57 Channels (And Nothing On)

Posted on 29th January 2009

This Christmas the UK TV programme schedulers and makers obviously decided to have a holiday like the rest of us. Thus what we got was Dr Who, barely a handful of decent films and a vast amount of dross. I thought it was bad last Christmas, but it was decidedly worse this Christmas. Having cable, you might think we have more choice ... and we do, more choice of dross.

20-30 years ago I can remember pouring over the Christmas Radio Times, trying to figure out what I should watch and what to record. Some nights it was a logistical nightmare as all 4 channels (no Channel 5 back then) would occasionally have something worth watching on. Thankfully I had 2 video recorders so I could cover 3 channels okay, but 4 required sweet talking my parents to let me borrow theirs.

Shows like the Dr Who special were a common feature at Christmas, and made for a great night in. The Dr Who special this Christmas was a gem, but it seems to have been the singleton in a once jewel encrusted crown of British TV. These days we have an overwhelming glut of "Celebrity" reality TV shows, dubious talent shows and soaps. The only saving grace has often been the comedy quiz shows, which these days are the stable diet of the Dave channel on cable, but even then you end up craving for a bit of variety.

Once upon a time I would avidly watch the Christmas Lectures, but these days they're buried in the schedules and it becomes too easy to miss them. I'd forgotten about them this year until I turned over to see the end of one. BBC used to make a big thing of the series, but this year I never saw one advert for them. I've been trying to think why other Christmas schedules were so different, but I can't really pinpoint anything precisely, apart from the feeling that there was, and has been for a while now, a distinct lack of imagination for programming schedules. I'm willing to admit that it may just be because I'm getting older, but to be quite honest, teen shows and those catering for the early 20s market are a bit sparse these days too. I get the feeling that the schedulers must be choosing programmes they don't want to watch, so they can go out and party!

Here's hoping next year we get a better choice for those who stay in and watch TV.

File Under: rant / tv

Déjà Vu

Posted on 27th January 2009

Recently there has been a very strong reaction to a news story regarding a woman who bought a Dell laptop that came with Ubuntu preinstalled. Now until Jono's personal post, I hadn't heard about it, but after reading Jono's reaction, I decided to look into it further.

Unfortunately for the woman in question, her name is now so tightly tied to this news story, should a future employer ever search for her name, it's not necessarily going to put her in a good light. However, the same is true of the many reactionary members of the Linux and Ubuntu communities who responded to the story, and later blog posts by the news reporter. There are reactionary people in every community, whether it involves computers or not. Even though many are accutely aware that these reactionaies are a small portion of a community, and rarely represent the true community, unfortunately they by their very nature are the first to react and often shout the loudest .

In this particular news story though, there are a couple of elements to the story that don't quite ring true. Firstly, the woman claims that she accidentally ordered the laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed. Now, although Dell were very vocal about the fact they were going to offer Linux distributions on their laptops, unless you specifically search or ask, the default install is still Windows. It takes a concious effort on the part of the buyer to choose Ubuntu on their site. That's not to say she didn't somehow accidentally select the wrong operating system, but it does seem rather odd that she wasn't aware she'd done it.

Secondly, the woman claimed that she dropped out of classes for two semesters, because she couldn't install Microsoft Word (which was unfortunately implied as being a necessity for the course) or connect to her ISP. Take a moment to read the first part again. She dropped out of classes for 6 months because she couldn't get her laptop to work correctly. Personally I can't believe that she never sought help or advice from the college, friends or classmates. Ignoring the fact that Ubuntu wasn't for her, why did it have to drag on so long before she went to a news reporter to stir up a lot of bad feeling? And following on from that why go to a news reporter at all, other than to make a name for yourself? Personally I'm inclined to believe that struggled for a couple of weeks trying to sort this out, then got frustrated and thought talking to the local news channel might resolve it quicker. I'm assuming of course, but would you really wait 6 months before deciding to complain?

In this type of case the fault usually lies in one of two camps. Either Dell for not exchanging the laptop for one with Windows installed, or the woman for not contacting Dell soon enough to try and resolve the problem. Reading the story it would seem the woman did contact Dell and was told Ubuntu should work fine. Without know the exact details of the conversation, I'm inclined to say the fault lies with Dell for not replacing the laptop with a Windows install. In the UK, and I would assume the US has something similar, all online retailers must replace or refund within a set time period and product that does not meet the buyers expectations, regardless of reasons.

