The impact of free in everyday life

Free

When I was hoping to make use of Kobo’s offer (failing), I bought the book Free, by Chris Anderson out of curiosity. I didn’t, and haven’t yet, read The Long Tail, but I’m now curious about it — too bad it isn’t available as ePub anywhere!

It is a very interesting read, especially for those of us who work on Free Software and services; it also made me think a lot about it. For instance it ties in with what I wrote about Sony and their way to get even more of my money by offering “free” games with the PlayStation Plus subscription.

But also it ties in with what O’Reilly does with their Ebook of the Day deals (you can get them through their Twitter ) where they sell for $9.99 books that would cost even quite a lot more; I actually used one of their special offers, where they let you get one of their books at that price… and I went for an otherwise too expensive CJKV Information Processing (it’s sold at $47.99).

How much is it costing to O’Reilly to “give away” at 14 the price their books? Probably not so much, given that they’re probably going to sell many more copies. For instance, beside the CJKV book that I was planning to buy anyway at some point, I actually went out on a limb, and bought Inside Cyber Warfare ($31.99) during a Ebook of the Day deal, just because it vaguely interested me and it was 13 the price. And the other day I was tempted to get Being Geek for about the same reasons.

D’uh! indeed.

But it doesn’t stop there; Anderson goes on to provide a few ways to “compete with free”, and brings up a point that Jürgen wrote about (sorry, I can’t seem to find the correct post): you can make people pay for something that is available for free by making it easier/faster to procure. I have noted that before when I complained about Mininova shutdown that what I actually end up downloading “unauthorized” and not paying for is mostly stuff that I would have to jump through way too many hoops to actually make sense for me. Real Time with Bill Maher is an example of that: I would very much prefer to have a (paid) feed that automatically downloads the episodes so that I can watch them on Saturday morning, rather than have to wait till somebody who recorded them in the US or Canada uploads it to Demonoid or some other place, so that I can fetch it.

A similar issue happens with the Japanese music I love: I have a number of original albums there as well; some I bought via the iTunes Store (kudos to Apple where it’s due: they dropped DRM and made it possible for me to buy Hikaru Utada music without going through illegal ways), one or two actually reached the European market, the others… I made a single order on Amazon JP and pretty much regret it: over a €80 order I ended up paying €30 of shipment and then over €50 of customs… which were calculated not only on the value of the order but the shipment and then VAT applied over the custom services… it’s ludicrous.

On a similar fashion, I’m generally happy to pay for (or receive gifts of) CDs of Metal music such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody of Fire or Avantasia; both because I can hear the difference in the iTunes Store compressed versions, and because Nuclear Blast, the latest label of all three of them, is actually providing a nice package with their special editions. Take At The Edge of Time – the latest album by Blind Guardian, released on August 2nd – the special edition was priced, at pre-order, £13; it’s a 2-disc edition, with a very nice boxset, and a “special online code”, that provided access to a “making of” video, the “Sacred Worlds” CGI video from Sacred 2, and a demo mp3… all without DRM. A similar situation was the case for the Avantasia double-album set. In Italy, these album would probably have been priced at no less than €50, probably €70 as well… for that price, I wouldn’t have bought them at all.

But if up to now it’s just comparing “unauthorized” copies versus paid copies, what about content that it’s already free, in some if not all senses of the word? When I first blogged about the Reader supporting ePub I was suggested by many people to rely on Project Gutenberg since they provide ePub-format books. Well, I tried, and I actually read The Picture of Dorian Gray this way; while it was a bit cumbersome, it was an acceptable ePub book. When I tried again to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I was disappointed. Out of two versions, one with illustrations and one without, neither had a decent layout. I could have spent some time trying to fix it up so that it flowed properly on the Reader, but.. the alternative was to pay $3 and get a properly-formatted copy from KoboBooks… I went with the second option.

And another example of how free (as in gratis) content can bring sales for paid equivalent, I can bring out thinking of BBC’s NewsQuiz; the show is available for free on the same day of airing as a BBC Podcast — but only the latest episode is. On the other hand, BBC published a number of CDs with selected past episodes… mostly thanks to the caring users, I have almost the full collection; and thanks to Amazon’s recommendations I also discovered I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Once again, a free download was the direct cause of a sale for BBC.

