“MP3 is Dead,” or Real Fake News

A little over a week ago, I learned from Marco Arment that a number of news organizations erroneously reported that the MP3 format was dead. (NPR, d’oh!) The real news, however, was lot more complex and a lot less dramatic.

Technicolor and Fraunhofer, which owned and licensed the patents used to make MP3 work, had terminated the licensing program for software developers and hardware manufacturers to encode and playback MP3 files. Technicolor and Fraunhofer terminated the program because the patents they held and were used for MP3 had expired. Technicolor nor Fraunhofer no longer had a legal right to charge to license those patents. Thus, MP3 is now freely available for anyone to use: software developers and hardware manufacturers need not pay royalties to support MP3.

But that does not make for a dramatic story. Instead, either unintentionally or through sheer negligence, the story was that “MP3 was dead.” One writer even concluded his article with a eulogy of sorts, embedding the Susan Vega song that was the first to be encoded in MP3, in part to test the fidelity of the compression algorithm. Pour one out for MP3 while reciting “Tom’s Diner.”

MP3 is Free, Buy AAC

However, MP3 is not dead. The storyline that MP3 is dead seems to come from the former patent holders themselves. They likely pushed this storyline to gain support for a newer format that is still patent-protected, AAC. AAC is, by many measures, a better compression format. But as Marco Arment points out, MP3 is still overwhelming supported for most applications, including podcasts, because it’s a de-facto standard. And because it’s so widely supported and because a lot more people recognize “MP3” than those who know what “AAC” is, it’s unlikely that MP3 will disappear, especially now that it is free.

Because Technicolor and Fraunhofer could no longer profit from MP3, it meant they would have to find a new way to earn royalties on another audio codec. Declaring MP3 dead was a way to move users from the now-free MP3 codec to the patent-protected AAC.

The Techdirt podcast covered this subject in depth this week. They seemed unsympathetic to the former patent holders, and I can’t blame them. The patent holders could have announced something like “starting today, we’re suspending our MP3 licensing program and now anyone can use MP3 for free. This will give us a chance to focus on promoting new compression technologies, such as AAC, to become the newer and better successor to MP3.”

MP3 is dead, but only to Fraunhofer because they can’t make money from it.

OTA Isn’t Dead, Either

Declaring MP3 dead reminded me of what happened almost a decade ago with the digital broadcast TV transition.

In 2009, the FCC required almost all broadcast TV stations to turn off their analog over-the-air (OTA) signals. The most immediate effect was that, for people with older, analog-only TV receivers, they would have to get a digital-to-analog TV converter box or subscribe to a cable or satellite TV to continue to watch TV. Those with newer digital TV receivers would have to take no significant action to continue watching TV.

However, the storyline that came from this was that over-the-air broadcast TV was dead. As I noted in 2013, this was simply not true: rabbit ears still work. In fact, the DTV transition did lead to more cable and satellite subscribers. As a form of poetic justice, those gains have been wiped out by cord-cutting.

A profit motive seemed to drive the story that there would be no more “rabbit ears.” In the case of the the digital TV transition in 2009, I wrote that “cable and satellite companies took this as an opportunity to sign up new customers thinking that those that received over-the-air television would be doomed. Instead, they were just duped.”

Neither OTA nor MP3 is dead. In fact, both are very much alive and, best of all, they are both free!

What to Do Now that American Apparel is Gone

American Apparel Warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 2012

American Apparel Warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 2012

Although American Apparel earned a tarnished reputation for its racy ads and the repeated sexual harassment lawsuits filed against its founder, the company produced the best available shirts for screen printers. This is not to mention its commitment to manufacturing in the United States, specifically southern California, and some innovative designs. As one printer mentioned on a website I can’t find in my bookmarks, before American Apparel, it was virtually impossible to find 40-single, lightweight ring-spun cotton shirts. After American Apparel, this became an industry standard. In other words, that soft cotton t-shirt you’re wearing right now wasn’t widely available before American Apparel.

The company as we knew it no longer exists. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and, earlier this year, it was acquired by Gildan, a leading manufacturer of imprintables that manufactures most of its products outside the US and its home country of Canada, for $88 million.

