Entries from December 2005

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Sunday, 25 December 2005 [00:44 CST]

strict validation is my bag

Actually late Saturday night....

Well, I hacked away at some (largely) nit-picking differences on the site, and now this front page validates as "HTML 4.01 Strict". Before the redesign it was valid "HTML 4.01 Transitional", which is also known as "loose.dtd". On a whim I checked the other pages on the site, and ten of the fifteen validate as well. The other five (I won't embarrass them by naming names) I'll work on soon.

My parents report that the site looks just the same under Internet Explorer as it does under Firefox, which is a pleasant surprise. I've also confirmed that it looks fairly fine on my WiFi-enabled CLIÉ, though I eventually hope to create a custom stylesheet for mobile devices. And since I'm already using multiple stylesheets it shouldn't be difficult.

My church is having two identical services this holiday season: we had one tonight (Christmas Eve) at 6pm and we've got one tomorrow morning at 10:00. Tonight's service went well, and was it crowded! Though not too surprising for a church so full of married couples with young children; I assume that most, given the choice, would rather get church out of the way the night before Christmas rather than trying to open gifts and attend church in the same morning. So in the morning we may have plenty of unoccupied seats, if you know what I mean.

Tomorrow I'm leaving directly from church for East Texas, and not only am I already packed, but my suitcase is already in the trunk of my car. So I need to try to make myself go to sleep; this week I've switched over to rock-and-roll time already, staying up until anywhere from 2am to 6:00(!) and sleeping until noonish. A luxury I don't have tomorrow, I might add.

Oh, and merry Christmas. If you were hoping to buy the "Bag O' Crap" at Woot, it's sold out already. 6000 bags in half an hour, I'd add.

Friday, 23 December 2005 [21:43 CST]

new site design

Since I'm on Christmas break and all my things are graded, I've had a lot of down time this week. And I've not done much the last two days but update the web site.

For Halloween, my Mom gave me a copy of DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using JavaScript & DOM which sounds pretty boring but which has been right up my alley. I started reading it within a day or so of getting it, and I made it less than a hundred pages in (out of 300) before school got busy again. But my brain was already brewing with the basic concepts I'd read, and I'd wanted to redesign for a while.

The basic idea of the DOM is that all the elements in an HTML document form a tree of sorts, and using JavaScript you can walk from node to node in the tree, inspecting and modifying things at will. Well, as a Trained Computer Scientist, I've been walking from node to node in a tree for over a dozen years, and you can bet I've got the details down since I've taught it to CS-2 students for nearly a decade. So once I saw how the basic concept worked, the rest was just mechanics.

So I rewrote the navigation bar, inspired by the pure-CSS model at listamatic. And I wrote some JavaScript to hack the DOM so that most of you with modern browsers will notice that the navigation menu item corresponding to the current page is 1) visually distinct, and 2) not a link, since you're already on that page. And even though the HTML for the navigation bar is identical from page to page on this site, the javascript Does the Right Thing so that the current page is the one that's marked.

The page is much leaner, too. The old navigation bar, in all its table-laden glory, was 1505 bytes. The new one, pure markup, is 33% lighter at 1020 bytes. The title (now on all pages and not just this one) is more drastic because its current look is easier to create in CSS; it went from 349 bytes to a mere 87, over 75%!

Most of the little 'polish' parts of the new design are now handled in JavaScript, which I previously used very little of. I now have nine external JavaScript files to handle various things. They hook into the page if your browser knows how to use them, or if not, they don't. Which means the site still degrades gracefully and is still quite useably if your browser doesn't support JavaScript or if it's turned off.

If your browser supports it, you'll also see mention of changing the look of the navigation menu at the end of the "Note: news gets updated..." paragraph at the top of this page. You can try out a different look for the navigation menu which I like but which looks terrible if you don't have a very large desktop (greater than 1024x768).

If you don't see anything about changing the navigation menu in that first paragraph, then it's because your browser doesn't support it. Apologies. You could always get Firefox (the browser reloaded) or something.

Anyway, the site looks great in Mozilla and Firefox, and pretty good in Opera. Microsoft hasn't created a version of Internet Explorer for Linux, so I haven't tested it in that yet. Hopefully things don't look too terrible. I'll be up in East Texas visiting my folks for most of next week, and they run Windows, so I'll have time to address any IE-specific issues then.

