Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Cinavia: Annoying? Yes. What is it?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on February 23, 2014

If you’re into playing back movies on your PS3, you might have run into an annoying problem where your movie plays for about 20 minutes, then the audio suddenly drops out entirely with a warning message on the screen. This is Cinavia. Let’s explore.

What is Cinavia and how does it work?

Cinavia is an audio watermarking technology created by the company Verance where an audio subcode is embedded within digital audio soundtracks at humanly imperceptible levels, but at a level where a DSP or other included hardware chip can read and decode its presence. Don’t be fooled by the ad with smiling children on the Verance site, this has nothing to do with helping make audio better for the consumer. No, it is solely created for industry media protection.

This Cinavia watermark audio subcode seems to be embedded at a phase and frequency that can be easily isolated and extracted from an audio soundtrack, then processed and determined if it’s valid for the movie title being played back. Likely, it’s also an analog audio-based digital carrier subcode (like a modem tone) that contains data about the title being played.

How is Cinavia used in the film industry?

There are two types of known uses of Cinavia watermarking. The first use is to protect theatrical releases from being pirated. Because the audio watermarking is audible, but imperceptible, it will be picked up by microphones (strictly because of the Hz range where the subcode is embedded). Keep in mind that just because the subcode cannot be heard by human ears, it doesn’t mean it can’t be heard and decoded by a specialty hardware chip. So, if a theatrical release is CAMed (i.e. recorded from the screen), the Cinavia watermarking will also be recorded in the audio. After all, what is a movie without audio?

The second use is to protect Blu-ray copies of films from being pirated. For the same reason as theatrical releases, Blu-ray films are also embedded with a subcode. But, that subcode is different from theatrical films. For this reason, films destined for theatrical releases will never play in a consumer Blu-ray player ever (including players such as the PS3, PS4 or Xbox One). Commercial Blu-ray disks play because the audio track uses AACS with a key likely embedded within the subcode watermark. If the AACS key matches the value from the watermark, the check passes and the audio continues to play.

I have also read there is a third use emerging… to protect DVD releases. But, I have yet to confirm any DVDs currently using this technology. If you have run into any such releases, please leave a comment.

How would I be affected by this?

All consumer Blu-ray players manufactured after 2012-2013 are required to support Cinavia. If the Cinavia subcode is present, the player will blank the audio track if the AACS key is mismatched. This means hardware Blu-ray players from pretty much any manufacturer will be affected by Cinavia protection if the title supports it. CAM copies of theatrical releases will never play because the audio subcode is entirely different for theatrical films and the Blu-ray player will recognize that theatrical subcode and stop audio playback.

Not all movie titles use Cinavia to protect their content. Not all players support the Cinavia protections from all media types. For example, some Blu-ray players can play media from a variety of sources beside BD disks (e.g., USB drives, Network servers, etc). These alternative sources are not always under Cinavia protection even if the specific movie has an embedded subcode.

Since Sony is the biggest proponent and user of this technology, all Sony players, including the PS3 and PS4 along with their standalone Blu-ray players will not play back Cinavia protected material if it doesn’t continue to pass the subcode tests. For example, if you rip a Blu-ray disk protected by Cinavia and then burn it to a BD-rom disk, the movie will stop playing audio at around the 20 minute mark and display a warning. If you attempt to stop and start the movie, it will play audio again for a few seconds and then stop playing with a warning.

How can you remove Cinavia protection?

In short, it’s not as easy as that may sound. Once the Cinavia protection is detected on the media, the hardware activates and continues to look for the information it needs to make sure the content is ‘legitimate’.

With that said, there are ways of getting around this on certain devices. As I explained, some players don’t check for Cinavia for certain types of media (i.e., USB or Network streaming). Sony, however, does check for all media types. The PS3, though, doesn’t seem to check for Cinavia if the playback is through the optical output port (i.e., when playing back through an optical receiver). That would make sense, though, as it would be left up to the receiver to blank the audio based on Cinavia. Since most receivers probably don’t support Cinavia, there should be no issue with playback.