Had Dell replaced the laptop, without trying to convince her of the virtues of Ubuntu, this would have been a non-story. Instead it's created some very negative press for all concerned. The news reporter has since followed up the original story and after initially seeming to generate some positive feedback, settled to generate more bad press. It really is sad that news stories such as this don't get more accurately reported, but hey modern journalism is all about sensationalism, so it shouldn't be a surprise. But what saddens me much more, is the fact that so many first reactions have been to name call, harrass and belittle their percieved opponents.

Reading the pieces of the story that I have, and more specifically some of the replies, I agree with Jono. Community is about communication, and more specifically education, and not rude and offensive comments. I cannot even comprehend how these people ever thought their replies were in any way helpful. Flamewars are a waste of time and effort on all sides, and usually only serve to let the most reactionary fall into carefully laid traps. The original story now appears to have been taken down, possibly due to the overwhelming amount of hits it has received from around the world. However, the reporting itself had all the hallmarks of a trap. There were inflamatory accusations and inaccuracies, so it wasn't a surprise to discover that it got the reaction it did. Thankfully some of the replies were from well reasoned people, who did try and point out the inaccuracies, and better inform the news reporter and readers of places to find more out about Ubuntu. But the overwhelming weight has been negative and does Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source no favours.

Ubuntu is a great operating system, and has helped to advance the Linux desktop perhaps more than any other in recent years, but it isn't for everyone. In this story, the woman obviously isn't as familar with a Linux desktop as she is with a Windows desktop. I have no doubt that she could use it, but change is difficult for most people, and having learnt how to use Windows, this woman just didn't want to learn something different. Did she deserve the derision for that point of view, certainly not. And what about the perception of the Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source communities to those who are not part of them? I doubt any of them will be closer to giving any flavour of Linux a try.

In all likelihood, had this woman been able to get some reasoned advice early on, and maybe even had some technical support to get her online and using Open Office to create her Word documents, she could quite easily have been converted. Instead the reactionaries have alientated her, and only served to reinforce the wrong impression that the Linux community still has a lot of growing up to do. I doubt Linux or any Open Source community is ever going to be rid of these reactionaries, but I do wish they would realise that they do themselves, and the communities they apsire to represent, a considerable disservice.

It will be interesting to see if Jono covers these unwanted elements of communities in his new book, Art of Community, as while we all have wanted help and advice to building a community, it would also be useful to suggest ways to restrain those that might otherwise unintentially put it in a bad light. "A chain is only as strong as it's weakest link."

File Under: community / linux / opensource / rant

Suffer The Little Children

Posted on 24th December 2008

Following on from my previous post regarding the Internet Watch Foundation, a fellow Perl programmer, Jacinta Richardson, recently posted on her use.perl blog regarding currently proposed legislation in Australia. To get a bit of background on the subject, read the articles she links to in her post, before reading her reply.

For myself, working in the filtering industry, I'm well aware of the fact that it is impossible to get filtering 100% accurate all the time. Even our Service Level Agreements (SLAs) don't state that, as it is just too difficult to manage. We get very close, and our filter systems are considered to be the best in the world, but we'll never be 100% perfect. As Jacinita highlights in her reply, the owners of the bad stuff change their domains on a regular basis, swap IP addresses and even server locations to avoid detection. In some cases the server locations are beyond law enforcement agencies as they are in countries that have limited or no resources to shut down these operations.

However, the part that irritates Jacinita and the reason why I find objections to this kind of thing important, is the blindly ignorant "you're either with us or with the terrorists" style of retort from officials or self-appointed puritants for the world. Having children of my own, I would never want them to be subjected to indecent or illegal material on the internet. However, the vast majority of that kind of material is very unlikely to be something you would accidentally stumble across. Putting in aggressive filters to scan absolutely everything all of the time, is rarely going to stop those wishing to find that kind of material, and is likely to block more innocent websites than potentially harmful ones. Using scare tactics and accusing your opposition of advocating child pornography is insensitive and irresponsible, and only serves to make you and your arguments look ignorant.

I would be interested to know what recourse a company or individual has on the Australian government, should they block an innocent website that is hosted outside of Australia? The chances are none, and who would you complain to anyway? If your domain is blocked, you'll never get through!

In her reasoning, Bernadette McMenamin uses examples of countries such as the UK who use filtering. Yes we do, and the self-appointed body that tells us what we can and can't see also makes some stupid mistakes and disrupts internet use for the whole country. For all the protection these self-appointed bodies provide, I would rather see more effort put into shutting down the source operations and protecting the children from being abused in the first place, rather than waiting after the fact for government officials to wave their hands limpy, crying "oh, how could this happen, let's ban the internet for children so they can't see it!".

