MonthFebruary 2008

“It’s over for the little guy” – Sopranos clip unearthed

So someone was asking the other day in a comment about that scene where the New Joisey boys in the Sopranos try to shake down a Starcostabucks, only to get told that “every last f’ing bean is in the computer”.

Hey, turns out that it’s out there. This is still my favourite scene out of the whole canon, because it demonstrates something that we feel is happening in our modern world: it’s all getting out of our control, it’s all done by computers, head offices somewhere else, there’s nothing left for us, the individuals, to do at our discretion. Which in this case turns out to be a blessing. And have to say, the actor playing the manager of the coffee shop plays a blinder with his one scene. Great stuff.

And now, enjoy.. (and it’s here if you want to see whatever gets related to it.. hmm, not much that you’d really call “relevant” except for having “little guy” somewhere near the title).

At the Guardian: another podcast, and how much will net access at the Beijing Olympics be limited?

More stuff goes up. First, the podcast, which is getting closer to what I’d really like it to be like – interviews (here with the BPI and ISPA over the “three strikes and out” proposition) which sound like proper radio cut-and-thrust (hopefully more like Today than You&Yours). Scott, our producer, is ex-BBC, and is gently but firmly steering us to better practice, as well as pointing out – always politely but never leaving room for doubt – when we’re doing it rubbish.

Tech Weekly podcast: action on illegal filesharing and Britain’s broadband future

Aleks Krotoski and the team dissect moves to force ISPs to prevent filesharing, the government’s lack of vision for super-fast broadband, and news on Facebook, eBay and YouTube

And with the China Olympics coming up, who’s to say that the media won’t find that certain sites won’t load? And that athletes won’t be proscribed for not blogging within tight enough limits? It’s crazy, I tell you. Another planet entirely.

Will Olympic athletes be gagged and blindfolded in Beijing?

We know blogging will be severely restricted and podcasts forbidden for Olympic athletes in Beijing, but will their internet access be censored as well?

Two brilliant things: films and slashing Star Trek

Firstly, we come to the New York Times – which has done an amazing infographic of US domestic film revenues, adjusted for inflation, since January 1986.

The remarkable thing is how difficult it is to interpret, yet I’m sure there’s some very deep information – any sensible Hollywood mogul is going to print it out and pin it to the wall so s/he can say “But look! Titanic came out at the same time of year and it did a billion!”

Actually, the interesting thing would be the names of the films that did between $250m and $862m (which for some strange reason is the top line). And how long they lasted at the box office. (The English Patient, for example, has an amazingly long tail.) As to whether there’s any pattern in big-hit movies now, well, who knows.

And now.. I’d heard that there’s a subgenre of Star Trek fanfiction called “slash” – as in “Kirk/Spock”. Weird enough. But now you can cut those early episodes together to make your own presentation…

Sorry, but I’m not sympathetic to the Guardian’s gap blogger

Now, I know it’s the case in journalism that dog should not bite dog, and even more so that dog should not bite dog (nor even puppy) within the same pack. But this stuff about the 19-year-old son of an occasional contributor to the Guardian’s travel section who somehow (how?) got a blog spot on, um, the Guardian’s travel blog where he was going to regale us with his experiences deserved the abuse it got, for one simple reason:

It wasn’t good enough.

The reality is that very few 19-year-olds are competent at writing anything well enough that it deserves to be on a national newspaper’s site in a prominent position. Nothing I wrote at 19 would have deserved that sort of publication. The stuff I wrote at 20 managed to get me published for the first time, in a tennis magazine read by perhaps a few thousand people. OK, I’m hardly a shining light to the skill of writing, but I have what is maybe an old-fashioned approach: national newspapers ought to be only the very best you can get – at least, that you can get within the time constraints you’re set.

Gap year travel blogs, though, are the sort of thing from which you should be able to choose from a vast, vast field. I’d expect to spend days, weeks even trawling through them to find the one, perhaps two, that really shine.

And nowadays, when you put something up there which isn’t good enough, you get kicked. Which is what David Cox points out (only 200 comments! An easy read!).

Quality: it’s a simple formula. But hard to do consistently. Let’s hope Max goes off and gets a blog somewhere (Blogger and WordPress do them free, you know) and practises, practises, practises.

At the Guardian: why Apple’s secretive approach works, how ISPs got forced into a corner on filesharing, and the Tech Weekly podcast.

Unease at filesharing crackdown

The government’s threat to force ISPs to police illegal sharing of copyright material is a music industry victory but a worry for everyone else

A sample:

Now, the music industry has used its lobbying muscle with the government – which is always happy with an industry that employs thousands and generates millions of pounds in taxable revenue – to force ISPs to sit down and create a new framework to choke downloading.

By contrast, ISPs don’t employ thousands and don’t generate millions in export sales. In some ways, it’s as simple as that.

