Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.

Find and Conquer Duplicates in your iTunes Library

Doug Adams, the AppleScript guru, has just released Dupin 1.0, a nifty new (Mac-only) program that assists with locating, sorting, filtering, and deleting duplicate tracks in iTunes.

Here’s what Dupin can do:

  • Quickly find all sets of duplicate iTunes tracks based on your choice of criteria
  • Select the “Keeper” tracks from among a number of duplicates automatically using a variety of versatile filtering options
  • Purge duplicate tracks from iTunes and send files to the Trash
  • Manage intentionally duplicated tracks
  • Copy tracks to new iTunes playlists
  • View duplicates in non-loaded libraries created with iTunes’ multiple library feature
  • View duplicates in iTunes libraries on other machines on your local network
  • Sort tracks and view track info
  • Export a list of duplicates to a text file
  • Locate tracks in the Finder and in iTunes
  • Play tracks

Dupin is a very cool program; I was fortunate to be able to test it before release, and can attest to its usefulness and coolness. If you’ve got lots of dupes in your iTunes library and want to control them, give it a try.

Some of My Translations

In addition to being a writer, I’ve worked as a translator from French to English for the past dozen years. While much of my work involved translating technical documents, I have also translated a number of books, and excerpts from books. Here is a list of some of my translations, links to samples, and links to pages on for those books that have been published. (Alas, several of them are out of print…)


China in a Mirror, by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. This lovely book combines photographs of today’s China with, on facing pages, pictures of Chinese art that mirrors the photos. I translated the preface to this book, which was written by my friend Cyrille Javary.

Understanding the I Ching, by Cyrille Javary, is a book about the I Ching, its history, and its usage. The book is out of print, but you should be able to find used copies in a number of online bookstores. The link at the beginning of this paragraph takes you to a page about the book with an excerpt from it.

Lebanon, the Phoenician Pearl is a beautiful book of photos and history about Lebanon.

Versailles is a small, color art and history book about the Château de Versailles, as seen through the kings and queens that lived there.

Marrakesh: The Secret of Its Courtyard Houses is a beautiful book about the houses hidden behind the walls of Marrakesh. You will never be able to see most of these houses, but this book looks at the architecture and the history of this style of house.

Arabesques, by Jean-Marc Castéra, is an astounding book about arabesques, the ceramic mosaics traditional in northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only does it present these works of art, but it also shows the mathematic underpinnings of their design.

Paris; ah, gay Paree, as we say. A book that recounts the history of the city of lights, with memorable photos of the architecture that makes Paris so magical.


Genia, by Manual Martin, a spiritual thriller, written long before that other best-selling book which codified the genre. Abundant samples are available on the web site.

The Warriors of Silence, by Pierre Bordage. Two sample chapters of this unpublished novel. Pierre Bordage is one of France’s best-selling science fiction authors. I’ve translated other long excerpts of Pierre Bordage’s work for French publishers; I do not have the rights to post them here.

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. A work-in-progress that I’ll finish one day. You can download several sections of this work in PDF format.

I am always interested in translating books, both fiction and non-fiction, so if you are a publisher, editor or author, feel free to send me an e-mail. I’m especially interested in 19th century French fiction, classics such as Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant; history; science; science ficton; and mysteries and thrillers.

The Demise of the Recording Industry

As music fans know, the recording industry is in a shambles. The labels, and the RIAA, like to blame it on file sharing and illegal downloads, but what if the reality were different? What if the recording industry has sown the seeds of its own destruction? Prospect magazine has an interesting article looking at how the industry is killing itself, and how it seems unlikely to pull out of its current slump.

From the article:

“Yet the music industry itself must take some of the blame for the decline of the CD. For the past 15 years, free covermounts [CDs included for free] on magazines and newspapers, licensed or even paid for by record companies, have diluted the perceived value of recorded music in general and CDs in particular.”

What to do with a Dead iPod

For many of us, who have had iPods for several years, the time is fast approaching when our iPods will die. They have a limited life-span, like all electronic devices, and at best, the batteries will die; at worst, they will go to hard drive heaven.