For someone who preferred to use American Apparel for printing, I found that I have three options going forward:

  1. Source from the new American Apparel. Earlier this year, Gildan revived the brand and its made-in-USA offerings, but the selection is extremely limited. Gone, for example, are the poly-cotton neon heather pink shirts that my Ball Busters team wore last year. Pricing seems to be about the same as it was with the old company, but, given that Gildan intends to recover its $88 million investment in the company, it seems reasonable to presume that there must be some differences in manufacturing.
  2. Source from another mill. Since I knew that I wasn’t going to reliably source American Apparel shirts forever, I started to look for some alternatives. I used a few Gildan cotton shirts, particularly the ring-spun Soft Style, and a few other shirts from Bella and Canvas and Next Level Apparel. But I found that for the price, the best shirts I’ve printed come from Tultex. The shirts are made overseas, but they work almost as well for water-based printing as American Apparel shirts. The innovations of American Apparel have indeed become “industry standard.”
  3. Source from Los Angeles Apparel. American Apparel founder, Dov Charney, returned with a new company. Los Angeles Apparel manufactures its shirts in South Central Los Angeles, with the seemingly identical business model that he used for American Apparel. The company’s offerings are very limited, but the first ones are similar to the best-selling products from American Apparel: a ringspun cotton jersey shirt, a 50/50 poly-cotton t-shirt, and a poly-rayon-cotton triblend t-shirt, for example. The colors are also similar to the American Apparel line, but they by no means match the old or current American Apparel line.

While the old American Apparel is gone, the seem to be some choices for us. Each of them offers some advantages. There seems to be some continuity between new and old American Apparel products and, for those cases where I want to match the look of an older style (and where such stock exists), this seems to be a good option. I’ve been using the Tultex shirts, and those shirts have been well-received. Finally, Los Angeles Apparel seems to be a good option for a new look with a manufacturing process that we liked with the old American Apparel and to support manufacturing in Los Angeles, and I plan to these these shirts for upcoming projects.

Craft Beer Cans are the New Sneakers, the New Baseball Cards, the New 180-Gram Records

Readers and personal acquaintances know that I’ve generally been supportive of the craft beer movement that has exploded over the years. After all, craft breweries provide an ideal destination after a long bike ride.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this movement is the obsession with cans. Many craft breweries have been canning beer for a while now, and while I certainly appreciate that this allows breweries to offer their beers beyond their own taprooms and a few nearby bars, there’s a bothersome subculture that has emerged to buy cases-upon-cases of these cans to trade them with other beer aficionados. This was on display yesterday at LIC Beer Project, in Long Island City.

Coronation Day!

A post shared by Jeremy Ball (@jeremyaball) on

The brewery released cans of their Pile of Crowns IPA on a rainy Saturday, beginning at noon, and by one account, they sold out within a half hour.

Although I wasn’t set on buying cans, I was disappointed to find out they were out of Pile of Crowns IPA. Except they weren’t out of this beer at all! They were serving it on tap, for on-premises consumption and for take-home growler fills. You bet that I got a pint.

The taproom at LIC Beer Project has draft beers, even after they sell out of cans.

Having savored the tasty, fruity, juicy beer, I wondered about the hype behind the craft beer cans. No doubt, the can artwork is one of my favorite aspects of these cans. Because they print on a wrap-around label, rather than on the can itself, the artwork adorning the can is more akin to a poster or an album cover than the bland labels or printed cans we’ve seen forever.

LIC Beer Project Coronation Day, May 13, 2016, Pile of Crowns IPA can release day

I really like the artwork on these cans, as you can see in this ad for the Pile of Crowns IPA can release at LIC Beer Project.

However, these can releases and the euphoria surrounding them seem to be a way of introducing scarcity to the craft beer movement. Buying a can of craft beer is getting a precious object that you can trade like a valuable commodity. It reminds of those subcultures that buy and trade sneakers, limited-edition 180-gram vinyl records, or, going back to my youth, baseball cards. While there’s nothing precious about having someone spill some beer into your glass or growler, there’s an authenticity to that exchange. In essence, you’re buying the beer for the beer, as if you’re buying a record for the music or the baseball card because you’re a fan of the player. Being a collector is not necessarily the same as being a fanatic.

I fear that these limited can releases will only hasten the decline of the movement into a consolidated industry with fewer choices than we have now. As I’ve said before, the wonderful thing about craft beer right now is that there’s so much of it. The scarcity of cans suggests that we’re interested in less great beer, not more of it.

Team Matchless Tees: Clear Discharge on Heather Denim Blue

As I’ve written before on the site, I have become a fan of discharge screen printing, but sometimes the results can be unpredictable. For example, I printed a whole batch of American Apparel jersey cotton t-shirts. Most of them came out to a light brown color, but some came out blue.

Discharge printing works by removing the dye from the fabric, and it really works only on all-cotton shirts. It sometimes works on poly-cotton blends, but you might not get the results you wanted. I was tasked with printing some more shirts for the softball team sponsored by Bar Matchless in Brooklyn.

The team selected a poly-cotton shirt in heather blue denim made by Tultex.

Tutlex Heather Blue Denim Raglan Shirt

They didn’t have any specific instructions in terms of print color. I was allowed to do what I wanted. At first, white seemed like a good choice, but I didn’t like the result. It looked like I had printed on top of the shirt, instead of printing in the shirt. Also, black seemed to fade away into a low contrast color. (Please excuse the poor white balance.)