Why Apple’s secretive approach is so effective

It turns out that there may be very deep reasons why Apple’s secretive approach entices us so, and Microsoft’s doesn’t

It’s based on some intriguing (and not yet fully published research) but it goes suggest why vapourware works, if you’re dominant, and perhaps why the AppleTV – preannounced (remember?) as the iTV – didn’t set the world alight.

Tech Weekly podcast: Video Bloggers and Alternative Realities

A look at entertaining technologies this week: interviews on video blogging with the people behind Diggnation, Boing Boing and zefrank, and the makers of the Torchwood Alternative Reality Game tell us how they put it together. And take a ride in the elevator to make a pitch.

What the *hell* is wrong with my Leopard system? What is “callback_client” and why does it die?

OK, I’m really mystified. I cannot, absolutely cannot, get this Leopard (10.5.2, clean install and then reimport of all the old stuff) installation on my Powerbook 1.67GHz with 1GB RAM (see, this means nobody can complain I didn’t tell them what my system was) to stay up for any length of time.

I mean, the longest I’ve managed is not quite seven days. That’s really not very long, compared to what Tiger used to manage. That’s rubbish. That’s awful. And no, I’m not running any weird extensions or APE or that lot. It’s Leopard and some applications.

And it almost always happens on waking from sleep – and then on waking automatically from sleep. Particularly in the mornings, when it is set to wake from sleep at 0655. Then I come down, hoping to find it’s been sucking up email and web feeds and opening pages and so on, and what do I find? Frozen machine – no response from the GUI; only way back is to power off, power on.

Any clues in the Console, you ask? Yes, I ask that too. Here’s what we find. The machine wakes up at 06:55:00 (we assume); the first kernel note on the console is at 06:55:07 saying “System Wake”. Jolly good. One second later:

20/02/2008 06:55:08 Mail[10442] *** Error while selecting [Google Mail]/All Mail: (null)

Then a few things about Appleshare shutting down and starting up, and then it gets the Airport up (on interface en1). Then two seconds later:
20/02/2008 06:55:32 mDNSResponder[25] Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (; network traffic reduction measures in effect
20/02/2008 06:55:33 mDNSResponder[25] Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (FE80:0000:0000:0000:0211:24FF:FE28:18E9); network traffic reduction measures in effect

Ur, OK, so maybe there’s something about the Airport? But here’s the next thing, which is the killer, 20 seconds later.

20/02/2008 06:55:53 fseventsd[30] callback_client: ERROR: d2f_callback_rpc() => (ipc/send) timed out (268435460) for pid 235
20/02/2008 06:56:03 fseventsd[30] callback_client: ERROR: d2f_callback_rpc() => (ipc/send) timed out (268435460) for pid 235
20/02/2008 06:56:03 fseventsd[30] client: 0x80f800 : USER DROPPED EVENTS!

Which just goes on and on and on until I come along and kill the thing. And the really strange thing? I can’t find a process id 235. On restarting the machine, there’s a 234 (which is Apple’s Activity Monitor, the second process to start on my login) and then a 237 (pmtool, the command-line program that feeds Activity Monitor).

I can’t find anything from Googling that explains what callback_client might be, nor anything that looks even slightly like this. (There’s a discussion about iDVD on Apple’s support boards, but I don’t use it.) It’s totally perplexing. Come on, can anyone enlighten me even a little?

How to decide in less than 5 seconds whether to keep or kill a feed

I keep noticing how my CPU is getting sucked up to an astonishing degree by NetNewsWire (as I write, it’s doing a check on feeds and the machine is on 100% CPU).

And given that I had about 630 feeds, I thought there might be a connection. Particularly because it means there are periods when I type and nothing happens. NNW will happily use up 80% of CPU at times like that.

So, obvious tactic: kill off some of those feeds. After all, it’s not as if I ever got round to reading all of them. I’d read a few all the time, many a little of the time, and some of them – I’ve no idea how I put them there or why. Must have seemed sensible at the time.

So I’ve been working my way through. And here’s how I decide whether to kill or keep.

Kill if:
* daily content consists of “today’s links:” followed by links and no new content.
* posts consist of no new content that I couldn’t find elsewhere, or just think of myself. (Musings on the crack in their living room wall or the new curtains they bought don’t count.)
* Haven’t updated the blog for more than 30 days (a “dinosaur”, in NNW’s parlance. Though I kept Tim Berners-Lee’s blog.)
* feeds are partial. Listen, don’t try to tempt me to come to your site to read your fantastically insightful things. There are very few organisations that can manage that, and of them, most are newspapers or very high-flown analysts of a sector. I just don’t bother with partial feeds any more. Apart from anything, most people can’t (a) write a good teaser (b) come up with any sort of analysis that makes it worth clicking through. Your overall traffic will surely be higher with full feeds. I’ve made this site full feed from day 1 because I couldn’t see any benefit from making people come to it. Yes, a few sites do deserve a clickthrough. But even then, it’s a barrier to reading. Barriers online don’t help.