I'd appreciate any comments or complaints you have about the new design. Just email me.

Monday, 19 December 2005 [18:36 CST]

music piracy and the RIAA

One of my students is doing his senior project on music piracy, basically. He'd intended to interview Janis Ian, who is a famous musician of yesteryear who recently has written some very bold essays detailing how the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is mishandling online music distribution. Ms. Ian wasn't able to offer him an interview, so he turned to me(!) instead, as a "musician and listener of music."

I figured I'd post some of my responses here as well, since here at, no good content goes to waste!

> How do you feel about pirating music and some of the steps they
> (the RIAA) have taken to stop it?

In short, the RIAA is behaving irrationally, just like most entrenched industries throughout history whose monopoly is being threatened.

Let's set the stage with a century-old British law, passed with full support of the healthy horse-drawn carriage industry.

The Locomotive Act of 1865 restricted the speed of horse-less vehicles to 4mph in open country and 2 mph in towns. It also required a man with a red flag or lantern to walk 60 yards in front of the vehicle at all times to warn horse riders and horse drawn traffic of the approach of a self-propelled machine.

In 1878, this statute was amended to make the red flag optional under local regulations and reduce the warning distance to 20 yards. And in 1896, after nearly two decades of strong support from horse interests, the act was finally repealed.

Although motor vehicles (as opposed to steam-powered vehicles, which had been around for half a century) had been patented in Britain as early as 1882, their development was delayed for years, probably due to such restrictive legislation.

We'll move on to one of my favorite Robert Heinlein quotes, this from his first published short story Life-Line, which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in August of 1939:

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."

Funny that none of Heinlein's science fiction predictions of the future have been quite so accurate as this one. Let's finish our tour of controlling monopolies by quoting Jack Valenti, then president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This quote is from his 1982 testimony before a subcomittee of the House of Representatives on "Home Recording of Copyrighted Works":

"In 1981, Mr. Chairman, this United States had a $5.3 billion trade deficit with Japan on electronic equipment alone. We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus balance of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine.

"Now, the question comes, well, all right, what is wrong with the VCR. One of the Japanese lobbyists, Mr. Ferris, has said that the VCR -- well, if I am saying something wrong, forgive me. I don't know. He certainly is not MGM's lobbyist. That is for sure. He has said that the VCR is the greatest friend that the American film producer ever had.

"I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

You may be aware that MPAA studios now derive a significant part of their revenue from DVD sales and rentals, quite because Congress refused to make VCRs and their ilk illegal.

Apple's iTunes Music Store sold 141 million tracks (at $0.99 each) during 2004. During first half of 2005, more than 155 million tracks were downloaded. Digital music overall (including ringtones sales and subscription services) now accounts for 5% of label revenue on average.

Do you catch that? Selling two copies of a song on the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) costs a label nothing more than selling one copy. There are no distribution costs and no reproduction costs. Yet they keep $0.70 of the price of every $0.99 track sold. This is, quite frankly, a potential cash cow.

Of course, the labels aren't opposed to legal downloads sold at the iTMS, while they do expend a lot of legal energy suing individuals that illegally download songs from peer-to-peer (P2P) services and in suing the P2P services themselves.

As fond as they are of this term, I object to the use of the word "piracy" in the context of what is really illegal copying of music. "Piracy" has the implication of "pirate", synonymous with "thief", one that robs individuals of something. If a pirate steals a crate of muskets from a trade vessel, then the manufacturer of the muskets has to create more to replace them, and the owner of the muskets is deprived of them.

On the other hand, with illegal copying, the original is not lost. There is no added manufacturing expense, and no one is deprived of their copy of the song. This is not, then, "piracy" in any sense of the original word. Illegal copying is, of course, still illegal. By definition, in fact.

The labels are adamant that an illegally-downloaded song is a lost CD sale. If this were true, then at least one form of piracy would be happening in that the labels are being deprived of revenue. However, the evidence for this is less than clear.

