Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Is book piracy the next big thing?

Digital music is a topic I occasionally discuss around here. And writing about the topic abounds on the web, often tackling the issue of how music producers can earn a living making music while music consumers can enjoy music cheaply (because otherwise they will resort to piracy.) Spotify is often portrayed as a hero or villain as are a few other similar streaming music services that pay little money to musicians.

I feel that unless the writing on the topic mentions Youtube it’s missing the elephant in the room. When I want to hear a piece of music my first choice is always to see whether it’s on youtube. I’m seldom disappointed.

Much of this music is obviously pirated. (There’s lots of pirated moves as well.) Some guy uploads his favorite music to youtube and it’s there for all to hear. Additionally, he can show advertising with the video and split the revenue with Youtube (owned by Google.)

I’ve longed wondered whether something similar could happen with books as the ebook format (the book equivalent of an mp3) becomes more popular. According to the GoodEReader site, it’s happening.

Google Play Books is quickly becoming a den of iniquity and a veritable cesspool of piracy. It is ridiculously easy for someone to start a publishing company and upload thousands of pirated books and piggyback on the success of established authors. Google won’t do anything about the pirated copies and has even told authors inquiring about their illegitimate books that they have to contact the publisher. It is a vicious cycle and so far Google Play Books is firmly endorsing piracy.

If you casually browse the Google Play Books section, it is fairly easy to find all of the modern bestsellers, at a fraction of the price. This includes pirated copies of the entire 50 Shades trilogy by E.L. James, all seven Harry Potter books, or even George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – all bundled together and sold alongside legitimate content offerings.

Google made the following statement to Good e-Reader when asked about the rampant piracy issue on Play. “Google Play takes copyright seriously. We take swift action when we receive a DMCA complaint, which the copyright holder can complete here. Additionally, we’re constantly improving our systems to provide a better experience.”

It honestly does not seem like Google is taking piracy seriously at all. They do not have cover art algorithms that cross-reference newly published content with an original author. Not does it employ any methods to scan for ISBN numbers and reference it against the Open Library or any other mainstream database.

UPDATE: Another blogger presses Google on the issue. The results?

When I asked what Google was doing to fight piracy in Google Play Books, they were unable to name a single activity. When I asked what it would take to get a commercial ebook pirate banned from Google Play Books, the Google rep was unable to even confirm that they would even ban a pirate after dozens of valid DMCA notices. When I asked what improvements they planned to make, none came to mind.

The dangers of uploading your mind to a computer

I pause to ask my readers a question. Are any of you considering uploading your mind into a computer? I think you should be aware of some potential problems.

The idea might sound crazy, but the possibility of such a thing is oft-discussed by scientists and psychologists who think it may be a real possibility in coming decades. How would such a thing work? First let’s consider what is probably the now mainstream view of the mind. The mind, this view advocates, essentially arises out of the complex, dense circuitry that is the human brain. (Each “circuit” could be thought of as an individual neuron of perhaps group of neurons that perform the same basic function like moving your index finger.) According to this view (which I basically subscribe to) your mind is your brain.

Now, if we could map out a person’s brain network down to very small details—and we seem to be getting closer and closer to this—we could then program that network into a computer and thus recreate that person—their personality, their essence—on a computer. And that person could conceivably live forever.

There are a couple problems so far. One being is that you aren’t really uploading your consciousness to a computer as much as you are simply cloning your mind. That consciousness—the uploaded mind—will live forever. The flesh and blood you will still eventually die as flesh and blood does. Also, it’s still unclear how our subjective consciousness arises our of our complex neural machinery. I could program a robot to respond to the wavelength of light we call red, but would it “see” red in any way comparable to the way we see red? It’s that perception that is really the magic of living. Would an uploaded mind possess this subjective magic or would it merely be a very complex robot? I don’t think anyone can authoritatively say.

Now let’s consider another view of the mind, this one advocated by philosopher David Chalmers among others. This view advocates that the mind extends beyond the realm of the brain into the rest of the physical world. To grasp this notion, take stock of your experience right now. You are seeing things, probably hearing things, maybe tasting and smelling things if you’re reading this over lunch. Your experience, your mindstate, would be very different without this particular outside stimuli. So, in a sense, this stimuli is part of your mind.

