ASCII by Jason Scott

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Reformatting The Lamp —

I get a lot of ideas. Some of them are not very good, like I bet I can drive without completely scraping all the snow off this windshield, or the classic I probably don’t have to wait a couple minutes before pulling this out of the microwave.

Other ones are pretty good, like hey, let’s bring a VAX and a PDP-11 to a hacker conference, or it appears there hasn’t been a documentary on bulletin board systems so maybe I should do one.

And then there’s the really good ones, the ones that fall into my lap or come to me and they burn with such passion that I spend more time contemplating and planning their repurcussions than coming up with the idea in the first place. And one of those hit this morning thanks to a poster on this thread.

The idea is this:

What if I released GET LAMP on a USB Stick?


Here’s the thinking.

First of all, there’s no way I’m using Blu-Ray, and Blu-Ray is the defacto standard for “it goes on a plastic disk thing and you shove it into a machine” for high definition.  This leaves regular ol’ DVD-ROM. Regular ol’ DVD-ROM is a very mature format and I can do a lot with it, but I will end up with a SD version of the HD stuff I shot, AND it’s using a standard called MPEG-2, which is a pretty puffy little standard as far as video goes – it predates the first Playstation.

MPEG-2 currently is supplanted by MPEG-4, which can put a lot more detail into a much smaller space. There’s also the matter of the Matroska media container, which is an open-source spec that lets you shove in a bunch of subtitles, video streams, and other cool stuff into a single file.

USB sticks are now pretty ubiquitous. The USB2 standard (which is about to be supplanted by a higher-speed version) is a pretty robust little sucker, and USB flash drives have been around long enough that they’re getting pretty cheap and definitely getting accepted enough that there’s crazy customized versions of them available. Witness:


Now, granted, the per-unit costs are higher – but only if you compare them to DVD-ROMs – with Blu-Ray as it currently is (and always will be, if the current regime holds), these will be cheaper. And hold more stuff. And be cooler.

I mean, look at some of these selections.

You’d get all the footage I was intending to put on there, PLUS even MORE bonus stuff, like scanned images, photos, audio, maybe some games, and it would be even easier to make it accessible to the blind and deaf, which was on my list. 4gb or 8gb, it’d all be on one little item, and it’d work, and I’d be paying nothing to any cartel.

So, hit me up, folks. Tell me why I shouldn’t go for this, this way. Is there any downside? Any?

Oh, these ideas fire me up. I’m delighted when they happen.

Categorised as: documentary

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  1. […] scott's new idea on offline distribution of !free culture works: !libreplanet […]

  2. Krisjohn says:

    Cool. That’ll work. Just make sure you pick a model with a write-protect switch. ^_^

  3. DosFreak says:

    Only thing I can think of is that FAT32 has a max file size limit of 4GB so you’ll either need to keep your video size below that point or split up the video file in smaller chunks.

    I believe exFAT does away with that limitation but Windows OS’s below Vista don’t support it unless you install an update and I doubt Linux/OSX/Other support that filesystem and according to wikipedia you’d have to pay a license.

  4. Ryan Russell says:

    How much do the custom tiny brass lamp-shaped USB drives cost?

  5. polpo says:

    USB is definitely interesting, as a lot of HDTVs made nowadays can play media files directly from a USB stick. Use a relatively common format (I’m guessing H.264 in an MP4) and lots of people will be able to literally plug-and-play GET LAMP on their TV.

  6. Eric says:

    cool idea, i’d go for it.. wonder if anyone has done it before

  7. Michael Kohne says:

    The only 2 issues I see (and they are quite surmountable) are the 4 gig limit on files on the FAT filesystem, and the per-unit cost of the drives.

    If you are careful about how you edit the sections together, and in picking your video format (are you using 1080 or 720?), you will actually get quite a bit in 4 gigs, especially if (like the BBS documentary), there’s a lot of still background with the person talking. That sort of thing should compress brilliantly. I know I’ve seen pretty long stuff (1 hour or so) fit in

    As to per unit cost, blu-ray disks are what, 50 gig for dual-layer discs. 64 gig USB drives are a little pricey right now (retail), but 32 gig ones aren’t that bad, and they’d be better in bulk. Given the likely small run, you probably wouldn’t end up spending (total) that much more per USB stick than you would for the Blu Ray licensing crap.