The most detailed study to this effect that I'm aware of is The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales by Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School and Koleman Strumpf at UNC Chapel Hill, which was published in March 2004. (You can get a PDF here, and this Google search will get you a link to an HTML version.)

This study monitored 1.75 million downloads over 17 weeks in 2002 and compared the sales of almost 700 albums as reported by Nielsen SoundScan. Their conclusion? From the abstract:

"Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates. Moreover, these estimates are of moderate economic significance and are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the recent decline in music sales."

Ouch. In a follow-up interview for Working Knowledge (the newsletter for the Harvard Business School), Professor Oberholzer-Gee goes even further:

"...P2P is much like the radio, a great tool to promote new music. The music industry has of course long recognized that giving away samples of music for free over the airwaves can stimulate sales. The same seems to hold for P2P.

"The problem with radio as a promotional tool is that it can be quite expensive for labels to get radio stations to play their music. P2P networks are promising because they make the market for music promotion more competitive. From the perspective of the music industry, the more competition among P2P services, the less costly it will be to promote music."

Clearly people rarely purchase music they've never heard. And clearly people who hear a new song -- by whatever means -- will have a non-zero chance of purchasing an album containing that song. It is my belief that over the long run, even illegal downloads will result in a net increase in sales. Though obviously clear cause-and-effect data in this vein has yet to be seen.

In my opinion, then, the music industry would be better served by trying to decriminalize P2P music downloads. Or, at the least, they should actively promote legal download services (like the iTunes Music Store) and essentially ignore illegal downloads.

Professor Oberholzer-Gee seems to agree; in the interview above, he says, "Suing potential customers is not exactly a standard entry in the book of good customer relations management. More importantly, the RIAA's legal strategy is hopeless and smacks of short-sighted panic."

A long answer to my student's first question, but it's the meat of his inquiry. Let's move on to his second:

pirated music in the classroom

> What is your policy regarding pirated music in the classroom?

He is referring here to "Voter", my digital jukebox in my classroom where students can vote for albums to listen to while they program. I allow students to bring new albums of their own to add to the jukebox, but I only accept original CDs and require students to sign a form certifying that:

  1. they are the legal owner of this album,
  2. they have not made any other copies of this album in any form (digital or cassette),
  3. they give permission to Leander High School to make one (1) copy of this album, with the understanding that this copy will be destroyed at the end of the current school year, and
  4. they agree to not make any copies of this album as long as Leander High School retains a copy, or, if they choose to do so, they agree to inform Leander High School immediately so that their copy can be destroyed.

This is based on my understanding that current copyright law gives owners of an album the legal right to make one copy of any purchased recording for archival purposes. My playing of the albums in class is based on my own interpretation of fair use for teachers, which is pretty liberal.

I certainly have never given digital copies of any music to any student, and while they can listen to the albums in class, they can't download songs in any fashion. Most of the albums on Voter (greater than 80%) are mine, purchased by me in CD form. I make this music available for listening mostly to help students to concentrate while programming, but also to promote music and artists that students might not otherwise hear.

Certainly, I've bought lots of albums that I first heard because a student submitted it to Voter, including albums by Cake, Rage Against the Machine, Soul Coughing, and the Dave Matthews Band. In fact, because a former student lent me one Cake album several years ago, I now own every CD they've ever released. Ditto for Soul Coughing.

And periodically students will tell me that they bought an album they'd never have heard without Voter. So hopefully it's working.

In summary, I'm in favor of students getting to listen to music they've never heard of and which isn't on the radio. However, I try to avoid illegal copying as much as I'm able to prevent it. Breaking a stupid law is still breaking the law.

do artists need the labels?

His third and final question:

> Do you think that today artists still need the support of RIAA
> protected companies or are they better off on their own or with
> an independent label?

This is an interesting question and a hard one. My answer is, "It depends, but probably not." I'd refer the interested reader to a seven-part blog series by recording artist Shaun Groves called You Don't Need Nashville. It's an excellent read and goes into more detail than I will, but there are a lot of things that a label does do for a recording artist.

First, labels are supposed to do A&R (artist and repertoire), which is helping an artist develop a style and helping them to write good songs and to decide which songs to put on an album. This can't be underestimated, because a lot of musicians don't really know how to write a good song. Or they'll have fifteen good songs but no consistent sound so the album doesn't sell well.