So even if the content is free, I’m happy to pay for the container… if it’s worth it. And the same is likely going to be true for other people. At the end of the day, this is another thing you can make people pay for… and I don’t think this should be considered “bad” by anyone who truly cares about freedom, and not just feel like “sticking it to the man”…

Working; playing; reading; sleeping; living?

Another pretty useless post; I wonder if I should just pass the Technical category to Gentoo Universe before I flood it in with the personal useless posts.

So I have been working almost all day, between my paid job and tinderbox logs analysis I spent most of the daylight, and most of the night (if you want to know, I usually eat in front of the computer to dedicate more time to both work and Gentoo; not a totally working day though, I was able go out with a friend of mine (although he insists on trying to find a place to play pool in Mestre during the afternoon… a bit tricky!), and tonight my sister came by. But still the day was quite heavy.

I was trying to finish my archiving work (thanks to all of you who suggested me all-in-one systems and in particular HP’s; I got an HP Jsomething all-in-one, while I can’t seem to get the wireless working – not that I care extremely – the basic support is there, ADF included), although at one point the ADF jammed and my scan2pdf script failed to deal with that (I need to sophisticate it a lot more). I had to stop when my parents came to sleep since it’s still quite noisy — I should find somewhere to go one day.

Then I decided to play; I’m trying to complete, somehow, Oblivion.. that’s one massive game: I did finish a couple in the mean time, but I still haven’t completed it. I just can’t seem to be able to play it for more than a week in a row though, so tomorrow I’ll skip to GT5P again most likely, if I can find time to play, that is. And especially at some point I’ve decided to just try to sleep.

But I couldn’t, so I decided as usual to listen to some BBC podcasts; unfortunately I have to write to Shure as soon as I find time, and that means soon, because last week my pretty expensive earphones (yeah the photo is missing from that post, I’ll have to work on that, too) ended up breaking, sort-of.. they still work, but the rubber protection of one of the plugs was torn so much that it broke. And I didn’t really massacre them, so it’s not something I like to see on a €150 pair of phones!

Anyway, I decide to listen to the Book Panel podcast, which already provided me with a true masterpiece even though I don’t have currently time to read much (I’ve read a fun book by the Italian actress Luciana Littizzetto lately but that was just a series of short gags that I could read once now and once then — on the other hand I’m taking two days at the end of the month to go away from home, and I might just find time to read at least a whole book!). And as I start listening, I end up listening to the review of a (translated) Italian book, with the Italian author speaking. Oh well.. it’s not the first time it happens, so I still listen on. I finish the episode and start the next (or rather the previous since they are played in backward order) and … another Italian! No please no!

I have nothing against Italian authors, I like a lot of them, I am full of books by Italian authors, in Italian of course; but I don’t want to have to spend the energy to understand what they say in English when I could just listen to an interview of them in Italian in the first place. To be totally honest, most of us Italian don’t really speak (or write, in my case) a very good English; there are exceptions of course, I know quite a few people that you would never say they are Italian when they speak English. On the other hand, most of the authors I’ve listened to in English somewhere… well.. just didn’t cut it.

So now I’ve been braindumping some stuff, checking on the tinderbox, and hopefully I’m tired enough to sleep till tomorrow morning, when I’ll start working again, as usual.

What a book!

I used to be an avid reader, totalling quite well move 10 books read an year, but that was when I was in high school, and I glided over stuff that I think my classmates called “homework”, but I’m sincerely not sure (I never had a particular liking to homework, with the exclusion of resolution of arithmetical expression during the Italian equivalent of Junior High school). In those days I had sincerely much more time than I have now especially if I consider that I’m working almost 18 hours a day, and almost never sleeping.

Took me almost three months to read this book now but I totally enjoyed it and I might actually look for it in audiobook one day to give it another go; the book in question is “The Gone-Away World” by Nick Harkaway , probably one of my favourite books in recent years, certainly a lucky discovery.

