Monthly Archives: August 2004

TiVo-like software draws ire of XM Radio

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Time Trax, a program designed to record XM radio programming directly to a PC’s hard drive, has drawn the attention of XM Radio and the RIAA — and not in a good way. Frustrated by his inability to listen to all the broadcasts he wanted to, Ontario programmer Scott MacLean wrote and began selling Time Trax. The application creates an analog recording of songs broadcast over XM along with track information which is then stored as an MP3 file. It will only work with the XM PCR receiver, as the auto and home stereo receivers lack a PC interface.HangZhou Night Net

Predictably, the RIAA and XM Radio are not amused, and are looking deeper into the legality of the software:

A spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America said his organization had not reviewed the software, but said that in principle it was disturbed by the idea. “We remain concerned about any devices or software that permit listeners to transform a broadcast into a music library,” RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said.

Yes, heaven forbid that a paying customer should be able to save broadcasts for his own personal use. Both XM Radio and the RIAA are looking closely at MacLean’s creation to see if it violates either the XM user agreement or copyright laws, apparently fearing that saved broadcasts could wind up on P2P networks. XM also has plans for a new version of its receiver with pause and rewind functionality, which is not as compelling when there is software that provides the same functionality.

Look for the lawyering to start soon, as XM considers it an “unauthorized” product. It’s a shame… not just because it’s a cool program, but because XM is displaying the typical knee-jerk reaction that media companies have when customers decided they want to use their products in a way the manufacturers did not intend. Too bad XM is choosing to see Time Trax as a potential legal battle rather than an sales opportunity.

Lawsuit filed over CD antipiracy tech

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Big Five record label EMI is being sued in France over copy protection tech used in many music CDs. A French consumer group, UFC-Que Choisir has filed suit, alleging "deception over the material qualities of a product" since the CDs will not play in some home CD players, car stereos, and PC CD/DVD drives. In addition, the group is upset that the technology used by EMI prohibits consumers from making copies of the music for personal use.HangZhou Night Net

Julien Dourgnon, deputy director of the consumer group, said the ability to make copies for private use – for example by transferring music to a portable MP3 player – was important to many record buyers. "We’re defending that freedom, we’re not defending piracy," he said.

EMI and a retailer also named in the suit responded by pointing out that they inform consumers that the copy-protected CDs could cause problems in some situations and give full refunds to customers unhappy with the CDs. While the potential fines are not steep, any finding against the label could result in their being ordered to take the copy-protected CDs off the market.

It is an odd strategy the record companies have chosen ? irritating their customers by selling them a product that does not work as expected. While the CDs may be clearly labeled, the labels are in effect trying to change nearly 20 years of ingrained behavior: buy a CD, take it home, put it in the stereo, and listen to it. Obviously, if the customers don’t mind putting up with the problems inherent in copy-protected CDs (witness the success of Velvet Revolver’s release, which became the first album with copy protection to hit #1 in the US), then the labels will have no incentive to change their practices.

Toyota reports a silicon carbide breakthrough

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Move over silicon chips, there is a new semiconductor king on the horizon. Silicon carbide’s (SiC) potential has been known since the 1950’s, but the properties that make is attractive also make it hard to work with. The material is a good semiconductor, extremely resistant to heat, and hard. So hard in fact, researchers had trouble making large enough SiC crystals without defects. Now, researchers from Toyota Central Research and Development Laboratories report in Nature (registration required) they have used a Repeated A-Face method of physical vapor transport to create large SiC crystals with virtually no defects. HangZhou Night Net

Takatori grows the silicon carbide crystals in several different stages. At each stage, further growth is only allowed on the cleanest face of the crystal. Hot silicon carbide vapour condenses on the crystal’s flat face and defects are gradually eliminated as the crystals grow up to seven centimetres across. Takatori’s crystals contain less than 1% of the number of defects found in a crystal produced by conventional methods.

What advantages would SiC have over traditional silicon based semiconductors? SiC has a higher energy efficiency, can handle high frequency electrical pulses and is tolerant to extreme temperatures. Previous research has shown SiC devices can operate at temperatures as high as 650C (1,202F) without the need for cooling. Kiss that noisy heat sink/fan combo goodbye! SiC’s properties could open up uses for electronic controllers inside jet engines and provide hardened circuitry for spacecraft.

Silicon is safe for now. The researchers have only been able to make pure SiC wafers up to 3 inches in diameter and improvements in the SiC deposition technique are needed to increase wafer size and lower production costs. SiC could see its first use in specialized circuitry that needs high heat tolerance, but mainstream commercial usage could be over 6 years away. The BBC also has coverage of the discovery here.

