Fans Rejoice! Music Goes Green!

This is one post in a series, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

Yesterday was a great day for music fans. I'm a music fan. I carried audio tapes around in the late 80s, switched to a book of CDs in the 90s and now I use an mp3 player.

Up until about 6 months ago I didn't think much about driving to the store, buying a new CD, taking it out of the bag, pealing off the shrink wrap, fighting with those ridiculous security stickers on the top of the case, ripping the CD to my iPod, throwing away the case, and putting the CD in a CD book that would collect dust for the rest of my life. And then I got to thinking... It took oil to make the plastic for all the CD and all the stuff I threw away, then the CDs had to be shipped to the store so I could drive there to buy the music, and physical media doesn't have any value to me! It's the bits on the CD I actually use. Seems like a lot of waste...

An obvious alternative is download-able music. But there was a big catch:

Digital Rights Management
Most recording companies mandate that download-able music vendors employ a Digital Rights Management system. DRM locks the music you purchase to a fixed number of computers and specific devices. iTunes DRM music can't be played on anything but iTunes and an iPod, and Windows DRM (employed by the Massachusetts library system for online audio books) can't be played on anything but Windows devices.

"The Massachusetts online library doesn't work with iPods?" I asked. In response, two librarians, separated in time and space, suggested I go out, buy a writable CD, burn the Windows DRM encrypted audio book to a CD and then rip it into iTunes so you can listen to it on an iPod. Not the most environmentally friendly process for listening to an audio book.

So with DRM you don't really own music you buy because sooner or later the DRM will stop you from using the music. And even if you're only borrowing the music, you have to go out and buy the specific player that plays that type of DRM.

All of this DRM headache is supposed to keep people from purchasing music online and mass sharing it with the rest of the world. But it doesn't work. DRM gets cracked and some people mass share music. Then the record companies try to clamp down with more DRM and it gets cracked a few days later. Its a silly cycle of waisted effort that is also a drain on the music industry. I wonder if it's embarrassing to monkeys that they're related to the species that still think DRM is a good idea.

In the mean time is providing music without DRM for staggeringly low prices. They appear to be leveraging a loophole in some antiquated Russian copyright laws that allow them to sell music without paying the authors or producers of that music. Their music is DRM free in mp3 format, they have a good choice of bit-rate (quality) and they have a big selection. With the exception of one ethical issue, of them not paying the content authors (see the previous loophole), allofmp3 has put together a great model for distributing online music.

Back To My Footprint
So 6 months ago I decided to stop buying new CDs. DRM is a broken system and would eventually go away. If I absolutely had to buy a CD I'd buy used. That way I'm not supporting the recording industry that is pushing the DRM and not contributing to the scourge like production of new CDs. Think millions of tons per month...

My plan was that once music was available for download without DRM I'd start buying again. I even created a DRM Wait-List containing music titles I'd purchase when they became available online without DRM.

The Big Day For DRM Free Music
Yesterday, thanks to Apple and EIM I got to vote with my wallet and purchase DRM free download-able music. For $12.99 an album you can purchase from some (not all) of the music on iTunes. The music labeled iTunes Plus is DRM free! Unfortunately many of the titles on my DRM wait list are still on the list. Most of the recording companies are hanging on to the sinking ship that is DRM. Hopefully others will vote with their wallets and we can put this DRM silliness behind us.

One neat thing about how Apple does the DRM free music and still provide a modicum of protection against mass sharing of the files is they put your Apple username into the file when you purchase it. It shows up when you look at the file details. Some people have complained about this, but it seems like a fair step. You can use the file any way you like. Unless you're really tech savvy you won't know how to pull that information out of the file. So the average person that starts mass sharing a music file can be easily tracked down and fed to a wilder beast.

Download-able DRM free music means less CDs, a massively smaller environmental impact from music and the occasional wilder beast feeding. Everybody wins.

The Scientific Method vs. Truthiness

This is one post in a series, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

As I began to research my ecological footprint I noticed that most people promoting a point of view offer little more than sound bytes. Quotes are rampant, bibliographical information is scarce, and sound bites are taken as fact by a lot of people. If someone actually said it, it must be true.?.

My skepticism grew as I discovered more and more conflicting "facts". How can we hope to learn anything resembling reality while unquestioningly accepting facts from unproven sources? How can you trust the bearer of information if you don't know their motivations? When did truthiness replace the scientific method?

