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December 31, 2006

Microsoft's 'suicide note(s)'

I've ranted about Microsoft before (and again) but they haven't managed to get the message: think of the customer first! And it's killing them.

First, you have the Zune. Heard of it? Last summer it was touted as Microsoft's answer to the popularity of the iPod. Apparently, it isn't very good (via Samizdata):

Yes, Microsoft's new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I've spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face.

"Avoid," is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.

The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I've ever had with digital music players. The installer app failed, and an hour into the ordeal, I found myself asking my office goldfish, "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file?"

But there it was, right on the Zune's tech support page. Is this really what parents want to be doing at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning?

But even beyond the typical Microsoft technical hassles, they manage to make the thing even more useless. Rather than think about customers that have music files that they might want to play on the thing, they've gone to the music companies and let them determine how it will work:
It [Microsoft] has already given the music industry the other thing the industry has been demanding from Apple: a kickback on every player sold.

"These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it," said Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. "So it's time to get paid for it."

Well, Morris is just a big, clueless idiot, of course. Do you honestly want morons like him to have power over your music player?

Then go ahead and buy a Zune. You'll find that the Zune Planet orbits the music industry's Bizarro World, where users aren't allowed to do anything that isn't in the industry's direct interests.

Take the Zune's one unique and potentially ginchy feature: Wi-Fi. You see this printed on the box and you immediately think "Cool. So I can sync files from my desktop library without having to plug in a USB cable, right? Maybe even download new content directly to the device from the Internet?"

Typical, selfish user: How does your convenience help make money for Universal? No wonder Doug despises you.

No, the Zune's sole wireless feature is "squirting" -- I know, I know, it's Microsoft's term, not mine -- music and pictures to any other Zune device within direct Wi-Fi range. Even if the track is inherently free (like a podcast) the Zune wraps it in a DRM scheme that causes the track to self-destruct after three days or three plays, whichever comes first.

Can you believe these guys? But wait, you haven't even heard how their new operating system Vista -- which is supposed to fix all XP's stoopid problems -- will have you pulling out your hair (via Catprint by way of SDA):
Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. Currently the most common high-end audio output interface is S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format). Most newer audio cards, for example, feature TOSlink digital optical output for high-quality sound reproduction, and even the latest crop of motherboards with integrated audio provide at least coax (and often optical) digital output. Since S/PDIF doesn't provide any content protection, Vista requires that it be disabled when playing protected content. In other words if you've sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.

Say you've just bought Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon", released as a Super Audio CD (SACD) in its 30th anniversary edition in 2003, and you want to play it under Vista. Since the S/PDIF link to your amplifier/speakers is regarded as insecure, Vista disables it, and you end up hearing a performance by Marcel Marceau instead of Pink Floyd.


As well as overt disabling of functionality, there's also covert disabling of functionality. For example PC voice communications rely on automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to work. AEC requires feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation subsystem, but with Vista's content protection this isn't permitted any more because this might allow access to premium content. What is permitted is a highly-degraded form of feedback that might possibly still sort-of be enough for some sort of minimal echo cancellation purposes.


Alongside the all-or-nothing approach of disabling output, Vista requires that any interface that provides high-quality output degrade the signal quality that passes through it if premium content is present. This is done through a "constrictor" that downgrades the signal to a much lower-quality one, then up-scales it again back to the original spec, but with a significant loss in quality. So if you're using an expensive new LCD display fed from a high-quality DVI signal on your video card and there's protected content present, the picture you're going to see will be, as the spec puts it, "slightly fuzzy", a bit like a 10-year-old CRT monitor that you picked up for $2 at a yard sale [Note F]. In fact the specification specifically still allows for old VGA analog outputs, but even that's only because disallowing them would upset too many existing owners of analog monitors. In the future even analog VGA output will probably have to be disabled. The only thing that seems to be explicitly allowed is the extremely low-quality TV-out, provided that Macrovision is applied to it.

The same deliberate degrading of playback quality applies to audio, with the audio being downgraded to sound (from the spec) "fuzzy with less detail".

Amusingly, the Vista content protection docs say that it'll be left to graphics chip manufacturers to differentiate their product based on (deliberately degraded) video quality. This seems a bit like breaking the legs of Olympic athletes and then rating them based on how fast they can hobble on crutches.


Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function (details on this are a bit vague here, presumably some minimum functionality like generic 640x480 VGA support will still be available in order for the system to boot). This means that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all support for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found [Note I]. Again, details are sketchy, but if it's a device problem then presumably the device turns into a paperweight once it's revoked. If it's an older device for which the vendor isn't interested in rewriting their drivers (and in the fast-moving hardware market most devices enter "legacy" status within a year of two of their replacement models becoming available), all devices of that type worldwide become permanently unusable.

And so on. Read the whole thing because it's astonishing how little respect this company has for the people who buy its products. Basically, if you install Microsoft's Vista on your computer, you will also be installing the lawyers of every major film studio or music company to look over your shoulders as you work. AND you will be completely at the mercy of Microsoft as to which hardware you can use.

Microsoft has been a monopoly for so long it's forgotten than they can't just do any damn thing they want with their customer's property. People have options now. But they still see their operating systems not as something which offers functionality to their customers, but as a platform to shove junk down their throats.

Maybe Vista is a suicide note. Maybe Microsoft really wants to die. I think it's probably for the best.

Obituary for a monster

The Times has a must-read obituary on Saddam that lays down the truth about the brutality of his regime:

That scene was repeated throughout Iraq, from the northern Kurdish provinces, where in the Anfal campaign of 1987-88 Saddam wheeled his army on the restive Kurds and killed an estimated 180,000 — 5,000 by gassing the town of Halabja — to the Shi’ite south where more than 100,000 were killed in 1991.

Saddam was the master of use of the theory “pour encourager les autres”. The saying in Baghdad was “your third cousin”, meaning that if you were suspected of disloyalty, Saddam would kill not just you, but all members of your family down to the third cousin. This was sometimes only a slight exaggeration.

Interlocking intelligence and security agencies spied on everyone, including themselves. While Saddam was in power, a visit from a foreigner to a home in Baghdad would mean a knock on the door within hours. It led to a kind of schizophrenia. Interviewing a minister in Iraq, supposedly one of Saddam’s own, once turned into a mad scene; as the minister spouted the party line, he wildly gesticulated to the ceiling to show that he knew what he was saying was ridiculous but he was being listened to by secret microphones.

Compare this to the bizarrely mild summary from the Associated Press (which far more people will see) that spends most of its word count insinuating complicity by the United States. Anyone who says the press doesn't have an agenda should just read that piece.

Meanwhile, over at POGGE, there is outrage that Saddam wasn't turned over to the Europeans for 'international justice'. In a world full of terrible injustices, getting worked up that a cruel thug like Saddam didn't get to die of old age while his 9th appeal was being heard in the Hague -- well, it's a little strange. But sadly, pretty common.

December 30, 2006

The world becomes a slightly better place

Saddam has dropped off the world's stage. It's very good news. At a gathering of some friends the other day, someone remarked that the 'chaos' in Iraq today is far worse than the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. I have to say, I can never understand this widely held view:

1980-88: Iran-Iraq war left 150,000 to 340,000 Iraqis and 450,000 to 730,000 Iranians dead.

1983-1988: Documented chemical attacks by Iraqi regime caused some 30,000 Iraqi and Iranian deaths.

1988: Chemical attack on Kurdish village of Halabja killed approximately 5,000 people.

1987-1988: Iraqi regime used chemical agents in attacks against at least 40 Kurdish villages.

1990-91: 1,000 Kuwaitis were killed in Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

1991: Bloody suppression of Kurdish and Shi'a uprisings in northern and southern Iraq killed at least 30,000 to 60,000. At least 2,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed during the campaign of terror.

2001: Amnesty International report: "Victims of torture in Iraq are subjected to a wide range of forms of torture, including the gouging out of eyes, severe beatings and electric shocks... some victims have died as a result and many have been left with permanent physical and psychological damage."

Human Rights Watch: Saddam's 1987-1988 campaign of terror against the Kurds killed at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Kurds.

Refugees International: "Oppressive government policies have led to the internal displacement of 900,000 Iraqis."

Iraq's 13 million Shiite Muslims, the majority of Iraq's population of approximately 22 million, faced severe restrictions on their religious practice.

I think it's much better to have the bad guys skulking around in the shadows, living in fear for their lives, rather than sitting comfortably as the supreme power of the land. But that's just me, I guess. People who are nostalgic for the supposed 'stability' of pre-invasion Iraq forget that it was forged by the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands and maintained by an almost unparalleled regime of terror and repression.

Hopefully Saddam's death will help Iraqis put their past disagreements behind them and let them build a better future together.

