Sunday January 14, 2007

Deep Breath, Cory

Ordinarily, I try to ignore Cory Doctorow's posts on intellectual property and technology over at Boing Boing, focusing instead on his less hysterical and more entertaining posts about net.weirdness.  The man's a science fiction writer, after all, not a technologist, so he can't be expected to get all the details right.  He gets them egregiously wrong, though, in his recent post about Windows Vista's built-in restrictions on high-definition video.

Now, I haven't installed Vista yet—I'm going to wait at least a few weeks to see if there are any horrible version 1.0 bugs—so I can't claim any first-hand experience running the system.  (I should also mention that I used to work at Microsoft, from 1996 until 2000, but the doctors tell me the mind-control implant removal surgery was completely successful.  Mostly.)  But the stuff that Doctorow writes is just plain dumb.  Take this section for example:

Guttman has really dug into the crazy extremes that Vista -- the next version of Windows -- goes to in order to restrict how you use high-definition video. The operating system has been essentially rendered useless by a set of deliberately introduced malfunctions. For example, the if your computer detects erroneous data in its registers, or voltage fluctuations (both of which are typical of PCs whose parts have been manufactured by dozens of companies), it will restart major subsystems, hanging up while it flushes all your data -- just in case those errors were part of a hack-attack on the system.

Vista is a disaster. Microsoft is so desperate to get the entertainment industry locked into its platform that they'll destroy themselves to get there. This is an operating system that, when idle, will have to check itself every 30 microseconds to make sure nothing is still happening, and no hackers are attacking it. It acts like an unmedicated paranoid. If Vista catches on, hundreds of millions of computers will be burning heptillions of cycles and tons of coal just making sure that no one is putting a voltmeter on the traces on its motherboard.

Hmm, I don't quite know where to begin.

  • The copy-protection stuff for HD video renders Vista "essentially...useless"?  Somehow I suspect I won't have any trouble use it to compile code, surf the web, play games, and write blog posts.  I guess this is the sense of "essentially" that means "slightly, marginally, trivially, or not at all".
  • If your computer regularly has bad data in registers and voltage fluctuations, you have far more serious things to worry about than the details of Vista's copy-protection code, because your computer will be crashing hard and often.
  • You know what?  Microsoft's finally taking hack attacks seriously enough to build in protection against them all the way down in the guts of the operating system is a good thing in this world of viruses, botnets, and spam.
  • "Microsoft...[will] destroy themselves".  I wish I had a nickel for every time some non-expert has predicted the Imminent Death of Microsoft.  (And, while I'm at it, a dime for every time someone has predicted the Imminent Death of Apple.)
  • "...check itself every 30 microseconds..."  A cursory glance at the article Doctorow reveals that he's referring to the following:  "In order to prevent active attacks, device drivers are required to poll the underlying hardware every 30ms to ensure that everything appears kosher."  That's thirty milliseconds, not microseconds, a factor of a thousand less often than Doctorow would have you believe.  So there's no need to panic—your multi-gigahertz CPU will probably be able to spare the cycles.
  • I especially like the bit about "burning heptillions of cycles and tons of coal".  How would that be different from now?  You know what my computer does right now when it's idle?  You guessed it—it burns cycles.  And how many "tons" of coal are we talking about?  Five?  Ten?
  • Finally, I'd like to note that, in over twenty years of being a computer geek, I've never found it necessary to connect a voltmeter to my motherboard or, in fact, any component of any computer system I've ever owned.  I've also never rewired one or replaced a vacuum tube.  Know why?  Because all but the most peripheral systems in a modern computers are solid-state and built on a tiny, tiny scale.  Doctorow seems to think we're still living in the golden age of the soldering iron.

I really shouldn't be bothered by this.  Reading Boing Boing requires a willingness to put up with each of the contributors' odd fascinations.  I've probably read my lifetime allowance of posts about cryptozoology and goatse, for example, so I maybe I should just adjust my Doctorow-obsession-filter.  Intellectual property?  He's against it.  Corporations?  He's against them.  Intellectual property owned by corporations?  Uh-oh, better stand back—I think he's gonna pop!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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You make me happy!

God a'mighty I loathe BoingBoing - dilettantism, posturing, and non sequitirs for wannabe tech-transgressives.

OK followup question: Are Doctorow's stories and novels worth reading? I slogged through some of Eastern Standard Tribe and immediately filed him under Neat Ideas/Bad Prose; a number of his short stories have filled me with the 'Christicles, if writing like this can make you semi-famous I should be running the world by now' feeling familiar to SF types. But are the novels strong? The last one - Someone Comes to Town, etc. - looked interesting and heartfelt. Worth it? Be my guide, sir!

Posted by: Wax Banks at Jan 23, 2007 8:11:57 AM

Doctorow's fiction seems like it should be right up my alley, but I haven't found the time to try it out. Reading for pleasure has been taking a back seat to reading for grad school for the last couple of years. Sigh.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 23, 2007 11:49:46 AM

i enjoy a boingboing slagging as much as anyone but... in the poor guy's defense:

-he's probably referring to the DRM mechanisms shutting down everything, not just the offending program, which does seem overkill, c'mon! I think there was a scenario going around where if you were a medical technician who happened to listen to a bootlegged mp3 on your Vista-loaded CAT scan machine or something (I have no idea how this would happen), it would lock up everything and basically, no CAT scan for you.

-"destroying themselves" - ok a little hyphy hyperbole (he proably means destroying themselves = shooting selves in foot, not death of company -- there's this MS recruiting pitch I heard about where the recruiter guy said they basically had enough cash reserves to operate with zero revenue for 180 years?!?) but there was another thing going around where gates had even admitted that DRM was ridiculous (in context of ripping CDs).

-"wasted cycles" - don't modern OSes clock down the CPU when it's idle/not under heavy use? I don't know for sure that this DRM nonsense has any significant electric-bill consequences, but even a little bit over how many millions of PCs would add up.

If this sort of stuff bothers you, I'd have to bet his fiction would induce projectile vomiting.

Posted by: boo boo at Jan 27, 2007 9:11:22 AM

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is *deeply weird* but I found it enthralling. Very madcap. Like Connie Willis on some bad acid, with side-trips into early Asprin.

Posted by: Almeda at Jan 31, 2007 1:22:03 PM