McMenamin claims that British Telecom block 35,000 attempts per day to illegal material. However, how many of them were to truly illegal material and not "potentially illegal" as was highlighted by The Scorpions/Wikipedia incident? How many requests were made by children accessing the content? How many prosecutions were made from these access attempts? How many of the block domains/URLs were taken down? It's easy to throw numbers around, but without substance they are worthless numbers.

Jacinta picked up on an interesting quote by McMenamin - "[T]hose who are aware [of all the facts] are, in effect, advocating child pornography." So by McMenamin's own admission she must be ignorant of all the facts, otherwise she too would be advocating child pornography. Forrest Gump has a reply for Bernadette McMenamin - "Stupid is as stupid does."

File Under: government / internet / law / rant / security

Pictured Life

Posted on 24th December 2008

Earlier this month there was a rather confusing and worrying blanket "Moral Majority" ban of a page on Wikipedia. The page in question has now been unblocked and the actual image that started it all has also been unblocked, with the Internet Watch Foundation that instigating the block now backing down in the face of overwhelming resistance to their actions.

The image in question is from the original front cover of the 1976 album release "Virgin Killer" by The Scorpions. At the time of its release in 1976, it courted controvesy and although widely available to all in numerous retail outlets across the world, some outlets did insist on selling it only over the counter in a sealed paper bag, and only a few refused to stock it at all. Following feedback from the retail outlets, the band reissued the album with a cover featuring a group shot of the band. However, the original album cover is still widely available in second record stores and on eBay. Following remastered reissues and boxset packages, the CD is once again available with the original artwork. It has also appeared in many books over the years, often cited amongst a list of worst album covers, some of which can found in public libraries.

I don't know the retail figures, but I can imagine that several thousand heavy metal fans in the UK alone have a copy of the original album, or a reissued remastered CD featuring the image in their collections.

So the decision to ban the image ONLY on wikipedia now (some 32 years after the original image was widely available) seems absolutely idiotic. At first the main page regarding the album was blocked, and appartently it is the first time the IWF has banned a complete work of text. Wikipedia volunteer David Gerard and Sarah Robertson from the IWF were interviewed on BBC Radio 4 as I was driving into work on the day the block was instigated and it was very evident that the woman representing the IWF was rather ignorant of the situation, trying to focus on the fact that they had shown it to the police who had said it was "potentially illegal". Blaming the police, who are NOT judge and jury regarding obscene material is rather irresponsible at best, and only serves to highlight their lack of process in ensuring that if an image is considered illegal, a botched attempt at banning is the best of their abilities.

Wikipedia themselves issued a statement that reads "Due to censorship by the UK self-regulatory agency the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), most UK residents can no longer edit the volunteer-written encyclopedia, nor can they access an article in it describing a 32-year-old album by German rock group the Scorpions." In addition Wikimedia Foundation's General Counsel, Mike Godwin, is also quoted as saying "We have no reason to believe the article, or the image contained in the article, has been held to be illegal in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world."

So although the image was deemed "potentially illegal" by the UK police the IWF spoke to, for the past 32 years no country has ever passed a judgement and condemed the image as illegal. It might be inappropriate, but not illegal.

And so to a bigger question. Why Wikipedia? In fact why ONLY Wikipedia? The image was wide spread across the internet, in places such as Google's image cache, on various retail sites, including Amazon, The Scorpions own website and countless others. Could it be that Wikipedia is unlikely to be in a position to sue them for blocking their site? I can well imagine that Amazon and any other major retailer would have drafted in lawyers within seconds and be issuing writs for comercial damages. Not something the IWF would be equipped to deal with, particularly since they are an independent self-appointed body, without official government backing.

Following on from that last point, the perhaps more important question is if this body is self-appointed, without government backing, who is reviewing the practices of the Internet Watch Foundation? While in many instances they may well be protecting us from illegal images, without proper regulation and governance, instances like the blocking of Wikipedia will happen again.

The scary thing in all of this is that possessing the album has never been considered illegal, and indeed would have been very difficult to prosecute now 32 years later, but the IWF seem to believe that that doesn't matter and effectively attempted to criminalise a potentially significant portion of the UK population. Should they have that power? In my opinion no, as it should be the police and the courts who govern what is actually illegal.

