MonthAugust 2005

These things I found interesting.. 31 August 2005

Record labels! Want rivals to overtake iTunes? Remove the DRM

So I was reading the Mobhappy blog (Carlo Longini and Russell Buckley; Longini wrote the piece) on “Why DRM will kill mobile music”, and it has this fantastic, obvious insight:

Story after story laments how “incompatibility” is slowing the growth of digital music. That’s slightly disingenuous: what’s hurting things is incompatible DRM, which itself is an obstacle the record companies implemented. Companies like to complain that Apple won’t license their DRM technology, but why is it there in the first place? Not because Apple likes DRM, but because record companies insist on it. So if labels aren’t happy about this “incompatibility” and think it’s hurting things. get rid of the problem by dropping their demands for DRM.

They’re right, of course. The record industry (BPI in the UK) reckons that in the UK one-third of CDs in circulation (ie in homes etc) are bought from shops; one-third are from pirates; and one-third are home-burnt (ie copied from shop-bought ones).

Soooo, now. Computer ownership is at just over half of UK households (I think). The record industry sells CDs which it knows can be ripped and/or copied by at least half the people who buy them. And has that hurt the industry in the UK? No, album sales are up in the past two years.

As Carlo says, why is the DRM there in iTunes and Napster and the rest? Because the labels are scared any track they put out without DRM will get P2P’d immediately. Surprise! Every track that’s ever appeared on iTunes or any of the rest has appeared, not long afterwards, on a P2P network.

So if you want iTunes to be overtaken by rivals – as the record companies do – then the answer is clear: take off the DRM. Weird, I know. Yet that’s what happens already: the vast majority of CDs come without DRM, and we have the capability to spread those over P2P, yet the industry appears happy enough to sell them to us. (That may be misstating their intent…)

And, as Carlo persuasively argues, DRM will work against mobile phones, rather than for them. It’ll get in the way and be annoying, sand in the grease of commerce. But let’s see how it goes arguing to get it dropped…

These things I found interesting.. 29 August 2005

(Generated using an Applescript I wrote myself, NetNewsWire and MarsEdit. Nice one, Brent.)

Your hard drive will die. But what if it’s in your PVR?

Ahh, there I was, having got back and already set the Sky+ to record the first episode of the new series of Six Feet Under on E4 while I slept off jet lag. Truly, the Sky+ (PVR to the rest of y’all) is fabulous.

Until, that is, you try to use the Live Pause facility the next day, and you get a message saying “System Fault. Call 08705 800800”. Worse, when you go over to the “Planner” section of the Sky+ menu, where all the programs you recorded are shown, it says “You have no recorded programs. Press ‘Back Up’ to return to menu.”

Back Up is sure what you want to do there. Huh? All the things I’ve recorded and marked with a big K (for Keep) are gone? Can we rewind time a few minutes and I’ll not do whateveritwas that I did?

Unfortunately not. A call to the helpful (Scottish) folk at the Sky customer service centre implies that it’s a hard drive problem that crops up from time to time. A quick excursion into a hidden menu (I could tell you, but then I’d have to.. oh, perhaps I wouldn’t), press a couple of buttons, and the whole disk is reformatted, pristine, and apparently well-behaved again, though the Sky man suggested recording a few programs of “absolutely anything, even stuff you’d not normally watch” just to check it’s all working OK. (“No, darling, the Sky man suggested I record Teen Babes Hot Stuff Weekend, just making sure the hard drive is all right. And he said I should watch it to make sure the recording quality is OK too..”)

So what happened? My best guess is that the directory got corrupted somehow. Reformat and you’re back at square one. OK, so it’s a hard drive. At some time it is going to die.

But now here’s where it gets tricky. All right! It’s going to die one day! But how do you save the things you want to save? With a computer HD, you’d plug in a USB or Firewire cable, and you’re away. Settings and all. But with a PVR, the settings and stuff are all hidden away. Where and how can you back them up? I’d imagine this is even more important, and befuddling, with a TiVo, where you have loads of personal preference settings that get built up over time.

Though if anyone does know a good way to back up a Sky+, I’m all ears. The best we’ve managed is to play it out through the SCART output via an Elgato EyeTV Wonder onto my computer, but it’s not the same as having the original. Now if Elgato could do something that could decode Sky, then perhaps that Mac Mini Media Centre would start to make more sense… is there a remote control for the Mac Mini?

On directions and eyewitnesses: what you see is not what you report

We were driving to our hotel in Australia at night, so rang ahead for some directions.

Here’s what the first person told me (I wrote it down in shorthand): “You’ll come to what looks like the end of the highway. Then take the roundabout off right towards Newcastle [the Australian one] and then there’s a bridge with Hexham on the left. Go over the bridge. About 2 kilometres past the bridge there’s a right turn to Tomago. Take that, go straight along for about 20 minutes. Then that ends with a roundabout with a petrol station on it. Go left to Nelson Bay, and then straight through to Shoal Bay, and the hotel is at the end of the point.”