The Power of X

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An interview with Daniel Stone

One of the most difficult ideas for new Linux users to grasp is the seemingly esoteric means by which graphics get displayed on the screen. Indeed, the concept of different window managers and its architecture are utterly foreign to many new users. Terms like X, X11, XFree, X.org, Xwin, and Composite get thrown around, adding to the confusion. As Linux and other free operating systems continue to evolve on the desktop, X continues to be an enigma to new users. While we have looked at how both KDE and GNOME interact with X during our last reviews, there has not been a real central point of authority that dictates how the “Free Desktop” should take shape.HangZhou Night Net

Enter freedesktop.org. A conglomeration of developers from multiple vendors, sponsors, and independent desktop developers representing multiple projects, freedesktop.org ? spanning nearly 50 projects ? has quickly established itself as the clearinghouse for interoperability in the Open Source landscape.

Earlier this year, a license change in the defacto X project, XFree86, forced developers to look elsewhere for graphical support. Originally based on a fork of the original XFree86 code, X.org’s first “monolithic” release was embraced by many distributions. Version 6.8, which is due next week, will be the last of its kind, as X.org transitions to a more modular architecture.

This new modular architecture will allow the X.org team to release components on a much more independent basis. The impact for end users will be a more robust, and up to date graphical subsystem that will be flexible enough to meet the demands of the modern *nix desktop. Confused yet? Don’t worry, we’ve snagged freedesktop.org’s Release Manager, Daniel Stone, to break it down for us.

Ars Technica: Who are you and what do you do? How did you get involved?

Daniel Stone: I’m a 18-year old first-year university student from Melbourne, Australia; I’m currently on a break from my Arts/Engineering (Software Engineering) double-degree. To try and balance out all the geek in my life, I’m taking Arts, majoring in Indonesian ? it’s good fun, if really hard.

Back in 2002, Trinity College started funding me to work on XFree86 4.3 debs, a while before its release. That took quite some time, and I got involved with the community somewhat then. When xwin.org started (remember that?), I was one of the admins there, and got involved when we merged with freedesktop.org; and thus began my fd.o involvement.

At the conference dinner at linux.conf.au 2004, I was asked to do an xlibs release (later to be the fd.o release manager), and was later gently prodded into code. A couple of months later and I’m hacking X servers; it’s a slippery slope, seemingly.

Within freedesktop.org, my main interest has been modularising X. While I’ve not had as much time in the last couple of weeks to work on it as I would like, my baby right now is debrix (see below). I’ve also worked on the modular xlibs distribution a fair bit.

Can you explain how freedesktop.org, X.org, and their respective subprojects interact? Who’s in charge over there?

While freedesktop.org is, in many ways, a fairly loosely organized community project, we’re all really minions of Havoc; he’s kind of a guiding hand around the project. Most of the work within the project is done within smaller, unitary project groups, such as X, Cairo, D-BUS, et al; there isn’t actually much work here that touches the project as a whole.

The platform comes close to that, but aside from that, it’s basically administration-type stuff.

X.Org, on the other hand, is far more structured; they have a Board of Directors, an Architecture Board, and frequently have conference calls for both these two groups, and a release group. This is also probably a reflection of the fact that X.Org are very much a single group with a single direction.

freedesktop.org and X.Org have massive overlap in both goals and developer base, so we interact fairly often. However, we’re pretty much on the same page on everything, so we rarely come up against one another as organizations.

In addition, we also spend a lot of time coordinating with various projects such as desktop environments. One or all of myself, Havoc, Keith, Jim and others have been present at this year’s linux.conf.au (myself, Havoc, Keith Packard), FOSDEM (Keith), GVADEC (Havoc, Jim, Keith), OLS (all), and aKademy (myself); that’s a fairly good record. We’re always looking to get together and get some good communication together with all the desktop guys, and try to discuss moving forward with the desktop.

A while back, you mapped out how different X trees related to each other and what was what. Can you update us on the latest developments in each of these areas? What about “new” things like Debrix/glitz/cairo? Can you break down the alphabet soup for us?