I say discovery because it’s the author’s début book, it’s not part of any series, not even in my usual reading habits range, since I usually read either fantasy or mystery novel or stuff like that; and nobody suggested it to me before, I came to it quite randomly through BBC’s podcasts, in particular the Simon Mayo Book Panel podcast. I actually had to listen back to the review tonight to remember what did catch my attention (and it has probably been the references to Douglas Adams and the way the author describe it as “two guys in a truck who save the world”); I just typed the title on my cellphone after waking up (I listen to the podcast to sleep), and at the first chance I had I bought it.

I don’t repent having bought it at all, as I said. Fun, quite thought-provoking, and quite fast paced for a book; I think the last time I read with such a pleasure has been when i have been reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I don’t usually go around writing about the books I read (also because I don’t read nearly as much as I did), but this one I really want to recommend to anybody who’s up for a good novel.

I have already noted down, from an earlier podcast, the title of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” even though I never went around to get it; I guess I should, and see if the podcast’s reviews are really getting out the important juice of the books; and I guess I should resume listening to it; with one thing and the other I didn’t listen to it in so long that iTunes decided to stop syncing it.

Encoding iPod-compatible audiobooks with Free Software

Since in the last few days I’ve been able to rest also thanks to the new earphones I’ve finally been able to think again of multimedia as well as Gentoo. But just to preserve my sanity, and to make sure I do something I can reuse to rest even better, I decided to look into something new, and something that I would like to solve if I could. Generating iPod-compatible audibook files from the BBC Radio CDs I got.

The audiobook that you buy from the iTunes Store are usually downloaded in multiple files, one per CD of the original CD release, sometimes with chapter markings to be able to skip around. Unfortunately they also are DRM’d so analysing them is quite a bit of a mess, and I didn’t go to much extent to identify how that is achieved. The reason why I’d like to find, or document, the audibook format is a two-fold interoperability idea. The first part is being able to play iPod-compatible audiobooks with Free Software with the same chapter marking system working, and the other is (to me more concerning to be honest) being able to rip a CD and create a file with chapter markings that would work on the iPod properly. As it is, my Audiobooks section on the iPod is messed up because, for instance, each piece of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is a different track on CD, gets a single file, which is thus a single entry in the Audiobooks series. To deal with that I had to create playlists for the various phases, and play them from there. Slightly suboptimal, although it works.

Now, the idea would be to be able to rip a CD (or part of a CD) in a single M4B file, audiobook-style, and add chapter markings with the tracks’ names to make the thing playable and browsable properly. Doing so with just Free Software would be the idea. Being able to have a single file for multiple CDs would also be of help. The reason why I’m willing to spend time on this rather than just using the playlists is that it seems to me like the battery of the iPod gets consumed much sooner when using multiple files, probably because it has to seek around to find them, while a single file would be loaded incrementally without spending too much time.

In this post I really don’t have much in term of ideas about implementation; I know the first thing I have to do is to find a EAC -style ripper for Linux, based on either standard cdparanoia or libcdio’s version. For those who didn’t understand my last sentence, if I recall correctly, EAC can also produce a single lossless audio file, and a CUE file where the track names are timecoded, instead of splitting the CD in multiple files per track. Starting from such a file would be optimal, since we’d just need to encode it in AAC to have the audio track of the audiobook file.

What I need to find is how the chapter information is encoded in the final file. This wouldn’t be too difficult, since the MP4 format has quite a few implementations and I already have worked on it before. The problem is that, being DRM’d, analysing the Audiobooks themselves is not the best idea. Luckily, I remembered that there is one BBC podcast that provides an MP4 file with chapter markings: Best of Chris Moyles Enhanced which most likely use the same feature. Unfortunately, the mp4dump utility provided by mpeg4ip fails to dump that file, which means that either the file is corrupt (and how does iTunes play that?) or the utility is not perfect (much more likely).

So this brings me back to something I was thinking about before, the fact that we have no GPL-compatible MP4-specific library to handle parsing and writing of MP4 files. The reason for this is most likely the fact that the standards don’t come cheap, and that most Free Software activists in the multimedia area tend to think that Xiph is always the answer (I disagree), while the pragmatic side of the multimedia area would just use Matroska (which I admit is probably my second best choice, if it was supported by actual devices). And again, please don’t tell me about Sandisk players and other flash-based stuff. I don’t want flash-based stuff! I have more than 50GB of stuff on my iPod!