Bar Matchless Shirts - Test Prints

The black might look a little gold to you, but trust me, it’s not. It’s the similar effect of that white-gold/blue-black dress meme from a couple of years ago.

I tried a series of different colors, including clear discharge. This “ink” removed the dye from the fabric but does not add any color. I was concerned whether this would work with a poly-cotton shirts that was dyed blue, but the results looked great.

Fullsizeoutput fdee

You can see that the natural color of the fabric complements the heather blue denim color really well, certainly much better than what I saw in my tests using white ink or black ink.

Here’s a look at the whole print on the shirt:

Fullsizeoutput fded

This example reinforces something I’ve learned over the years. Order a bunch of extra blank shirts to run test prints. You might be surprised how well one combination might work.

Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!

How I Almost Fell for the “Google Docs” Phishing Scam

Less than an hour ago, I received an email saying that a former student has invited me to view a Google Docs document. I hovered over the link and saw that URL was one at Google, beginning with https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/auth.

I followed the link and went to a Google login page. My Google accounts were listed there. But a suspicious feeling gave me pause, and I closed the “Google accounts” window.

Some moments ago, I learned that this wasn’t an ordinary phishing attempt. It is one of the more clever phishing attempts in recent memory.

  1. You get an email from a known contact.
  2. The “Open in Docs” link is to a google.com domain.
  3. You are taken to a Google accounts page, where you grant access to the fake “Google Docs” app.

The scam is “well designed” in that it doesn’t try to steal your credentials—username and password—but instead gets you to authorize the scammers complete access to your Google account. Even a strong unique password and two-step authentication won’t protect you.

I alerted a few colleagues earlier today, and as I did so, I felt like I was forwarding some chain mail–type warning that would have circulated twenty-odd years ago.

Overbooking Flights, Involuntary Deny Boarding, Contract Carriers, and Other Terms Airline Passengers Don’t Understand

Overbooking flights seems counterintuitive to novice flyers. Most people consider it unthinkable to miss a flight so they can’t fathom why an airline would literally bet that some percentage of passengers will not show for their flights.

The reality is that “things” happen. Passengers will arrive late at the airport, connecting passengers will misconnect from an arriving flight, passengers take an alternate flight (elite passengers often change for free, while casual passengers can do so for a fee), and passengers might score upgrade to another cabin. In other words, a flight’s seating chart can change a lot. But in some cases, more passengers than expected show up. When that happens the airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. I did this a few times—most memorably around Labor Day weekend some years ago—and scored some travel vouchers. In those cases, we were denied boarding at the gate, well before any passenger boarded the flight.

In a few cases, I have seen passengers ask to deplane after we’ve all boarded. But this is not due to the number of seats being overfilled. It’s due to weight restrictions. Small planes, like those used by Express carriers, can only carry so much weight. If a flight is overweight, passengers will have to deplane—in exchange for compensation—in order to meet the weight restrictions.

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding. That’s what happened this weekend on a United Express flight where a passenger was forcibly removed by airport security. The videos that other passengers captured and shared are hard to watch, and United has twice (kind of) apologized for the violent incident.

The incident has cast blame squarely on United Airlines. Some in China have accused United of racism against the passenger because he was Chinese, while others are threatening a boycott. But it seems like United is not the only party to blame. I see at least three other parties that are responsible for this incident getting out of hand.

  1. The flight was apparently operated by Republic Airlines, a contractor that operates as United Express. I’ve had bad luck with these Express flights, where they are so concerned with on-time departures that they will leave before all the passengers have arrived from incoming flights. Also, not one news story has referred to Republic Airlines nor has its CEO apologized. It’s possible that is because Republic personnel were simply following United’s procedures for denying passengers boarding and calling airport security when a passenger refused to deplane.
  2. The ground crew boarded the flight and then began deplaning passengers. This is puzzling. Gate agents should know that there are more passengers than the aircraft can carry. They should have waited until there were enough volunteers to take another flight before assigning seats to passengers who will have to be denied boarding. The only reason I can imagine for the ground crew doing so is that the flight was overbooked because it was in fact overweight. They didn’t know about the weight situation until everyone boarded the aircraft.
  3. One airport security guard seemingly overstepped his authority. Reports indicate that two airport security officials came onboard and asked that the passenger deplane. The incident became violent after a third security official arrived and physically removed the passenger. I don’t want to characterize law enforcement or security guards in a general way, but there are certainly some that will go too far in “doing their jobs.”

