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Newsletter Issue #339

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

Our “other” radio show has explored a variety of paranormal topics, such as UFOs, ghosts and remote viewing, which is the ability to see events happening in another location in your mind. And then there are those conspiracy theories, something that one of our guests, Kenneth Thomas, calls “para-politics.”

By far the most popular conspiracy theory concerns the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s hard for many to believe that a lone gunman, a deranged loner by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald, may have, as many believe, been responsible for the tragedy. Regardless of the truth behind theories that a conspiracy may have been involved, one thing is certain, and that is talking about it can entail its own consequences.

Take the taping of the May 30th episode. My co-host, David Biedny, and I set up our usual Skype peer-to-peer connection, and we telephoned the guest, who used a regular land line. But every six or seven minutes, Kenn said he couldn’t hear us, and so we had to close the conference and start all over. One one occasion, David got disconnected and, on another, his voice became crackly. It’s fair to say that this sort of thing can happen because of the uncertainties of the Internet, or maybe Skype’s system is a little over-extended these days. It wasn’t difficult to put the separate components of the interview together into a coherent whole. What’s more, such events do not necessarily have to be caused by any sort of conspiratorial element, but when you do a show in the fashion of “The Paracast,” you have to expect strange things to happen. It’s all part of the territory.

Now about The Tech Night Owl LIVE: We had four great guests on May 25th. The day before PowerPage.org’s Jason O’Grady got good news from a California appeals court in his legal skirmish with Apple, he opined on that subject and about a number of matters related to the MacBook and MacBook Pro. We were also joined by Apple’s display product person, Scott Brodrick, Intego’s David Loomstein, on security and backup matters, and VIZIO’s Jeff Schindler, who talked about the company’s line of low-cost LCD and plasma TVs.

And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, video tuner/recorders, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

APPLE AND THE ONLINE PRESS

For months, people have been talking about Apple’s efforts to use the courts get information about who might have leaked confidential information about a new digital interface from several Mac Web sites and their ISPs. The news about Apple’s defeat on Friday in a California appeals court may not be the end of the story, however. As with most matters of extreme legal import, there may be further skirmishes in the courts, but that decision is up to Apple at this point.

Meantime, before you read our newsletter commentary on the matter, I recommend you check out the actual decision, which is posted here. The hour or so you spend reading it will put you in a better position to evaluate some of the knee-jerk reactions that have been published so far.

To recap ever-so-briefly: In December, 2004, Apple visited subpoenas upon several Mac sites and their hosting services asking them to provide email records. Why? To reveal the name of the person or persons who revealed confidential information about a FireWire-based audio interface that bore the code-name Asteroid. But the sites in question, which included AppleInsider, O’Grady’s PowerPage and ThinkSecret, refused to back down.

In protesting the subpoenas, they cited a California law that shields the press, allowing them to protect their sources. Apple initially claimed that these so-called “bloggers,” weren’t journalists, but simply fencing stolen information.

Apple was victorious in the initial action. In March 2005, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg didn’t address the issue of whether or not the defendants were journalists, but accepted Apple’s right to keep its trade secrets confidential.

The three judge California Court of Appeal in the Sixth Appellate District clearly realized that major case law was being decided here. They not only ruled that there was no way to separate the “legitimate” from the “illegitimate” journalists, but that Apple wasn’t entitled to examine email records in hope of finding who was responsible for revealing its internal secrets.

But even while the victors celebrate, the big question is whether Apple will lick its wounds and look for other ways to get its employees to spill the beans, or simply appeal to a higher court. On the surface, the lengthy unanimous decision written by Appeals Court Judge Conrad Rushing seems quite clear-cut, with little wiggle room for attorneys to find some reversible errors they could exploit in a higher court.

I don’t pretend to be an attorney, but if you have enough funds, as Apple does, to hire first-rate attorneys, you will almost always find enough gray areas in the law to afford an excuse to move on.