Because of the fact that most ISPs in the UK currently sign up to the IWF block lists, this incident was felt instantly across the UK for anyone contributing to Wikipedia. Having now blown such a big hole in their metaphorical foot, I suspect the IWF may well be a little more careful about what they block and maybe, just maybe, they might even provide better justification for blocking images and pages in the future. However, it still worries me that they can potentially criminalise a publicly available image by dubious means and make criminals out of the population, without having any jurisdiction to do so. It's not big brother we have to worry about any more it's the nanny state. Tipper Gore still has a lot to answer for.

File Under: government / internet / law / music / rant / security

Dirty Laundry

Posted on 5th August 2008

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don't have a lot of respect for Record Companies these days. Once upon a time their founders and executives were people who had a passion for the music, and were more interested in investing and supporting their artists, with a view of the long haul. For some bands, such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2 and many others, the rewards have been emmense for all concerned. However, since the mid-80s the major labels have bought each other out, or merged to the point we now have only 4 companies effectively deciding the future of the music industry in the US and Europe. None of the executives are in it for the music, and probably wouldn't even be able to name half of the artists they look after.

As such it is no surprise that the music sharing litigation debacles that has been lingering around for the last 8 years, are still going strong. In one case, Tanya Andersen was falsely accused by the RIAA of illegal file sharing. Now in most instances that story wouldn't make much of an impression. However, what came to light in this case is that the RIAA (and consequently the big 4 behind that organisation), were so determined to win the case they tried to contact Tanya's daughter, in order for her to confess of her mother's file sharing activities. Now bearing in mind the fact that Tanya's daughter is 8 years old, and that investigators had made several attempts to contact her daughter, including contacting her elementary school (primary school for UK readers), without Tanya's knowledge or permission, many would consider that intimidation.

Tanya's lawyers have now filed a suit for $5 million, for malicious prosecution, "alleging fraud, racketeering, and deceptive business practices by the record labels." I sincerely hope she wins the case, sending a message to all those ripping the credibility out of what was once a great music industry, that bullies and money grabbing tactics are not wanted here. If she wins, it could lead to a class-action suit, opening the floodgates for others who have also been falsely accused. In a recent update to the ongoing action, Tanya's lawyer was awarded $103,175 in legal fees following the dropping of the charges against Tanya. In another story it seems the tactics are now finally being investigated in North Carolina. If it's illegal for anyone to hack into a company computer, why do these record companies think it's legal to hack into an individual's computer? These aren't isolated stories either, there appear to be several cases that are taking on the RIAA.

I'm just hoping that the BPI are also paying attention to these cases, and don't follow the same bully-boy tactics after their attempts 2 years ago to get the ISPs to terminate accounts without evidence. With the recent announcement that ISPs are now going to signup to an agreement, I can see several customers becoming innocent victims. Hopefully some will be made aware of Tanya Andersen's case and follow a similar legal path.

File Under: law / music / rant

This Corrosion

Posted on 4th August 2008

Every so often songs manage to become hits, that just annoy the hell out of you. Some are annoying because they lack any musical (and sometime any other) talent, some are just plain wrong, while others seem to have been made, just to see how much of a kick they can get out of being annoying.

One of the earliest I can remember was one that every self-respecting Ultravox fan despises with a passion. Joe Dolce's Shaddap You Face. It kept Vienna from being Number 1 in the UK singles charts in 1981. Shaddap You Face was a self confessed novelty song, so was purposefully annoying, and the fact that it kept a great song from being given the due it deserved just emphasised it's annoyance to many teenagers at the time.

Since then there have still been novelty records, but they rarely got to the same level of annoyance. That was left to what would often appear to be young, naive and ignorant girls. The first of which is Alanis Morrissette. I doubt anyone would be too surprised to know the song I have in mind is Ironic. That's the song title, not it's contents. Morrissette herself now claims that the irony of the song is that it is NOT filled with ironies. But somehow I don't think that was the intention when she co-wrote the song. Had she said it in interviews about the album, which was already a hit before she released Ironic as a single, then possibly, but to wait 9 years to suddenly say you meant it to be like that all along is a little far fetched.