    WOW. This is a fabulous idea, if you can keep the USB stick costs under control.

    Good luck!

  8. Michael Kohne says:

    And you know, if there’s high up-front costs, you could approach it 2 ways: Take pre-orders. Once enough pre-orders come in, place the order for the drives and start shipping stuff to people. Or run an another Adventurer’s club.

  9. codedr says:

    You can use a UDF filesystem on the usb stick.

    This idea rocks.

  10. Joey Hess says:

    I’ve long felt it’s a shame that hard drives and USB stick aren’t shipped preformatted with useful or amusing content. Ie, why does a 1 TB drive come with all those zeros, rather than 1 TB of random free content?

    I’d be more likely to buy a USB stick, that I can reuse, than a DVD that, I would have to a) boot the only computer with a DVD drive b) rip it onto my fileserver and c) stream it to my (DVD-less) netbook, only to d) put it on a shelf somewhere and watch it collect dust.

  11. Dezro says:

    If you could have it play right off the stick on an Xbox 360 or PS3, that would be pretty excellent. And make sure the box you sell it in is a good size to stack next to DVDs on the shelf.

    I hope this works out and catches on. Sticks are much cooler than discs, any day of the week.

  12. Jason Scott says:

    One exasperated call from the Eye of Doom later, I can say that we won’t be using MKV/Matroska for the container, only MP4. Better standards. 🙂

  13. Chris says:

    Excellent idea, and I can continue to put off buying a Blu-Ray player for a while longer.

  14. Gene Buckle says:

    I go all 4chan and just write “WANT!”, but this is a genuinely good idea for distribution, especially for independent filmmakers. Even if it does cost more to the end-customer than a DVD, I think it would be worth it – hell you could even stick a copy of the BBS Documentary on it if there’s enough space available.

    You can tell the Blu-Ray morons to See Figure #1 and be a first in the film distribution industry at the same time. 😀

    Go for it Jason. I want two. 🙂

  15. I think this is a fabulous idea and agree with Michael Kohne regarding the pre-order should the up-front costs be too high. The equivalent of a modern feelie? Sign me up!

  16. Derek says:

    I like the *concept* but the execution is where it will fail for me.

    A DVD or Blu-Ray basically lasts forever (if they’re done as a pressing, anyway, burned discs obviously have a shorter lifespan).

    USB drives have a *horrible* shelf-life. I haven’t had a USB stick last more than a year or so, even just sitting on a shelf doing nothing. If I buy the content, I want the content on a durable media that’s going to be around and functional a couple years from now, and USB simply isn’t it.

    Make mine an actual pressed Blu-Ray or DVD. I’ll pay more for it. Honest.

    • Jason Scott says:

      I am finding a guaranteed 10 year shelf-life on the drives I’m looking at; a 10-year guarantee. Plus, you’re able to take the data off my sold USB drives and use them any way you’d like. There’s a chance there’ll be DVDs but never a Blu-ray. Never.

  17. Jason Scott says:

    Derek, I just spent some time doing research. All I can say is that there is something very wrong with what you’re buying or the way you’re storing these flash drives – I can’t find ANY citation of people talking about USB sticks lasting as little as a year without them having been DOA or nearly DOA on initial usage. I mean, literally – all standard USB sticks and certainly the ones I’d be using all come, standard, with ten year warranties.

  18. Derek says:

    Well, as I do more research about it, it could have to do with usage patterns. USB drives’ lifetimes are based, essentially, on “the number of writes to a given block” before that block simply refuses to take writes any more because it wears out. For a read-heavy application (like this) there’s not a significant issue.

    For a thumbdrive that has a PGPDisk installed on it that’s constantly being overwritten en masse with confidential stuff…. there’s probably a much heavier write-ratio.

    So… anyone who’s guaranteeing you a “time-based lifetime” is writing checks their ass can’t really guarantee it can cash, but in your case, you’d probably be fine.

  19. Mike Hillyer says:

    I support the idea, at a recent concert I had the option of buying the band’s latest CD or a thumbdrive with extras for an additional $5 and I took the thumb drive. I moved the content to my redundant/backed-up storage and yay, free thumbdrive. In other words, I had no concerns about the long-term life of the thumb drive because I keep my files safe anyway.

