation, sure, but within reasonable limits.  The punishment should fit the violation. Should it be okay for this same group of corporations to force somewhat less huge settlements from people who don’t want to roll the dice with a jury?  I vehemently oppose that.  The RIAA and MPAA in particular want you to believe that they are losing billions of dollars, and that hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs because of media piracy.  They give you the big picture, which includes copying globally, in all kinds of forms, and over long periods of time.  Much of the losses are due to physical pirated copies by organized criminals of CDs and videos in foreign countries like China.  To counteract their theoretical losses, they employ firms that spy and entrap individuals, then use the legal system to force money from them, frequently using circumstantial evidence.  They have appointed themselves as private motorcycle cops on the public digital highway.  I don’t think that should be allowed; at the minimum it invades individual privacy.
 
Almost every discussion I’ve seen talks about "illegal" downloading.  For me, the word "illegal" seems too strong.  By downloading a copyrighted work (music, movie, TV clip, book, whatever) without permission, you are infringing on the legal right of the copyright holder.  That right gives them the option to simply grant permission to do the download, or to charge you for it, or to refuse it.  In many cases, there is no mechanism in place for you to satisfy the right of the copyright holder.  You still (as of today, anyway) cannot download any of The Beatles albums or songs.  If I want to download Abbey Road, I won’t find it in any "legal" site.  I won’t use Napster, Rhapsody, or one of the other DRM’d sites – any music I download must be playable on both my iPod and any PC I choose to use, which eliminates virtually all DRM systems for me.  I can, however, easily find and download it through BitTorrent, KaZaa, or similar.  And at that point, I will have crossed into "illegal" activity.
 
Downloading a copyrighted work without the copyright holders permission is not like stealing a CD, DVD, or book, at least in the material sense.  Even if the act were witnessed by police, they likely couldn’t arrest or ticket you.  It would be difficult for them to say for sure that you didn’t actually have "permission", since each digital copy of a work potentially has different rights attached to it.  Usually, no money changes hands, and the original copy of the work is still intact with the person who purchased it.  The only "loss" is theoretical – the publisher might have lost a sale – but that sale might not have ever occured in any case.  It’s really not much different from borrowing the work from the library, except that the library doesn’t have a virtually unlimited supply of copies of the work, and you never return it. 
 
It seems to me that what you are commiting is a moral or ethical violation.  I am no expert on either morality or ethics, but feel that I have a reasonable grasp of what is right and wrong.  On some level, I can understand that someone has been "harmed" if I download and enjoy their work repeatedly and over a long period of time, without ever buying the work and therefore rewarding them for the enjoyment I received.  Of course, many downloadable things are used once and set aside.  I’m a collector (even though I really can’t afford it) – I have hundreds of books, magazines, CDs, DVD’s, etc. cluttering my home, most of which have little or no resale value, and most of which I could have borrowed or rented.  Many were purchased used or were free to me, meaning that their publisher got no money from me.  I could theoretically pass each work on to thousands of people, and even get some back!  I beliieve that new CDs, DVDs and (hardcover, business and academic) books are generally overpriced, but they do have some value since I can use them repeatedly and over a long period of time.  However, I also beleive that I should be able to preserve and use those works in digital form, perhaps without keeping the original media.
 
In the publisher’s perfect world, you would pay each time you used a work that they held copyright on.  What a wonderful scam for them – the artist creates a work, gets paid once, or maybe gets paid a small fraction of each use payment received (if the artist had a good lawyer when the contract was written.), and the publisher continues to get paid for years.  How do I convince people to let me pimp them like that?  At least the artist only expends effort once for the work.  And the publisher, after some limited promotion, expends only small incremental effort for each end use, or even expends no effort.  Don’t get me wrong – publishers do a wonderful service to the world by funding the creation of art, and particularly in the case of studios actually pull together many of the resources needed to create the art.  Artists deserve to be paid for their efforts, and maybe even deserve to be enriched by it.  Apparently, only a very few artists actually do get enriched.  Corporations generally enrich only their stockholders and executives.
 