Here’s another way to think about it. The more popular “your-brain-is-all-you-are” theory I first mentioned says that your brain arises based on various electrical signals zipping through the circuitry of your brain. But what happens when I look at an apple. Photons bounce off the apple into my brain which results in the firing of neurons that somehow result in the subjective experience of seeing the apple. Is not this pathway of photons going from the apple to my eye similar to the pathway of a firing neuron. So is not every outside component (the apple, photons bouncing off it, etc.) part of my mind?

If Chalmers is on to something then we have a problem with mind uploading. If we upload only the brain part of your mind, not the external environment, we are only uploading part of the mind.

Now, maybe this could be solved. Maybe sensors could be created that would duplicate our senses, even augment them. For example, you could have some chemical sensor that, when provided cheese, fired the neural circuits in the uploaded mind that correlate to the neurons that fired when tasting cheese. But this idea seems a lot more complex than the already vastly complex task of uploading a mind to a computer.

Deep Learning

As smart as computers are, they’re dumb in many ways. For instance, they have a hard time identifying objects in their field of vision. (Their “vision” of course being information sensed by various electronic sensors.) Even though humans can see objects without any effort*, computers stumble on this basic task.

*Actually, even human identification of objects is not flawless. Just yesterday I was looking around for my coffee mug and I realized it was right in front of me. I was staring directly at it, and just had trouble separating it from everything else on the kitchen counter

I’ve been reading a bit about a new process in computers called “deep learning” that is making computers much smarter. (Link goes to wikipedia article.) So much smarter that they are now able to be trained to recognize objects in image files even more accurately than humans. You can present a computer with 20,000 images and ask it to show you all the images with a cat and it will do so. You can then ask specifically for cats with pointy ears and it will do so.

This is pretty interesting when you think about it. How does a computer – a dumb, soulless computer – know to filter out dogs or chipmunks when it shows cats? I imagine it’s categorizing objects by pretty precise categories. A cat’s nose varies from a chipmunk’s in terms of nose size related to the whole face, cats have specific ear types etc. These must be the kinds of properties computers are using to separate cats from other objects.

An obvious and interesting next step would be to have computers create their own images of cats. (Essentially the computer would become an artist.) And perhaps “encourage” them to highlight different properties of cats over other, thus developing an aesthetic style. I’ve talked in the past about computers making art (it’s been going on for a while.) I suspect deep learning will speed things up even more on this front.

Of course, as computers get smarter humans grow anxious. Will they take our jobs? Jeremy Howard, a deep learning architect, has concerns.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It just depends how it’s used. It could be a wonderful thing, because it could allow us to spend our time doing the things we want to do rather than the things we have to do, which is, I think, what humanity has been aiming at for thousands of years. But on the bad side, that by definition puts people out of jobs. Eventually, it puts everybody out of a job.

If we remove the idea of the soul, at some point in history [there's nothing that] computers and machines won’t be able to do at least as well as us. We can argue about when that will happen. I think it will be in the next few decades.

What happens when the amount of things that can’t be automated is much smaller than the amount of people that exist to do them? That’s this point where half the world can’t add economic value. That means half the world is destitute and unable to feed themselves. So we have to start to allocate some wealth on a basis other than the basis of labor or capital inputs. The alternative would be to say, “Most of humanity can’t add any economic value, so we’ll just let them die.”

More on robot journalists

We all know one of my favorite topics: how technological developments in regards to robots and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt the job marketplace. CNN has a nice overview article about the situation. It’s initially focused on software generated writing (something I’ve discussed) but moves into general gloomy prediction making.

Professor Yuval Harari, Israeli historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, believes it is not just journalism that is being challenged by machines.
He said that while machines may have replaced humans for the past 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, there has always been something that humans could do better than machines.

However, he said that this gap is likely to close over the next 100 years.

