Fri 28

Can you trust your toaster?

What Max Reckons You know what really bugs me? DVD players who think they know better than me. You know what I’m talking about. You put in a movie, you sit down, you press PLAY. Do you get your movie? No: you get long seconds, maybe minutes, of swirling menu graphics and copyright warnings. When you try to skip through this, up flashes up a little red circle with a cross through it, or the words “Operation Not Permitted,” or something similar.

“Not permitted”? Who is my DVD player to tell me what’s permitted? It’s my player, isn’t it? When I say “Skip,” it should say, “How far?” I mean, I’m not trying to break the law here. If I was, I could understand my DVD player having some moral qualms. But I just want to watch my movie.

(It’s the copyright notices that really annoy me. First, there’s something nuts about a legally purchased movie forcing you to sit through stern copyright lectures every single time you watch it, while a pirated version helpfully jumps straight to the action. Some DVDs even display copyright warnings in about two dozen different languages, giving you ample time to digest the, say, Swahili version, before leisurely moving on to Romanian. But even the full-motion copyright notices are bad. Australia has one with a pumping soundtrack and some crazy MTV-inspired camerawork—you know, so the kids will pay attention—while on-screen some naughty teenagers download movies. It takes them about four and a half seconds. I tell you what, if it took four seconds, I’d be doing it all the time. Especially if someone played a cool song while I did it.)

Apparently we are rushing toward a future in which control of technology is not handed over to us when we buy it, but retained by the companies that originally made it. Your DVD player, your computer, and your high-definition television seem to be on your side, but they’re really sleeper agents, with secret loyalties to their corporate masters.

There’s something called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) sneaking in everywhere, and the plan is this: at first, it does nothing. But once it’s in enough homes, along come movies and television broadcasts that only play on HDCP-enabled equipment. Because that old non-HDCP television set can’t be trusted, you see—it might be doing what you want, instead of what the industry wants.

There seems to be no point at which an anti-piracy measure is deemed to cause more trouble to legitimate customers than it’s worth. For example, Australian commercial TV almost always run late, often by as much as ten or fifteen minutes, and the reason, according to one of the networks, is:

“Precise start times would allow people to burn DVDs of our programs like crazy and push them out over the internet.”

So millions of people are inconvenienced every day in order to make it slightly harder for eight guys with beards to burn copies of Battlestar Galactica.

I don’t have a DVD player any more. At least, not a typical one. I built a computer with MythTV and a DVD drive and hooked it up to my television. When I tell this puppy to skip, it skips. Loyalty. That’s the thing.

Thu 20

Daddy’s Girl

Max Fin Flies HighAs of last Monday, Jen is back at work two days a week. One of those days, my mother looks after Fin. The other day, I do.

Of course, since I have the kind of job that permits me to loll around the house unshaven and wearing nothing but boxer shorts (although not now, it’s winter; I’m not crazy), I already get to spend more time with my daughter than most Dads. (Heh. “Dad.” Still cool.) But I have discovered that when it’s just me and Fin, it’s different; special in a way that’s almost magical.

This is how it works: I get up at 6:30am, make myself a coffee, and start work. I have about 90 minutes to pound out some words before Fin wakes. (Which isn’t that long. So I am writing Sunday mornings, too, to make up for it.) Then that’s it: the rest of the day is just the two of us. So far we have caught the train into the city to look at comic books, walked along the river, visited a mall, and stopped off at an aquarium to inspect some fish. But where we go isn’t the point; the amazing part is just having this incredible little girl all to myself. I know I am probably about the ten billionth person in history to feel like this, but it really is beautiful. It feels like an honor.

Thu 06

No! No! Not my secret recipes!

Syrup Well, you must have heard the big news. The story, essentially, is this: three people, one a Coca-Cola employee, tried to sell Pepsi some of Coke’s secret recipes. Pepsi called the Feds, and, because spreading a person’s secrets is bad manners but spreading a corporation’s secrets is illegal, those three people are now probably going to prison.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, if I was Pepsi, I’d be a little insulted. I mean, what’s the implication: that the only reason my cola tastes like that is because I don’t know how to make it more like Coke? The hell with that! If you ask me, Coke should be trying to buy my secret recipes! I’ll tell you something for free, mister: we here at Pepsi already know how to make Coke. Coke, that’s what we scrape off the bottom of our vats and give away to pig farmers and the homeless.

Second, if I was Coke, I’d be insulted, too. These guys were offering up Coke’s newest product, which hasn’t even been released yet, and for that they wanted $75,000. I bet that’s less than you can win if you look under the right bottle cap of that product, when it comes out. And not only that, but Pepsi wasn’t interested. That’s got to be deflating. Those Coke developers probably spent months, maybe years, creeping around and looking over their shoulders for Pepsi spies. Then the recipe gets out, Pepsi takes a look, and says, “Nah, we’re good, thanks.” How is Coke meant to market that now? It could come up with the most brilliant campaign in advertising history, and all Pepsi needs to do is say, “Yeah, we got offered that. Didn’t want it.”

The only good for either company is that it encourages people to believe that colas are the result of secret, mystical recipes, and not cough syrup plus sugar. (I mean, come on. What’s all that advertising for? Because you’ve never heard of Coke or Pepsi? I get very suspicious about products that need to teach people why they like them. And food is the worst; we already know that what we think of as “taste” only bears a tenuous relationship to the chemical composition of what we put in our mouths. Taste is mostly marketing. All you need to do to prove that is try to feed a three-year-old.)

Mon 03

Sing Along With Max

Writing I recently discovered Pandora, a web site that acts like a radio station, only you’re calling in all the time and saying whether you like or hate what they’re playing, and the sweaty, desperate-to-please DJs rush to change their playlist to keep you satisfied. I think you’ll agree that the world would be a better place if more of it operated on this kind of basis.

I’ve started using this while I’m writing: I fire up my web browser, point it at Pandora, and let the tunes roll. Not only is it very good at serving up my kind of music, but it also tells me what kind of music that is: apparently I am big on synth bass riffs, a highly synthetic sonority, repetitive song structure, a tight kick sound, and prevalent use of groove. I don’t even know that that means. But I like it.

Once you’ve trained up those sweaty virtual DJs, you can share their work with other people. And that’s why I mention it here: if you want to hear what I’m listening to while writing, tune in here:

[Max’s Writing Tunes]

(If you’re reading this via e-mail and see nothing to click, you probably need to go via my site: start with this link.)