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a blog by ken pardue

Archive for July, 2009

Back on Open Video

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

It seems as though most of the initial furor surrounding Ogg Theora has died down quite a bit since the release of Firefox 3.5, which includes Theora support along with a heaping spoonful of political grandstanding in Theora’s favor, out of the box.  Some things have helped to derail the Theora momentum.  Microsoft has announced Silverlight 3 which will play superior-competing-standard H.264 out of the box, Adobe has open sourced the media framework surrounding its Flash player, and, most significantly, Apple has submitted a new standard for MPEG4/H.264 HTTP Live Streaming to the W3C which will provide huge benefits to video viewers, especially on a mobile network.  Lastly, the author and maintainer of the HTML5 spec that defines the <video> tag itself has capitulated and said that there will be no official codec in HTML5 for video for the foreseeable future.

So why does this interest me?  I’m a pretty big advocate of open source software, after all.  And I agree with the two biggest points that open source folks are using to triumph Theora’s benefits (that it’s “good enough” to be used at Youtube quality on the Internet, and that it’s patent- and royalty-free).  But I’m also a fan of reality, and the reality is that Ogg Theora isn’t better than H.264.  Being better, not being good enough, is what ultimately drives adoption.  Internet Explorer began losing ground to Firefox for the fact that Firefox was demonstrably better.  There was a benefit for people to use Firefox instead.  Not so with Theora.

What I don’t understand, and what irks me so badly, is why H.264 is demonized so badly by the FLOSS community.  It’s not a single-vendor solution trying to lock in a particular market to a particular player.  It’s a very good video codec with massive market adoption and widespread implementations created by a collaboration of some 250 academic institutions that have invested a lot of money into it.  And yet, FLOSS advocates, particularly those from Mozilla, are saying that H.264 is extremely expensive, that it locks away innovation, and that it puts control of the web into the hands of a minority.  The expense argument is what irritates me the most.  I won’t use the argument that it’s free until 2011, but I will use the argument that MPEG-LA hasn’t even decided on the pricing for the licensing.  Nobody knows how expensive it will be, or who will have to pay the cost.  MPEG-LA has a lot of big players in the form of Apple and Google who stand to gain from HTML5’s acceptance likely lobbying them at this very moment to make licensing reasonable for H.264, lest we delve into another GIF fiasco.  But even where things are currently headed, I think the cost to stream video is free up until something like 100,000 views, which is pretty generous in most cases.  And the expense of an encoder for the bleeding hearts and the artists?  It’s like half the price of that PS3 game they went out and bought last weekend.  Let’s talk about innovation.  Well, I’ll let the web explain that one for me, which has also been proposed to the W3C for inclusion in HTML5.  Come on people, get with the program.

I won’t really say anything that hasn’t been said about the risk of patents on Theora, other than to note that while yes, H.264 does suffer from a degree of patent risk, it is much more complete and better documented, from my understanding, making it easier to find such risks.

Mozilla is fighting a massive uphill battle by trying to convince users that H.264 carries with great licensing burden when the codec already ships for free with most operating systems or is freely downloadable in the form of Flash or Silverlight.  And fight they are: Mozilla is engaging in political grandstanding to get its own dark horse to win the race by attempting to force Ogg into the HTML5 spec instead of letting the market decide.  This serves to create an unstable, unwanted variable in getting everybody on board behind a common set of codecs.  What’s more, we’re dealing with hardware.  A hardware industry that for a decade now has been getting behind H.264 as the next-generation video standard. There’s no incentive for hardware makers to build support for a 10 year old, obsolete codec onto their chips when they can just pay the minimal per-decoder fee to have H.264 installed.  The result of which will not be a win for Mozilla, open source, or HTML5, but for Flash, Quicktime, and Silverlight.

It’s frustrating.  Somehow I think even Mozilla realizes this, stating that they’d have to “make compromises” should the web adopt H.264 instead of its dark horse, which is probably closer than anyone realizes considering that Google is playing with using H.264 videos (that they’ve already invested in) in an HTML5 video implementation.