“(Since the Industrial Revolution) humans have focused more on performing cognitive tasks. But what will happen once computerized algorithms can outperform humans in that (area) too?

There’s little doubt that the answer to the question involves cannibalism on a massive scale.

Youtube autogenerated videos a blast against Spotify?

One point I’ve made before about music piracy: everyone drones on and on about pirate sites like Pirate Bay and what not, but there’s not as much discussion about the number one web site for free music: Youtube (owned by Google.) I haven’t downloaded music from a pirate site in years, but any time I want to hear some particular piece of music I check Youtube and, mostly, it’s there.

Is all this music on Youtube pirated (meaning, is it posted there without the consent of the rights holders)? Not entirely – most modern tunes have singles of which the videos are posted by the rights holders. (Though I was frustrated in my attempts to the see video for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” which I found once and then never again.) However, a lot of the music is uploaded by individuals who burn their CDs and make kludgy videos with the song. That basically is piracy though my understanding is that rights holders can bring these violations to Youtube’s attention and share in the ad revenue. (It should be understood that all these videos have ads in front of them.)

Youtube now seems to have a new trick up their sleeve: autogenerated videos. This was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who is a musician and has an in demand catalog going back decades. He discovered that Youtube had taken most of the songs from his catalog and created bare bones videos (basically just the album cover set to music.) He of course, was in no way notified and received no compensation. I looked around online and found someone with similar complaints:

I was surprised recently when I saw that several of my recordings had appeared as music videos on YouTube. All of the videos look the same: Each one, in addition to the audio of a song, includes an image of the album art and some text that provides the artist name and album title. The bare-bones descriptions that accompany the videos provide composer and copyright information and the statement “auto-generated by YouTube.”
,,,
I don’t really mind that these videos of my recordings exist, but not everyone will feel the way I do. Artists could have a number of legitimate objections to the videos. For example, if artists had created or intended to create videos of their own, these auto-generated videos would compete with the official videos. Artists might also object to the design aesthetic of the videos or the song selection.

But the biggest potential issues are copyright and compensation. Artists receive no royalties from these videos, and YouTube posts the videos without permission from the copyright owners. It’s strange that YouTube—which suspends users’ accounts and deletes videos if it detects copyright infringement or receives complaints from copyright holders—now trawls the internet for music and posts it without permission on an increasingly massive scale. Class-action suit, anyone?

I’m a little unclear how Youtube is getting access to the audio feed (e.g. the songs) to make the videos. It’s possible that if a musician places their music with a digital distributor (as I have) and that ditributor has some kind of deal in place with Youtube then Youtube has the legal cover they need.

Why would Youtube do this? I’m going to to take a guess that it’s for their recently announced Music Key service which is essentially a competitor for Spotify. The autogenerated videos are a tool to fill out the Youtube “jukebox”.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are all sorts of pirated movies on Youtube too.

Can quantity make up for lack of quality?

There’s an old Bill Hicks joke:

“It’s hard to have a relationship in this business…it’s gonna take a very special woman…or a bunch of average ones.”

I was reminded of this while I was reading through a book on ebook publishing. The book made the claim that even if the market was flooded with free ebooks, excellent ebooks would always sell because quality will always sell. Ten mediocre books do not equal a great book.

Is this true? It seems to make sense. Certainly I would like it to be true. But I also have a nagging sense that when I occasionally do hear about an exceptional product for, say 10 bucks, there’s a little voice that says, “eh, you’ve got plenty to read/listen to/eat etc. that’s free.” It’s not that uncommon, especially when you’re broke, to trade in the proverbial special woman for a bunch of average ones.

Cut and Paste art

Lately I’ve been getting back into drawing comic book style art. (I made my own mini comics as a kid.) It’s a lot of fun and I feel my skill is improving. But as I look at how art is produced in this modern age I find myself struck by a few concerns.

At one point after I started drawing again I looked into whether there was some cheap software that could render backgrounds such as room interiors or a rows of buildings. Such images are largely made up of basic shapes, I theorized, and shapes are basically a series of coordinates which a computer should have no problem rendering. I never really found an affordable program and ultimately decided I should learn to draw such images myself.