Then there are the factually annoying. Sandi Thom wrote I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair) about her desire to be a part of two musical movements that had a big impact on the pop music scene. The first was the flower power times and the second was punk rock. The lyrics state "In seventy-seven and sixty-nine revolution was in the air". Well it might have been somewhere in the world, but for both of the musical movements she cites, the revolution had been and gone. Punk was mainstream in 1977, the revolution of change started in 1974 and throughout 1975 and particularly 1976, the underground music scene, as it was then, was challenging the music establishment and taking them on and beating them into submission. By 1977 The Clash, The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers all had record deals and 3 had had top 40 hits. The establishment had already consumed the revolution. However, the earlier faus pax is perhaps understandable as many credit Woodstock as being the first major concert of peace and love. However, they do it simply because the film of Woodstock in 1969, was made into a major motion picture movie, unlike the Monterey Pop Festival (also filmed by Pennebacker) in 1967. John Phillips, from The Mamas And The Papas, was the man behind the Monterey Pop Festival, and brought together many of those same artists two years earlier than Woodstock, it was just that Monterey was done with a bit more professionalism and wasn't a cock-up from start to finish. It was also John Phillips who wrote the song for Scott McKenzie, San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), that Thom references in her lyrics. However, seeing as that song was released in 1967, I would have thought Thom might have done a little research and got it right. By 1969 the flower power revolution had been taken over by the protests of the Vietnam War. The original movement was really at it's peak in what it more widely refered to as the Summer Of Love, in 1967.

Then we come to the select group of songs, that think that because the likes of Sugababes (Freak Like Me/Are 'Friends' Electric?) and Run DMC (Walk This Way with the help of the original writers and performers, Aerosmith) can combine two very different styles and create something new and even better than the original. That they only need to add their inane banter to classic songs and make a pot of cash. In this case I'm particularly pointing the finger at Gym Class Heroes (or Gym Slip Heroes as I misheard their name, which seems more appropriate for their sixth-form lyrics) and their butchering of Supertramp's Breakfast In America, for their 2006 release Cupid's Chokehold. Why? Or more accurately, why did the British public take it to Number 3? Unfortunately BRMB still think it should be a hit, as they are still insisting on playing it a over year later.

However, in more recent times, with plenty of examples from the past, there has been the glut of "celebrity" collaborations. Estelle & Kanye West's effort particularly grates on me, especially the drone of the title lyric. It must be a sad state of affairs if that's the best soul music can offer this days. I would perhaps add Madonna and Justin Timberlake, but both have long since pased their sell by date. History is littered with collaborations which have never matched their individual success, and while there have been some jewels (the aforementioned Run DMC and Aerosmith for example), I would like to hope that any future big name collaborations consider whether the result actually is worth adding to the pile of mediocre and worse! In the current chart there are 13 such collaborations and for me personally none of them are worth the effort to make them.

I probably can't blame the artists all the way, as record companies also have a long history of only wanting to make a quick buck. Perhaps the biggest reason these types of records really annoy the hell out of me, is the fact that there are so many young bands that get pushed aside, who have more talent in their little fingers than many of these "celebrity" artists. I've seen so many young bands play as support acts over the years, that never got the chance to show how good they were, because the record industry had decided they weren't fashionable or manipulatable. Some managed to perserve, but it's never easy. Once upon a time the training ground for talent was in the pub and club gigs up and down the M1 and M6, with the gear in the back of a Ford transit van. These days you could be forgiven for believing you have to be a failed beautician or receptionist. Is it any wonder the charts are such a disgrace these days. Or am I just too old?

File Under: music / rant

Held Up Without A Gun

Posted on 29th June 2008

This weekend, DanDan and I went down to Bristol for an event, which I will cover later. On the way down, a friend of ours dropped us off in his recent purchased Bentley. It was certainly great driving down the M5 in style. Unfortunately the journey home wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable. In actual fact it felt felt like highway robbery.

Earlier last week I investigated getting DanDan and I return tickets to Bristol, Temple Meads from New Street, Birmingham. We were planning to get the bus in and out of town, as that just made things easier. It was quite a shock at the difference in prices. The best return I could find was £59.55, a "Saver" Return. However, the link at the bottom does helpfully suggest that you check two singles tickets as these can often be cheaper. They weren't kidding either. The Standard Advance Single was listed as £10.50 in each direction, that's £21.00 for a return for both DanDan and I. A difference of £38.55 ... nearly £40! So how exactly am I saving with a returning ticket?