What I think will actually happen is that there will not be a base codec specified for HTML5, nor should there be… after all, we didn’t need base image formats and we don’t need them for video.  The market will decide which one is actually better–which I believe will be H.264–and the world will move on.  I’m sure that Theora and H.264 will coexist for different purposes just as JPEG and PNG do.  But Mozilla will eventually be forced to capitulate and either use some of that Google money to license the decoder or build in backend support to play what’s allowed on the host platform.  Everybody else is already on board with H.264, folks just have to wait out Mozilla’s grandstanding.

Freedom

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Wow, this is actually my 100th blog post.  As little as I blog these days, I’m surprised I made this milestone.  I was hoping to avoid a long diatribe on this topic, but it looks like this became just that.

I knew that eventually I would run into an ideological disagreement with the church that my family and I have been attending for the last few weeks.  I was waiting for it.  Fueled by the conservative patriotism that Independence Day brings, this past Sunday’s message did just that.  I somehow suspected that it would happen when we walked in the door to see color guard members dressed in full military uniform.  Following the invocation, the color guard presented the state and national flags and played a video proclaiming America to being founded, endorsed, and sanctioned by God.  I’m okay with this.  I understand that churches often recognize secular holidays.  I understand that patriotism is certainly due to the country that grants her citizens the freedom to worship as they please.  I also understand that since the 1960’s the Republican party has sought out a strategy to align itself with organized religious institutions as a primary support base and that said religious institutions feel some loyalty to the GOP for this.  Finally, I understand that the majority of the people in this area are conservative Republicans.  Unlike most people in that conservative Republican sect, I’m able to express some tolerance for the grandstanding of ideals contrary to my own here or a jab at the Democratic party there.

The sermon was laudable through the theme of, “We have been truly blessed when we look and recognize that the rest of the world is not like us.  We really come to an understanding of the grace that God has given.”  America is indeed a great nation for the freedoms that she grants.  The freedom to worship as one wishes and not having a state-sponsored religion being chief amongst them.  The message continued to play upon the importance of the responsibility that comes with privilege.  This is another ideal that I strongly agree with: that freedom, religious or otherwise, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for socially irresponsible behavior.  What good is freedom if we aren’t good stewards to it, if we aren’t contributing to the betterment of Earth and the human race?

As the message progressed, I was becoming a little perturbed with the developing subtext of “as long as it’s the Christian way of thinking and no other.” The pastor quoted the full text of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me Liberty or give me Death” speech, which does include a strong endorsement of God (again, this in itself is not a bad thing–I prefer the thought that members of the government have religious conviction when they make decisions that affect the nation and the world), but preceded it by implying that “history” is an ominous entity trying to remove God from our daily lives, “You see, history wants to pull out a bunch of stuff, just give you some little tidbits.  They don’t want to hear the truth.”

The message then rapidly declined, “I’m concerned right now because America seems to be going down the path right now, and not just right now but over the last years, that Israel did.  Here we are living in a land that has legalized abortion.  We live in a land that protects immoral behavior.  We live in a land where the Bible and prayer have been taken out of the schools and what’s being brought in is guns, ya know, and drugs are taking our kids‘ lives.  We live in a land right now that has a big problem.  I have a problem right now with our President, Barack Obama.  He has stated that America is no longer a Christian nation.”  Following that statement, the pastor promptly led into a House floor video of a very partisan, but inconsequential, clip of Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia deriding Obama’s stance.

The ironic thing to note here is that just last week during the sermon the pastor was advocating to his congregation that it’s always better to seek out the truth in facts rather than take someone else’s word, but that seems to be exactly the mistake that the pastor has made in preparation for his sermon.  It’s an old political tactic to take one sentence or sound bite, remove the perspective from it, and build a case behind it that is totally incongruous with the big picture from which it was taken.  (Or, as it were, to feed people little tidbits instead of the whole truth, as the pastor implied with his Patrick Henry example).  The specific speech that the Congressman and the pastor were referring to was Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Ankara, Turkey on April 6, 2009.  The speech sought to reach out to Muslim countries to find common ground to combat extremism and violence in the world.  The President did not by any stretch of the imagination say that America was no longer a Christian nation, but instead praised Turkey for their progress in granting freedom to its own people.  “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond,” the President said.  In closing his speech, the President said, “We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree.  And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better – including my own country.”  At no point did the President say that America was no longer a Christian nation.  At no point did the President say that America was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles.  What the President did do was allude to the shared cultures between the two nations as an example of American diversity and the age-old principle that we work better with one another than against.  The last time I checked, loving one’s global neighbors and treating others as we would like to be treated were principles strongly advocated in Christianity.