Far out, man!

For your amusement: a three and a half minute dive into a Mandelbrot fractal. There's some serious computational power at work here. It dives deep into what I guess is a singularity point -- it's fascinating that there's no apparent repetition...

December 28, 2006

Just how blinkered can you get?

Not too many can beat London's nutty mayor, Ken Livingstone. He plans to turn the city upside-down in 2009 to celebrate the worst autocracy in the Americas:

Ken Livingstone is planning a "massive festival" across London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.

The event, to be staged in 2009, will involve street parties, sports venues and some of London's leading museums as well as the closure of Trafalgar Square.


Speaking at a recent public meeting at Central Hall, Westminster, Mr Livingstone said: "We've got the backing of the Cuban government for a massive festival to celebrate 50 years of justice in Cuba."

What a repulsive idea. What a repulsive man.

December 26, 2006

Jack takes the prize!

I should have announced this much earlier, but better late than never, I suppose:

Jack Layton is 2006's winner of the Most Annoying Canadian!


(Picture shamelessly ripped off from Le Cornichon.)

With 37% of the vote, Jack dominated this competition from the beginning, handily beating other annoying Canadians such as David Suzuki, Belinda Stronach, and Colleen Jones. I suspect the timing of the vote may have had some impact on the results, as Jack had been making noises against the Canadian mission in Afghanistan during the beginning of October. If the 2006 MAC voting was being held today, perhaps Gilles Ducheppe or Stephane Dion would have taken the prize. But no matter, Jack is richly deserving of the award, and the people have spoken.

Happy Boxing Day!

Ok, so I missed Hanukkah and Christmas -- this is all I'm left with. So I sincerely wish everyone a happy, safe, and memorable Boxing day!

This blog has been in a bit of a quiet period, I know. I'm not sure of what the reason for this is, but I have hired a top team of blog recovery specialists to try to rejuvenate this sad little page. If that doesn't work, I may just have to get off my butt and put a little more effort into things. Or I could just shut the blog down and allow the bottom-feeders to turn into an intoxicating one-stop-shop for herbal erectile-disfunction remedies.

But, no. I can't let that happen. The thought of the the internet without my vague meanderings and useless links is too depressing to contemplate. It's my duty to get out of this funk and get on with it. Or maybe not -- we'll see. But first I have some unfinished business to wrap up...

December 03, 2006

Who will get the last word?

A trivial post at Andrew Coyne's blog simply announcing who won the leadership convention has morphed into a rock 'em-sock 'em debate over the validity of the greenhouse effect. There's over a hundred comments so far, and yet there has been no agreement. Imagine that! Some well reasoned arguments have been advanced by both sides, but they've been mixed with lots of nasty ad hominum stuff as well. Which makes it so fun to read.

UPDATE: Now what to do about Afghanistan is being debated. I'm glad these guys are working so hard to clear these issues up.

December 02, 2006

Comment confusion

I have discovered that Movable Type has been stashing legitimate comments in a folder and not telling me about them. It has been doing this all the while it has been publishing very some obvious spam. It seems that MT 3.2's super-duper spam detector is not quite as amazinig as advertised.

My apologies to those that commented and had their words lost to this bug. I've allowed the comments from the last week to go up, and hopefully fixed the problem.

Bye-bye, Bob

For some reason I found myself watching the Liberal convention today. Listening to Peter Mansbridge droning on while watching Stephane Dion scratch his nose or Gerard Kennedy stare at nothing with that grin on his face is must-see TV. I'll be buying the DVD when it comes out too.

The third ballot had Dion sprint into first place, leaving Rae in the dust -- and I couldn't be happier. Rae was the Power Corp's candidate and had all the worst elements of the Liberals rally around him (Brison, Volpe, Dryden, Fry). It's good for Canada that he was knocked out. It's probably also good for the Conservatives, because Rae (strangely enough) was the most electable candidate. I don't think Dion has the presence to win a national election.

This is probably the best result for the Liberals too, if they're willing to look at the long term picture. They need to break with their sleazy past and Dion is the best person to do that. They need a little longer out of power.

I'm writing this as if Iggy has already lost, but there's still the fourth ballot to go. But I don't think Ignatieff has any hope. Congrats to Dion, and Kudos to Kennedy for giving Dion his support. I'm not likely to support any policies these two are likely to run on, but I'm glad they gave such an effective boot to the old-school Liberal machine.