Saturday, September 20, 2008

Things that spin

It's been a long time sine I posted anything. It's not that nothing is going on - far from it.

Well, not that far from it.

I could bore you all endlessly with posts about my frustrating working situation, but as this is a public blog I can't go into specifics without getting myself fired, a possibility which seems all too realistic in any event, regardless of my own behavior. Suffice it to say that if you come up to me and ask me about work, be prepared for a loud, voluminous tirade filled with expletives and almost certainly requiring beer either before, after, or during, more likely all three.

I could also confuse you thoroughly with detailed descriptions of my various tennis outings, and in fact this is stuff I enjoy writing about, but I also know the target audience for that particular information is, well... let's say the demographic currently resides between my chair and keyboard. I tried it once with my dear friend MM once, and her lack of response was eloquent. I will not subject the rest of you to it.

I wish I had some funny stories to tell, like the one about the remote, but I don't. It's not that funny things aren't happening. Well, actually, they aren't. Two weeks ago I received two corneal abrasions mowing the lawn, and that's not funny, nor is there any funny way to tell that story. It fucking hurt, and I'm glad it's over with. Three weeks ago I tweaked my back playing tennis and haven't been on the court since, and that's REALLY not funny, because it's frustrating the hell out of me. Two days before this happened I had one of the best hitting sessions I've had in about 3 years with my doubles partner Mike, the absolute crest of which was a 27 stroke backhand rally in which we spent about a minute crushing the ball from backhand corner to backhand corner cross-court, each trying to out-angle the other. Mike won the exchange, finally, with an absolutely gorgeous little flip that hugged the net and had so much spin that it hit the ground and shot sideways, dead left - I never had a chance. After sessions like that I really want to get out and hit more just like it. Then I hurt my back. Fucking hell.

One thing about enforced physical inactivity (and pain killers, to be totally honest), is that the brain tends to compensate. That is to say, I've been thinking more than normal, and that's actually a meaningful statement, as I tend towards the introspective, probably a little too much for my own good. Lots of notes on little pieces of paper, some short stories germinating, if only I can form a plot around some really fun ideas, etc.

But one thing that I've concluded, and this I will share now, is the following thought:

The CD/DVD is dead. Or at least, it should be.

I know, blue-ray won the format wars. Now we can all get behind this great new format and watch our videos in beautiful HD. But I'm wondering - why are we supporting any kind of mechanical-based format any more?

Let me explain.

Way back when, there were LPs. LPs were great, analog, and very specifically limited to a known degree as to how much information they'd hold (i.e. roughly 45 minutes of sound). You put the LP on a rotating platter and dropped the needle, and sound came out of the speakers based on the amplified micro-vibrations of this needle. The quality of the final result relied largely on several known factors : the quality of the needle (Moon Rock needle. Sounds like shit.); the quality of the amplifier; the quality and power of the speakers. It was a simple idea carried out with varying degrees of elegance, if the vast available array of these supporting technologies is any indication. I still have LPs, (but no turntable), and will admit that there's some undefined, nostalgiac instinct which is driving me to keep them.

Next came the digital era, with the sound further discretized into 1s and 0s, and essentially glued, again, onto a plastic disc. But still the medium of delivery relied on a mechanical device: a much smaller, much faster turntable. DVDs, both the first generation and the new blue-ray versions, are exactly the same - we just got better at making the bits we glue onto the plastic discs really, really small so we can put more and more bits on the same sized plastic disc. More bits means more data means higher fidelity sound or video, all of which is well and good.

But it's not all that good.

I can tell you for fact that the things-that-spin method of data delivery is no longer either practical or necessary. I can't recall the last CD/DVD drive I bought for a computer which lasted more than 3 years. Hell, even DVD players only last 4-5 years and then the things explode in some fashion. Most last significantly less.

This is horribly inefficient. Not to mention, it creates a lot of extra trash when people buy the $30 DVD player from Wal-Mart every 18 months, including all the packaging (box, styrofoam packing materials, unread manuals, etc), and then throw all of it away and do it again. I'd love to know the percentage of space in a typical landfill is dedicated to the dessicated remains of things-that-spin technologies.

On the other hand, a typical thumb drive (also called flash drive) holds about 8 GB these days. This is nearly identical to the amount of data you get on one dual-layered standard DVD. There are no moving parts required to access this data. The amount of packing for these drives is a fraction of what's required for LPs/CDs/DVDs. There's nothing to break. Imagine buying a thumb drive with Wall-E on it. You pop it into the slot on front of your player, and INSTANTLY your menu screen comes up. No waiting for the drive to spin up, no wondering when the thing is going to break. Neither the player nor media has any moving parts to cause any issues. Drop the thing on the floor all you want, it won't break. You can't scratch it. And storing it takes up a fraction of the space the DVD did.

