Online music still not ready for prime-time

In CNET News.com today:

Liquid Audio to evaporate. The company’s board of directors votes unanimously to dissolve the company and distribute its cash reserves to shareholders.

Pretty pathetic. Liquid was one of the very first innovators to attempt to make a legal online music system in the Napster age. The fact that they’ve gone out of business shows just how stupid the recording industry is. Without a cheap, widely available alternative to getting illegal music from Kazaa or Gnutella, people are going to continue to violate copyright and copy music.

I’m willing to pay between 10 and 25 cents a song. Charge my PayPal account to avoid the overhead of credit card transactions and subscription models. RIAA, are you listening?

Udi Manber: The First 10 Years on the Web

Introduction to Algorithms: A Creative Approach Udi Manber gave the first talk of this year’s Jon Postel Distinguished Lecture Series today at UCLA.

It seems fitting that I should have a link to Udi’s book on Amazon.com at the beginning of my review of his talk; he started working for Amazon just about a month ago.

While a handful of professors and grad students scrambled around trying to get the laptop to work correctly with the LCD projector, Udi spoke a bit about his personal history as the Web developed. He mentioned his contributions to the field, including suffix arrays (1989), agrep (1991), glimpse (1992), and even the web’s first screen scraper (1996).

What makes the web so fundamentally new and exciting

When Udi returned from a sabbatical in 1993, he was very excited about how the web was going to change everything. His colleagues cautioned him, “But there’s nothing new in the Web. We’ve done it all before. The web is just databases, networks and information retrieval all over again.” He acknowledged that his peers were correct in some respects, but scale is what makes the web fundamentally new: the sheer number of users, and the amount of content. He also related the importance of the ubiquity of the web with the advent of television:

  • TV didn’t invent storytelling

  • TV didn’t invent motion pictures
  • TV didn’t invent actors
  • It wasn’t even in color
  • But it’s in everyone’s home!

Because everything on the web is traceable, Udi feels that data available to websites also allows for companies to create a fundamentally different experience:

  1. More data == better experience. For example, an Amazon.com product detail page shows not only the price of a product, but also related items based on what customers bought, editorial and user-generated reviews, and sometimes even scanned excerpts from a book.

  2. Instant data == instant QA. Companies get instant feedback from users both in the form of emails and also what customers do and don’t click on or buy. Any problems with the software are noticed quickly, are solved faster, and a company is able to lose less money.
  3. Flexible data == better business decisions. By running controlled experiments (Amazon calls them A/B tests) the company can decide whether a new feature should be placed on the left or right side of the page, or whether the color should be blue or green. Almost every new feature is first tested by showing it to a random sampling of the user base to see how they react to it. It’s really easy to see after some small amount of testing if something is going to make more money or improve the user experience.

Udi gave an example of a feature that the company tested. When you’re about to purchase a product, they look through all of your past purchases to see if you’ve already bought that item from Amazon.com. If you have, they pop up a big red warning telling you that you might be buying a duplicate item. There are some legit reasons why you’d want a duplicate; maybe you lost the item, or maybe it’s going to be a gift. But many times it turns out that people put a CD in their shopping cart simply because they forgot that they already own it. So Amazon developed this feature out and tested it out.

Sure enough, it decreased sales, because much of the time the consumer didn’t need a duplicate. But Amazon decided to adopt the feature anyways! Even though it meant less revenue in the short term, the better user experience by not having to return an item (hopefully) translates to increased customer loyalty and therefore more long-term revenue.

Search

Udi spent a bit of time talking about the importance of Search. He described what he sees as 4 generations of web search:

  • 1992-1993: index data from selected sites (Harvest, archie)

  • 1995: collect data from the entire web (Lycos, AltaVista, InfoSeek, Inktomi)
  • 1998: it’s all about relevancy, stupid! (Google)
  • 2001: it’s all about monetization, stupid! (Overture)
  • and the next generation of Web Search is yet to come

What is missing from Search today? Udi pointed out a bunch of problems waiting to be solved:

  • Understanding the query (these days we’re still treating search queries as strings of characters)

  • Understanding the users
  • Personalization (instead of today’s “democratic” search engines which show everyone the same results for a particular query, should we customize the search results based on what we know about the user?)
  • Helping the user with query refinement
  • Better visualization of search results (something better than pages and pages of text, but also something easy enough for people to understand)
  • Anti-SPAM (there are hundreds of companies in the Search Engine Optimization business who are essentially spamming Google to improve rankings of particular sites.)

E-Commerce

Udi prefaced his comments about e-commerce by pointing out that “business” and merchants are hated in almost all cultures, yet somehow commerce/trading started as early as 4000 BC. Why? Because the alternative for acquiring goods is war and that doesn’t scale too well.