Nonetheless, a lot of computer art and animation is produced via that process: an artist defines a shape, often of great complexity, and the computer renders it. If one wants to change the color or texture of the shape, that’s easy enough. This process is far less laborious than the process of drawing or painting the shape.

And there are pluses to this process. It’s allowed for an explosion of 3d art and allowed people with limited conventional artistic skill to produce wonders. But here’s a point that nags at me: I could sit down and draw 10 red boxes. If I’m a decent enough artist, they’ll look pretty similar. But they will have differences. The pen strokes I use on any one box won’t match the strokes on any others. The boxes won’t match perfectly in size, even if I use a ruler. However, I can create 10 identical boxes in Photoshop or some similar program. It’s as easy as copy and paste. The uniqueness of the hand-drawn boxes is lost.

People make similar complaints in the world of music. I can sit down to a mic’d piano and play 10 instances of a C minor chord. None of them will sound exactly like the other because the pressure I use to play the piano keys will vary, the air in the room will settle in different ways causing the sound vibrations to be affected, and a number of other factors. On the other hand, I could sit down and play 10 chords on a midi synthesizer piano and they might end up sounding very similar. The piano sound on a synthesizer is a sample —-essentially a recording of a piano that took place in the past (when whoever was building the library sounds created it) and can’t really change. This is why people complain about the staticity of synthesized sounds. (In fact, sound engineers are making quite a lot of progress in getting variation in sound samples but it’s still not on par with the real thing.)

Having said all that, I’m quite glad sound libraries exist. I’ve recorded fairly complex works using synthesized symphonic instruments that I would never have been able to attempted in the analog (non-digital) days. (Because the world’s symphonies are not clamoring to play my work—the fools!)

But there’s something disturbing about the advent of so much art being exact duplicates of other pieces of art. The ease of use offered by computers is great for the art of neophytes (and in the realm of drawing that is what I consider myself) but it cheapens the work of pros. “Oh, that awesome looking hand you spent 10 hours painting? Look, I can generate something just as cool in 20 seconds on the computer!”

Of course we’ve seen this before. It used to be the only way to get a chair was to have a craftsman make one by hand. Now IKEA pumps them out by the millions. Such is progress. (Note how I spit that last word out.)

The death of the cd?

One thing you notice about the Macbook Pro, like the one I am typing this on, is that there’s no CD player. I’ve found this to be a minor hassle since I have several cd playing devices around. But the removal of the cd player from the PC seems a curious decision on Apple’s part. It struck me, and I’m sure it has many of the conspiracy minded, that Apple may have done this to push their iTunes revenues. Users may find themselves in a situation where they want to play their favorite Tom Waits cds, but lo and behold they have no way to. So they say, “Fuck it, I’ll just buy an mp3 version from iTunes.”

Does this trend point to the death of the cd? It’s interesting to contemplate. I still burn cds of my music to give to people. How will I force them to enjoy my music when that option is gone? People have theorized the idea of “beaming” music to various devices for a while but I don’t see much progress there.

It’s worth noting, the death of the cd has been predicted before and it’s still around. But doubtless someday the silver disk will fall. And what will a world without cds looks like? Will it be a joyous utopia where people pluck music wirelessly out of the air for their enjoyment? Or will it be a savage realm where men are dragged from their houses and sexually violated before their families? I fear the latter…

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

The death of individuality

I’m working on my next article for acid logic and it’s essentially a list of modern day fears that I think could be exploited by horror movies creators. One fear is fairly esoteric: a fear of the loss of identity brought about by the hyper-connectedness of the age. In essence, we are so hooked in to each other that when a subject comes up we immediately know what everyone else thinks about it and tailor our opinions and ideas to match the group we want to associate with. (Political tribes are an obvious example of these groups.)

The fear is not so much about this process but the crisis of self it could bring about. If you wake up one day and find that your opinions totally match some subset of the masses, would you start to wonder whether you really exist on a meaningful level? Would you conceive of yourself as merely a vessel for popular opinion?