Hard ask!

xlibs: No change, except for the fact that more libraries have been
modularized.Xizzle: This is now dead code. The DIX used in fd.o’s xserver project
and the DIX used in the X.Org codebase was quite radically
different, so building a X.Org server on top of the xserver DIX was
deemed too difficult. Thus was born…debrix: debrix is an autotooled X.Org server, using the X.Org DIX as
well as DDX. As well as having made the server modular, we’ve
also thrown out the old ELF loader, which was a horror to
maintain, and replaced it with a more simplistic wrapper around
libdl. For approximately zero loss in functionality, we were
able to throw away 12,200 lines of code. debrix is also
maintained in tla (Tom Lord’s Arch) instead of CVS.tla: Arch is a distributed source code management system. While projects
like Subversion aim to be a “better CVS,” arch has a different
model (arch is the “protocol” as such, and tla is an implementation
of a client). tla’s models revolve around many developer branches
diverging and later being merged back into a single canonical
branch, rather than many developers working off the same branch.
See http://www.gnuarch.org for more information (as well as
http://debrix.freedesktop.org).Cairo: Cairo is a backend-independent, 2D vector graphics library.Glitz: Glitz is a backend for Cairo based on OpenGL, which means that
all Cairo apps can be drawn as GL textures.XGL: XGL is a server which renders to an OpenGL library; unfortunately
X on GL is not my area of expertise, so I don’t know too much more
about the status.

Cyber Terrorist attack scheduled for tomorrow?

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Here’s something for Change Management! Speculation is rampant that sometime in the next several days there will be an "electronic jihad" on the Internet which may according to one expert render much of the Internet inoperable. Alexander Gostev from Kaspersky Labs pinpointed Europe and the US as targets, possibly starting tomorrow, while speaking at a Russian Information Agency conference. The RIA report suggests that political and financial institutions will be targeted. HangZhou Night Net

In the opinion of Alexander Gostev, Russian leading anti-virus expert, the United States and Western Europe will suffer most from the attack, while Japan will be less affected by it. In his words, information about the forthcoming attack was published on specialized sites. "It is difficult to say how true this information is," Mr. Gostev said. "We can only assess the possibilities and means at the terrorists’ disposal and these arouse our misgivings."

Cutely dubbed e-Jihad, the attacks are reportedly being coordinated online in a network of underground sites and mediums. Then, of course, there’s the possibility that this isn’t the e-Jihad that the media has been dying to see (sensationalism and all that). Numerous attacks in the past have been suspected terrorist actions, but in most cases we later find a couple of kids, a bag of Cheetos, product flaws, and a lacking social life to blame.

Of course, Kaspersky Labs is an anti-virus company. This MosNews article quotes the executive director of competing Dr. Web Antivirus Lab, Mikhail Bychinsky, as saying "I do not believe in mass internet attacks because the main servers are defended, and Kaspersky Labs has been foretelling doomsday for a long time." Defended or not, we’ve all seen the kind of havoc that a good trojan or worm can wreak. The rest is "wait and see," for now.

Microsoft accused of misleading advertising in UK

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Advertising principles are very different in the UK, and as of late we’ve seen Apple caught in the snares of industry watchdogs in that country. Now Microsoft has been warned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority over its claims that Linux was found to be more than 10 times as expensive as a Windows-based solution in tests. The adjudication can be found here. HangZhou Night Net

A graph compared the cost (US$) per Megabit per second of "One Linux image running on two z900 mainframe CPUs" with "One Windows Server 2003 image running on two 900 MHz Intel Xeon CPUs". Underneath it stated "Linux was found to be over 10 times more expensive than Windows Server 2003 in a recent study audited by leading independent research analyst META Group, measured costs of Linux running on IBM’s z900 mainframe for Windows-comparable functions of file serving and Web serving.

Complaints over the ad were filed, charging that it is misleading to compare two different operating systems on two different hardware solutions. Microsoft responded by saying that IBM had already launched an ad campaign signing the praises of the z900, and that this advertisement was in part a response to that. They did not note, however, that the IBM ad was aimed at those who already had purchased Z900 mainframes an were looking for a way to extend their use.

Microsoft also claimed that the kinds of tests performed were not, in fact, hardware specific, so the differing hardware was irrelevant. The ASA objected, however, noting that the statement made in the advertising was rather general:

"WEIGHING THE COST OF LINUX VS. WINDOWS
Linux was found to be over 10 times more expensive than Windows"

Thus, they gathered, the hardware comparison aspect was underplayed, and the advertisement was unfair in failing to address this matter; "Because the comparison included the hardware, as well as the operating system and therefore did not show that running a Linux operating system was ten times more expensive than running a Windows operating system, the Authority concluded that the advertisement was misleading."