The public has shown willingness for pay-per-use works in limited situations.  Mostly, they pay to consume new works that are released through limited channels, and it is a function of discretionary income.  In today’s two-class society, most people don’t have much of that.  People will pay for physical recording or books, but again only if they have the money, and if its more convenient than borrowing a copy.  Most audio and video media is available through advertiser supported distribution like network and cable TV, radio and internet sites.  Somehow, even after a publisher has essentially given away their product through an advertiser supported medium, they want you to pay to consume it again, or to consume it if you missed the first offering.  If you dare to try to get around that, they want to sue you – even if they don’t make available a way to consume it again.
 
Publishers can mass produce art.  But here’s where it breaks down in today’s digital world.  Once the work is created, publishing a work in digital form has nearly no incremental cost.  Distributers and retailers are not essential, but do help for marketing, locating and providing a way to obtain the product.  Reasonably, the money provided should be covering the publisher’s investment plus some profit, since profit motivates the creation of other product.  In our capitalist system, when a large number of people buy something, the seller reaps the reward.  People will pay a reasonable price for a product, even if a "free" alternative is available, so long as they believe that it’s right.  Now almost everyone has the means to create a digital library with their computer.  Computers are fast, disk space is cheap and plentiful, and high speed internet connections make obtaining material trivial.  Once the material is in your library, you can consume it on your time, rather than on the schedule set by a corporation. There’s plenty of money to be made, just not the way it used to be made.  The digital world moves fast, and the sellers have not caught up with the buyers.
 
For example, I have come to believe that lossless digital music files are necessary for any music I listen to through decent headphones or my home stereo.  Anything less is like listening to a recording from the radio – the music is there, but with greatly reduced quality.  Even 320kbps MP3 files are not "CD quality" – close, but no cigar.  Sure, if all you listen with are earbuds through your iPod or whatever, or in your car, or on your PC speakers, then you won’t hear the difference.  And that’s unfortunate, because there is more there to be heard, and it does affect the overall experience.  However, there are nearly no lossless music downloads available commercially, just downloads with varying lossy encodings, and many with unreasonable "rights management" mechanisms.  The only way to get lossless music "legally" is to buy the CD and rip it to your computer.  Don’t even think about sharing the music, even though you may have a fair-use right to do so.  Lawyers are expensive.
 
I believe that the failure of publishers to lead with high-quality, reasonably priced digital goods has cost them dearly.  They’ve hoarded their rights like kings with so much gold, and are now discovering that those rights aren’t worth anything if nobody will pay for them.  After all, intellectual property is only a legal concept, and at least in theory the people ultimately control the law – I think corporations actually control the law, but that’s another rant.  The people wanted a product, and the publisher’s response has been too little, too late, for too much, all the while waving their intellectual property rights as protection for their inaction.  Meanwhile, the people figured out how to get what they wanted without employing a payment transfer system, effectively creating a barter economy.   I don’t think there is much "illegal" about that.

Darknet – an interesting read re Intellectual Property rights

I’m nearly done reading Darknet – Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation by J.D. Lasica.  It is a discussion of digital media and the attempts by media publishers, especially record and movie companies, to control how you use them.  I’ve found much of the information to be rather disturbing, mostly because the concept of fair use seems to be being dismantled by these publishers.  The publishers are working together with Congress and the courts to restrict how you are able to use CD’s, DVD’s, TV recordings, books, the Internet – anything that they deem as Intellectual Property that they own, and they are trying to force hardware and software companies (this means computers AND consumer electronics like TV and DVD) to build locked technology to obey rules and restrictions that they determine.  In many cases this amounts to no rights for you.  It seems that the end-goal of the publishers is to force pay-per-use of all media.