Even better, this same thumb drive ALSO has the soundtrack on it. You get into your car, pop the drive into the front of your audio player, and listen to the soundtrack as you drive to work (or, if you want to, play the move audio and watch it in your head as you drive). No waiting for anything to slide in and out of any slot. No hoping the thing spits out that old Thompson Twins CD that's been stuck in there since 1994. And no mechanical parts at all, so no skipping.

But what about the new Blue Ray discs, you ask? Aren't those supposed to hold more data?

Indeed they are. A single layer blue ray disc holds about 25 GB, a dual layer 50 GB. You'll recall, the more data I can store on my media, the higher fidelity I achieve, and so the better my listening/viewing experience. As is the general rule with computers, however, the technology is advancing with harrowing speed. You can already buy 32 GB flash drives for $100, enough to hold more data than a single layer blue-ray disc. And while this is too much to spend on a DVD, there are two things I can promise you with absolute certainty:

1) This is a HUGE profit margin. These things cost probably around $5 or so to manufacture en masse no matter how much data they hold. In the same way that you can now buy an 8 GB flash drive for about $15 (which is a little cheaper than the cost of a normal DVD now), in a few months there will be higher capacity flash drives available, and the top-of-the-line drives available now will cost almost nothing.

2) These new drives are already ready to go, the manufacturers are simply waiting for the right time to hit the market with them so that they can maximize their profit margin on the current version before they make them the new old version.

So, the technology exists to make this a reality already. It's nothing more than mule-headedness which keeps us using these idiotic things-that-spin.

However there's even more benefit to solid state media - it can be re-written infinitely. So what, you ask, who cares? Well, if you get tired of the Rocky collection, you can simply buy the Rambo collection and replace the old Rocky movies on the same media. You waste nothing (except the time and brain cells you killed trying to re-enact the wrestling scene between Balboa and Thunderlips from Rocky III), and don't have to be embarrassed while trying to dump your old collection on Craig's List.

But, even better, take the following scenario:

You have an old media style which is permanent. Suddenly, a new technology is available which allows you to store more data on a different kind of media. Now, suddenly, your huge library of old-media entertainment is obsolete. You'll have to buy a new player and host of new media to get the advantages of the new technology. Your old media and player becomes landfill fodder, and you spend tons more money you didn't want to to own something you already own.

Now let's pretend you have re-writable solid state media.

You have a huge collection of 20 GB media iGimmicks (tm). Some of them hold a movie and its soundtrack, others hold a few different versions of your favorite musical. You plug them into your player, which checks out the contents and brings up the appropriate interface for allowing you to experience your data.

Suddenly, it is announced : new compression scheme available, higher fidelity, better sound, available now!

Worst case, you don't have an internet connection. You take your media and iGimmick player to your local iGimmick retailer (you were going to have to go to the store anyway to buy the new player and media, so this isn't actually imposing additionally on you at all). Hand them your player and box full of iGimmicks. One by one, your iGimmicks are plugged into the upgrader. The upgrader looks at the media, sees what you have, and converts or upgrades, as needed. You now have the newest version of your stuff, same media, no garbage generated. While all this is happening, they also install the new version of the player software on your iGimmick player (for the record, called iSprocket). It may be that your storage capacity, in some cases, isn't enough to hold the newest version of the item in question (you are obsessed with Cats, alas, and have every version ever produced on one of your iGimmicks). No problem. You can upgrade that particular iGimmick to the new higher-capacity version, and continue to use the old one for something else. Would you like to check our stock of available media which will fit on that model of iGimmick? We have a lovely selection of Equus home videos...

Or, if you're like us and have high-speed internet in your house, all of this can be done without you even having to leave the house. Your iSprocket is internet ready, and can tell you when new versions are available. It downloads and installs the new player software automatically, and lets you convert your media as you sit there in your own home. Those iGimmicks which can't be converted, take them to the iGimmick store, they'll hook you up.

This scheme works for more than just movies and music. Any data can be handled this way. Software (new version of GTA, anyone?), books (Robert Jordan series coming right up!), you name it. iGimmick can handle it, with all the same advantages.

So let's review.

Solid-state media (thumb drives, and other similar technologies which have no moving parts) is cheap to produce, cheap to buy, generates less waste from packaging, doesn't break under normal circumstances (you still shouldn't put it in the microwave), does entirely away with player-based mechanical failure and hence decreases waste further by not clogging landfills with old broken players, takes up a fraction of the space of traditional disc-based media, is almost infinitely upgradeable without wasting media or delivery systems, and can be implemented immediately with existing technologies.