But even when your iPod is dead, you may find uses for it. If you don’t want to spend your hard-earned money on repairs, and would rather buy a new iPod–which does make sense in many cases–is it worth simply tossing the old one? Here are some ideas for using a dead iPod.

First of all, you need to decide how dead your iPod is. If its hard drive has cashed in its chips, then it’s really dead; there’s not much you can do on your own. It’s probably best to go to an iPod repair service and have the hard drive replaced. That’ll cost you much less than buying a new iPod.

Aside from the hard drive, there are many other components that can die: the screen, the backlight, or the actual digital signal processor (the chip that converts bits and bytes to notes). Failures to any of these components can result in a dead iPod – and many are reparable – but, in some cases, even without going for a fix-up, you can use the iPod.

If the backlight has died, you’ll still be able to see the screen if you hold it at the correct angle (though not in the dark; get into shuffling your songs!). If the screen itself is dead, you can get it fixed, and probably should if the iPod is recent enough (though see below for other uses for an iPod). And if the DSP is gone, well, basta; you can use it as a paperweight, or simply keep it on a shelf as a reminder. Or perhaps sell it to your local geek who might want its parts…

However, in my experience, this sort of catastrophic failure is pretty rare. Generally, such events occur early on in your iPod ownership (following the general rule of tech problems: the first month is crucial), or after several years of hard usage. The most common reason your iPod will die – aside from your dropping it and breaking the screen or ruining the hard disk – is because its battery will have reached its limit. iPod batteries generally last two to three years, depending on how often you use the iPod. You can replace them, sure, but it’s not for everyone. Several companies sell iPod battery replacement kits, including instructions – and you can get some from – but for those not technically inclined, this can be a daunting task.) While I’m a card-carrying geek, I haven’t bothered to try replacing the battery in any of my old iPods, because it seems to be too much of a hassle. But, again, there are companies out there that can fix it for you, so you don’t have to get your hands dirty or even worry about damaging the iPod’s other elements.

If you don’t want to replace your iPod’s battery, or don’t feel it’s worthwhile, you can still use your iPod as a music source, as long as it is plugged into an AC adapter. If you don’t have one, you can buy one for $29, or you can buy a combination cigarette-lighter charger and FM transmitter for your car (my favorite is the Monster iCarPlay). Just connect the iPod to the adapter then to your car stereo, or your home stereo, perhaps with an Apple iPod Dock, and turn it on. You’ll have plenty of music, and for a very long time (or at least until another component goes south). You may find that having an iPod just for the car or for your stereo is very useful. Personally, I use an iPod connected to my stereo through the Dock, and control it with Apple’s Remote.

Another way to use an iPod sans battery is to use it as a music source for iTunes on your computer, at home or at work. If you manually copy music to the iPod (which you can still do, even without a battery, as long as the iPod is connected to power), you can then connect the iPod to any computer running iTunes and play its music back, browsing, using playlists, or simply selecting songs, exactly as if it were an iTunes music library on that computer.

If you don’t use a battery-less iPod for music, remember that your iPod is also a hard disk or flash memory device. Because of this, it can come in very handy, even with no battery power. Say you have an 8 GB iPod with a dead battery; you now have a portable 8 GB hard disk. When you connect it to your computer, it will have to power up, but you’ll then be able to use it to transfer files from one computer to another, such as between your home and office computers. (Note that you can’t do this with an iPod touch…)

To use the iPod in this manner, connect it to your computer. On the iPod screen, uncheck Open iTunes when this iPod is attached, then check Enable disk use. Check Manually manage music and videos, then click the iPod in the iTunes Source list and select everything, then press Delete. (You’ll have backed up any music that’s only on that iPod first, of course…) Check the other tabs to make sure there is nothing set to update: podcasts, photos, videos, contacts, etc.

You’ll now have a totally empty iPod, ready for use as a hard disk. Just unmount it (click the arrow next to its name in the iTunes source list), and, the next time you connect it, the iPod will power up and mount on your computer. (You’ll need to connect it to a powered USB or FireWire port–depending on the model–in order for it to work as a hard disk. But as long as it gets power from your computer, it will spin, and you can copy files to and from it.)