Other technical methods include garbling the audio somewhat or using variable speed on the audio. Neither of these two methods are really acceptable to the ears when watching a movie. We all want our movies to both look and sound correct.

How can I avoid this problem?

You can easily avoid this issue by using a a player that doesn’t support Cinavia protection. For example, Windows Media Player, VLC, etc. Most PC media players do not support Cinavia. Though, if you get a PC from Sony, expect the media player on any Sony product to support Cinavia (yes, even Windows Media Player might as Sony may have loaded a system-wide Cinavia plugin). If you buy a PC from any manufacturer other than Sony, you likely won’t be affected by Cinavia.

This problem almost solely exists on Blu-ray standalone players. So, if you avoid playing movies on such consumer hardware players, you can usually avoid the Cinavia issue entirely. Though, there are some commercial PC media players that do support Cinavia.

A possible real solution?

Another method which I have not seen explored, I have decided to propose here. With a film protected by Cinavia, the Cinavia subcode should exist both within silence as well as noisy portions likely at the same volume. First, extract a length of silence (that contains Cinavia subcode). Now, garble, stretch, warp and generally distort this subcode so that it cannot be recognized by a Cinavia decoder. Then duplicate the garbled ‘silence’ subcode to fill the length of the entire film. Extract the film’s audio soundtrack, mix in the new garbled full length subcode throughout the entire film. Note that remixing 7.1 or 5.1 track is a bit tricky, but it can be done. I would suggest inserting it on the subwoofer track or the center track, though it may be present on all of the tracks by design. After the audio track is remixed and remuxed into a resulting MP4 (or other format), the new garbled subcode should hopefully interfere just enough with the existing already-embedded subcode to prevent the Cinavia protection from getting a lock on the film’s original subcode.

The outcome of the garbled subcode could cause one of two things to happen. 1) The Cinavia detection is rendered useless and the Cinavia hardware ignores the subcode entirely or 2) The Cinavia detection realizes such tampering and shuts down the audio track immediately. While erroring on the side of fail is really a bad move in an industry already fraught with bad press around failed past media protection schemes, I would more likely suspect scenario number 1. But, it’s probably worth a test. No, I have not yet had time to test my theory.

While this doesn’t exactly remove Cinavia, it should hopefully render it useless. But, it won’t recover the lost audio portions being used by the Cinavia subcode.

How would I go about doing this?

I wouldn’t attempt doing the above suggestion manually on films as it takes a fair amount of time demuxing audio, creating the garbled audio subcode, remixing the new track and remuxing it into the video. But an application capable of ripping could easily handle this task during the rip and conversion process if provided with a length of garbled subcode.

[Updated: 2018-01-06]

Apparently, DVDFab seems to have a way to rip and disable Cinavia protections according to their literature. They have released the DVDFab DVD and Blu-ray Cinavia Removal tool. If you’re still having difficulties with Cinavia while watching your movies, it might be worth checking out this tool. Note, I have not personally used this tool, so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness. I am also not being sponsored by DVDFab in this article. I’m only pointing out this tool because I recently found it and because it seems to have a high rating. On the other hand, I do see some complaints that it doesn’t always recognized and remove Cinavia on some movies. So, caveat emptor. Even though it’s not an inexpensive product, it is on sale at the time of this update for whatever that’s worth.

It seems that someone finally may have implemented my idea above. Good on them if they did… it only took around 4 years.

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How not to run a business (Part 8): Stock and Incentive edition

Posted in best practices, business by commorancy on February 15, 2014

While it’s great that employers want to reward employees and give incentives to stay, there is the correct way and there is the wrong way. Let’s explore.