What the hell are we waiting for?


Sam Brady said...

You know, that's an awful lot of time spent thinking about that stuff that you could have spent reading my book! Slacka. :-)

meeegan said...

Interesting. As I prepare for my move to NYC, I've sold my DVD player and hope to sell the TV too, planning instead to use my computer to watch movies. But, it's still things-that-spin technology; DVD drive in the computer.

Did you think about user education? People who are used to things-that-spin technology may not be eager to learn how to watch with some other technology, no matter how simple it is to learn to use. There are days -- weeks, even -- when the last thing I want to do is devote a single solitary brain cell or moment to learning technology of any kind.

Benjamin said...

Right, exactly - there's literally no reason to have the thing-that-spins in your computer any more. Everything could be solid state by now, even the 200 GB hard drive (a hard drive is another thing-that-spins) could be solid-state!

Regarding user education, there are three different approaches to this. One is to simply let the standard technology curve do my work for me: Early adopters use the technology and go crazy for it; some popular magazine picks it up and runs an article; bloggers start talking about it; it becomes enough of an internet phenomenon that eventually even the helpless tech sections of the local newspapers and tv newscasts pick up on it; before long, iGimmick is a household word, and even the slowest technology adopters start to show an interest. Similar steps have happened for pretty much every interesting technology out there.

Second, the massive market media blitz - think iPod, Windows operating systems, CD players. Once you've seen 300 commercials showing you the perfect hand pushing the iGimmick into the slot on front of the iSprocket, education is no longer a concern. You've been trained in 30 seconds or less (something which is actually possible to do with iGimmick/iSprocket technology). Education consists of "You don't push the cd into the drive or place it on the tray any more. You take the business end of the iGimmick and push it into the business slot of the iSprocket. Enjoy!"

Third - you get your techno-geek friend Ben to help you out one day with it. He likes to do this kind of thing for his friend Megan! :)

Benjamin said...

How very interesting - the morning after I post my diatribe, I see this article!

meeegan said...

Ha! You lost me at "300 commercials." I cut off contact with broadcast TV 2 1/2 years ago. But I know I am a distant outlier on this curve, so I am not to be taken as a typical case. In that way, your vision for how to educate ordinary users is probably very apt. It just wouldn't work for me and my fellow chenille balls on the lunatic fringe.

Now to read the article you linked.

Benjamin said...

You are indeed on the outlier of the curve (in many wonderful ways!) - and yet you know perfectly well how to use things-that-spin technologies, and I doubt someone sat you down and showed you how. Come to think on it, I don't even remember how I learned to use these things.

So perhaps you'll miss the all out braincell warfare the iGimmick will wage on the population-at-large (and getting woefully larger), but at some point you'll come to realize that you're perfectly comfortable with iGimmick.

Resistance is futile! :)

meeegan said...

Yes, somebody did. Don't assume, kiddo.

But to continue developing your vision of this technology switch: how might a service like Netflix embrace it?

Benjamin said...

I didn't assume anything, I just said I doubted! You can actually remember who taught you how to use the DVD player? That's mightily impressive! I have no recollection whatsoever of learning to do this. So far as I can tell, I went directly from scratching my dad's LPs to scratching up his CDs.

I do remember that Howard Alexander, the man who married Wanda and me, was the first person my dad knew who got a CD player.

Meanwhile, Netflix LOVES the iGimmick! Their shipping costs go down because they go from cd sized thing which can be folded, spindled, scratched, dented and mutilated easily to tiny little thing which can be put in tiny little containers, and all of its important bits are on the inside, so they can't be scratched! No more throwing away old discs because some fucker lets his dog get the mail, so they reduce inventory churn as well.

And if NetFlix is worried about someone erasing their iGimmicks and replacing it with something else, well, I can see a way to make an iGimmick re-writable only under the proper circumstances, i.e. must be in netflix-owned equipment before the iGimmick will allow itself to be writable.

Netflix still has to worry about someone not playing nice and copying the iGimmick material, but this is a problem now. Someone always breaks the encryption scheme.

The thing I can think of immediately, since the issue of data protection is always going to be at issue with copyrighted material, is that currently all current "protection" schemes are hard-coded. That is to say, once you write the commercial DVD, you don't get to re-write it, so anyone with enough time and intellect (and the proper tools) can break the encryption, since it doesn't change on the hard-coded DVD. The data is always the same.

The iGimmick might be able to make it really difficult to break into the data. You can encrypt the data with extremely hard core encryption, and then include a program on the iGimmick which requires some sort of specific interaction in order to decrypt it, and the code for that interaction only lives on the iSprocket. Hell, you could rotate the decryption codes daily if you had an internet connection. All sorts of crazy things are possible!