    Oh and when it comes to choosing a drive, I personally recommend something basic and non-flashy (no pun intended), but that has the content and a URL silkscreened onto it, just so when I’m shuffling through my box ‘o thumbdrives I can find it easily.

  20. Brian Campbell says:

    Yes, please do this! I think it will be a good demonstration of alternatives to the disaster that is Blu-Ray. I personally will never buy a Blu-Ray player, nor a computer that includes one, as long as all of the DRM crap is mandatory, so a USB stick or download is the only way I’d be able to consume your HD footage.

    Releasing a DVD for those who would like to play on their DVD players or other set-top boxes, but don’t mind SD, would be good too, but for HD content, a USB stick will work better for a lot of people, as well as your sanity.

  21. Rubes says:

    I’m all for it. That would be a great idea.

  22. benjamin says:

    My only concern for the design is making sure it does not take much space sideways (both ways). Because some of us has crowded USB ports and worse, laptops often have braindead placements of ports.

  23. Church says:

    I’ve had two USB sticks; one lasted less than a year, the other is still going three or so years later. Make of that what you will.

    In general, though, I like this idea. A USB key, especially a custom one, provides an additional “Reason To Buy” (as techdirt likes to phrase it.)

  24. Tyler says:

    I don’t have a problem with distributing Get Lamp on flash drives, but I don’t see why you choose them over releasing the same content/files on a dual-layer data DVD-ROM. Dual-layer DVDs can hold slightly more data than “8 gigabyte” flash drives (7.95 GiB vs. ~7.45 GiB) and there’s no filesystem-imposed file-size limit, and their unit price is incredibly low (I’ve never used DVD replication services before, but the places I looked at online offer pressed bulk DVD-9s for well under $1/disc in 1000+ unit orders). DVDs also have the advantage of being a known quantity in terms of stability for long-term storage compared to modern MLC flash drives.

  25. RossH says:

    I don’t think my Commodore C64 has a USB slot- any plans to release “Get Lamp” on 5 1/4 floppies or Cassette tape?

    Seriously, I don’t have a Blu Ray player (or any plans to get one) so I was hoping for a standard-def DVD type release anyway. Digital HD files, however you decide would be great.

  26. acr0nym says:

    I fully endorse this plan. One of the primary factors in the HDTV I am considering for my next viewing platform is its ability to display 1080p video from a Matroska container. Thus, this would be a delightful way to get your video, and, with any luck, help you get it out faster….

  27. Drew Wallner says:

    I see the novelty and I love the “vote of no-confidence for Blu-Ray” factor. However I would encourage that the “USB edition” be just that…an edition, a choice.

    If you’re looking at 4GB and 8GB models, well, you could easily distribute those .MP4 files on DVD-ROM discs. I’d prefer that personally because static and magnetism won’t kill them and they’ll stack on a shelf with all my other movies.

  28. Steve B says:

    Excellent idea. To quote acr0nym above, “I fully endorse this plan.”

  29. VoltageX says:

    Can you do this for BBS too?

  30. James Jones says:

    Holy crap this is brilliant! Just make sure it’s small, cute, and sits well upright on a shelf.

    This should become the standard for independent physical distribution. Fuck Blu-Ray indeed.

  31. D says:

    I think it would be a real shame to shoot this movie and then never press it to DVD. I guess I could burn my own DVDs from a USB edition, but I’d really hate to have to do that. I don’t care about the whole Blue-Ray thing, I have a 1080p TV, but I still haven’t gone out and got a Blue-Ray player. I have too many movies to covert. So I really hope you at least come out with a DVD version of Get Lamp, you know, a full blown package like the BBS Documentary 🙂

  32. Danny D. says:

    Great idea! Go with it!

  33. If you can guarantee compatibility with the Xbox 360 and PS3, I’d be fine with the USB stick option (naturally it would already be compatible with computers). I would not be interested in watching this on a computer monitor or output from a computer to a TV.

  34. Laroquod says:

    Jason, what is you forcing you into SD simply by releasing a DVD-ROM? I mean, you don’t get direct TV playback if you just slap the same files on a dual-layer DVD that you were going to put on that 8GB USB stick, but you won’t get direct TV playback with the USB stick, either, and wouldn’t the stick cut way into your profits?

