What if digital possessions are free?

A guy using Internet
[image by Joselito Briones]

I’ve been thinking of what I wrote about digital possessions. Commenter Elad Kehat mentioned something about digital possessions being free, therefore ownership of possessions won’t need to be tracked.

This has ramifications. We’re not talking about information that’s in the public domain, and so is freely available to anyone with Internet access. We’re talking about that new ebook, that new song or new movie in digital format, being free. Maybe there’s a period where the creators charge for access, but it’s probably weeks, maybe months (and not years).

What if you could read that latest bestseller thriller right now on your preferred digital device, for free? What if you could listen to any song, old or new, for free? What if you could watch any movie, be it dated or newest blockbuster, without having to pay for it?

It could happen. It could work. I’m saying that society at large might have to change their views on ownership. Because there won’t be any for digital possessions.

The creators will definitely suffer, in the short term if nothing else. That’s where they make their money. But we’re already in that phase. We have self-publishers of ebooks and songs and video. A viable means of still profiting is to cut out the middle man (as much as possible). This also have the effect of focussing on the content and taking advantage of the medium, in this case, digital. As Elad mentioned in his comment, the middle man (publishing houses, record studios, Amazon) wants to

preserve the exclusive property of non-digital content as it becomes digitized

Which is nonsense. Because a child of 12 can reproduce an ebook with copy and paste faster than a publishing house can print a Dan Brown novel. There is no exclusivity. But until society accepts that for digital content and digital ownership, the middle man can still profit from the populace’s perception that ownership is important.

Chris Anderson (who wrote the book “Free”) already wrote much on this. The price of digital content tends to go to zero. I have to admit, it’s a distinct possibility.

So let’s assume that digital content is free. There won’t be the concept of digital possessions, because possessing assumes ownership. If it’s free, do you care if you own it?

If something isn’t free, and you own it, then you care, because you don’t want people to take it unjustly away from you. You want to have control over who can use it, appreciate it, look at it, listen to it, read it, have fun with it.

What if someone steals your free digital possession? Well, you could go get another copy of it. I mean, it’s free. But if it’s free for you, then it’s free for the thief as well. Then there’s no need for theft. And thus, no need for keeping track of ownership.

Recently, I watched a talk given by Merlin Mann. It’s not really related to the topic at hand (still worth watching, if a bit long), but he mentioned something. Tragedy of the commons.

Basically, that concept goes that there is a common piece of property, and if everyone used their fair share, the property can sustain them indefinitely. But if someone selfishly decides to bite off more than his fair share, he gains more. As other people see this selfish behaviour, they see no reason why they have to keep their end of the bargain. And then mayhem ensues. Everyone squeezes as much from the common property as they can. Eventually, the common property is ravaged beyond help. And everyone loses.

The Internet doesn’t seem to have this limit. You need more space for websites, blogs, PDFs, songs, videos, just get a few more servers. Buy some hard disk with more storage capacity. They go by the terabytes now. Digital content won’t run out of space, hence the “common property” won’t be limited. Just install more hard disks and you get more “common property”.

But hard disks and servers are made of physical materials. Maintaining them have a real cost and thus limit. Who’s going to pay for them? Powering them requires energy, and we have a problem, because there’s limited oil and fossil fuels, and the alternative forms of energy still need some time to be viable.

So we have a sociological barrier (ownership), an economic barrier (creators suffering), and a physical barrier (limit to physical materials). It’s an interesting problem to think about, and hopefully, solve. What do you think?

When possessions change from atoms to bits

I’m not a minimalist. I’m not crazy about having tons of stuff around me either.

Sky and shoes

I have 3 pairs of shoes. Ok, 4 because of that sports/running shoes but its front part of the sole has flopped away, so I can’t walk properly in it, and the super glue didn’t work that well, and I’m too lazy to bring it to the cobbler to fix it. I have maybe 20 shirts (T-shirts, polos, button shirts and so on), and maybe half a dozen pants and jeans. Small trinkets and stuff that can probably fit into a small box. Dozens of CDs (yeah, I still have those silver plated discs…) and DVDs. And tons of books. Books are about the only thing that pains me if I have to throw them away. Even if they’re textbooks. Ok, maybe throwing away textbooks aren’t that painful…

But I’m seeing a trend. Possessions that can be digitised are increasingly available in digitised format (I know, it sounds obvious). Particularly CDs, DVDs and books. Why? Because computers and the Internet in general support the 3 main forms of media: text, audio and video. Their “physical” equivalents are books, songs and movies.