The answers to these questions bothered me, so I committed to research the validity of "facts" before accepting them into my world view. It was simple enough; given a quote or a statement I'd ask a series of questions intended to investigate the source, motivation, sponsors and underlying data or assumptions which serve as the foundation for the statement. Take for example this quote.

"The human appendix is capable of converting 6 out of 7 toxins into water using nothing more that a mixture of club soda and duct tape adhesive."

Now I ask the following questions:
  • Who originally made this statement?
  • What is that persons education or experience?
  • What do they consider a toxin?
  • When was this said and in what context?
  • What data was used to formulate this conclusion?
  • Who paid for the research that produced this conclusion?

Prior to this effort I might have asked things like:
  • How do you mix club soda and duct tape
  • Can I sell my appendix on eBay?

Questioning implicitly silly statements came easily and I never once considered selling my appendix. But, I really started learning when questioning ideas I wanted to believe; such as the panacea of environmental friendliness and economic growth that a hydrogen economy would bring. Not so much a panacea. I'll leave the details of the hydrogen economy tragedy for another post.

For now I'll close with three thoughts. First, if you think someone might be passing of truthiness as fact, try seeing if what they are saying stands up to the scientific method. Second, I made up that thing about the appendix and club soda. If it's true its just dumb luck. And finally an explanation of truthiness:

Thanks to Greg Williams and the Wikimedia Commons for use of the above image. Its licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license.

New iGoogle Module: The son of NavBar and Toggle

I've created a new iGoogle NavBar and Toggle module. It does two things:
  • Lets you hide the search bar and save most of the real estate at the top of the page
  • Adds configurable links to the top of the homepage similar to the google link bar in gmail, but with a lot more links. You can configure the links using your account.

Why the new module? Well, last week Google updated their personalized homepage adding a NavBar at the top of the page. The update broke my existing NavBar & Toggle module.. Unfortunately, their updates did not make the NavBar configurable and the page still doesn't have a way to shrink the search space. Thus the new module...

Here's what it does to the iGoogle page:

Before: Toggle Google and Configurable Menu

After: Toggle Google and Configurable Menu

Development Notes:
I decided to EOL the old module and create a new one for two reasons. First, the functionality difference was big enough to justify a separate module and its conceivable someone might want to keep using the old module. Second, I wanted to try out google code which is where the new module is hosted. Google code has a slick set of tools for project hosting.

In order to make the NavBar links configurable I needed an external link storage source. I wanted to use Google Bookmarks, but they don't have a public API and there's enough reverse engineering in this module already. So I went with I set up a igooglemenu account to hold the default links, and anyone can change the module settings to use a different account if they like.

Reverse Engineering the home page has been a pain. Almost every time Google changes it the module breaks and I have to start over. To smooth that effort I'm using the google code wiki to track the DOM. This will give me a starting point for tracking down the changes the next time they make an update.

I think the user interface and coding in the new module are pretty elegant. Mostly because its much simpler than its predecessor. It'll be interesting to see if my opinion holds over time.

My Ecological Footprint

Five months ago I watched An Inconvenient Truth and was inspired to search for ways to reduce my carbon footprint. What followed is a glimpse into a surprisingly large number of topics. Guess what the following things have in common:

Air quality, alternative lighting sources,
batteries, bottled water, computers,
education, energy density, fuel cells,
gardening, green house gases, hydrogen,
lawn care, libraries, plug-in cars,
politics, nickel mining,
nickel processing, oil economics,
plastic production, plastic use,
propaganda, public water supplies,
recycling, talking point based beliefs,
the power of marketing and shopping bags.

You’re right if you guessed “Some of the topics you cover when building a fact based understanding of your carbon footprint.” You'd also have been right if you guessed "A list of words all containing at least three letters" but your answer would have been sadly out of context. The study of climate change leads to energy, energy is tied to just about everything, and that list is just scratching the surface. There are vast amounts of information and disinformation for the taking, and separating the two requires some effort.

It is with that in mind that I've decided to serialize my findings in this blog. It's my hope that when my kids look back at this Ecological Footprint series, we will have come so far in creating a sustainable way of life that these forward looking ideas appear primitive in comparison.

What a grand achievement it would be for our children to think our way of life primitive and have them be right.