We drove for a while, went over a bridge that was close to Hexham, then saw a big bridge going off to the left, but no definite clue that that was the way to go – though it was labelled “Pacific Highway”. (And to be fair, the wife, who was driving, thought that was the way to take.) By this time though, I was looking for the right turn to Tomago. We drove on for a bit, then decided it looked wrong. So I rang back.

A different person answered. “OK, go back to the bridge, take that, and follow it for about 10 kilometres. You’ll come to an offramp marked Nelson Bay and Raymond Terrace. Take that and drive for about 50 kilometres, following signs for Nelson Bay, and Shoal Bay is two kilometres past that.”

The second set of instructions got us there, though we still had to navigate by feel on reaching Nelson Bay as the main turning signposted to Shoal Bay was closed, so we had to drive around the town (thankfully small) trying to find a road that felt like it was in the right direction. Eventually we reached Shoal Bay, though it’s not really on the end of a point like I’d expected.

It sounds like the first person got it all wrong, doesn’t it? In fact they were just describing an alternate route – via Highway 122 rather than Highway 1. You can’t tell that from your rental car, though.

And that leads me to something else that incident got me thinking about. I’ve been intrigued, in all the noise about the wrongful shooting of Juan Charles de Menezes, in how much the early civilian eyewitness accounts differ from those given by the police on the scene.

Recall this from the Guardian:

“As he got on to the train I looked at his face. He looked sort of left and right, but he basically looked like a cornered rabbit, a cornered fox. He looked absolutely petrified and then as I say he sort of tripped, but they were hotly pursuing him.

“They couldn’t have been no more than two or three feet behind him at this time and he half tripped and was half pushed to the floor and the policeman nearest to me had a black automatic pistol in his left hand. He held it down to the guy and unloaded five shots into him.”

and also from The Guardian:

Anthony Larkin, who was on the train, said: “I saw these police officers shouting ‘get down, get down’, and I saw this guy who appeared to have a bomb belt and wires coming out. People were panicking and I heard two shots being fired.”

Then compare it with the reported policeman who held Menenzes, who by multiple police accounts, and the evidence of the picture showing him slumped dead, had got untroubled onto the train and sat down in a seat.

The way that accounts can differ is one of the key problems in reporting. Andrew Brown suggests that

One of the most interesting things about these false stories is that many of them seem to have come from a civilian eyewitness to the killing who simply cannot have seen what he was sure he saw. The point is that he knew, like everyone else in London, that there were men roaming around the city willing to let off bombs in the tube, and he desperately wanted them killed in their turn. So that’s what he saw.

(Actually, Andrew’s Worm’s Eye piece (in full at that link) is fascinating and insightful, as they always are.)

Conclusions? Not sure there is one, except to be more wary of how people report things that they’re not familiar with, or are describing to people who aren’t expert in it. Police are meant to be trained to be meticulous observers and reporters of what they do and see, and to act according to that, but they’re human too – and so clearly very, very fallible.

New Statesman on broadband infections; and getting bitten by the port 25 bug

As should become clear after reading my article for New Statesman on how vulnerable British broadband users are, there’s a certain irony in the fact that I got bitten by the port 25 bug while in Australia.

To be precise, I had wireless access, but couldn’t use my local Postfix (the free program on the Mac that sends mail directly, without you needing to connect to your home network) because Telstra blocks port 25 to stop spam (outgoing email – SMTP – is sent on port 25. Incoming email is port 110; web stuff happens on port 80.)

Telstra’s done this because it’s had so much trouble with virus-infected systems generating spam. But that’s caused problems for some people with perfectly legitimate reasons for sending directly over port 25 to servers that aren’t There are arguments both ways.

Happily Google’s Gmail and Apple’s let you have POP3 access (ie you can use a mail program on your computer to read the webmail stuff) and send from that same program because you have to go through their servers, but can do that from anywhere, over port 587. But they also force you to use their suffix, which meant for the past week or so I couldn’t send any mail “from” Oh well.

Why I don’t travel to the US these days

Ian Hobson has been discovering what’s so painful about travelling to the US: getting between your plane and the street.

My flight was relatively on-time. However, as I turned the corner into immigration, I couldn’t believe what I saw.There were at least 1000 people in front of me… It took me almost 2 hours to get through – not what I wanted at 4am in the morning UK time…instead of arranging your transport; you do absolutely NOTHING for 2 hours but stand and shuffle your bags a few metres at a time. When you do get out, the transport is a mess – complete gridlock because relatives have come to pick up people, and instead of just doing a pick up, the whole place is a parking lot… On returning to the UK, I disembarked (or de-planed as I’ve heard say) via a bus, went through customs, got a taxi home to SW London all in under 50 minutes. If I’d been an American, I doubt it would have taken any longer. While it was a longer line here than I’ve been used to, and slower moving, it was NOTHING like the US. Anyone considering a shopping trip to NY should seriously factor in that a 7 hour flight these days is more like a 13 hour home-to-hotel trip, and IMHO you’ve got to save a lot of money to justify losing 26 hours of your life on a return trip.

