SteelWolf on Digital Freedom


This past Friday I had the unique opportunity to take a trip to Washington, D.C. with several members of EDUCAUSE, a higher education organization dedicated to the “intelligent use of information technology.” Representing UMBC students and the UMBC Student Government Association along with SGA President Jay Lagorio, we presented a student perspective on a very significant issue: sharing of copyrighted materials on college and university campuses. More specifically, we were advocating against Section 494(a)(2) from H.R. 4137, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007.

The whole summary can be read as a guest blog on the Digital Freedom site. I think our trip was able to make an impact. Although it may not have been enough to overturn this particular language, a process has been started that is increasing our awareness on Capitol Hill and sending the message that constituents are serious about making their voices heard in regards to digital issues.

It was amazing to have this kind of opportunity and I hope we’ll be able to do it again in the future.

Final(ly Done)!


I am finally finished with this semester. Looking back, I actually feel like it went by extremely quickly but once the end is in sight, everything seems to slow down. I think all of my finals turned out relatively well, the two most uncertain ones being Cell lab and Spanish. Of course, those are also the two classes that will take the longest to return grades, so I have to keep telling myself that there is nothing to be gained by worrying about them. I was definitely shooting for a 100 on my Plant biology exam but Amir shattered that dream when he showed me, after much debate, where I screwed a question up. Alas.

My Spanish professor had a few screw ups of her own surrounding the final but they worked out quite strongly in the class’s favor. As long as I didn’t make any major screwups (and here is where the uncertainty lies) I will have done pretty well. I’m so proud of myself; I was so concerned about doing well I went back and fixed all the subject-verb agreement issues I could find. I never realize I’m making those at the time because I understand how it all works, but apparently, it just isn’t reflexive yet.

I also let one of my classmates borrow my eraser for the test; however, I finished thirty minutes ago (1:40) and she still isn’t finished. I’m thinking I’m going to go ahead and forget about it for now, but Mary Lewis, if you read this, I have a mailbox in the SGA office located on the second floor of the Commons. Perhaps one day my eraser and I will be reunited.

Omar’s Room


Omar’s Room
Originally uploaded by SilverSteelWolf

Kyle and I ventured into Omar’s room while he was off taking his Physics 111 final in a bold attempt to discover the source of the odor. I’m guessing it results from 2, 3, or 4, but it’s anybody’s guess. All I have to say is, take out the trash and wash your filthy sheets Omar!

To see the full results of our analysis, click the image to view it larger.

We love you, Omar, but sometimes you are just exasperating.

In other news…


At World’s End Wallpaper
Originally uploaded by SilverSteelWolf

It appears that Facebook has gotten the blog import feature working again. Perhaps now I should go back and tag some of these.

Rachel and I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End on DVD last night. I tried to get a better quality picture by hooking the player up via the component video cables as opposed to the composite video, but it didn’t work right away and I wasn’t about to start messing with it while everybody was waiting for the movie to start. I very much enjoyed the Pirates movies, although I really think At World’s End destroyed my visions of a happy ending for Will and Elizabeth. Everything was set up for Jack Sparrow to stab the heart and become immortal while Will and Elizabeth enjoyed their happily ever after, but Jack hesitated just long enough to taunt Davy and give him a chance to change the whole game by stabbing Will. At that point, Jack took the nobler path by having Will stab the heart and be able to live with his new wife, but come on. Did you really have to do that to us? Once every ten years is really a bum deal. Heaven knows I couldn’t live without seeing Rachel for that long. My only hope for the two of them is that Will will remember the loophole in the rules that Davy used during the parley – standing in a bucket of seawater so he wasn’t technically on the land. It’d be a bit awkward for him to have sex with Elizabeth that way but they’re clever characters. Perhaps he could build special shoes or something.

I have enjoyed the soundtracks to these movies immensely – both Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt did excellent work with the themes. Right now I have the song “Up is Down” embedded below – listen for the counterpoint played on the whistle, my favorite part. I’m embedding the song via and interesting service called Imeem that allows for streaming play of songs from the RIAA labels. Of course everything is pretty locked down but at least they allow for playing the whole song, which is more than some of their artists provide on their Myspace pages. The corresponding Facebook app could be the solution for getting music on a Facebook page a la Myspace; however, for some reason certain songs are only showing up as 30 second previews even though they play in full from the main site. Hopefully this is an issue that will get worked out and not another ridiculous limitation, as the ability to embed whole songs on a web page is the draw of the whole Imeem service.

Cell lab final later today. A post about my trip to Congress this past Friday is forthcoming.

