DRM Books

In the wake of the first connected digital devices old industries (music, books, film) began attempting to sell their wares in a way that retargeted  a new consumer base. What the music industry, in particular, quickly realized is that selling their music on compact discs (CDs) threatened to pull control from them as content providers, because unlike the physical world, replicating and distributing electrons is trivial.

During the infancy of connected mobile devices, vendors (Apple, Samsung, Sony, etc.) were by necessity forced to make deals with the incumbent media conglomerates who were subsequently only interested in protecting their assets by applying Digital Rights Management (DRM). For those of you who grew up in a less restrictive time, DRM helped enforce copyright by limiting things like play back, downloads, access and distribution. The biggest problems with consuming DRM content is that your ownership becomes predicated on factors you do not really control. We all know that when we rent we essentially have a time limit on the item and some predefined payment agreement. Likewise, if the thing you are "purchasing" requires a non ubiquitous "technology" in order to play or read, then I would humbly submit that you are actually in a convoluted lease agreement rather than an outright purchase.

Fortunately by the time DRM became marginally popular the genie was out of the bottle, the music purchasing public had already realized that CD to MP3 conversions were trivial, and even more frightening to media conglomerates was the growing popularity of music sharing services (like Napster). Three things happened that were (in hindsight) inevitable:

  • The music industry went nuclear on file sharing (customers became criminals)
  • The music industry embraced, and sold, the high quality MP3s that consumers now coveted.

I know that is two bullets but I think this next point needs a bullet by itself:

  • Startups found a way to appropriately price, market, and repackage DRM music.

The last bullet is an important one and may actually have passed people by, as we have once again started renting our music from music corporations. Pandora, Spotify, Xbox Music, iTunes, Beats, etc all have convinced us that renting music is the way to go (you pay without actually controlling or owning the product). This is really everything that DRM was, just by another name.

How did we end up here again? There are two things that make this new DRM work. First the convenience factor cannot be overstated, even as we can store terabytes of data locally, and in the cloud, the patience required to curate an ever expanding collection appears too much for attention challenged consumers. What is also a big factor is the price, you can listen to large libraries of music in a kind of radio format. Each of the music service providers have figured out that by comparing their form of music distribution to broadcast radio, you find consumers more likely to endure adverts or pay a relatively low monthly fee.

The real problem is with digital books

For me the issue of DRM applied to books is more egregious, and problematic simply because our expectation of books for the last 150 years have made book loaning a public good (via libraries). As it currently stands the fact that an open digital format (like MP3) has never been universally accepted for books is telling sign of the power wielded by publishers.

So here we are with a book publishing industry who’s consumer base have never had a really popular open format. This has birthed a system that is so hopelessly controlled by DRM that almost no one resists or even talks about it. Let me look in the mirror here for a moment because I have "purchased" my fair share of digital books. However, I am very selective about which books I choose to "purchase", simply because the price to lease is almost as much as a genuine real world purchase! Vehicle leases, for example, often allow you to get a better vehicle for less money, because in theory you are paying for the depreciation.

We need a way to start seeing digital DRM versions of books as value adds and not the veritable item itself. My new strategy is that I am willing to long term lease a book that I probably will not read again or that I am casually reading in general (this includes magazines). For books that have some greater significance (emotional, technical, or otherwise), that I may want to read again or pass on to others, my firm choice remains purchasing a physical book.

These are my steps to determine if I am leasing a digital "purchase":

  • Do you need some specific hardware to consume your media?
  • Do you need some specific version of an OS or software?
  • Do you need to authenticate in order to consume (to verify your ownership with the DRM servers)?

If you have answered yes to any of the above, you are in a convoluted rental agreement and the only other questions you should consider is when that agreement expires, and whether the cost-value proposition makes sense to you.

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October 20, 2014 16:23    Comments [0]
Tagged in Devices | Media

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President Obama speaking on net neutrality

A few days ago President Obama held a Town Hall with Members of the Cross Campus Community and was asked a rather open ended question on Net Neutrality, this was his response (emphasis mine):

This is something I spoke about back in 08 ... On net neutrality I made a commitment very early on that I am unequivocally committed to net neutrality ... I think its what has unleashed the power of the internet and we don't want to lose that, or clog up the pipes, and so there a lot of aspects to net neutrality, I know one of the things people are most concerned about is paid prioritization. The notion that somehow some folks can pay a little more money and get better service, more exclusive access to customers through the internet. That's something I'm opposed[sic]. I was opposed to to it when I ran, I continue to be opposed to it now.