Unfortunately, as I'd assumed that buying a ticket at the station on the day, seeing as we were getting a lift down to Bristol, might only be slightly more than the Standard Advanced Single, I decided not to buy one in advance. Alas I wasn't prepared for the shock I got when I was told by the ticket clerk, that it was £51.00 to get back to Birmingham. I was absolutely staggered. The ticket clerk did try hard to find if we could buy the ticket in alternative forms to try and reduce the cost, but to no avail. As it turned out he suggested that we buy a Family Rail Card, which although would end up reducing the cost of the ticket, both together would end up costing £52.90, the benefit being that we could actually use the Family Rail Card if we ever used the railways again over the next year. I should imagine we will, so hopefully we will get some benefit, but the cost of the fare has really disappointed me.

If I had chosen to drive my car down to Bristol, it would have cost about £20. The original idea to use the trains was partly to save some money, but also to just use public transport because for a change it was convenient. Doubt I'll do it again.

Once upon a time the cost of a return train ticket would be just less than a single, not nearly 3 times the price. And if you bought the ticket on the day of travel it might be a couple of pound more than in advance, but not 5 times the price! In fact it was rare to bother buying a ticket in advance, as it gave you more options to travel. When I've travelled in Europe by train, the prices have always seemed reasonable, here in the UK it is nothing short of daylight robbery. Anyone planning to travel the trains who arrives from abroad is going to get the shock of their life. I also have to travel down to London soon and I see the Standard Open Return has leapt up to £123.00. Even that used to be less than £20 just over 10 years ago.

National Rail in the UK is an absolute disgrace, not just in terms of the price, but also with timetables. The train back to Birmingham from Bristol got announced as being delayed several times and finally left the station over 40 minutes later than it should have done. Now we were lucky, I've know of other recent delays to be several hours later, or even cancelled.

The ONLY redeeming feature of the railway network these days is that much of the rolling stock is being replaced by trains that do have the passengers comfort and interest in mind. The newer carriages have much better seats, usually with a bit more space than I remember of old, they are much more appealing to be in, but most useful for me is that many carriages have sockets for mobile phones and laptops. I suspect some of the prices have been due to the upgrade of rolling stock, but with the amount of passengers that commute daily on the train, I can't help think that the rail companies are taking advantage of their customers.

However, the biggest culprit is still the lack of government investment. In other European countries it seems they take their railway infrastructure a bit more seriously. As a consequence there doesn't seem to be the same amount of traffic on the roads. At the moment with the rising cost of fuel, I can easily understand more people looking to the trains to reduce their travel costs, and then being amazed to discover that fuel costs would have to virtually triple before making it more cost effective. Madness.

As far as I can see the only means of public transport that actually has improved, both in rolling stock and price (especially price) are the buses. Maybe the bus companies ought to take over the rail companies and show them how it can be done.

File Under: commerce / environment / rant / trains

Let Me In

Posted on 3rd April 2008

The problem with those that get high and mighty about username/password site logins, is that they often use examples where you really do want some degree of protection, not from yourself, but from others. Of the 16 Account Design Mistakes listed in Part 1 and Part 2 by Jared M. Spool, most include good ideas for developers, however, some use examples where the sites are quite right to be obscure.

Take #13 "Not Explaining If It's The Username or Password They Got Wrong", then proceeding to hold up Staples and American Express as the worst offenders. I'm sorry but if I have accounts with companies like that, then there is no way on earth I want them giving hints to crackers whether they got my username or password wrong. Those kinds of sites contain VERY sensitive personal information, not least of which is your credit card information. If Jared is that eager to share his financial information, I'm now wondering if he publishes it on his personal website. Could it be that perhaps the very security he ridicules actually protects him from identity theft?

Another is #16 "Requiring More Than One Element When Recovering Password", where a company requires some form of additional account information other than just your email address. Again this is a company that holds your credit information and by the sound of it some very personal information (such as my phone number). Does Jared post his personal phone number on his website? I doubt it as I assume he doesn't want all and sundry knowing it, thus exposing him to more identity theft.

Don't get me wrong, Jared does list some good thoughts about username/password site logins, but the context in which he uses to ridicule some sites and companies is grossly misplaced. The problem is that the author often thinks only in terms of making life easier for themselves, forgetting that you can also make it easy for those of a more malicious nature too. In all, or possibly nearly all, sites that I have a login for, the login is there to protect my account on the site from abuse. I know there are sites out there that only provide customisations with your login, but I don't use them. Even those that don't contain personal information, I would not want anyone to hack in to. If you're happy to make it easy for some one to login to your blog account and post spam, abusive or malicious content, then fine, make it easy. For the rest of us, we'd rather have some form of protection on the account that makes it a little harder for others to get through.