Turning Music Piracy Into Business: A Bittorrent Tracker Model


Free the Music
Originally uploaded by SilverSteelWolf

By now everybody has heard of music piracy, a trend that has quickly spread across the world as vast networks of users connect to swap their favorite tracks in the form of digital files. Many attempts have been made to curtail this sensation, from cumbersome “Digital Rights Management” or DRM on purchased content to subscription-based services that offer limited but less restricted access. Unfortunately, many of these schemes have been successful neither at securing widespread market penetration nor at decreasing music piracy. However, what if instead of trying to fight them, the successful model of the music downloading community could be adopted and legitimized? Using technology known as Bittorrent, a service can be provided to music enthusiasts that is able to meet their content needs while moving them from the fringes into the realm of consumers.

Bittorrent is at its core a community-based system. Rather than downloading whole files from a single source, users download small pieces of the file from multiple other users. Downloaders are able to simultaneously receive pieces from their fellow users while uploading pieces they already have to other peers in a cooperative system that is able to dramatically increase download speeds and allows multiple or large files to be received relatively quickly. Websites known as “trackers” compile information relating where the various pieces of a file can be found that users are able to access by downloading small files known as “torrents”. Those interested in more detailed information on exactly how the Bittorrent protocol works can find it here.

One of the immediate problems visible with such a community-based system is the type of user active torrenters term a “leecher” – a user who arrives only to download files and spends as little time as possible uploading what they have received. Exclusive communities known as “private trackers” have arisen as a way of both encouraging users to give back to the community and ensuring that the content provided is of desirable quality.

Potential downloaders are discouraged from leeching via a simple ratio-based system. The tracker monitors the amount of data a user has downloaded and compares it to how much the user has uploaded. Because the download total comprises the denominator of the fraction, a user who seldom uploads will very quickly incur a small decimal ratio. Members of the community are required to maintain a certain minimum ratio, effectively ensuring that members will continue to seed files after they have finished downloading them and guaranteeing that subsequent downloaders will continue to enjoy the same fast speeds the presence of multiple seeders provides.

Additionally, the strict quality requirements of a private tracker provide one of its major draws to users, as they are assured that the content they download will both sound excellent and be usable. Indeed, the most elite of private trackers provide audio files in lossless file formats that can then be converted into popular compressed formats such as .mp3 that can be transfered to portable devices.

What does this background information mean to the music industry? Simply that a radical and powerful business model exists that if implemented properly, has the potential to reach a market that has been eluding the music industry for years.

Rather than fighting the booming Bittorrent community, the music industry need only create and support the most popular elite private tracker on the internet, accessible to users for a small subscription fee.

Currently the music industry has access to music files of a quality unparalleled on today’s Bittorrent networks: a massive library of original master recordings. By making these available via a private Bittorrent tracker in a lossless format like FLAC, they will immediately be providing a product that is superior to what is available elsewhere. These tracks would be free of the cumbersome DRM that has plagued many other digital downloads to date.

Providing a complete music catalog to users in an unrestricted, lossless digital format gives the music industry a product that is currently unparalleled in the downloading community.

Users would be able to download these files via a private Bittorrent tracker community that operated on a subscription basis. With a reasonable price point such as $15/month, a number that has shown considerable success in the online gaming community, even college students would be able to join. Each file would be guaranteed a minimum of one seeder provided by the tracker operators. Of course, more popular files would quickly gain more seeders, helping to make downloads of those files even faster. The ratio tracking systems employed by other private trackers would go to work in this model as well, the limitations preventing users from simply paying for one month of service and downloading the entire collection. Users would need to manage their downloading to ensure that their ratio remained acceptable. Finally, new releases would be immediately available via this service, releasing simultaneously via the tracker and retail outlets.

Will some of these tracks find their way onto other trackers and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks? Absolutely. However, these releases would be mixed in with other, substandard offerings. While it would be possible to scour the internet for leaks of content from this service, as is possible to do with current offerings on private trackers, the majority of users have shown that they would rather get the content directly from the source. Experience has shown that private trackers are never hurting for membership and often must enforce a maximum user limit, only allowing new people to join when old accounts have gone inactive and been deleted.

While there may yet be some issues that need addressing, this model has shown strong adoption among the downloading community. Users have demonstrated that they are more than willing to pay for a service that offers them content in the form they desire. Rather than trying to stop this distribution method, the solution is to capitalize on it and become the strongest community on the web, legitimizing people who before would have gone elsewhere.