Did you know that the media companies have tried to kill nearly every media innovation because they couldn’t control it?  This includes FM radio, photocopiers, cassette recorders, VCRs, portable music players, digital video recorders, and now almost all forms of downloading.  Before they accepted HDTV, they got a “broadcast flag” requirement (which was recently struck down by the Supreme Court only because the court said the FCC didn’t have the power to require it).  This flag would have allowed them to say you can or cannot record a program, what quality recording you could make, and even how long you could keep the recording.  Now they are trying to force manufacturers to eliminate analog outputs on all devices, so that people cannot simply make an analog recording and digitize that.

Do you remember DIVX, the ill-fated scheme created by Circuit City and the studios to create special DVDs that you essentially rented?  The idea was that when you used one of these discs, the player would have to contact an authorization system to run a timer on your usage.  After a few days, you’d have to pay to use it again, or to use it “forever” on your player.  If you brought the disc to another DIVX player, you’d have to pay again.  The disc wouldn’t work on regular DVD players or in your computer.  Disney was one of the companies that thought this was a great idea, and they dragged their feet on releasing regular DVDs.  DIVX crashed and burned in less than a year, so if you paid for one of these discs and the right to use it forever, you are SOL now.  For people like me that jumped on the DVD bandwagon as soon as they came out, it was an infuriating technology.  Recently, they tried to market DVDs that self destruct after a couple days.  The problem is, now they’re trying to do the same things with the new technologies.

If you think it’s a good idea to backup discs because your kids destroy them, forget it.  The publishers want you to buy a new copy.  Since virtually every DVD and videotape is copy protected, it is a federal crime under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 to circumvent the copy protection and make a copy.  It is similarly a crime to copy any part of such a disc onto your computer.  No big deal, you say?  Many of the machines treat all video as copy protected – even things you create!

Why should you care?  The publishing industry is deep into development for replacements of CD, DVD, books, magazines, even newspapers.  It’s all bits to the publishers.  Since CD’s can be easily ripped, they are developing copy protected versions, which may not work on older players (in the electronics business, older = yesterday!)  Since DVD’s can be easily ripped, despite being a crime, they are developing newer versions that will have much stronger copy protection systems.  They’ll sell these to you as High Definition versions, and try to eliminate the older versions.  They’ll also try to eliminate any way of using these media that they can’t control.  Think about having to ask permission every time you use a paragraph from a book, even for private use.  Never happen, you say?  Think again.

You can read a mini version of this book online, at http://www.darknet.com/minibook/index.html.  I hope you find it as disturbing as I have!

 -JFS

A lawmaker makes sense about intellectual property

One of the things I follow is the debate over Intellectual Property rights.  This is all about copyright and fair-use and has huge ties in with digital media.  For years, I’ve been trying to adopt and use various digital versions of books, newspapers, magazines, music, TV and movies, but have been consistently frustrated by publishers’ reluctance to make the content available at a reasonable price.  When they do, they usually do so with Digital Rights Management (DRM) software that makes it difficult to use the content on more than one device, or even on the one that you purchased it for if you need to reinstall your software.  And most of the time, they just don’t make it available at all.

Rep. Dick Boucher, (D-VA), makes the case for fair-use in this Wired article:  "Lawmaker Revs Up Fair-Use Campaign" In it, he actually makes sense:

"First of all, while the arrival of the internet creates a potential hazard and peril for content creators, it also invests in them broadening abilities. It becomes another distribution medium that they can use and they need to do that. I have been saying (that) to the recording industry every time they have come crying to us (saying), "Oh piracy is costing us this, that and the other and we need to do something about it."

I would spend my time as a committee member when I was addressing them saying, "OK, why don’t you do something about it yourself? Why don’t you put your entire inventory up on the web and make it available in a user-friendly format for a reasonable price per track and get away from clinging to this old, outdated business model of selling the whole CD?" [emphasis added]

Do I have sympathy for them? Not when they’re clinging to a relic and when that’s getting in the way of making good current business decisions…. They can make a fortune if they do that.

It’s a pity I can’t vote for this guy.