With no other variables to consider, this is good for the environment. Books are transformed into digital text. No paper, dyes and other materials used in producing books. CDs and DVDs are transformed into digitised audio and video. Materials used in production of CDs and DVDs are saved.

But there’s a problem.

How do you know who owns what? How can ownership of digital possessions be enforced? Who’s going to enforce it?

Right now, there’s Amazon’s Kindle. You buy digital books from Amazon and the information is kept by Amazon. Amazon knows what books you bought, so that’s enforced by them.

But you can’t pass the books around. You can’t let your friend borrow that business book. You can’t let your child inherit that fantasy story that kept your imagination alive when you were young. You can’t even hand a digital book to a complete stranger just because you want to. The books are yours, but not really yours.

The equivalent for an enforcer of songs possession is iTunes Store. If I understand it correctly, you buy a song, and it’s flagged as bought by you. The song is “owned” by you, but really, you have to access it through iTunes Store. I wouldn’t know, because Singapore hasn’t had the privilege of being noticed by the company in Cupertino that has a name that sounds like the object that fell on Newton’s head which led to the discovery of gravity.

The point is, our possessions used to be kept track by us. As in, yup that book is mine. No, I don’t think that bag is mine. Oh I don’t have a car, so that’s not mine. Yes that’s my computer. See those “VB sucks!” stickers at the side? (I apologise to fans of Visual Basic. I’m just trying to make a point. And no, I don’t have those stickers around my computer.)

When possessions get digitised, the tracking of ownership flits from us, to them. Whoever “them” are, the “them” who control the medium of the possession (or some form of control over the medium).

We’ve already hit this problem with our online identities. User IDs and passwords are the solution with some kind of protection. Then there are too many user IDs and passwords to keep track of. Thus the major players start to tout their logins to be the one ring that rules them all. Facebook in particular is a popular default login mechanism for other online services. But it’s proprietary. And there’s the open equivalent OpenID.

After the protection of online identities, I foresee the need to (seriously) protect our online possessions. What happens to someone when all his books, songs and movies are stored in (hypothetically speaking) one online service? When the digital bits display “No record of John Doe”, where does that place John?

I’m not saying possession digitising is bad. I’m saying who can you trust to keep track of your digital possessions for you? A privately owned company? A public company? The government?

Will an open-sourced, crowd-sourced solution work? Will you trust everyone else to help keep track of your possessions? Can you trust everyone else in the first place? I have some doubts about the wisdom of crowds

I don’t propose to have an answer. But it is a hard problem.

Not all possessions will be digitised, nor can they be. I prefer wearing my shoes. Having my shoes in the computer doesn’t work. Unless I’m entirely digitised… but that’s a different story…

[image by Nicolas Loran]

Why are signals from passive optical networks split into 32?

World map information

I attended a course on fibre technology recently. The presenter was Dr. Jeffrey Bannister from Orbitage.

He was talking about fibre optics being a relatively old technology, and is now being used as a means of transporting the vast amounts of information that’s the Internet. Remember the earthquakes near Taiwan, which halted Internet traffic in Asia?

There’s an interesting point he made, that there are only 4 of these hair-thin optical fibres supporting the Asian Internet traffic. And if I remember correctly, these optical fibres run in between Vietnam and Philippines, to Taiwan, and to Japan. I can’t find any reference on the number of fibres used, but 4 seems incredulous. I mean, it takes a lot of money, time and effort to set those submarine cables. It makes sense to use more, since optical fibres are cheap (as cheap as fishing lines, so says Dr Bannister). Maybe there are dark fibres.

Another interesting point is that optical fibres do not rely on electricity to convey information. Shine a light at one end of a fibre, and it’s interpreted as a “1” at the other end. No light means a “0”. Voila! Zeroes and ones for digital use. Using a physics property called Brewster’s angle, light can be transmitted for long distances with little loss of energy or result in data corruption (light keeps bouncing around along the optical fibre).

A third interesting point is that the light used in transmitting our Internet data is not visible at all! It’s actually infrared light, because it has the best result for the single-mode optical fibres used.

A fourth interesting point is that upstream and downstream data use the same optical fibre. It’s accomplished by using different wavelengths of infrared light, using a technique called wavelength-division multiplexing.