Many people (unfortunately) never back up files from their computers, then, when something goes wrong, complain about losing all their hard work. With an old iPod as a backup drive, you have no excuse–just connect it, copy your personal files, then unmount it. Depending on its capacity, you may have a small drive for a handful of files, or as much as 160 GB of disk space to store your photos, music and videos.

If you can think of any other ways to use a dead iPod, add comments to this story. While the above hints are very useful, I’m sure my readers have their own ways of using their iPods. Finally, if you don’t plan to use it, find a geek who will take it off your hands, or, if you are going to dump it, contact Apple to find out how to have it recycled correctly. There are some evil metals in an iPod, and if you toss it in the trash, it will do some bad things to the environment.

iTunes Plus: No DRM, but Breadcrumbs

Today, Apple released its first “iTunes Plus” tracks, music in 256 kbps AAC format with no DRM. So you can copy this music to any computer, play it on any device or computer that supports AAC, with no restrictions. However, while there is no DRM (digital rights management) in these tracks, there are breadcrumbs.

If you look into an iTunes Plus file–just open one with a text editor–you’ll see both your name and your iTunes account ID. Here’s an example of my name showing at the beginning of the file:

And, here is where my iTunes account ID shows up (I’ve replaced the actual ID with XXX@XXX.XXX:)

You’ll also see this information in the Info window for the tracks in iTunes.

So, while nothing is stopping you from sharing these files, remember that anyone will be able to find out who initially bought them. You can most likely edit the above information with a hex editor, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Apple Bungles Bluetooth in Mac Pro

(When I wrote this article in late October 2006, I assumed that Apple would eventually discover the problem and fix it. After all, there are many posts on Apple’s Support discussion boards about this issue. But, no; I get one or two emails a week from readers who have Mac Pros and have the same problem. I’m astounded that Apple still hasn’t fixed this–in fact, it is clear that the problem is not just in factories, because this morning I received an email from a reader who had the Bluetooth module installed (and wired incorrectly) in an Apple Store.

One more thing. I had the motherboard of my Mac Pro changed last week–there was a problem with USB ports. The technician who came to change it was the same one who walked me through the wiring change for the Bluetooth module over the phone–see below for more on my change. He was very interested to see which wires went where; when he took out the motherboard, it was very clear: the wire that had been originally connected to the Bluetooth module was the one that ran to the AirPort antenna at the back of the computer.)

When I got my new Mac Pro, I was delighted to have such a fast, quiet, powerful new Mac. I was also very happy to be able to use it with my recently-bought Mighty Mouse, which is one of the nicest input devices I’ve used yet. So to do this, I had to order the Bluetooth module, which is a build-to-order option on the Mac Pro. Alas, Apple bungled very badly, connecting the wrong wire to the Bluetooth module. But I’m not the only person who has had this problem; it seems endemic. Read on to find out the whole story…I started wondering what was wrong when my mouse skipped across the screen. Tracking was, at times, normal, but at others it was jerky. I’m right-handed, and the mouse is to the right of my keyboard; the Mac Pro is on the floor, just next to my desk, at a distance of about three feet. It’s in a kind of bookcase, and there’s a desk between it, but the bookcase is open at the front and back, so those two pieces of particle board couldn’t be blocking the Bluetooth transmission, so I thought.

Since I have AppleCare on the Mac Pro, I called the support team. They made me go through the usual motions–run a hardware test, reinstall the Mighty Mouse software, try another user account, and do a clean install. (Note that this was about two hours of my time to get a EUR 39 Bluetooth module and EUR 69 Mighty Mouse to work together…) Nothing resolved the problem, so they determined that there was a problem with the Bluetooth module and/or antenna, and told me a technician would get back to me to set up an appointment. AppleCare here offers on-site repairs for desktop Macs, and that’s one of the reasons why I always buy such contracts: living in rural France, the nearest Apple repair center is a few hundred kilometers away.