I could go on debating the pastor’s arguments on the grounds of how the intolerance of other peoples’ lifestyles, but I will avoid the digression other than to say that it’s sick to extol the virtues of freedom in virtually the same breath that one advocates that it should be taken away. The main takeaway point should be this: the church is no place for politics or political grandstanding.  The only accomplishment of that message was to sew the seeds of dissent using misrepresented claims against the same government that was earlier praised for the freedom which she gives to her citizens.  Regardless of the political beliefs of the pastor or the congregation, the church is not a place for C-SPAN.  It’s difficult to understand the love/hate relationship that organized religion has with the government in this nation.  On the one hand, the government is praised for the freedom it grants, but on the other hand a general gloom is conveyed to the congregation that a hostile secularism is reducing the ranks of Christians and that the government is slowly pulling away from the particular religious sect of Christianity.  It’s almost as if the government, which has an obligation to many religions, doesn’t need the Christian Church to survive, but the Church, which has an obligation to one government, feels compelled to be dependent upon that government for survival.  Wouldn’t it make for a much stronger Church to attend to the spiritual needs of Its people rather than try to make itself relevant to government?  It would seem to benefit the Church more to stand apart from the government, and let the politicians be guided by their respective individual faiths.  “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The fathers created this country upon the very foundation of separation of church and state.  The absence of a state-sponsored religion was the very reason that disparate bands of people escaped to found the Colonies.  It was one of the cornerstones of the Constitution, the very first amendment to which explicitly forbids the United States from creating any law that recognizes any religious establishment.  The concept of God is rightly used in context by America’s founding fathers as it assumes that there is a greater power, and not the government itself, to which we are all universally accountable.  This respectful reverence is commendable then as it is today, but the founders also actively sought not to endorse any specific religion.  All held a belief of religious tolerance above religious endorsement.  Many of the founders were Deists and Unitarians who held a more general belief in some form of impersonal Providence rather than a Holy Trinity.  The phrase “In God We Trust,” although I believe it to be a perfectly commendable phrase to use in government, wasn’t attributed to the fathers at all, but rather came into use as the divisive Civil War raged in 1864.  It wasn’t made a national motto until nearly a century later in 1956.

Finally, one of the last forays of the sermon was that only nations that are based upon Christian principles are truly free.  Other nations, those founded upon the principles of Allah, are not free and suffer persecution and oppression.  First, to address the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that is spread against Islam: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions; they have the same history at least until the point that the text is continued from Abraham’s children.  Ergo, Allah, God, and Yahweh are all one and the same deity.  This is not a progressive reinterpretation of history; this is what is taught by scholars in religion classes.  It is important to note that in the past, Christianity and Islam have enjoyed as great a degree of friendship and tolerance as Christianity and Judaism enjoy today (for an example, see Cordova, Spain in the middle ages).  Nor is the vocal minority of extremism in the Islamic world indicative of widespread violence and repression against its people.  To imply this stereotype is as careless and irresponsible of an act to do with freedom as violent fundamentalism is with power.  During medieval times, Islamic nations experienced a golden era of advancement of art and science that helped to jump-start the European Renaissance.

The fact remains: the Christian principles that this pastor speaks about, by his own admission in his sermon, are the universal principals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Those universal human rights are found in many countries throughout the world, some with a Christian religious majority, some with a Muslim majority, others with another religious majority or none at all.  The nations that do not enjoy personal freedoms are those that generally employ… wait for it… a state-sponsored religion.

It is my hope that we are entering an age of tolerance and enlightenment rather than one of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  This hope seems to be finding firm footing.  Never before have we seen such interest in a two-state Israel/Palestine, nor have we seen such a global extending of hands to those who will take them in kind.  During the same weekend that this pastor gave his sermon, Christian mega-pastor Rick Warren keynoted an event held to spread interfaith awareness and cooperation, where he encouraged Christian and Muslim alike to speak out against stereotyping of any group and to respect one another even while disagreeing.  Fortunately, attitudes like the pastor at this country church appear to be fading in the light of a more tolerant, more open-minded and productive world.  I just wish there wasn’t such a lack of progressive churches for people who are both progressive and spiritual around here.