Labels also do marketing, publicity, radio promotion and distribution, which they pay for. And these things are expensive.

Of course, the labels do take a big cut for these services. If you're just trying to make a living making music (as opposed to getting rich or getting famous), then there's a lot of promotion you can do yourself. And there are a few examples of artists who are able to get nationwide distribution even without a major-label contract (Ani DiFranco being chief of these), though these are hugely the exception rather than the rule.

Another thing the labels do is sift through a lot of hopefuls to find the good among the whole lot of bad. Of course, there are those who look at the likes of Ashlee Simpson and suspect they're not even doing a very good job at that. But there are labels like Magnatune where I have access to hundreds of albums by musicians I've never heard of, and I've never bought anything from them because I don't have the time to listen and decide what I like and don't. This is significant.

Currently there is no free online equivalent to the labels that sorts through the tons of independent artists and promotes the "good" ones. Maybe independent "podcasts" populated solely by independent artists? But I can't easily listen to that in my car.

Anyway, assuming you are an independent artist and you've already got a largish following by touring, then probably the labels don't offer anything you need. You can record and produce your album yourself. You can get CD Baby to sell it for you and even get it on the iTunes Music Store. You can sign with Magnatune. And web space is cheap, cheap.

Certainly any existing major label artist, who's already had lots of radio airplay and an MTV video or two can make a pretty good living by ditching the label and continuing independent. But then that's cheating, because the level of popularity that makes this easy probably couldn't have been achieved without the labels in the first place.

And certainly existing artists are upset about being exploited by their labels. In particular, artists seem to be upset about the use of digital rights management software (DRM) on their CDs. Artists currently have no input whatsoever about whether or not the labels choose to put DRM on their CDs.

The best album I bought in the last year was Switchfoot's Nothing Is Sound, which has since been revealed to have had Sony's XCP "rootkit" DRM. It's a shame that such a great album has been tainted by corporate policy, and that probably fewer people will purchase it because of this fiasco than would have if it'd been sold as a normal CD. I already quoted Switchfoot's own Tim Foreman, who said "It is heartbreaking to see our blood, sweat, and tears over the past 2 years blurred by the confusion and frustration surrounding this new technology."

The messageboard post with the quote has since been deleted, but an article about it is here.

My position on this entire issue is that the RIAA is foolishly trying to protect a business model that no longer works. Suing illegal downloaders, while within their legal right, is short-sighted. I think they'd make a lot more money if they focused on making legal downloads easier. In fact, I think the $0.99 per song price on the iTMS is even too high; I think they'd make more money if downloads were $0.25 each. And physical CDs should be lowered to $5 each on average.

I think that most good artists can make a decent living without ever dealing with the labels. Producing your own CDs is easier and less expensive than ever, and the market will continue to become more broad, with tens of thousands of bands selling hundreds or thousands of copies of their CDs instead of a hundred superstar acts selling millions.

Thursday, 15 December 2005 [16:34 CST]

you win some, you lose some

I'm feeling pretty productive right now. Thanks to a couple of late nights, I've got everything graded that's been turned in. And tomorrow is the last school day of the semester: those students taking their semester exam in my class tomorrow should be able to get their grade before they leave the room that period.

One of the benefits of using a new curriculum is that my students are doing shorter in-class labs rather than longer-term projects, so I don't have anything like that to grade over the break. In fact, I'm pretty confident that I'll leave the building tomorrow before 5:00 with everything done.

And, as I've noticed in the past, when I'm caught up on schoolwork, I tend to be a lot more creative and productive during my down time. So hopefully I'll be able to get most of my TODO list items taken care of.

My brother's been bugging me to finally admit defeat and bring the first Brother's Frail songwriting contest to an official close. Though my song took an early lead and was the critics' favorite, the people ended up preferring Paul's song. In the end, he beat me 15 votes to 10.

Since the original intent was to write good songs, and since we've both gotten lots of good feedback from voters, before we start the next competition we're entering a period of revision. Paul and I intend to rewrite portions of our respective songs and put up "fixed" versions. So look for those in the next month or so.