The next day, the technician who would come and make the repairs called to make sure he understood the problem, and to say he was ordering the parts. Yesterday (about a week after he ordered the parts) he called to say he would be coming today to make the repair. But in the meantime, I had looked around and seen, on Apple’s discussion boards, that other users were having the same problem. Not only was the problem the same, but a solution was offered.

Here’s where we get to the bungling on Apple’s part… The Bluetooth module is a small chip placed on the motherboard, and it has to be connected to a tiny wire that runs to the Bluetooth antenna. This wire is one of four, three of which are labeled: one has a “BT” label (this is a sticker that wraps around the wire), one is labeled “2”, and another “3”. For some reason, there is a fourth wire which is unlabeled.

The 2 and 3 wires are shorter than the BT and unlabeled wires: they are just long enough to reach the location where and AirPort card would be added. (I don’t have AirPort, so they’re not connected.) The other two wires (BT and unlabeled) are the same length; both can reach the Bluetooth module. So the solution proposed was to switch the BT wire for the unlabeled wire; as the posters in the thread linked to above have all said, this resolves the problem.

So here’s the rub: what happened is that two wires got mislabeled. This didn’t happen when the Bluetooth module was added to the computer, but during the actual assembly of the Mac Pro. This means that either all of Apple’s process sheets have an error, or only some Mac Pros are affected. It’s hard to know which: not every Mac Pro purchaser will get the Bluetooth module, so they won’t have a problem unless they add one later. Also, since the Mighty Mouse works at a distance of about two feet, many users may not realize that there is a problem: it seems that the module itself, and whatever that wire is connected to, emits enough power to work at short distances. (Whereas Bluetooth is speced to work at up to 10 meters or 30 feet.) These users may, however, have occasional problems, and write them off as battery issues or interference.

This has already cost Apple a bit of money, in support calls, and in exchanging Mac Pros, which they seem to have done in some cases, as well as keyboards and mice. The technician who was to come and change my Bluetooth module was especially glad that I could fix the problem (I did it while he walked me through it on the phone), because he had a total of five hours’ drive to my house and back.

Apple’s quality control has failed here. It’s pretty simple to mislabel one of two similar wires (though I haven’t yet found what the purpose of the other wire is), but to allow a machine to go into production without that being discovered is surprising. Again, this may only be the case on a limited number of Mac Pros, or it could affect all of them.

Apple, if you’re reading this, you’d better resolve the problem in your factories, and you had better then contact everyone who has bought a Mac Pro with a Bluetooth module. Save your time, and save ours–two hours the first time, then another hour yesterday to make the fix (going slowly, with the technician on the phone, to make sure I didn’t screw anything up) is far more time than I need to spend on a mistake that is the result of ineptitude. I grant that mistakes happen, but I’m tired of spending so much time to resolve them, simply because you haven’t found them yet.

July 2010: I still get emails about this, and comments are posted to this article, so apparently there are still issues with Bluetooth on Mac Pros. I sold mine more than a year ago – not because of the Bluetooth issue, but because I wanted to downsize (I got a Mac mini) – so I can’t help those who post asking for more help.

Here’s a link to a site that shows some pictures, which, if I recall correctly, match what I saw in my Mac Pro.

More info, Sept. 2010: A reader has pointed me to the following information that he posted on his web site. He solved the problem using a third-party Bluetooth dongle.

10 Points to Consider about iTunes, EMI and DRM

Apple and EMI yesterday announced that the record label will provide DRM-free music to Apple and others to sell online. This has many ramifications for the digital music market, and for consumers. Do you need DRM-free music? Do you need the better-quality tracks the iTunes Store is selling? How will all this affect you? Read on for ten points that you should consider.1. What DRM means to you

With Apple and EMI announcing that EMI music will be sold without DRM (digital rights management), what exactly does this mean to you? If you choose to purchase this “premium” music, you will get not only DRM-free songs, but also higher quality files: 256 kbps instead of 128 kbps. Since most people can’t tell the difference between these bit rates, you probably won’t notice much (though if you listen to your music on a home stereo, and have good ears, you might). However, the big difference is no DRM: you will be able to use the files you purchase on any device–iPod, Zune, or other MP3 player, as well as streaming players, such as the Sonos and others. In addition, you will be able to listen to your music on as many devices as you want–no more five computer limit.

