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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2007/12/21
by David Steinberg

Imagine No Possessions

A few weeks ago, Amazon announced the creation of their electronic book reader. At first the idea intrigued me. Much in the way that mp3 players have popularized the idea of having your entire collection of music with you, there’s a definite appeal to having dozens of books with you at all times. Fortunately, before I could get to the point of buying an expensive piece of plastic, I thought about it a little more.
There’s one huge difference between an iPod and a Kindle; it’s a lot more difficult to rip a book [1]. Put a CD in the player, and it will be converted to mp3s in minutes. The songs will be labeled for you and you can import them into your favorite program, all with little to no effort. As for books, well there is an automated book scanner, but it’s not exactly cheap.
Since you can’t convert your own library, you are dependent on Amazon to provide content for you. In theory, that shouldn’t be an issue. Amazon scans in a high percentage of the books that they sell – based on which ones let you search the site for content – so most of their books should be for sale, right? Go to Amazon, search only for Kindle books, and see what comes up. Harry Potter? The only results for that search are literary essays and teaching guides. Lord of the Rings? Same results. Robert Heinlein wrote dozens of books. You can buy five of them. There are 27 returns for Isaac Asimov, but only 5 of them would ones that you would have heard of [2]. You’d think that Science Fiction would be all about the concept of electronic books, but few of my favorite books managed to make the transition.
If the problem isn’t technical and if Amazon really wants to sell products this way, what’s preventing it? This is yet another side effect of massive file sharing. Publishers saw what happened to the music industry and they’re terrified. It’s too late to salvage the CD situation. There were attempts at moving people to higher fidelity – and more copy protected – formats but music is already at the limits of most people’s hearing ability; most people are more than willing to take the quality loss that mp3s provide in order to have the extra portability. Consumers have grown to expect the ability to rip their music and copy it; once they’ve had it, they’re not willing to lose that without a lot of tradeoffs. Once people get used to being able to rip and view their files, it’s too late.
This frustrates me to no end. As I sit here in my living room, typing this column, I can see that the far wall is taken over by bookcases to hold my DVD collection. I can’t see why that has to be the case. Two terabyte hard drives now exist; one of those can hold 235 dual layer DVDs. We’re about 2-3 hard drive generations away from being able to store just about any reasonable collection in full DVD quality [3].
There’s a device I want that doesn’t exist [4]. It would be simple enough to make and would sell incredibly well. It’s a simple media player. Stick a DVD in it and it makes a bit to bit exact copy to its hard drive. Once that’s done, it’ll let you scroll through a menu of what you have in order to choose from any of your discs. Not sure what you want to watch? It could randomly choose a show or movie (or special feature presumably) from your collection. Because hard drives can fail and no one would trust it any other way, you could plug in external drives via a USB port to back up your files. This device would change the way that we watch movies and TV in the same way that portable mp3 players change how we listen to music; the days of trying to decide which discs to bring on a trip seem rather quaint.
There is absolutely no technical reason why this device couldn’t exist. It would work the same exact way as a DVD player, only reading from a hard drive instead of an optical disc. Still though, all we get are these weird variants, Apple TV, Xbox video, Playstation 3 video, all of them do part of this but not all [5]. The hurdle isn’t technological; it’s legal. Once files exist on a hard drive, they can be copied, and people have shown no will power when it comes to that.
The DVD standard is only a decade newer than the Red Book CD, but that was a tumultuous time in the computer world. It didn’t really occur to the RIAA that disc ripping and burning would ever be a possibility (let alone the Internet) but those were already becoming a reality by the early 90s. More than anything, the mp3 revolution happened due to cluelessness about how quickly computer power would expand. Now that people know what’s possible and how people will react to those possibilities, there’s little chance that we’ll ever have technology this good again. Thanks again downloaders.
[1] Well unless you mean literally of course.
[2] In defense of Kindle, those are his biggest books. Asimov comes across relatively well here.
[3] Unlike the case with music, video technology is just starting to get to the limits of human perception. High definition is still easily distinguishable from DVD and DVD is far better than regular definition TV. On a 51" television, compression would be noticeable.
[4] Probably the Alienware home system comes closest, but it’s $2000 and it still doesn’t seem to do quite what I want.
[5] Note that all of these – along with TiVo home network – play mp3s in exactly this manner. There’s proof that what I want isn’t unrealistic.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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