Also, Paul assures me that he did not "throw" our last game of Advance Wars DS over Thanksgiving; he merely underestimated me. So, there's that.

Wednesday, 7 December 2005 [22:21 CST]

cold hands, warm heart

Thank goodness for central heating. We had a mixture of rain and sub-freezing temperatures move through today, so when school let out, there was a sheet of ice on everyone's windshields. Most high school students don't have ice scrapers, it appears, so I spent a good twenty minutes outside after school playing good samaritan with mine. I hadn't really dressed for the weather, so I had my usual jacket but no hat or gloves. When I went back into the building, my hands were hurting cold, and my speech was slurred, my face was so frozen.

I'd also cranked on my car's engine while out there, so when I returned half an hour later, it was 100% ice-free and toasty warm inside. There's not any ice on the roads right now, but it's possible that it'll rain again overnight and so school will be delayed or cancelled tomorrow. Which is annoying for the last couple of days of the Six-Weeks, but we'll recover.

Thanksgiving report

Anyway, since my last update, I've been home for Thanksgiving. It was an unusually sedate time, and mostly we sat around and watched movies. And Paul and I played Advance Wars DS, since I'd borrowed a DS from a student before going up. He beat me two games to three, though I'm not convinced he didn't throw that last game just to keep me from losing heart.

I also got to see House of Wax, which actually wasn't quite as terrible as I was expecting. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was much, much better, however. Oh, and we saw KIngdom of Heaven, I guess. I wasn't really into it for most of the flick, but the last 45 minutes or so were pretty good.

smoking revisited

While there in East Texas, Dad weighed in on my theological question about the sinfulness of smoking vs. unhealthy eating. He reminded me about Paul's discussion of liberty vs. propriety in I Corinthians 8. The general concept is that even if we have the liberty to do something as a Christian without sinning (such as smoking, for example), we should still choose to limit our own freedom if the exercise thereof would cause someone with "weaker faith" to stumble.

That is, even if smoking is okay, there are plenty of Christians who (incorrectly) believe it to be wrong. So smoking around them wouldn't be okay, because it would "sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience."

Of course, this concept doesn't address the issue of whether or not eating terrible foods is moral, either. But it's a salient point, and one I hadn't thought of. I still maintain, however, that either smoking isn't inherently a sin or eating at McDonald's is. Not that I plan to do either.

Java networking

Several years ago (1998), I spent a very fertile period programming in C++. I'd learned enough C++ to really be comfortable and has also found a very nice C++ game programming library called Allegro. So I was experimenting a lot with game programming, and I kind-of pulled my CS-2 class at the time along with me. It was at that time that I wrote "Star Pong" and "Ring Worm" during my experimentation.

Anyway, I think I've now gotten to that same point in Java. I've been coding it for a couple of years, and it has fairly decent graphics libraries built-in.

I've got my CS-3 kids in a class by themselves again (for the first time in a few years), and they're not up against an exam like CS-2, so I've been experimenting on them. We've been doing mouse input and general event-based programming, as well as graphics. And I've just gotten a wild hair to learn socket/network programming in Java.

So I've taken a break from grading and spent a lot of my free time getting a handle on networking. There are a lot of classes that interact in non-obvious ways, but overall it isn't too bad.

First I made a line-based telnet client, which is about as easy as things get. Then I wrote an echo server to try out the server side of things, which was harder but still pretty trivial.

Then I wrote a little class abstracting away most of the icky bits into a few simple method calls and wrote a client/server number-guessing game using my framework. So that's what I've got at the moment: a game where you can run a number-guess server and then a client where you can connect to it from anywhere on the Internet and get seven guesses to figure out a value from 1-100 (with "too high" or "too low" feedback). A dumb game, but a fair interactive test of my framework, which works just fine.

My next step will be to make the CS-3 kids program two-player Internet Tic-Tac-Toe or something equally straightforward using my framework to become familiar with the basic concepts and then later make them do something more interesting without the framework (just using the native Java classes).

And you'll probably see some more simple video game clones come out of me, since that's how I have fun with figuring all this out, and coding a video game makes you learn things better than most other types of programming.

Well, as I was writing this update, I got a call confirming that school will be starting two hours late tomorrow. So that's that.

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