Twenty Universities approve student fleecing by RIAA

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Twenty US Universities and Colleges have decided to make their student’s consumer decisions for them in an effort to get the RIAA off of their backs. These higher educational institutions have all chosen to use student funds to enter into massive business deals with the likes of Napster to provide free or reduced-fee access to online music. Apparently convinced that students shouldn’t be left alone in the educational environment without a University-supplied Napster account, trustees are becoming favorable to these deals. In the Fall of 2003 we saw Penn State hop on the bandwagon, and since that time numerous other schools have signed up as well. HangZhou Night Net

"This is a trend that will continue to proliferate, and we could not be more pleased," RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a conference call.

Early this summer we learned that several schools were signing on to the Napster program, including Cornell University, George Washington University, Middlebury College (Vermont), University of Miami, University of Southern California and Wright State University (Ohio). The identity of the rest of the schools is not known at this time.

The new Napster deals will give students unlimited access to streaming music, as well as discounted downloads for use other than burning. As usual with Napster, a burn-out to CD will cost you US$0.99, regardless. The new partners are free to impose fees to use the service, but to date, large schools have not done so, opting instead to hide the costs. However, in one interesting turn of events, Ohio University inadvertently disclosed the cost of the discounted service to students when they hosted a survey asking students if they thought $3/month was a reasonable price. Of course, Ohio University may still be subsidizing some of that cost, but it’s the first time any numbers have been disclosed publicly. Napster responded to the move by asking OU to shut its trap.

Other schools have looked past Napster to Ctrax, MusicRebellion.com, Ruskus, and Real. The overwhelming majority of schools still remain cautious, though it is expected that next year will see an even larger increase, as the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities reports the rosy views of the trustees and RIAA lobbyists before Congress.

In a statement more fitting for a Tobacco company, Mr. Sherman made it clear how much he respects the student body.

"Once students are introduced to the qualitative difference, we think they will become addicted to the habit and become long-term music purchasers," Sherman says. "That’s the good news for us."

Sometimes rhetoric tells you all you need to know. Sherman went on to preach the supposed benefits of these plans over the evil P2P scourge. Citing a safer environment and higher quality files, Sherman would have the world believe that lossy, DRM-laden files trump anything available on the P2P networks. The marketplace will surely be much more vibrant should this ever actually be true.

TrackIR3 Pro heads-up game controller

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Introduction

Ever since game simulation software became available for the computer, immersion has been an important ingredient in game design with full realism being the Holy Grail. Early games were limited by graphics and processing power, but that did not prevent companies from developing peripherals that allowed gamers to immerse themselves in games with limited AI, simplified physics and blocky 16-bit graphics. HangZhou Night Net

Flight simulation enthusiasts were at the forefront in demanding game realism improvements and many spared no expense to enhance their experience in available simulations. Hardware manufacturers obliged by developing control yokes, rudders, “hands on throttle and stick” (HOTAS) controls and other peripherals that allowed enthusiasts to create their own home cockpit.

Product: TrackIR3 Pro (product page)
Manufacturer: NaturalPoint (site)
Software requirements: Windows XP / 2000 / Millennium Edition / 98
Hardware requirements: Pentium 166, 24MB RAM, 5MB free hard drive space
Price: US$139.00

Improvements in computer graphics and power over the years helped to up the realism level, but lets face it ? no matter how rich the 3D game environment is or how realistic the user’s home cockpit is, the computer monitor can only show a small 2D slice of this world. Some game simulations provide multi-monitor support, but not everyone has several monitors at their disposal and the graphics card to support them. Instead, flight simmers must rely on keyboard combinations, joystick hat switches, or mouse movements to manipulate their view in this 3D world.

These viewing problems may not be critical in a commercial aviation simulations like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, but unless the user is a master of the view system, situational awareness in combat flight simulations is severely hindered. This lack of situational awareness can easily mean the difference between life and death in the virtual skies.

Enter NaturalPoint and the TrackIR cursor control system. In March 2001, NaturalPoint launched the TrackIR system as a control device for people with disabilities, but many in the flight simulation community saw a potential use in flight sim view control. How does it work? In simple terms, TrackIR is a webcam that transmits and detects infrared signals. Four emitters send infrared radiation from the front of the unit, the built-in camera detects infrared signals bouncing back from reflective material placed on the head, and the TrackIR software translates head movement into a corresponding mouse cursor movement. Theoretically, any game that supports a mouselook type of view system is immediately compatible with TrackIR.

After positive word spread through newsgroups and elsewhere across the Web, NaturalPoint improved the software package and split their product lines. The cursor control product for the disabled became smartNAV while the version for gamers kept the TrackIR moniker. With the change, TrackIR offered up official support for games like Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 and IL-2 Sturmovik, and now featured both an “enhanced” tracking mode (absolute) in addition to traditional mouse emulation (relative).