Now the FCC is an independent agency they came out with some preliminary rules that the Netroots and the folks in favor of the net neutrality were concerned with. My appointee, Tom Wheeler, knows my position. I can't, now that he's there, I can't just call him up and tell him exactly what to do, but what I have been clear about and what the White house has been clear about is, is that we expect whatever final rules emerge to make sure that we're not creating two or three or four tiers of internet. That ends up being a big priority of mine.

This is the thing, the Presidents appointment contradicts his position, Wheeler worked as a venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, the very industries that is looking to dismantle net neutrality laws. I have been somewhat critical of President Obamas appointees (Larry Summers and Tim Geithner come to mind) but this particular selection makes no sense for me at all. Tom Wheeler is simply doing what, he has been rewarded for doing almost his entire career, protecting and promoting the interests of the cable companies.

The full Town Hall is currently on the White House YouTube channel.

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October 13, 2014 13:08    Comments [0]
Tagged in Internet | Law

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Microsoft Research (along with the Media Interaction Lab & the Institute of Surface Technologies and Photonics) have been working on a new type of Human-Computer Interaction project known as FlexSense.


FlexSense is a transparent, thin-film,  sensing surface based on printed piezoelectric sensors. These basic sensors are laid out on an flexible sheet and provide enough feedback to eliminate the need for additional camera sensors (like Kinect or Leap Motion). A a set of algorithms interpret the sensor input as you flex and twist the the sheet (like a piece of paper) and send signals to your  device for subsequent interaction with software applications and games. FlexSense can be used for a variety of 2.5D interactions:

  • Transparent cover for tablets where bending can be performed alongside touch to enable magic lens style effects.
  • Layered input.
  • Mode switching.
  • High degree-of-freedom input controller for gaming and beyond.

Example applications created using FlexSense

Piezo Primer

Deformations of a piezo element can causes a change in the surface charge density of the material, resulting in a charge appearing between the electrodes. The amplitude and frequency of the signal is directly proportional to the applied mechanical stress. Since piezoelectricity reacts to mechanical stress, continuous bending would give this kind of application the signals need to define twisting. Thus several strategically placed sensors are combined to provide a reconstruction of the real-world surface and all the permutations of deformations (A4 form factor is used to match common tablets).

A tale of two algorithms

The mapping can only be accurately performed by combining two data-driven algorithms. Both algorithms require training based on sensor measurements and ground truth 3D shape measurements. This training phase enables both algorithms to infer the shape of the foil from the sensor data by using a custom-built multi-camera rig to trace the 3D position of the markers with high accuracy.

The first  algorithm is based on linear interpolation, which is the simplest method of retrieving and defining the trajectory between two data points. In this method the points are simply joined by straight line segments. Each point would then be represented by a sensor (or some combination of sensors). This method clearly has some weakness, as it results in discontinuities at each point. Often a smoothing function is applied, examples of these include (Cosine, Cubic and Hermite). Even with these smoothing functions mapping the final real world construction is apparently fraught with inaccuracies and so another algorithm was employed, learning based continuous regression.

Learning based continuous regression, in this instance, is the practice of displacing the surface and taking measurements over time. This approach allows modeling of the relationship between two variables (sensor measures, surface geometry)  where the goal is to provide a function that aids in prediction.

I watch this and the geek in me is excited about the future of human computer interactions! The full FlexSense publication can be found here.

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October 9, 2014 23:47    Comments [0]
Tagged in Electronics | Research | STEM | User Experience

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Hiring developers is always a difficult process, in part because after we produce concrete pieces of software we rarely have the opportunity to actually show or discuss that code to anyone outside of the group of engineers we developed it with. We are then left with really few ways of proving a tangible skillset. After honing our talents for years there are still vast portions of our work that we rely on an honor system (just telling the truth) to reveal and evaluate.

This is made especially difficult for sound developers who do not handle interview scenarios well. The archetypal introverted developer, with no social skills is obviously overstated, but there are folks who simply do not do well under the pressure of public scrutiny. The artificial and pressurized interview can bring out the worst in them and I have seen otherwise solid develops completely freeze in those situation. We have been employing the following pattern as we dove into hiring, they are by no means perfect (and certainly not exhaustive) but they provide a framework to fairly evaluate the kind of people we want to work with.