File Under: design / rant / security / usability / website

Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

Posted on 21st February 2008

This week it seems eBay are changing their policies to a number of things, one of them being Feedback. My mother told me she had read about it in the paper, but seeing as I hadn't noticed anything in my inbox from them, and it wasn't obvious from any of the general announcements, I assumed that either the paper had put the wrong spin on it to generate "news" (typical of the paper in question), or my mother had misunderstood the actual news article. I suspected the paper to be at fault. However, after a quick search I found this blog post, which picked up on the feedback issue, and after a bit of digging through all the recent announcements, I finally found the announcement specific to feedback. Why they had to hide it away I don't know. With such a big change I would have expected to see this in a "news" or "update" box on the front page.

Anyway, the point of the feedback changes seems to be to protect buyers from poor sellers. They believe that "buyers will be more honest when they leave Feedback since they will not fear retaliatory negative Feedback." Sorry but I don't buy that. I've had several buyers who have failed to follow through and left me with a bill for the final value fees (FVFs) from eBay. eBay DO NOT make it easy to get those fees back. Thankfully, I've not been given bad feedback. I have also been caught out by bad sellers trying to sell conterfeit products, but having contacted both sellers in my case I was able to get a refund. Now admittedly not everyone may be as successful, and could quite easily be ripped by quite a considerable amount, but I do believe the negative feedback does have it's place. If there is ever any issue with retaliatory negative feedback, then there should be a mechanism where either party can alert eBay to the situation and for it to be handled more appropriately. From my experience eBay make it very difficult to contact them, and when you do try and contact them it falls on deaf ears.

eBay also state "When buyers receive negative Feedback, they reduce their activity in the marketplace, which, in turn, harms all sellers". Ever thought that sometimes there are buyers for whom that is a good thing? At the moment a seller has a difficult time to do anything about a bad buyer, and in some cases the only way to alert other sellers is by leaving reasonable negative feedback. How are eBay going to better protect the seller from continually bad buyers? Some sellers refuse to deal with anyone who has less than 100 points, and I can see that getting worse, as having to pay eBay what amounts to a fine for being an honest seller, is not good enough. And please don't tell me about their Unpaid Item system, as I was told my window of opportunity had passed (or words to that effect), after I had waited a couple of weeks, sending private emails and mails via eBay itself, after the end of the auction. Any experience of trying to deal with eBay themselves, for me personally, has never been a good experience. I always end up feeling that they are only interested in taking my money, never willing to sort things out when things go wrong.

Thankfully my actual auction experience with eBay has been good, and I've been very happy with both buyers and sellers in nearly all my transactions. I wouldn't stop using eBay because of these changes, but it will make me more wary of the feedback mechanism, both as a seller and a buyer, as I'm not sure the changes are favourable to anyone. Except maybe eBay themselves as it will mean less data storage.

I'm not convinced by some of the changes they propose, although some do have merit, but I shall wait and see what the outcome is for me. I may not sell high volumes, but if I find myself getting messed around because I'm not able to spot bad buyers, then I may find alternative places to sell my CDs and music memorabillia. If others follow suit then buyers have less choice and prices get higher, thus eBay wins more from FVFs. I think I see the pattern here. Or maybe I'm just cynical ;)

File Under: commerce / ebay / rant / website

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft

Posted on 5th February 2008

Last week, I went along to the Milton Keynes Perl Mongers social, which was also Birmingham Perl Mongers first date on their 2008 World Tour. As it was a Wetherspoon pub, while ordering a pint I asked if they had one of these 30 minutes free cards for the WiFi, which I duly got. Now the idea of having WiFi in a pub is great, but providing 30 minutes free when you order a pint is inspirational. However, not having a working WiFi is just a pain. I already have several cards from the Wetherspoon pub in Bromsgrove, when I failed to get a connection there (others had problems too, so it wasn't just me). At Milton Keynes it seems there was some drastic Java error which failed to load the landing page to allow me to login. Apparently the error had been logged, but it didn't get fixed at any point during the evening :(

Although I've only tried this at two Wetherspoon pubs, it's also a 100% failure rate. Do any of their pubs actually have a working WiFi, or is it a big ruse to get geeks into the pub? It would be a great shame if it was the latter, as this is exactly the kind of thing that pubs and cafes should be using to attract business. WiFi is relatively cheap these days and the additional business it brings is worth it. With more and more WiFi enabled devices being sold, especially phones, it wouldn't surprise me to see WiFi accessible meeting places to see an upturn in business and hopefully profits, hopefully inspiring others to follow suit.