Back to our discussion, I’m going to need to find or write some tool to inspect MP4 files, I don’t want to fix mpeg4ip because of MPL license it’s released under, and I also think the whole thing is quite overengineered. Unfortunately this does not really help me much since I don’t have the full specs of the format handy, and I’ll have to do a lot of guessing to get it to work. On the other hand, this should be quite an interesting project, for as soon as I have time. If you have pointers or are interested in this idea, feel free to chime in.

Buying sleep (by the minute)

One of the worst thing that can happen in somebody’s life is when your dreams are scaring you out of your own sleep. As it turns out I’m in one of those situations. A nice period of my life ended just before Christmas, and now I’m in a bit of a pinch, with a late job, and no future (stable) job in view. I’m also out of luck with publishers since the last article I submitted to LWN was not even worth a reply, it seems.

I should be at least well happy about my health, one would expect, given that I am feeling better after the surgery and I just need to visit the hospital for some check-ups now. But even that is out of schedule, since I was supposed to be in for January, and it’s middle February now. The professor I had to reach is unreachable, so I had to pass through another doctor in the staff (whom I’m very grateful to for my previous staying too!).

But as it is said in Italy “one Pope dead, a new one is made”; I admit I’m not sure what the English equivalent would be but I’d expect it to refer to kings.

I’m currently feeling in quite a bluish mood but it’s going to be just fine as soon as I get some good nights’ sleep; relaxed sleep. The problem as I said is that my own dreams, or rather the content and the characters of the dreams I’m having lately, chase me out of bed. Even though I cannot remember the dreams by themselves, the general mood follows me when I wake up and, even though they should be pleasant dreams, they upset me very much.

Luckily I learnt to fight dreams, and nightmares, since I went to the hospital. My way of keeping them away from my mind is to listen to something that turns my attention to something much different just before sleeping. Podcasts have helped a lot about that, but sometimes I need more, longer content I haven’t listened to before. This is especially true when, like right now, Bill Maher is not on HBO so I cannot listen to new Real Time’s podcast episodes. For these times I corrupt a bit of my soul and buy audiobooks from the iTunes Store, yes with the freedom-hungry DRM on.

I was thus quite pleased when an anonymous sent me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy CDs from BBC Radio (and I have to say I envy British people for BBC Radio 4, News Quiz is one of my favourite shows). Even though it also sprouted for me a technical problem: how to convert the CDs in a format that makes use of 100% iPod’s features using just Free Software? I’m afraid I’m unable to answer that question just yet but I hope to be able to soon. Also thanks to the (for now unknown since it hasn’t arrived yet) person who sent me “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” CDs. I’m not sure what it is but I find the British humour refreshing. Yes I know this is neither normal nor sane …

The problem is that, the way this is going I’m unable to rest, even when I sleep, and thus I cannot work for more than a few hours on Free Software without my head starting to ache. And it’s difficult to sleep in the first place. While I would like to try cutting down on coffee, it turns out that I’m quite addicted to caffeine to the point that twice already in the past three weeks, when I tried to stay a day without getting one I would get a migraine so powerful I would be unable to crawl out of bed.

Anyway so that you know, even if I haven’t blogged about it in a while, nor I have opened new bugs, the tinderbox (or tinderflame to make it distinct from Patrick’s) is still working and crunching data. The new disks do help, since there was one (I’m afraid I know which one, I’ll write about it specifically in the future) that would make the system go stuck on pdflush, which as you might guess is not the nicest of the things. Now it seems to be working better.

Anyway, if you wish I made a special list to see if I can solve my sleep deprivation (although I’m waiting already a few things I ordered myself, so I should be set for a while), but even more importantly, there are two thing I’m going to ask users and developers reading me alike.

If you’re an user, try to raise concern with upstream projects about problems like proper --as-needed usage, parallel build and similar, I know my blog isn’t exactly the nicest place to look up information from but it should have enough to go around with issues like that. Any upstream package that fixes parallel make, --as-needed or autotools by itself is one less package I’ll have to look at when I decide to push forward my agenda of having proper packages around.

If instead you’re a developer, please help me by at least reviewing what I write, correcting me if needed, and especially submitting patches to my projects if you see they are wrong or incomplete. Having people collaborate on my projects is one thing I always miss.