Don’t offer tiny stock grants with huge vesting schedules and cliffs

If you’re planning to offer a stock grants as ‘stay’ incentives, make it sizable. Stock programs with vesting schedules are a good thing, but not grants with tiny amounts of shares. First, it’s a waste of paperwork to give out less than $10k in equivalent shares (vested over 4 years) in company stock both for the HR team and for the receiving employee. You’ll have your team spending time on managing all of these tiny grants with no benefit to anyone. Second, most employees won’t hesitate to walk away from such grants before the vesting period ends which means even more paperwork to clean it up after the employee has left. Employees won’t wait 12 months just to get another $1-2k when they can likely pick up a 5-10% raise (and possibly even a sign-on bonus) by changing jobs.

If you want to give an incentive to employees so that they stay with your company, approve grant sizes that matter. More specifically, grant sizes that are higher than an equivalent raise. Make it worth your employee to want to worry about. For example, grant a size equivalent to 1 year of salary (at the then current stock price) with a 4 year vesting schedule. If an employee sees they’re going to get 1/4 of their salary each year for the next 4 years, that’s definitely an incentive to stay. If they don’t stay, you don’t pay. Assuming the employee is a high performer and highly valued, it is worth it when they do stay. That’s the entire point of the grant. However, issuing a grant that, at best, offers the employee $1-3k after taxes each year offers not even the best performer an incentive to stay. After all, you do want this employee to stay, right? Most great employees can easily make up such a tiny amount left behind by moving to a new job with a new company. Most people would have no problems walking away from a tiny dollar amount for a new job offer. Again, this leaves your existing employees to clean up the mess left over from the tiny little unvested grants. Note that it’s the same amount of paperwork whether you grant 1 share or thousands.

In other words, grant stock incentive sizes that make sense for all involved or choose a different incentive vehicle altogether. While you may think giving stock grants is a positive thing, employees generally don’t because of the downsides of vesting schedules and cliffs, the hassles of taxes (it will probably cost the employee more to hire a tax consultant than the bonus is worth) and when it’s too small it’s not worth the employee’s time. Be very careful when using this incentive vehicle.

Don’t send the wrong message to your employees by using the wrong incentives

In the case above with stock, you have to consider what such a small grant size says to the employee. If you give an employee a pittance grant, you’ve essentially just told them, “You’re worth $1-2k a year extra” (once they do the math). That, in many cases (especially in California), is less than the average raise. That doesn’t, in any way, impart confidence that the employee is valued… and that’s exactly what a pittance grant says. It’s definitely not the right message to send. Yes, extra money is always a good thing, but not when it’s wrapped (er.. trapped) in the wrong incentive vehicle or if it’s the wrong dollar amount.

Keep in mind that for the employee it’s all about when they actually see the money. Trapping the money behind vesting schedules and vesting cliffs is tantamount to dangling a carrot from a stick just out of reach (for a year) and then only giving them 1/4 of that carrot after chasing it for a year. If you expect the employee to wait a year to get 1/4 of a baby carrot, it better be a damned good tasting baby carrot (e.g., a substantial amount of money actually worth waiting for).

From a monetary perspective alone, $1-2k extra a year can be easily handed to the employee in many other ways. You can label the extra as a bonus, you can label it as a ‘great job’ thank you, you can hand them a live check with a personal thank you or you can buy them an iPad as a gift.

Each of these suggested alternative incentives sends the correct message. Handing someone an iPad is a whole lot more satisfying of a bonus than handing them the quagmire of pittance RSUs. In stock plans with long term vesting schedules, vesting cliffs, stock price uncertainties, waiting periods and tax disincentives, it’s a quagmire of a bonus system for the employee to navigate only to secure $1k. Don’t use stock grants to hand out $1-2k a year bonuses. Using this incentive vehicle sends the absolute wrong message to your employees, can damage employee self-worth and ultimately damage your reputation as a respectable company. Ultimately, if the employee is left with nothing for a year and then has to wait 4 years to ultimately get maybe $10k gross and suffer huge tax liabilities in the process, that’s the wrong message to send.

So, always use the correct incentive vehicles to send a positive message to your employees to keep them on board. Using the wrong vehicle in the wrong way not only plants the seed of dissatisfaction, it can lead to the employee walking away entirely.