Prepare your HR

Your HR/recruitment staff represent the first line of defense between you and completely unqualified candidates. The more accurately and succinctly you are able to describe your needs the more capably they will deter the advances of the folks who are simply not right for the position you are advertising. For example:

  • Are you looking for someone with general programming skills or explicit .NET experience.
  • What kind of developer (.NET or otherwise) are you looking for ASP.NET, Windows, Embedded, Mobile? Remember the recruiter may not be a specialist so help them understand your needs with sufficient detail.
  • Prepare questions for your HR personnel that will identify levels of actual experience working on the  type of technology that is important to you, it may not just be about how long they have been in a technical career. Enthusiastic applicants may be able to type the appropriate buzz words on a resume but a simple question and an honest answer can save every one undue stress.

Basic Skill Evaluation

This is the perfect opportunity for a manager (or a technical lead) to assess the general skill level of the interviewee. In the theme of not wasting anyone’s time I do not suggest more than two people. The thrust of the questions are usually straight forward and require a brief response. At this stage I am pitching questions in a way that they should be answered conclusively and decisively and the pace of the interview should lend itself to be completed in less than 45 minutes.

This is really the point at which you want to decide if you want to go any further with this person. Are they under qualified? (over qualified folks may still filter through here) are their skills a good match? If someone passes this stage it should be a relatively strong signal that they are under serious consideration.

Detailed Technical Interview

These are the set of questions reserved to really analyze the experiences and skills you are looking for. I like to ensure that multiple technical colleagues are involved here and that they all have the opportunity to guide the discussion. While I understand that people have varying degrees of comfort completing exercises in an interview, I really find that using a whiteboard and going after a solution we can discuss reveals a lot about a person. Look for ways to tease multi layered questions from the candidate, and also look for ways to attach the questions to direct experiences they may had.

Unfortunately I also recognize that people who simply have a tough time talking in groups may fail this unnecessarily, and frankly I have not figured out a way to evaluate someone who has anxiety issues when speaking.

Extended Team Interview

What other teams interact with your team? Do they have a valid stake in the evaluation? It is at this point I need to know that this interviewee has good character fit with the company ethos and the team goals. I do not tend to rely on the HR staff to identify good soft skilled fits (even though I listen to their input very closely). How the interviewee fits in with your extended team is also important and getting feedback from departments that are directly vested in your success may provide a way to weed out people who are on the border, or who may be closely matched with other candidates.


You always see the legal written response to the importance of company diversity, however, I have found that this ideal should never be left to chance, and before you start bristling, I am not suggesting you hire unqualified people to meet an arbitrary quota. I am strongly advocating ensuring that you have challenged and overcome every barrier to entry such that a diverse and brilliant team can be assessed and fairly adjudicated. My humble opinion is that removal of these barriers (and that may require training at all the above levels) will produce the diversity that will enhance your team success.


Look, getting the right people hired is difficult and sometimes quite tedious, but trust me when I say getting it wrong can be an unforgiving nightmare. The flip side is that no process is ever perfect and fair, so you may end up passing on good candidates because of a perceived risk when you see someone flirting on the borders of mediocrity.

The best strategy involves systematically trying to not waste peoples time (your companies or the interviewee), providing a mechanism to fairly and accurately assess people from a variety of backgrounds, and being sympathetic and compassionate to a person who is attempting to show the very best version of themselves in a highly pressurized scenario.

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October 6, 2014 17:45    Comments [0]
Tagged in Musings

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By now you have probably read all the pertinent information from the Windows 10 announcement and if you are daring enough you probably downloaded and installed the Technical Preview on some unsuspecting hardware. I think we can all agree that the star of the show was the reinvented start menu designed to appease corporate desktop users everywhere (you know, the people that actually buy Windows licenses). But what got a few people spun out of shape was that the demo included improvements to the command prompt!

Why improve the command prompt?

If any app on a PC reflects the status of pure geek it has to be the command prompt, if you want a quick scene in a movie that needs a glaring representation of a hacker at work you inevitably see a command prompt floating on at least one of their 3 monitors. So immediately we know that this demo is Microsoft’s  attempt to court the most productive PC users of all … the IT/IS/Developer. I see Scott Hanselman was positively swooning.

Windows 8 by contrast is a consumer OS with almost no benefits for a developer like myself over Windows 7. I reckon the message they are sending us is that your tech leaders will want this new OS, they will be more productive, just look at what we are doing with the age old dos prompt (not really a dos prompt). Also noteworthy is that the tech preview schedule calls for any new consumer bits to be previewed last (after enterprise).

If Windows 8 represented death by a thousand cuts to the consumer world, then Microsoft is trying to position Windows 10 as life with a thousand butterfly kisses for the most productive and technical people in your company. We shall see.

October 3, 2014 18:49    Comments [0]
Tagged in Microsoft | Windows

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