He spoke a bit about the beginnings of Amazon.com (Jeff Bezos’ garage) and showed the audience a screen shot of what Amazon’s home page looked like in 1995 complete with LOTS OF TEXT IN SMALL CAPS. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Udi then moved on to discuss in broad terms some of the problems involved in order fulfillment. Deciding what products to ship from what distribution centers and what to order from publishers or distributors involves all sorts of combinatorics and traveling salesman problems. He gave a particular hairy example of a Stochastic Linear Program used to optimize shipping of an order of just 2 books. Most of these problems are exponential in complexity, and the site has got only 500 milliseconds to make an intelligent decision so it can tell the user how much shipping is going to cost for their order.

Udi was hoping to talk about Security, too, but he ran short on time. Instead he took some Q&A from the audience. Many questions had to do with specifics about Amazon’s business and development culture, which Udi couldn’t really answer because he’s only been there a month. When asked about what he would change about academia given his experience in both worlds, he said he wanted to see more of a focus on solving real problems. Too many toy problems are given to students just for the sake of learning. As a result, academics don’t often understand the problems of real users. To help remedy this, he would be interested in providing academic institutions some of Amazon’s real data to use for teaching algorithms and modeling.

Lastly, Udi announced that he would be available on Friday morning at UCLA to speak to students about jobs at Amazon.com. I’m guessing that he’s building up a kewl R&D team and wants a crop of freshly minted PhDs.

Dmitry’s DMCA case begins

Free Dmitry Sklyarov! An important test for the DMCA begins this week. Acording to Wired News,

Opening arguments begin Tuesday in the copyright infringement case against the Russian coding firm, a trial expected to test the limits of federal copyright law. Programmer Dmitri Sklyarov will be on hand to testify for both the prosecution and the defense.

I’m intersted in this case mostly because it’s a battle between the DMCA and the principle of fair use, but also because it involves my former employer.

Joe Andrieu: Carpe Diem or Caveat Emptor?

I’m off to UCLA to hear a lecture for my CS239 class. Here’s the abstract:

For the prepared and alert entrepreneur, “Opportunity knocks far more than once.” Indeed, as the subtitle implies, the challenge is to erecognize the right opportunity and then stay focused on it. Many factors can lure one into taking the wrong direction or scuttle seizing the right opportunity when it arises. Strong emotional attachments to effort already expended and the associated dream of the end game can be seductive, substituting wishful thinking for sober analysis. Pressure from investors anxious to cash out or founders coveting the image of an IPO may overcome a less sexy but correct private sale alternative. Distinguishing reality from subtly masked fantasy may well be the keystone of leadership talent. Having been through multiple ventures during the last 10 years, today’s speaker will illuminate the desiderata and pitfalls attendant to deciding when to act and which course to take among competing alternatives.

Sounds like a cool lecture. Tomorrow, I’m going to the CS201 talk entitled The First Ten Years on the Web: A Personal Perspective by Udi Manber, Chief Scientist, Amazon.com.

My friend Gabriel has a blog

Gabriel_Cheifetz.gif I set my friend Gabriel up with a blog today. Naturally, he’s using the same toolset I’ve got: MovableType hosted on NetSpace. Setting him up took me about 15 minutes, including a workaround for NetSpace’s broken copy of Digest::MD5.

Gabriel was my college roommate and is the co-founder of DoTheGood, which provides philanthropy management solutions to financial institutions.

I look forward to seeing what he writes about.

What a long day!

I’m exhausted. I just got back home from a very long day in Sunnyvale. LAX to SJC to LAX. 16 hours of travel, caffeine, meetings, a bunch of phone calls, a ton of email, and some more meetings. I don’t think I wrote a single line of code today.

A few quickies before I light Chanukah candles with Ariella:

  • story.kosher.oysters.jpg Is it kosher to sell ‘kosher’ oysters? My brother-in-law forwarded me a link about a story on CNN about a guy in Louisiana selling “Certified Kosher” oysters. Hilarious.

  • For the first time in a long time, a spam email message slipped through my SpamAssassin filter. “Create Professional 3D eBooks” got a score of 4.0. Just one more point and it would’ve been neatly procmailed into my ~/mail/possible-spam folder. Oh well. Can’t win all the time.
  • I spent about 45 minutes chatting with one of my co-workers late this afternoon about the world of search engines (Google, AltaVista, Inktomi). Great technical discussion.
  • I met my folks for dinner at a Mexican restaurant off Castro St. in Mountain View. They got us a Chanukah present from Crate & Barrel. I can’t wait to open it!
  • CARAVA28.jpg Returned the stupid mini-van I rented from Dollar this morning. I won’t be renting from them at SJC ever again for two reasons. First, I’m sick and tired of reserving an Economy, Compact, or Mid-Size car and getting stuck with a minivan. Second, our travel policy indicates that our preferred vendor is Avis. Even though I’m saving the company money (getting the $32.99/day rate from Dollar vs. $50-something even with the Avis corporate discount), apparently I’m not being a good corporate citizen. Next time I’m going to just take taxis to/from SJC.