Personally, I’ve been putting off invites to the US for a couple of years now, for two reasons: you have to fight for a journalist visa down at the US Embassy, in person; and you then get treated like a suspect for having the temerity to show up and seek to get in. I’ve told Dell, Adobe and Messagelabs (certainly the first two, I think the latter) that my reason for turning down offers to meet their people in the US is because of the huge pain going there now involves.

EyeTV for DTT (DVB-T): ElGato does it well, again

ElGato isn’t well-known enough, given the quality of the stuff they do. The pictures elsewhere on this blog of the wife on BBC Breakfast TV were grabbed using the excellent EyeTV Wonder, which is a USB2.0 box that plugs from your (analog) TV and gives you a fast USB output that you can use to capture live TV. I’m always amazed that they can make money making stuff only for the Mac, but then again nobody else is really in this market as they are. By contrast there’s lots of competition for video capture on Windows, and it’s a race to the bottom there – people undercut each other like mad, without the feature set being very solid.

Now Ian Hobson sings the praises of the EyeTV for DTT (DVB-T).: ”

I have just got the EyeTV for DTT system – EyeTV software for mac with a tiny (and I mean tiny) DVB-T receiver which plugs into a USB 2.0 port. The receiver is really not much bigger than a box of matches. It has an attachment for an antenna (included) or you can plug in your own coax. It actually matches the mac mini quite well in style (metal and shiny white, rounded edges). The EyeTV software makes it all work on a mac. Combined with a subscription, it all seems to work neatly indeed.

He also found it worked a lot better than a dedicated Pace PVR:

The worst thing about [the Pace machine] is that despite countless software updates, the thing still crashes regularly. This crash is usually as it’s about to start recording a show – so you miss it, and any shows set up afterwards to be recorded. To reset it you must pull the plug from the socket – there is no other power button! Storage is limited to 10GB, though you can install a larger drive. Performance on the TV guide and Teletext is truly awful. Setting it to record a channel 5 program using the guide means waiting around 10 minutes for the info to come in.

The EyeTV/DTT is currently about £99 at the Apple Store inc shipping – so a little more than a standard Freeview decoder. But it is half the price of the Firewire EyeTV device, and also half what I paid for the Pace box.
I installed it with just one minor problem first time. I couldn’t get the sound output at first, but that was my fault to do with my use of an external usb sound device. Once I sorted out the system preferences, I am now getting digital sound out to the hifi. The quality of the picture on the plasma screen via DVI out on the mac mini is truly excellent. Apart from sharpness, the key difference is in overall brightness and saturation of the picture. Realtime full screen display seems perfect – even when other things are running. (Oh, and of course, it’s portable. So, I can also take it with me for a weekend!)

If you’ve got a dedicated computer for these things, then it does make a lot of sense to have a tuner like that. Assuming of course that you can get digital TV where you are. You recall how long it took me to get broadband? (Kangaroos in the Australian outback were on high-speed connections before me.) Well, same story with digital TV – can’t get the signal.

David Hewson on leaving the Sunday Times; and disappearing comments

I haven’t had time to read it, but if you haven’t read the blog piece, it’s here. (Well, somewhere.) With his thoughts on what should be the axioms for writing this stuff.

I’ll perhaps write my thoughts once I’ve read his. Anyhow, interesting. Very, very interesting. I never knew he wrote books..

(Apologies btw to everyone who’s been posting comments like mad and seen them apparently disappear into space. WordPress 1.5 seems to take a dim view of comments, any comments, even from people I trust and love. I’ll sort it out, I hope, when I get home.)

I’m not being rude, I just can’t send email. And enjoying the weather.

Just a quick note to say that (1) thanks, I’m getting your emails but (2) I can’t reply to them at present because although I’ve found the only place in absolutely miles that does broadband – wireless, at that – it blocks port 25, which in layman’s language means that I can’t send emails except over webmail, and I detest webmail, so I’m sticking to answering only the very very urgent on that basis.

The rest I guess will have to wait until I’m back in the UK at the end of the week (Sat 27th August, I think). Meanwhile don’t believe anyone claiming to have met me in the UK within the past three weeks…. though I’ve already had one email from someone claiming seriously to have been told that a flack problem has been handled thusly. Nope, it hasn’t.

And also to say that it’s nice here. The Australian winter is warmer than the English summer. And the prices are definitely favourable.