After becoming a fan of Maddox Games’ IL-2 Sturmovik and willing to move beyond the frustration with using keyboard and joystick hat view systems, I picked up a TrackIR. Since that acquisition, NaturalPoint released a second generation TrackIR2 that improved upon the original in terms of detection framerate and transfer speed.

As a testament to how fast technology improves, the TrackIR2 was quickly replaced by the TrackIR3 and TrackIR3 Pro with faster camera framerates and higher resolution than their predecessors (The TrackIR2 is no longer available from NaturalPoint). NaturalPoint was kind enough to provide TrackIR2 and TrackI3 Pro units for a comparison review.

The third-generation products promise smoother operation in addition to improve viewing accuracy compared to the original TrackIR, but how well do they compare? And should current TrackIR1 and TrackIR2 owners think about upgrading? Read on to find out.

A million songs from RealPlayer Music Store

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Cracking FairPlay and slashing prices on music downloads is paying off for RealNetworks (press release here), at least in the short term. The online music purveyor sold over one million songs in the week since they began the 49¢-per-song "Freedom of Choice" promotion in their RealPlayer Music Store and launched RealPlayer 10.5, which uses their Harmony software to mimic Apple’s FairPlay DRM. The cheap downloads along with the possibility of playing them on an iPod seem to be attracting customers to the RealPlayer Music Store.HangZhou Night Net

The sale is a loss leader for RealNetworks and is expected to have a negative effect of at least one cent per share in its 3Q earnings. While market share numbers will not be known for some time, it is likely that the initial success of RealNetwork’s promotion in terms of downloads will have an impact on iTunes Music Store. Whether users will stick around once the cheap downloads are gone is another matter entirely. RealNetworks is reporting the "busiest week ever" for Rhapsody subscriptions, and with more universities signing deals (and passing on the costs to students in the form of fees) to offer Rhapsody to their students, the temporary surge in traffic may prove to be more than an anomaly.

For the first time, Apple may be feeling some heat in the music download market. While iTMS was ostensibly about selling more iPods, it is increasingly apparent that iTMS is about the music (and DRM) after all. Will Apple begin licensing FairPlay? If RealNetwork’s one week of success is not a flash in the pan, they may be forced to reconsider. Look for Apple to wait and see how the online music market evolves over the next several months before making a move one way or another.

Windows XP SP2 Automatic Update due tomorrow

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Windows XP users with Automatic Update enabled will have a rather hefty download tomorrow (August 25), as Microsoft plans to release Service Pack 2 for Windows XP via Automatic Update. Those lacking the requisite bandwidth to download what could be a 120MB update are not out of luck, as Microsoft plans to distribute free update CDs (a welcome change) through various channels, including PC magazines.HangZhou Night Net

While SP2 is one of the most-anticipated Microsoft updates in some time, many organizations are not so anxious to deploy it. Aside from the obvious cases where corporate IT needs to ensure compatibility with existing applications and workstation images, many universities are upset by the timing of SP2’s release given that it coincides with the start of the school year.

"Microsoft’s timing really couldn’t have been worse for us," said Chris Faigle, a security administrator at [Catholic University], where classes started yesterday. "For the faculty and students, we simply won’t be able to handle all of the additional issues that would almost certainly come up in addition to just getting the students registered on the network."

Other schools are planning to delay deployment of SP2 on school computers as well. Students will still be able to download SP2 on their own machines, and university IT departments are bracing for the problems that will inevitably result. While the timing may be unfortunate for the academic world, Microsoft was in a position where they needed to get SP2 out the door as quickly as possible. Realizing that many institutions will need to poke and prod SP2 while making some changes to their existing infrastructure, Microsoft is providing a tool that will temporarily disable delivery of SP2 via Windows Update and Automatic Update.

While recognizing the security benefits of Windows XP SP2, some organizations have requested the ability to temporarily disable delivery of this update via AU and WU. These organizations have populations of PCs, upon which they have enabled AU. This is done to ensure that these PCs receive all critical security updates. Since SP2 will start to be delivered to PCs running Windows XP or Windows XP with SP1 via AU starting on August 16, these customers would like to temporarily block the delivery of SP2 in order to provide additional time for validation and testing of the update… Please note that the mechanism to temporarily disable delivery of Windows XP SP2 will be available for a period of 120 days (4 months) from August 16. At the end of this period, Windows XP SP2 will be delivered to all Windows XP and Windows XP Service Pack 1 systems.

The tool relies on a single registry key to enable and disable the delivery of SP2 and will not affect the system in any other way. The ~125-day window should give organizations time to tie up loose ends so that everyone can start out the new year with a freshly-patched system.