However, it is not yet clear whether there will be any “digital watermarking” in these files. This is a technique that allows a vendor to add unique information–such as your name and account identifier–to the tracks, which would allow the vendor to tell who provided files to peer-to-peer services or illegal download sites. You will certainly be able to “share” music with friends; this is the same as lending someone a CD today so they can rip it. (While not legal, most musicians you speak to have no problem with this, since it gets more people to listen to their music.) You will still have the same “rights” you have with CDs, and the same limits: you are not supposed to copy the music for others, etc., but the vendors all realize that no matter what they do this copying will occur.

2. The price goes up

But only for individual songs. You’ll pay $1.29 per song, but albums won’t cost any more. This is an interesting concept: the record labels will be playing to consumers of two types. First, those who buy individual songs, which represent a non-negligable share of the music download market, will pay more. The labels have wanted to increase prices for a while, and this lets them do so, without looking as though they are simply raising prices with nothing given to consumers in return. But more “faithful” consumers–those who buy albums–will pay the same price, and get better quality and no DRM.

3. Upgrade your songs

In addition to this new price per song, consumers will be able to “upgrade” their songs for 30 cents each. It is not yet clear how this will work for album purchases; will they expect me to pay, say, $6 to “upgrade” an album that contains 20 tracks? What about a set of Shostakovich string quartets I purchased; 62 tracks, that cost me $30. Would I have to pay another $18 to upgrade to better quality DRM-free tracks? Or that Bob Dylan set, with some 800 tracks; at 30 cents a song, it would cost less to buy it again than to upgrade it. Apple has to think this out carefully, in order to not penalize their best customers.

4. Apple can now sell to people with other devices

Got a Zune? Think that Microsoft’s attempt to create an online store, complete with Redmond-only math, is pathetic? No problem. The Zune supports AAC (the file format the iTunes Store sells), so you’re in luck. Just purchase from iTunes and load on your Zune. (I don’t know if you’ll be able to squirt these tracks though…) The same is true for the hundreds of other devices; you will now be able to buy from the iTunes Store, which has much more selection than other online music vendors. Of course, it will take time for all the labels to accept music without DRM, and this won’t be happening tomorrow, but it won’t be long; they’ll have to follow, because it’s clear that consumers will choose no DRM.

5. I can now buy from other online music vendors

While regulators here in Europe have been hassling Apple over iTunes Store sales not being interoperable with other players, I’ve been irked in the other direction. As an iPod user–and especially as a Mac user–I haven’t been able to buy music from the other vendors. I’m not saying that I’ve found anything that I would buy from them, that’s not on the iTunes Store, but at least I’ll be able to now. If they let Mac users into their stores, that is.

6. Competition?

If all online vendors can sell the same music without DRM, then consumers will indeed have choice. Some vendors, of course, will sell in formats that won’t play on iPods; they may sell in WMA format, which only works on Microsoft-sancioned products. But that would shut them out of the largest part of the market. For that reason, I expect them all to move to MP3 or AAC format eventually. With no DRM, anyone can buy from anyone and play the music on any device. This is a Good Thing. However, I expect the iTunes Store to sign exclusive deals with some artists; not to be the only vendor to sell their music, but to have bonus tracks that aren’t available elsewhere.

7. Apple protects itself from regulators

Speaking of regulators, Apple has now shown that they can and will offer music without DRM, and this should lift the threats from EU regulators regarding interoperability. Of course, not all iTunes Store music will be DRM-free, but Apple can now show that it is the record labels who choose, not Apple. (Note that today’s announcement by European Union regulators of an anti-trust action against Apple and record labels is about different things; it is about territorial restrictions, which, again, are imposed by the record companies. So, once again, the EU is picking on Apple rather than going after all the various online vendors, who all apply the same geographical restrictions.)