At the same time, it raises the larger issue of whether Apple should have gone in this direction in the first place. To be sure, the company comes off as a bully. There’s little doubt about that. At the same time, they surely do have the right to have their employees sign confidentiality agreements, and to enforce those agreements.

So we return to the core question: Before this prolonged legal action began, did Apple do enough to determine which of its employees was leaking information to Mac news sites? Just talking to a couple of dozen employees wouldn’t seem sufficient, because clearly the offender wouldn’t just confess under those circumstances. So what’s next? Well, Apple’s attorneys could elicit sworn testimony, or even carry the threat of lie detector tests to get at the truth. Sure, the polygraph isn’t fool-proof. But the mere threat might force someone to tell the truth, even if it resulted in termination of their employment, and possible other penalties.

It could be, of course, that no Apple employee was responsible for sending this information to the sites in question. Maybe someone hacked one of Apple’s servers to uncover a presentation file that covered some of the basic marketing details of Asteroid, a product that has, so far, never been released.

Wherever the truth lies, clearly Apple felt those Web sites, which are no more than small businesses, and their ISPs, would quickly cave. Clearly they were wrong, and, in light of Friday’s decision, legal threats are going to carry far less weight in the future. Sure, Apple has the right to protect its trade secrets, but it’s not following the path of least resistance to get to the source of the problem.

Besides, Apple’s public image isn’t being helped when it sues some of its most eager fans. Maybe they will think twice next time before calling out their legal eagles. That is, if they don’t just decide to appeal the decision and let the chips fall.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE IPOD GENERATION: CONVENIENCE VERSUS QUALITY

The ultimate dream of a music system is to reproduce a live performance as closely as possible. Or at least, that’s the way it used to be, and some of you spent tens of thousands of dollars for various forms of stereo equipment in search of a sonic holy grail.

Without going into a touchy area, I realize some still treasure vinyl to such a degree that you’ve spent as much as $20,000 on a turntable. You may prefer the usually altered sonics of tubes and have spent princely sums on that sort of gear. But the real focus of this article is whether many of you are trading all this quality for the simple convenience of downloading (one hopes legally) music online and putting it all on your Mac, your PC and, of course, your iPod.

It is perfectly true that you can simply rip music from a CD and download from your computer to your iPod. With a high-quality headphone, you’ll be getting superb audio quality; that is, of you choose Apple’s lossless or a high-bit compression setting. You can even plug the iPod into that megabuck stereo, and the sound quality will be surprisingly good.

But most of you want to pack as many tunes on your iPod as possible, so you’re willing to stick with the 128K AAC codec Apple uses for its music store. It’s allegedly CD-quality, but is it? How do they compress the data so much and retain all the quality?

Well, it’s not like using StuffIt to compress a file. In that case, no data is actually lost. Both AAC and MP3, however, are lossy codecs, which means that data deemed not essential is discarded. The lower the bit rate, the more data is ditched, until a point is reached where such sensitive audio signals as an acoustic piano might reveal annoying artifacts. I suppose it doesn’t matter so much if it’s one of those typically-loud and indistinguishable pop music ditties, but if you care about sound quality, it may not meet high expectations.

But for millions, the convenience of having your entire music library in your pocket, and sound quality that is, for all intents and purposes, good enough, is sufficient. Yes, that extra 10% or so may be meaningful to some of you, but the demand for Apple to provide a higher-quality version of its over two million tracks doesn’t seem to be there.

Or maybe the music companies don’t want to deliver better-quality product. After it, didn’t they want to institute a multiple-tier pricing policy, with hits selling for a premium, until Steve Jobs set them straight?

Now I understand the number of people who demand superior audio quality may be small in the scheme of things, perhaps thousands as opposed to millions. On the other hand, I would rather hope our musical legacy isn’t one where we are willing to sacrifice the near-perfect for the fairly good. I understand the convenience factor, but the iPod is strictly a storage and playback medium. Better quality product simply means more storage space, and, with the prices of tiny storage media getting cheaper, that may not matter.

And then we have the TV shows and music videos you can download from iTunes, but that’s another tale for another time.

THE FINAL WORD

The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis