Open Planets Foundation is now Open Preservation Foundation

The Open Planets Foundation is now the Open Preservation Foundation. This name change reflects its function; the old name grew out of the Planets project and never really made sense.

For the present, it’s still found on the Internet as openplanetsfoundation.org.

The return of music DRM?

U2, already the most hated band in the world thanks to its invading millions of iOS devices with unsolicited files, isn’t stopping. An article on Time‘s website tells us, in vague terms, that

Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr believe so strongly that artists should be compensated for their work that they have embarked on a secret project with Apple to try to make that happen, no easy task when free-to-access music is everywhere (no) thanks to piracy and legitimate websites such as YouTube. Bono tells TIME he hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks.

It’s hard to read this as anything but an attempt to bring digital rights management (DRM) back to online music distribution. Users emphatically rejected it years ago, and Apple was among the first to drop it. You haven’t really “bought” anything with DRM on it; you’ve merely leased it for as long as the vendor chooses to support it. People will continue to break DRM, if only to avoid the risk of loss. The illegal copies will offer greater value than legal ones.

It would be nice to think that what U2 and Apple really mean is just that the new format will offer so much better quality that people will gladly pay for it, but that’s unlikely. Higher-quality formats such as AAC have been around for a long time, and they haven’t pushed the old standby MP3 out of the picture. Existing levels of quality are good enough for most buyers, and vendors know it.

Time implies that YouTube doesn’t compensate artists for their work. This is false. They often don’t bother with small independent musicians, though they will if they’re reminded hard enough (as Heather Dale found out), but it’s hard to believe that groups with powerful lawyers, such as U2, aren’t being compensated for every view.

DRM and force-feeding of albums are two sides of the same coin of vendor control over our choices. This new move shouldn’t be a surprise.

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Best viewed with a big-name browser

A few websites refuse to present content if you use a browser other than one of the four or so big-name ones.

An "unsupported browser" message from Apple's support website

The example shown is what I got when I accessed Apple’s support site with iCab, a relatively obscure browser which I often use. Many of Google’s pages also refuse to deliver content to iCab.

There is a real problem that JavaScript isn’t standardized, and it’s necessary to test with each browser to be confident that a page will work properly. However, if a page sticks with the basics of JavaScript and isn’t trying to do animations, video, or other cutting-edge effects, then any reasonably up-to-date implementation of JavaScript should be able to handle it. It’s reasonable to display a warning if the browser is an untested one, but there’s no reason to block it.

Browsers can impersonate other browsers by setting the User-Agent header, and small-name browsers usually provide that option for getting around these problems. After a couple of tries with iCab, I was able to get through by impersonating Safari. Doing this also has an advantage for privacy; identifying yourself with a little-used browser can greatly contribute to unique identification when you may want anonymity. From the standpoint of good website practices, though, a site shouldn’t be locking browsers out unless there’s an unusual need. Web pages should follow standards so that they’re as widely readable as possible. This is especially important with a “contact support” page.

Apple and Google both are browser vendors. Might we look at this as a way to make entry by new browsers more difficult?

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The animated GIF is the new blink tag

In the early days of HTML, the most hated tag was the <blink> tag, which made text under it blink. There were hardly any sensible uses for it, and a lot of browsers now disable it. I just tested it in this post, and WordPress actually deleted the tag from my draft when I tried to save it. (I approve!)

Today, though, the <blink> tag isn’t annoying enough. Now we have the animated GIF. It’s been around since the eighties, but for some reason it’s become much more prevalent recently. It’s the equivalent of waving a picture in your face while you’re trying to read something.

I can halfway understand it when it’s done in ads. Advertisers want to get your attention away from the page you’re reading and click on the link to theirs. What I don’t understand is why people use it in their own pages and user icons. It must be a desire to yell “Look how clever I am!!!” over and over again as the animation cycles.

Fortunately, some browsers provide an option to disable it. Firefox used to let you stop it with the ESC key, but last year removed this feature.

If you think that your web page is boring and adding some animated GIFs is just what’s needed to bring back the excitement — Don’t. Just don’t.

Update: I just discovered that a page that was driving me crazy because even disabling animated GIFs wouldn’t stop it was actually using the <marquee> tag. I believe that tag is banned by the Geneva Convention.

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Canvas fingerprinting, the technical stuff

The ability of websites to bypass privacy settings with “canvas fingerprinting” has caused quite a bit of concern, and it’s become a hot topic on the Code4lib mailing list. Let’s take a quick look at it from a technical standpoint. It is genuinely disturbing, but it’s not the unstoppable form of scrutiny some people are hyping it as.

The best article to learn about it from is “Pixel Perfect: Fingerprinting Canvas in HTML5,” by Keaton Mowery and Hovav Shacham at UCSD. It describes the basic technique and some implementation details.

Canvas fingerprinting is based on the <canvas> HTML element. It’s been around for a decade but was standardized for HTML5. In itself, <canvas> does nothing but define a blank drawing area with a specified width and height. It isn’t even like the <div> element, which you can put interesting stuff inside; if all you use is unscripted HTML, all you get is some blank space. To draw anything on it, you have to use JavaScript. There are two APIs available for this: the 2D DOM Canvas API and the 3D WebGL API. The DOM API is part of the HTML5 specification; WebGL relies on hardware acceleration and is less widely supported.

Either API lets you draw objects, not just pixels, to a browser. These include geometric shapes, color gradients, and text. The details of drawing are left to the client, so they will be drawn slightly differently depending on the browser, operating system, and hardware. This wouldn’t be too exciting, except that the API can read the pixels back. The getImageData method of the 2D context returns an ImageData object, which is a pixel map. This can be serialized (e.g., as a PNG image) and sent back to the server from which the page originated. For a given set of drawing commands and hardware and software configuration, the pixels are consistent.