8. Steve talks the talk

Steve Jobs got dissed by part of the press for his Thoughts on Music, the open letter where he said that Apple would be glad to sell music without DRM. He was said to be just strutting, whereas he wouldn’t really go through with the change. Well, he did. ‘Nuff said.

9. You need a higher-capacity iPod

Yep, if you want those 256 kbps files, you’ve just reduced the number of songs your iPod can hold by half. So that 80 GB iPod video looks pretty good now. Apple has never sold as many of the high-capacity iPods as the smaller models, but now consumers may want that extra disk space. Apple’s the winner here, with increased sales at the high end.

10. File Formats

The iTunes Store sells music in AAC format; this is part of the MP4 standard, and generally sounds better than MP3 or WMA files at the same bit rate. However, not all portable music players support AAC. Microsoft’s Zune does, as do some Sony players, and a handful of other models. If the iTunes Store reinforces its position in the market, you can expect to see other players start supporting AAC. However, if this new open competition gives equal footing to other online vendors, there may be no change. It’s hard to tell how this will play out.

Meanwhile, Wired got it very wrong again. In this article about the announcement, the Wired authors claimed, “Many onlookers had assumed that the company would go with the widely supported MP3 format. The decision to use AAC represents a crack in the wall that has separated services and devices that use Microsoft’s WMA from those that use AAC.” They even link to the EMI press release, but apparently, the smoke got in their eyes, and they missed this part of the release: “EMI expects that consumers will be able to purchase higher quality DRM-free downloads from a variety of digital music stores within the coming weeks, with each retailer choosing whether to sell downloads in AAC, WMA, MP3 or other unprotected formats of their choice.” It’s a shame when journalists can’t read…

DRM Is Dead – Sort Of

Less than two months ago, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, published his Thoughts on Music, suggesting that if the major labels would allow Apple to sell music without DRM (digital rights management) he would be happy to do so. Well, today EMI became the first major label to agree to Jobs’ offer, announcing, at a London press conference, that EMI will make available its entire catalog of music in a new, “premium” format. This format will be DRM-free, and will also be higher quality, at 256 kpbs compared to the current 128 kpbs that is sold on the iTunes Store.

This premium service comes with a price; 30 cents more in the US, though it sounds like album prices will remain the same. (The press conference was not clear enough on this question, which I’m sure will be straightened out soon.) Users who already have EMI music will be able to “upgrade” their iTunes purchases for 30 cents per track. So, the iTunes Store, at least for EMI purchases, will offer two pricing systems: all music will still be available in DRMed tracks at 99 cents, and will also be available in premium format.Now, one must ask the question, if DRM is the problem, then why continue to offer DRM-laden tracks at all? Jobs said that consumers will have choice, and that not everyone will want to pay more for better quality. But, again, if DRM is the problem, then why have DRM on the cheaper tracks? The other difference is quality; users who pay less have fewer rights, and lower quality. Does that really make any sense at all? I can understand that Apple can’t raise prices across the board–remember, this is a 30% price increase for “premium” tracks–but once those tracks are in the wild, it won’t matter if there are DRMed versions. (Just as it doesn’t matter now, since CDs have no DRM.)

After Jobs’ article was published in February, many naysayers criticized him, saying that he was simply tossing out an idea that no one would agree to. Ha!, say I. Sure, it took time for companies to get together and come up with something, but two months is really a very short time for such a major change. (You can imagine that there was a great deal of negotiations to get to this point.) I think we can expect other labels to follow suit. Jobs said, during the press conference, that this option would be available to other labels, so all the independents who want to sell their music without DRM will now be able to do so.

Apple gets too bonuses from this–higher revenue from the iTunes Store (though Apple’s profits are slim, and the Store is not intended to make a lot of money), and, more importantly, more iPod sales. After all, double the bit rate of music tracks sold, and you’ll have fewer songs to fit on an iPod. While most iPod owners don’t buy music from the iTunes Store–or not much–this could be the beginning of a generalization of higher bit rates, which will certainly lead users to need higher-capacity iPods.

