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Rob O'Dwyer
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I bought a digital video download today that required a video player from Leaping Brain. As usual, the proprietary player wasn't great and to transfer it to my iPhone I'd need another proprietary player. Ugh. But I browsed around and found that the video had been downloaded into a hidden directory as a bunch of .mov files. Great, except none of the files would play.

It turned out the actual player, launched from their compiled app, was a Python wrapper around some VLC libraries. Nothing funny going on, as far as I could tell, but when I tried to launch the player directly, nothing happened. The compiled app was modifying the .mov files right before they were loaded into the player, and then reverting the file on disk. According to

 "We apply our BrainTrust™ proprietary video encryption to your movies before we upload them to our servers. If someone ever was able to gain access to your content, the files would be useless and unplayable, because they are stored in a scrambled, encrypted format. Once downloaded to the user’s hard drive, the files are still encrypted and only readable via the MOD Machine Player by a legitimate owner. We are not aware of a better DRM scheme than ours. Where Windows Media DRM is easily crackable, and doesn’t run on Macs, BrainTrust™ works great on Windows 8, Vista, Windows XP and Mac, and is virtually uncrackable."

Virtually uncrackable? Well, since they load the file from a Python script, it's easy to make a copy of the "decrypted" file before it's reverted. Having done so, I was curious to see the encryption scheme. By comparing the binary files, I discovered the "proprietary video encryption" algorithm: for the first 15kB, each 1kB block has its initial bytes xor'd with the string "RANDOM_STRING". That's the "scrambled, encrypted format" that leaves these files "useless and unplayable".

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Anyone know how to silence the "Added you on Google+" notifications? I'm talking about making them not show up in the notifications bar, or at least not making it turn red.

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Two things about SOPA/PIPA and then I'll shut up :)


The internet seems to ignore legislation until somebody tries to take something away from us... then we carefully defend that one thing and never counter-attack. Then the other side says, "OK, compromise," and gets half of what they want. That's not the way to win... that's the way to see a steady and continuous erosion of rights online.

The solution is to start lobbying for our own laws. It's time to go on the offensive if we want to preserve what we've got. Let's force the RIAA and MPAA to use up all their political clout just protecting what they have. Here are some ideas we should be pushing for:

* Elimination of software patents
* Legal fees paid by the loser in patent cases; non-practicing entities must post bond before they can file fishing expedition lawsuits
* Roll back length of copyright protection to the minimum necessary "to promote the useful arts." Maybe 10 years?
* Create a legal doctrine that merely linking is protected free speech
* And ponies. We want ponies. We don't have to get all this stuff. We merely have to tie them up fighting it, and re-center the "compromise" position.


The dismal corruption of congress has gotten it to the point where lobbying for legislation is out of control. As Larry Lessig has taught us, the core rottenness originates from the high cost of running political campaigns, which mostly just goes to TV stations.

A solution is for the Internet industry to start giving free advertising to political campaigns on our own new media assets... assets like YouTube that are rapidly displacing television. Imagine if every political candidate had free access (under some kind of "equal time" rule) to enough advertising inventory on the Internet to run a respectable campaign. Sure, candidates can still pay to advertise on television, but the cost of campaigning would be a lot lower if every candidate could run geo-targeted pre-roll ads on YouTube, geo-targeted links at the top of, even targeted campaigns on Facebook. If the Internet can donate enough inventory (and I suspect we can), we can make it possible for a candidate to get elected without raising huge war chests from donors who are going to want something in return, and we may finally get to a point where every member of congress isn't in permanent outstretched-hand mode.

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"Automated sharing is giving Facebook a treasure-trove of data, regardless of whether anyone cares. And Facebook will certainly find ways to monetize that data. But the bigger question is whether, by making sharing the default, we are looking at the end of social networks altogether. If a song is shared on Facebook and nobody listens to it, does it make a sound?"

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Tomorrow, serendipity is for the rich

I gave an Ignite presentation last night in Sebastopol (which +Edd Dumbill was referring to.) It was a bit dystopian. I'll record it (better; I screwed some of it up) but here are the speaker's notes.

It’s easy to forget that humans run on jungle-surplus hardware. Our lymbic region is wired for near-term things: remembering to breathe, avoiding sabre-toothed tigers, and so on. But we have a hard time with stuff like obesity, war, and climate change. We don’t optimize well when the feedback isn’t immediate. It’s worse if we’re bad at self-reflection: Incompetent people not only make stupid decisions but also think that they’re doing just fine, something known as the Lake Wobegon Effect.

The rich and famous have a way around their limited wetware and poor decision skills. They hire personal assistants, trainers, financial planners, and life coaches as prosthetic brains to optimize their lives. But soon, everyone will be able to afford their own personal assistant. Ubiquitous computing, Moore’s Law, a tolerance for increased personal data collection, and cheap, powerful mobility mean that what started as a phone is now much, much more.

Just take a look at the wall of the Apple store and you’ll realize that we’re equipping society with prosthetic brains, able to measure every aspect of our lives, at an astonishing rate.

Instead of trainers and coaches, we hook our lives up to the machine through sensors and APIs, then develop algorithms to optimize ourselves through constant feedback loops, part of a movement known as the Quantified Self. Today, QS focuses on basic stuff: food, sex, sleep, health. But it’s moving up maslow’s hierarchy fast: Rescuetime makes us productive; Gottafeeling catalogs our moods; New York’s School of One adapts teaching to the way each student learns best.

Companies aren’t far behind, using algorithms to hire and fire better, squeeze more miles out of truckers, identify bad insurance risks, and so on. Employees have little choice but to submit to optimization if they want the job; soon, citizens won’t be able to opt out either. Countries have to remain productive, after all, if they want to maintain their standard of living.

In the early 20th century, the entry of women into the workforce and cheap consumer credit boosted GDP. In the later 20th century, the boost came from a switch from atoms to bits, which built the Internet, flattened hierarchies, shattered distribution costs, connected the world, and monetized information.

Now we’re going to turn the Quantified Self into the Quantified Society. The optimizations that come from living algorithmically will be too good to pass up. And course, like Big Banks or Big Oil, Big Feedback will soon be too big to fail. The pressure to participate will be huge. Try to opt out, and at best you’re seen as a quaint anachronism, at worst, a traitor squandering scarce resources of your society and burdening it with chronic health issues. Unplugging is unpatriotic.

Which brings me to the risk. Algorithms are bad at exceptions. Every statistician knows that when an algorithm can’t find an underlying pattern, it can’t make good predictions. But breaking rules is how new rules are made.

We call exceptions by other names: “serendipity” or “leap of faith.” Exceptions invented the minivan and the Walkman. They gave us Kiva and Wikipedia. Exceptions, by their very nature, defy traditional analysis. Exceptions made Steve Jobs take a calligraphy class, made Feynman pick locks, made Einstein dream of trains. They’re not what the algorithm would have told you to do.

What if our dependency on feedback, algorithms, and optimization means we can’t afford serendipity? No joy rides, fatty foods, or lazy Sunday naps. And no time for the rule-breaking that breaks the mould.

Of course, today, only the 1% can afford the personal assistants and prosthetic brains that optimize their lives. This isn’t a widespread movement yet, and the technologies cost thousands of dollars. But remember: once, if you had a cellphone, it meant you were important. Today, the truly important are hard to reach, while the rest of us are issued digital tethers by our employers, expected to be on call around the clock.

In a world driven by feedback, only the privileged will be able to afford serendipity instead of slavish obedience to calculated regimen. In that world, only the rich can afford to waste time and to live sub-optimally. We need to be careful of a tomorrow in which we’re feedback slaves, with every cake, idle afternoon, and guilty pleasure calculated away by some future version of Siri, chasing ever-greater increased efficiency.
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