Keep if:
* they’re in a sector where I want to hear the authentic voice of the user or programmer or problem solver
* they’re consistently able to throw new light on things I’m interested in
* they have a track record of telling you about things before they get big
* they’ve got a full feed.

Using just that criterion, and devoting about 5 seconds to deciding with each feed, I’ve already whittled it back to 550. I’m going to repeat this a few times. I think 200 is a good intermediate target – but I suspect that the ideal is a lot closer to 100.

Update: now down to 399 feeds – which translates to only 10,098 unread articles. Ho hum. I’m sure I’ll find more to whittle away.

In the Guardian: reviewing MusicStation


MusicStation is how sounds on the go should be: cheap, easy and offering a wide range of tracks

And it really is – this is a subscription service on mobile which works, really well. The incredible thing will be if any of the mobile providers think that they can make their pay-to-download systems work. (Vodafone offers this, and I think it should quickly bury the whole music side of Vodafone Live!.)

I know people trot out arguments about music subscription – if you stop paying, all the music vanishes! Oh no! But look, if you like the music that much, then you’re getting to listen to it all the time you have it. (And if you want it in some other context, you can pay for the CD or individual track.) If you don’t like the music enough to actually buy it, then you clearly don’t care much if it vanishes with your subscription.

The benefit here is that you can sample tracks or albums without worrying that it’s costing you (there aren’t even data charges) and the record labels get a cut each time you play a track (not just download). So I’ve paid my tithes towards Robert Fripp’s fortune in the past week or so.

The real argument in the past has been that subscription services don’t work very well, and they aren’t portable. This is portable, and it works really well. It’s a no-brainer: if I was out of contract, I’d think this a strong reason to switch to Vodafone, at £2 per week. It also means you don’t have to spend on an iPod or other MP3 player – in itself, saving you some money, surely.

BT “charges” for cheques – the next “penalty charge” retreat?

So another comment pings in on the “credit card companies can’t charge for penalty fees”. (And what’s happened to the OFT’s case against the banks? Haven’t heard about that for a bit. Or at all.)

And now, the BT “you haven’t paid by direct debit for we’re charging you £4.50” fee. The Telegraph is the first with the story, and Radio 4’s PM followed up (except that – I suspect – so many people wanted to comment on it that the blog exploded).

From the Telegraph:

Mrs Fernihough, like 5.5 million fellow BT customers, chooses not to pay by direct debit. As a result her monthly line rental costs £13.25 a month, compared to £11.75 a month.

She said: “On a £10 note, it says quite clearly ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of 10 pounds’, not ’10 pounds, plus a £1.50 handling fee’. This is not a spurious claim. BT’s position won’t wash.”

The grandmother of seven said she has paid her telephone bill in cash ever since she became a BT customer in 1964. She goes to the local branch of her bank in Sutton Coldfield and either pays in notes and coins or by transferring cash electronically to BT’s account.

Since May last year, BT has levied a £1.50 handling charge on cash or cheques; the company insists, however, that direct debit customers have always enjoyed a discount on their line rental, but it is not made clear on their bills.

As Eddie Mair got from her, her case rests on our familiar friend – the Unfair Terms and Contracts act (or whatever it’s called). BT can’t impose these charges if you don’t agree to them. It shouldn’t really be allowed to impose them by inertia either, I don’t think.

And here’s the question: I pay my bill by electronic transfer, not cheque. How is that any different from direct debit? Oh, yes, BT doesn’t get to take an unlimited amount from my account. Tell me why that’s a bad thing, where customers keep control of their own bank accounts and don’t open themselves up to identity theft through any insecurity in BT’s systems?

I think BT may be on weak ground here and that it’s going to have to make a big payback. The case comes up next month at at Walsall County Court in front of District Judge Hearne. Google Alert for “Fernihough”…

(Afterthought: why does it matter in the least that this woman is a grandmother? Is her ability to reproduce and produce fertile children somehow important? Should it raise, or lower her in our esteem? It’s a classic example of irrelevant facts – like the worst of American newspaper reporting.)

(Double afterthought: surprised that none of the other nationals seems to have picked up on this. It’s a really good human interest/money story which affects virtually every reader, and she can’t be hard to find in the.. er.. phone book.)

At the Guardian: the Tech Weekly podcast

Tech Weekly podcast: Google and the US elections, Eee PC and more

We probe Google’s role in the 2008 US presidential race. Plus, a review of the Asus Eee PC, a new web 2.0 property search business and the potential demise of DAB.

The review of the Asus is as heard on the news podcast of Monday – except this is the Director’s Cut, with an added minute from location. Ah-ha.