To sum up, this is a true earthquake. I can imagine that some executives at other record labels have had to change their underwear today. As Jobs said, there are leaders and there are followers, and EMI has clearly staked out first place in this new market. And Apple, as often, has been the prime mover in this change.

What Happens when the Machine Stops?

On good days, everything seems to run smoothly. My Internet connection is perky, my cellphone shows four bars, and the satellite TV pipes hundreds of channels into my home, for me to choose from as my mood changes. Bits and bytes rain down on me all day long, from wireless networks, cables and wires, and from satellites too distant to spot. Email gets here in seconds from anywhere around the world, and web pages load faster than I can read their headlines.

Yet those are the good days. There are other days when glitches in the system underscore the fragility of the entire grid. Yesterday, for example, after the heat reached the high 80s, powerful thunderstorms, as often seen here in the Alps, poured streams of water on my house for a couple of hours. At the same time, my DSL connection dropped, and the satellite TV showed nothing. While these down periods are rare, they happen. And that’s when things are running fine.What about the day that the machine stops? As prophesied by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story The Machine Stops, a society that depends too much on such tools will find it difficult to function if something big goes wrong. I recall the blackout in New York City on July 13, 1977, a hot and humid summer day when lightning struck two power lines, cutting off power for most of the city for twenty-four hours. The entire city was at a standstill, and many people simply lost control, looting and rioting, while others just sat around scratching their heads, wondering why there was such a reaction. And people didn’t have cellphones or Internet access back then. The more recent blackout in New York City, in August of 2003, had a shorter effect, with power being turned back on much quicker, but for those addicted to their Crackberries and cellphones, it must have been a tough day.

Today, I’m not thinking about the big machine stopping; I’m wondering about the smaller ones. Take, for example, any service from which you purchase digital content that uses DRM (digital rights management) to control your access. While you may think of iTunes or competing music services, or of, the purveyor of audiobooks, you may also use software that needs to phone home from time to time to check your license. (This is relatively common with high-end vertical applications.) Even certain versions of Windows need to check with Microsoft’s servers to validate your operating system and allow you to work.

But let’s look more closely at the question of digital music and audiobooks. While I have few worries of Apple going out of business in the next decade or so (for music purchased from iTunes) or of Microsoft filing for Chapter 11 (Windows Media files are used by most competing music download services), smaller companies offer no long-term guarantee. Take as an example. The company went through some tough times not long ago; imagine if it indeed went bankrupt (and I am not in any way suggesting that Audible will indeed go bankrupt or have any other problems). What would Audible users do to listen to the audiobooks they’ve purchased? While you generally only have to authorize your computer once, you still need to reauthorize if you buy a new computer. So in the case of a meltdown, you’d be able to listen to your audiobooks for a while, but when you got a new computer you’d be out of luck. (This assumes, of course, that Audible or any other such company is not bought out by a bigger fish who keeps the authorization scheme up and running.)

If the machine did stop, what rights would consumers have? While it’s trivial to “record” audio from a computer, using software designed to record what the computer is playing back, effectively saving audiobooks in other, non-DRMed formats, this violates copyright laws. Yet if a company such as Audible were to go belly-up, would consumers be in the wrong if they “converted” their audiobooks in this manner? The same goes for music; it’s easy to burn music to CDs then re-rip them in other formats–less so for audiobooks, given their length–would this be a violation of copyright? (In my opinion, no, since there would be no other way to access the content.)

As far as I know, there has yet to be a case where a company selling DRM-laden media has shut down in such a way as to affect users’ access to content they have purchased. But things happen, and, one day, one of these small machines is going to stop. What will we consumers be allowed to do? And how will we be able to do it? While I’m not against the concept of DRM to protect the rights of authors and distributors, I have to admit that this thought is worrisome. When you consider that you can still play any LPs you bought fifty years ago, and all the CDs you’ve bought since the 80s, the idea that you’ll be unable to listen to digital media after just a few years is chilling.