So where do passive optical networks come in, and what are they? If I understand it correctly, it’s an architecture for housing splitters, and

Each splitter typically splits the signal from a single fiber into 16, 32, or 64 fibers, depending on the manufacturer, and several splitters can be aggregated in a single cabinet.

Remember the data travelling along just 4 optical fibres mentioned before? There are many endpoints for that data, so somewhere along the line, the data have to be split up. That’s where the splitters come in.

By now, your coder senses should be tingling. Let me highlight the source of the tingling:

single fiber into 16, 32, or 64 fibers

16? 32? 64? They look familiar…

In his talk, Dr Bannister mentioned that splitters split the signals into 32 or 64. Now if he mentioned only “32”, I might have waved it off. But he mentioned “64” in the same breath too, and that’s what triggered my coder senses.

And in case you haven’t caught on,
16 = 2^4
32 = 2^5
64 = 2^6

So after his talk, I went up to ask him about this. At first, he misunderstood my question, and explained more on how the splitting was done.

My question was actually something else. Fibre optics do not need electricity to transmit data. The splitters do not need electricity to split signals. Basically everything is analog. Why is the binary concept, the basis of digital, used in the number of splits?

His answer was actually very simple. It’s easy to calculate the efficiency. (Or light energy. Or wavelength.) Splitting a signal into 2 means it’s a simple 50% divide.

He thought about it, and said the engineers could probably split signals into 10 or powers of 10. But splitting in powers of 2 is easy for the math.

Frankly speaking, I didn’t expect such a simple and logical answer. I was actually stunned for a few seconds.

Does that make you feel computers have a completely efficient understanding of the world?

[Update: Commenter John Bartell has more information on splitters and passive optical networks.]

[image by ktsimage]

The confounding digital clock puzzle

Recently, I played Professor Layton and the Curious Village on the Nintendo DS. It’s basically a game filled with puzzle after puzzle for the player to solve.

There are 3D questions testing your visualisation skills (the IQ question on the painted cube for my job interview also came up). There are the logic questions such as “Only 1 of the 4 kids is telling the truth”, and you have to figure out the answer from their statements.

I can solve most of the puzzles in my head. The only time when I needed to write something down was where the puzzle can be distilled into a pair of simultaneous equations. You know the kind, the father is x times as old as the son, and after y number of years, he’d be z times as old as the son, and how old are both of them currently. Or some kind of puzzle with some math variables I need to keep track, but don’t want to do that mentally.

Digital clock by claylib
[image by claylib]

Then comes this one puzzle. I was stuck on it for over an hour. I thought, I categorised, I simplified. It’s too mentally taxing to hold all the pieces mentally, and I’m too lazy to write everything out on paper. Here’s the puzzle, paraphrased:

You have a digital clock, displaying the hour and the minute only, with hours in the 12-hour format. How many times during an entire day will 3 or more identical digits appear consecutively in a row? For example, 03:33 is counted as once.

My brother solved it by using Excel to generate all the combinations, and eliminating each combination by inspection. I didn’t want to do that. After some time, I did the only sensible thing. I wrote a program to solve it. Muahahahaha…

// any date will do, as long as the time is set
// to zero for the hour and minute (and second?)
DateTime dt = new DateTime(2008, 10, 1, 0, 0, 0);
string s = dt.ToString("yyyyMMdd");
string sTime;
char[] ca;
int iCount = 0;
// while still the same day
while (s.Equals("20081001"))
    // small hh for 12-hour format
    sTime = dt.ToString("hhmm");
    ca = sTime.ToCharArray();
    // check if first three digits are identical
    // or if the last three digits are identical
    if ((ca[0] == ca[1] && ca[1] == ca[2]) || (ca[1] == ca[2] && ca[2] == ca[3]))
    dt = dt.AddMinutes(1);
    s = dt.ToString("yyyyMMdd");

That took me a couple of minutes to whip up. I added the comments so you can follow the thought process easily. Note the “hhmm” format for 12-hour versus “HHmm” for 24-hour format. 2 seconds to compile and run, and BAM! I got the answer. No, I’m not telling you. Go figure it out yourself.

So I solved the digital clock puzzle with programming. Somehow, it felt like cheating. Anyway, my challenge to you is, can you solve it in a non-programmatic, non-exhaustive-list-writing way?