Pet Peeves: Listproc n00bs


Here at UMBC we have a whole lot of listprocs. Every organization, committee, and campus department seems to have one of these email mailing lists to mass-message students who opt-in. Conveniently (or not so, depending on your perspective), there is a system through our campus portal, myUMBC, that allows users to manage what listprocs they are on and add or remove themselves from various lists.

Alas, some students, for some reason or another, cannot seem to figure out how to use this relatively simple system. Instead, they do one of two things:

  • Reply to the whole listproc rather than to the person who sent the message, so the entire group gets, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ll be able to come to the meeting. I have a doctor’s appointment…you know, about the warts?”
  • Get frustrated because they are still on the group when they are no longer interested, have switched majors, or graduated the year before. They then email the listproc in frustration, demanding (sometimes with profanity) that they be removed from this list immediately.

For heaven’s sake, people. Learn to use the system! I think every listproc message should have removal instructions appended to the bottom. While it probably wouldn’t completely solve the problem, at least I would have some seriously solid grounds for calling those people n00bs.

Broadening my Intellectual Horizons


Mara Jade in Lego
Originally uploaded by SilverSteelWolf

One thing that has been especially wonderful about my experience at UMBC so far has been my exposure to an environment made up of people from so many diverse backgrounds. Each person brings their own perspective and worldview placed a varied distance on the spectrum from my own. This kind of exposure has both allowed me to broaden my own view of the world and helped me to further define what I think, the end result being that I have been able to form opinions and beliefs that acknowledge concerns and ideas I never would have considered before.

UMBC often provides me with an excellent forum for “trying out” my opinions and beliefs through discussion and debate with my fellow students. I think of these largely as learning experiences for myself rather than opportunities to change another’s mind, as the exercise helps me to further refine what I think as well as raises points I may have neglected to consider.

Yesterday I had a series of very informative debates with some of my fellow SGA members on the best method for pursing affirmative action. How can we ensure that as many people as possible from the many diverse background that popular our country have the opportunity to pursue things like higher education? Distilled, my opinion is this:

Dispersal of aid for underprivileged groups should be based on an individual’s performance given his or her socioeconomic background as opposed to race.

What exactly does this mean? I think that surveying the entire country, noticing racial disparities, and applying aid based on this information is an incorrect and flawed method that serves to exacerbate racial divisiveness. Instead, the performance of students should be evaluated based on their socioeconomic background and aid applied accordingly. While the end result may in fact be that aid is distributed in a similar if not identical method as before, the mentality behind is vastly superior. Rather than singling people out as being a member of an “underperforming race” these people can be seen as individuals striving to overcome a sub-ideal background and needing assistance. On the other side of the socioeconomic coin, those who have a more uplifted status would be expected to perform better.

But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.
-Luke 12:48 (New Living Translation)

I strongly believe that this style of thinking would not only help people who need it, it would also reward those who excel – all without resorting to destructive racial profiling.

Oh, and since I had to delete all of my old notes and reimport the most recent ones to try and get this Facebook thing to work, above are two versions of Mara Jade I made with Lego minifigures. They’re both happy because while they come from different background (flesh-toned and traditional yellow), they are being treated as individuals.

Facebook Importing, Part 2


Apparently Facebook stops importing notes without telling you if you delete any of the imported ones. So I can either have duplicates or delete all the past, commented and tagged notes. Yay Facebook for such a limited support of this feature.

Managing my Web 2.0 Life


After going through the whole process to create a Flickr account, I realized my URL of choice, /silversteelwolf, was already taken – by me. I had created another account months ago and promptly forgotten both about it and the login information for it. I’ve spent the past several days sending emails back and forth to Yahoo customer support and they helped me get the old account associated with the proper information. However, in doing so all the stuff I did to set up the second Flickr account with this blog has been destroyed, so I get to do it all over again!

Maybe I should have just waited for Web 3.0…

Importing to Facebook


For a while now I’ve been importing these blog posts as notes into my Facebook account via the handy-dandy RSS feed Blogger provides. However, I recently added the feed to FeedBurner largely because it allows me to track subscribers using the handy little button on the right-hand side – four already since I added the thing, that’s pretty good I’d say.

At any rate, I wanted to change my Facebook settings to use this new feed, but by doing so had to reimport my last 10 or so blog entries, causing me to have to go back and delete all of the duplicates. Certainly Facebook could improve on this one – after all, they show you the entries about to be imported before you confirm, so it would be a simple matter to allow users to select which ones they want to add. As blogging continues to become more popular, it becomes more and more useful to have well-built tools for incorporating it into other popular sites like Facebook. While I am glad that the import feature exists, it needs a few tweaks to realize its full potential.