Don’t flaunt your sales team’s wins to your non-sales employees

Your sales team is important to the success of your company. It’s also great that your sales team members, or at least some of them, are doing well to bring in those great deals. On the other hand, many companies make the mistake of continually rewarding the most outstanding sales team members with trips, gifts, dinners and other niceties. Keep this information firmly within your sales team. Do not share this information with non-sales departments.

It’s very easy for the other departments to see the sales team as being the team with all the special benefits. This can make the other teams seem as if they are being left out of the loop. Your operations team, for example, usually has staff working 24/7/365 to make sure things are working. Yet, your sales team is being flown around the globe on sales team kick-offs. This sends the wrong message to other teams. If you are going to give incentives to your sales teams, either keep it away from your other teams or figure out a way (i.e., via winning an internal lottery) to include other team members in these wins.

Again, it’s important to understand that the sales team, while important to new business and renewals, isn’t the only team keeping your business afloat. All teams need to be supported, given incentives and given the opportunity to participate in travel events when available.

Do allow employees to participate in company sponsored events

If your company is planning to do trade shows such as Dreamforce or possibly even creation of your own company annual event, allow and encourage employees from all departments to participate. Doing the same job day after day, month after month is hard to do year in and out. Breaking the monotony of the same ole same ole will help reinvigorate employees when they do get back to their job. Allowing employees to do something different for a couple of days does help re-energize people to do their best jobs. It also encourages employees to meet and work with other employees outside of their team that they otherwise would not. This allows for a much closer knit company, especially when the employee does end up working with that person they met earlier.

Don’t be ambiguous or vague about your incentive programs and make sure they are fair to all teams

If you plan to offer such incentives as RSUs, stock options, bonus plans, merit-based trips, etc, document them. Document exactly how they work, who is eligible and how each employee can become eligible. If your programs only include certain departments, make certain that when other departments become aware (and they will) that you offer compensating alternatives to those other departments.

For example, if your sales team members receive an end-of-year trip to the Bahamas for the best sales numbers, then your finance team should, likewise, be offered some kind of off-site vehicle for the finance team members who consecutively kept their DSOs down that year. Offering something to one team and not others clearly smacks of favoritism. When it is not documented clearly, this causes more friction between teams than it solves. Better, if teams are offered grand incentives, then use a lottery to allow other departments to participate in it. So, for each sales team member who wins a trip, they can bring a member from another team along and that person is determined via a lottery. Again, this should all be documented fully so there is no question about either individual or team incentive programs.

Part 7 | Chapter Index | Part 9

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The Grammy Awards: What were they thinking?

Posted in awards, botch, entertainment by commorancy on February 2, 2014

GrammySo, I’m all for mutual-admiration-societies. You know, where you’re recognized by your peers with a gaudy gold award for producing something that’s entirely your job. Though, I suppose the point is to recognize that some creative works are better than others, but no one goes around pinning awards in most professions. No, this is a phenomena pretty much strictly involving the entertainment industry, and almost exclusively limited to Hollywood. I say ‘almost’ because the Tony awards recognize outstanding theater performers (which is pretty much exclusive to New York). And yes, there are the Saturn awards for novels, but again this is still considered entertainment.

Good Work or A** Kissing? You decide.

So, I’m all for recognizing good musical work. After all, that’s what the radio is for. Listeners vote by asking for music to be played and by purchasing it. Of course, we all know that’s not exactly true. Radio stations put music into heavy rotation mostly because of things other than popular requests. Sure, sometimes it is, but most times it’s because the producer wants it played and pays for that. And you might think that consumer music purchases are what drives the ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’ certifications. Nope. These certifications are assigned based solely on how many copies SHIPPED to retailers. Not how many were ultimately purchased. So, if 1 million copies are shipped to retailers, that’s considered ‘Platinum’. If 500,000 copies ship to retailers, that’s considered ‘Gold’. I’m not even sure how or if digital purchases factor into these certification programs.