I’m off to light some candles!

International Abolition of Slavery Day

handcuffs.jpg Today (December 2nd) is International Abolition of Slavery Day. According to the iAbolish Freedom Action Network,

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the international community’s decision to abolish slavery everywhere, through the adoption of the Slavery Convention in 1927. Though the legal argument against slavery has been won, slavery persists and even thrives in some parts of the world. By conservative estimates, 30 million people are enslaved today — more than any time in history.

To do your part to help to end slavery, visit iAbolish.

Information wants to be free?

This graphic is Copyright (c) 2002 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.  Should I be re-publishing it here? I spend a lot of time thinking about IP. No, I’m not talking about Internet Protocol; I’m talking about the other IP. Intellectual Property. Some day before I get too old, I’m going to put my career as a software guy on hold and go to law school to study this stuff more seriously.

I was talking about blogs with my friend Gabriel last night on the phone, and the subject of images came up. I mentioned to him that I was trying to put graphics next to each blog entry that I write because it’s entertaining and it makes the page easier to read (too much text and people won’t bother to read my blog). I often go to http://images.google.com/ and search for something then grab whatever graphic happens to look the best. So I mentioned to Gabriel that I’m worried about the copyright implications of re-publishing someone else’s clipart/photo/graphic without their permission.

“Whatever, dude. Information wants to be free,” he said. “Plus, it’s fair use.”

Actually, the reason I’m worried about it is that I’m pretty sure it’s not covered under the fair use doctrine. Writing a blog is pretty clearly a form of publication, and fair use certainly doesn’t cover republication. It might allow you to rent a movie from Blockbuster and show it to a dozen of your friends at home, but it doesn’t allow you to display that movie in a public place (like a restaurant or bar) without paying royalties to the movie studio. Since blogs are a public medium (it’s not just my family friends that read this, but also a bunch of people I don’t even know), to be 100% legal I probably should avoid using random images I grab off the web (or I should specifically seek out unencumbered graphics, such as the dreidel I found when searching for “free chanukah clipart”).

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that copyright law can be taken too far. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act perhaps gets the most attention of the copyright-laws-gone-awry. And I haven’t even begun to understand the implications of the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act.

free-the-mouse.gif The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is also really misguided; Mickey Mouse belongs in the public domain as much as American Gothic and Uncle Sam do.

But I have a strong respect for copyright law because artists deserve a right to make a living. If you’re selling a product (like bars of soap or ink jet printers) then you’ve got a steady revenue stream because your product eventually wears out and people need to buy more. When you’re providing a service (like helping people with their income taxes) you get paid for that, too.

But Intellectual Property is different. It’s not a tangible product that you can buy, but it’s something that we still find valuable (otherwise we wouldn’t pay 9 bucks to see a first-run movie). In the digital age, we need to be especially diligent with IP. Digital copies of creative works are essentially free to copy (thanks to 19 cent blank CD-Rs and fast Internet connections). When you write a book, compose some music, direct a movie, or even write code, your work can be copied an infinite number of times without you getting paid for it. We all have families to support. Copyright law was originally intended to ensure that creative individuals would get compensated for their work.

Gabriel pointed out that the Open Source Software movement is trying to turn copyright upside-down. But if you look at the key people in the OSS movement, they benefit tremendously from copyright law. Many of them write code for free, but they make their living by authoring books and magazine articles, and getting paid to speak at conferences. Some of them run consulting and support companies. The very lucky ones are employed by a generous and open-minded corporation that pays their engineering salary but donates their time to the Open Source world.

I agree that information wants to be free. We all want a free lunch.

Pastrami on Rye

pastrami-sandw.jpg After a pretty awful day of working in the garden, we went to Pico Kosher Deli for dinner and I ate a big pastrami sandwich. It was incredible. I’m still in a bad mood, but my stomach is full.

I spent many years being an almost-vegetarian (I never gave up eating fish) but about a year and a half ago I broke down during Pesach and started eating kosher meat. I still eat vegetarian most of the time; we’ve got a milchig-only kitchen at home, and I don’t eat meat in non-kosher restaurants. But every once in a while I actually take advantage of the LA kosher food industry and eat some fleishigs.

Ariella had a bite. We said Shehecheyanu.