  35. Ali Gündüz says:

    You may wanna watch this video (the part talking about #2):

    Note: I would still buy on a USB drive, but it’s important to know it’s not really useful for long term archiving, especially if it’s not plugged once in a while.

  36. Kadin says:

    Love the idea. I think it’d be good, if you can do it without too much work or making the USB drive too expensive, to include the movie in multiple formats. H.264 Matroska, H.264 MP4, DivX AVI—the more you can include, the better chance you have of being able to plug the USB drive into a DVD player and be able to watch it on your TV.

    Multiple formats makes it more future proof as well; right now, there are a lot of DVD players around that advertise DivX playback. However, I suspect (hope?) that in a few years there will be more players supporting MKV or MP4 containers. At minimum, one “practical” format—whatever’s most widely supported on current hardware—and one “ideological” format—something that’s as open as possible, both in terms of codec and container—would balance short-term utility and long-term readability.

  37. Palad says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand, I like the idea for its general ease-of-use. I have access to plenty of computers both at home and at work, and a solution like this would be perfect for sharing video clips or special features between systems. On the other hand, I don’t like it because of its lack of usability in my specific situation. I have a 10-15-year-old analog TV, with no XBox 360, no PS3, no multipmedia PC attached. I generally only watch movies from the comfort of my couch, and that means having an actual disc to put in a DVD player. I suppose I could always convert the video files to .avi, copy them to disc, and watch that (my DVD player does happen to be DivX compatible), but it seems like a lot of work. With no plans to upgrade my TV in the near future, I would find a DVD release more to my liking. Ideally, I would be able to purchase both.

  38. Trevor says:

    I love the idea of distribution via USB stick. I’ve been digitizing my CDs for quite a while, thinking of doing the same with DVDs; this would save me a fair bit of time and effort. In addition, if the USB stick is cool or at least in some way unique, this could be an interesting form of marketing:

    “Where’d you get that lamp-shaped USB stick?”

    “Let me tell you about a time where games didn’t need ‘graphics’ to be fun…”

  39. Ryan van Barneveld says:

    I’m not a fan on the USB stick idea, and this is coming from someone who has a ton of digital media. If I can’t lend this to my dad or a friend to watch, what good is it? They won’t know what to do with a USB stick. This is fine as an “edition” of Get Lamp, as someone else mentioned, but as the primary means of distribution? I don’t want to have to burn my own disc, print my own labels, make my own box etc. I want to buy a finished product that I can watch and lend without any hassle.

  40. jas says:

    “A DVD or Blu-Ray basically lasts forever”

    wrong, nothing lasts forever.

    i say use the xvid or mkv. also it would take forever to write a movie on a usb stick in comparison to a dvd

  41. >>>>Derek, I just spent some time doing research. All I can say is
    >>>that there is something very wrong with what you’re buying or
    >>>the way you’re storing these flash drives – I can’t find ANY
    >>>citation of people talking about USB sticks lasting as little as a
    >>>>year without them having been DOA or nearly DOA on initial usage.

    I bought 4 USB sticks so far. 2 of them died in the first 3 days. The second of them died right as I was moving offices, I put everything on that USB stick, deleted everything on PC1, went over to the new office, USB stick dead. I had 2 technicians look at it, no go.

    The 3rd stick is half a year old, it had a file corruption (write error) during a normal copy action. Content gone. I downloaded a tool to retrieve the partition, I played around with various functions of that tool for 3 hours, and gave up. I formatted the USB stick.

    Some days later I had a write error again, I booted the PC, Windows was checking file sanity for over an hour, afterwords some files were 1KB in size.

    The 4th stick, a Sony one, never made any trouble.

  42. Michael Kohne says:

    It would appear that you, Jason, are not the only one to think of distribution on USB sticks:

    Apple & EMI are putting out the Beatles catalog (with a bunch of digital extras) on a USB key. While this is obviously more of a collector’s item than a primary distribution mechanism, I don’t think it’s last we’ll see of this method of distribution.

  43. I like the idea. I think USB sticks are also more practical to send via mail. Whatever the medium you’ll eventually choose, I can’t wait to watch Get Lamp!


  44. Make a special edition with the DVDs AND the USB Stick and some other stuff ..

    Think of what they did for the LOTR movie series..

    I hope that gives you some ideas hehe.