The assumption is that the certification implies that there is a correlation between sales and shipments, but that doesn’t explain cut-outs. Let’s just say that this certification program is a bit of a scam. It doesn’t really say anything about the quality of the music or whether the music actually sold. The sales are merely implied. If someone has deep enough pockets to print 1 million copies of an album and get them shipped to retailers (whether or not a single copy sells), that would still be certified as a platinum album.

Music is subjective

Yes, it is. But, music is also derivative of other works. Sometimes it’s outright copying. Sometimes it’s rehashing tired themes and genres that have already been tread. Let’s take the 2014 Grammy Album of the Year: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories as an example. What’s wrong with this album? Well, it’s good, but it’s not the best album I’ve ever heard. The music on RAM is mostly derivative, tired and somewhat cliche not to mention retro. It’s not that it’s not well performed, but it’s well under the level of skills I’ve heard from Daft Punk. The 2010 Tron Legacy Daft Punk soundtrack is a much stronger work musically than Random Access Memories by far. So what does that say?

It says that of all of the albums released in 2013, Daft Punk’s was the best. In fact, I found a large number of tracks on Random Access Memories unlistenable. Not because the tracks weren’t produced or performed well, but because they are just musically weak. They just don’t hold up to repeated listens. Yet, here we have the Grammy judges selecting it as the best album of 2013.

Personally, the best album of 2013 in my eyes would have to be OneRepublic’s Native. But, this album wasn’t really even recognized, for the most part. Only a single OneRepublic track was even nominated, ‘I Lose Myself’ and it didn’t win. The album wasn’t even nominated for best album. Yet Daft Punk’s mediocre album was nominated and won… so…

What’s up with that?

So what’s up with that is that it isn’t about the best music. It’s about the notoriety of the artist. Daft Punk has been recently riding the wave of publicity. The Grammy judges are only riding that same wave along with the artists. Winning has little to do with the music and has everything to do with trying to pull in as many viewers as possible. That’s crystal clear.

Daft Punk will drag in tons of viewers. OneRepublic won’t. But, OneRepublic’s Native is a completely outstanding and consistent album of mostly fresh tracks. I will state that they do sound a little like U2, but with a much needed sound update. However, the songs are mostly original, fresh and stand up to repeated listens especially when placed into a pop playlist of other tracks.

On the other hand, the Daft Punk RAM tracks are too long, sound too dated, are chock full of interruptions & weird intros and just drone on far too long in a pop playlist. Basically, they’re not something that I want to listen to often in a playlist. On the other hand, when I get into the mood for OneRepublic, I want listen to the whole album over and over. The songs are melodic, have catchy hooks, are mixed solidly, have solid musical themes and just overall work well as pop tracks. But, it’s just not individual tracks. It’s a whole album of them. They’re all consistent, catchy and fresh from start to finish of the album. There’s really not a bad track or performance on OneRepublic’s Native and this is, if no other reason, why this album is actually better than Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Of course, if you don’t like bands like U2 or The Script, you may not find the music to your taste, but that doesn’t make this album any less strong production-wise or musically.

The Grammy Snub

So, not seeing a musical artist like OneRepublic recognized for their outstanding work on an album like Native is a fairly major snub. The Grammy awards simply snubbed this artist for no real reason. It also says the Grammy awards are in it for the viewers and the money, not for actually recognizing the best music released during a year. This is the reason I generally avoid watching award shows. I just don’t trust the judges to pick the best works for that year. I’d rather find the best entertainment myself. As for Bruno Mars’s win, I’m on the fence. Unorthodox Jukebox had some strengths, but his vocals were really not that strong.  He’s a reasonably good vocalist, but not the best I’ve heard. Unfortunately, I found the songs on Unorthodox Jukebox themselves to be less than impressive than OneRepublic’s Native. I’m not even sure why Unorthodox Jukebox was even considered for the 2014 Grammy awards as the album was released in December of 2012. Mutual admiration societies are really not good at actually picking the most outstanding of their bunch.

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