In the public’s mind, however, this incident is all United’s fault. As I’ve said before, airlines and cable companies are among the most publicly hated companies, and no one gives United the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

To recover from this, United and other airlines might have to stop overbooking flights and deny boardings. This might seem unthinkable, but at the moment, public opinion needs something to change its mind. Otherwise, imagine the palpable tension and fear the next time you’re waiting to board your flight when an agent announces that a flight is oversold.

The public understands fear much more clearly than they do the logic behind overbooking flights.

Booze News You Can Use: How to Ease a Hangover

The NY Today morning newsletter, published each weekday by the New York Times, is filled with stories that of interest to readers in the local area. There are bulletins on local events, stories that connect to local history, and some profiles of area people in newsworthy situations, in addition the weather forecast and updated on local mass transit conditions. Yesterday, they published a guide on how to ease a hangover.

The advice they got from a local nutritionist and wellness manager runs counter to various commonsense remedies. When we crave food to soak up the alcohol, our bodies are really asking for carbohydrates to raise our blood sugar. When we go in search of a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich, it’s not the grease that is helping us recover but the salt that we’ve lost since taking the first drink. And, to get rid of that debilitating headache, drinking electrolytes, such as those founds in coconut water and energy drinks, should help. And as we’ve all figured out, your best friend when you’re hungover is water.

But conspicuously missing from these remedies is coffee. At no point does caffeine appear to help, other than curbing the headache you get from caffeine withdrawal, a sure sign that you’re an addict.

Today, the Clock Strikes Thirteen

Today, over 200 art-house and independent movie theaters in the United States are screening 1984, the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell’s novel directed by Michael Radford. The theaters are doing so to stand up for “freedom of speech, respect for our fellow human beings, and the simple truth that there are no such things as ‘alternative facts,'” according to the United State of Cinema website.

I bought tickets to screening at the Loews Jersey in Jersey City and am going tonight. However, I later realized that there were plenty of other options closer to home, including the Nitehawk (sold out), Anthology Film Archives (buy at the box office), the IFC Center (also sold out) and even the newish Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn (yup…sold out). The Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening it for free, but you should expect a throng of cheapskates waiting to get in.

If you can’t get to a screening near you, you can stream it on Amazon.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me. Thanks for your support!

Dismantling Government is Hard When You Have to Govern

In the aftermath of 11/8/16, there have been a lot of uncertainties about the direction of our country, but last month at the CPAC conference, senior advisor to the president Steve Bannon very clearly outlined the game-plan for the Trump administration. All of the goals seemed terrifying to anyone with a sense of history because it threatened to undo nearly 100 years of economic and social progress. But one goal stood out: the dismantling of the administrative state.1

Since the inauguration in January, we’ve seen Trump and his administration use executive authority to tear down parts of the government, piece by piece, and to pave the way for an autocratic, neoliberal state that would have made even Ronald Reagan nervous. One of the first steps to undo the administrative state was to repeal the Affordable Care Act. To do this, Trump needed the help of his party, but as has been clear for a generation now, the Republican Party is incapable of governing.

Economist and former secretary of labor Robert Reich notes as much in a piece, “No, Paul Ryan, Your Healthcare Defeat Wasn’t Because of ‘Growing Pains,'” published yesterday. He writes about the Republican Party

Their real problem isn’t the “growing pains” of being out of power. In reality, the Republicans who are now control the House – as well as the Senate – don’t like government. They’re temperamentally and ideologically oriented to opposing it, not leading it.

Repealing Obamacare wasn’t the problem. The Republicans had all the pieces necessary to do it: they had a majority in the House and a Senate process in place to pass it. They had a president ready to rubber-stamp whatever bill he received.

The political reality, however, required them to craft a replacement plan, and the party of “nay” couldn’t do it. They couldn’t figure out how to actually make a better plan and sell it to members of their own party, much less the American people.

Aside from trying to repeal Obamacare, the Republicans spent the entire Obama presidency fighting him on two very public fronts: raising the debt ceiling and passing a Federal budget. Those battles culminated in a downgrade of the US government’s credit rating in 2011 and in the government shutdown in 2013. Both are coming up on the Congressional agenda in the coming months, and both will require making an actual plan. Unless the Congressional leadership reaches out to Democrats to counteract the persistent “nay” votes, expect more of what we saw during the Obama presidency. Congress will kick the can down the road and will pass more continuing resolutions to keep the government from shutting down.

This however doesn’t mean that the Republicans can’t succeed in tearing down the government. Dismantling the administrative state won’t always require replacement legislation to do so. There’s plenty of opportunities for Republicans to do lots of, what Robert Reich calls, “irrevocably awful” things between now and when we get to vote for a competent government in 2018.


  1. Bannon actually said “deconstruction of the administrative state,” but he meant “dismantling.” Deconstruction means to take something apart to analyze it, not to destroy it.