Drawing text is one way to use a canvas fingerprint. Modern browsers use a programmatic description of a font rather than a bitmap, so that characters will scale nicely. The fine details of how edges are smoothed and pixels interpolated will vary, perhaps not enough for any user to notice, but enough so that reading back the pixels will show a difference.

However, the technique isn’t as frightening as the worst hype suggests. First, it doesn’t uniquely identify a computer. Two machines that have the same model and come from the same shipment, if their preinstalled software hasn’t been modified, should have the same fingerprint. It has to be used together with other identifying markers to narrow down to one machine. There are several ways for software to stop it, including blocking JavaScript from offending domains and disabling part or all of the Canvas API. What gets people upset is that neither blocking cookies nor using a proxy will stop it.

Was including getImageData in the spec a mistake? This can be argued both ways. Its obvious use is to draw a complex canvas once and then rubber-stamp it if you want it to appear multiple times; this can be faster than repeatedly drawing from scratch. It’s unlikely, though, that the designers of the spec thought about its privacy implications.

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Cookbooks vs. learning books

A contract lead got me to try learning more about a technology which the client needs. Working from an e-book which I already had, I soon was thinking that it’s a really confused, ad hoc library. But then I remembered having this feeling before, when the problem was really the book. I looked for websites on the software and found one that explained it much better. The e-book had a lot of errors, using JavaScript terminology incorrectly and its own terminology inconsistently.

A feeling came over me, the same horrified realization the translator of To Serve Man had: “It’s a cookbook!” It wasn’t designed to let you learn how the software works, but to get you turning out code as quickly as possible. There are too many of these books, designed for developers who think that understanding the concepts is a waste of time. Or maybe the fault belongs less to the developers than to managers who want results immediately.

A book that introduces a programming language or API needs to start with the lay of the land. What are its basic concepts? How is it different from other approaches? It has to get the terminology straight. If it has functions, objects, classes, properties, and attributes, make it clear what each one is. There should be examples from the start, so you aren’t teaching arid theory, but you need to follow up with an explanation.

If you’re writing an introduction to Java, your “Hello world” example probably has a class, a main() function, and some code to write to System.out. You should at least introduce the concepts of classes, functions, and importing. That’s not the place to give all the details; the best way to teach a new idea is to give a simple version at first, then come back in more depth later. But if all you say is “Compile and run this code, and look, you’ve got output!” then you aren’t doing your job. You need to present the basic ideas simply and clearly, promise more information later, and keep the promise.

Don’t jump into complicated boilerplate before you’ve covered the elements it’s made of. The point of the examples should be to teach the reader how to use the technology, not to provide recipes for specific problems. The problem the developer has to solve is rarely going to be the one in the book. They can tinker with the examples until they fit their own problem, not really understanding them, but that usually results in complicated, inefficient, unmaintainable code.

Expert developers “steal” code too, but we know how it works, so we can take it apart and put it back together in a way that really suits the problem. The books we can learn from are the ones that put the “how it works” first. Cookbooks are useful too, but we need them after we’ve learned the tech, not when we’re trying to figure it out.

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Song identification on GitHub

The code for my song identification “nichesourcing” web application is now available on GitHub. It’s currently aimed at one project, as I’d mentioned in my earlier post, but has potential for wide use. It allows the following:

  • Users can register as editors or contributors. Only registered users have access.
  • Editors can post recording clips with short descriptions.
  • Contributors can view the list of clips and enter reports on them.
  • Reports specify type of sound, participants, song titles, and instruments. Contributors can enter as much or as little information as they’re able to.
  • Editors can modify clip metadata, delete clips, and delete reports.
  • Contributors and editors can view reports.
  • More features are planned, including an administrator role.

This is my first PHP coding project of any substance, so I’m willing to accept comments about my overall coding approach. It’s inevitable that, to some degree, I’m writing PHP as if it’s Java. If there are any standard practices or patterns I’m overlooking, let me know.

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Crowdsourcing song identification

Some friends of mine are pulling together a project for crowdsourcing identification of a large collection of music clips. At least a couple of us are professional software developers, but I’m the one with the most free time right now, and it fits with my library background, so I’ve become lead developer. In talking about it, we’ve realized it can be useful to librarians, archivists, and researchers, so we’re looking into making it a crowdfunded open source project.

A little background: “Filk music” is songs created and sung by science fiction and fantasy fans, mostly at conventions and in homes. I’ve offered a definition of filk on my website. There are some shoestring filk publishers; technically they’re in business, but it’s a labor of love rather than a source of income. Some of them have a large backlog of recordings from past conventions. Just identifying the songs and who’s singing them is a big task.

This project is, initially, for one of these filk publishers, who has the biggest backlog of anyone. The approach we’re looking at is making short clips available to registered crowdsource contributors, and letting them identify as much as they can of the song, the author, the performer(s), the original tune (many of these songs are parodies), etc. Reports would be delivered to editors for evaluation. There could be multiple reports on the same clip; editors would use their judgment on how to combine them. I’ve started on a prototype, using PHP and MySQL.

There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm among the people already involved, which makes me confident that at least the niche project will happen. The question is whether there may be broader interest. I can see this as a very useful tool for professionals dealing with archives of unidentified recordings: folk music, old jazz, transcribed wax cylinder collections, whatever. There’s very little in the current design that’s specific to one corner of the musical world.

The first question: Has anyone already done it? Please let me know if something like this already exists.

If not, how interesting does it sound? Would you like it to happen? What features would you like to see in it?

Update: On the Code4lib mailing list, Jodi Schneider pointed out that nichesourcing is a more precise word for what this project is about.

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