File Under: rant / wifi

Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)

Posted on 30th January 2008

A few weeks ago, some colleagues of mine sat an LPI 101 course on Linux. A couple of years ago I took the 201 course and although the course itself was fine, the exam at the end provided me with no confidence in anyone, who would put that they had passed an LPI exam on their CV. I have heard of others being critical of the LPI exams, so I know I'm not alone. Many of those on the recent course had an understanding of a Linux based operating and had used it as basic user. However, the reports coming back were not good. One attendee had trouble trying to install a copy of Red Hat and ended up having to abandon 3 different machines, thus wasting a good portion of the first day. Considering this is a 101 level course, I really don't see any point in teaching someone to install a distro. In a few cases some had already done this on their home machines, but for the majority at work the boxes are already preconfigured and setup by a dedicated team who build our testing and production environments. Aside from that, every major distro installs differently, and has vastly different configuration tools, so why bother?

The recent course wasn't taught by the LPI, but it was meant to follow their course outlines. It was very obvious that in some areas the course notes were out of date. In this day and age four years is a long time. Four years ago who had heard of Ubuntu? While that might not be a problem when you're explaining things like top, grep, locate and many other tools that have been around for a long time, but it does get ridiculous when you have to memorise the command line options to lpr (which I haven't had any reason to use in over 15 years!). It also doesn't help when the course notes are written for SUSE and you're trying to install Fedora Core.

When I took the exam an actual question was "Who writes the official Linux documentation?", who cares? The answer was 'The Linux Documentation Project', which I'd never heard of and have never referenced since. Another was along the lines of "How do you find what command line tools are available for what you want to do?". The answer they wanted was 'apropos', and again I've never used it, and had never heard of it before the exam. The answer I provided in the comments was "I use Google". I took issue with the examiners about these sort of questions as they are pointless and have no bearing on whether I know my way around a Linux distro. I can well imagine some could memorise all the command line options to various tools and scrape a pass and still have no clue about how to configure a distribution.

Certification is a dodgy concept and only serves to line the pockets of the examining body. With badly presented courses and exams like those of the LPI, they serve only to fail the examinee by teaching very little that they can actually use in their workplace. In truth I don't believe I've used anything I learnt in the 201 course I did, apart from understanding better how to compile a kernel. I have heard that Red Hat certification is worthwhile, and seeing as we use RH8 or RHEL5 at work, then that would likely be a better course to apply for, but I suspect the cost may be an inhibiting factor. Having said that, you also get what you pay for.

I would be intrigued to meet someone who actually values the LPI exams and can prove that they are worth taking. Since a very highly skilled Linux system-admin and programmer (you rarely find someone proficient in both those skills) that I know, failed to get near 100% in the exam, I don't have any faith in any accreditation bestowed by LPI.

File Under: exams / linux / rant

Roadhouse Blues

Posted on 15th January 2008

Driving to work these days is becoming more and more treacherous. Today the rain was relentless, and as a consequence there was a lot of surface water. Driving over the Avon near Tewkesbury the river has flooded the fields, so that it appears both sides now have a massive lake. It also seems much more extensive than the flooding last year. However, this doesn't seem to warn drivers enough. Our drive took us almost to the first Cheltenham turn-off to hit the accident today. Just two cars, but they managed to block the outside lane while police cleared the carriageway and got them on to the hard shoulder.

Yesterday an accident just after the M42 joins the M5 caused a tailback along the the two motorways and even down the A38 dual carriageway that passes my house. Yesterday's accident took several hours to clear, and happened around 7am. As a consequence I was late into work, and likewise several hundred other motorists. That's two in two days. There have already been several others so far this year. A few years ago I remarked that in the first 10 days of driving to work, I encountered 7 accidents and twice the motorway was closed. I think the motorway only got closed once last year, but there were several accidents.

The journey I take is from Junction 4 of the M5, down passed Bromsgrove, Worcester, Malvern, Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester, finally leaving the motorway at Junction 11a. My trip at both ends is just a few minutes, along dual carriageways, so the bulk of the journey can average 60-70 mph. It's a 45 mile trip and usually takes 40-45 minutes on a good day. On a bad day like yesterday it can take 2 hours.

There seem to be 3 factors that people are not getting.

Firstly, that the weather is to be respected. Driving in the rain, wind and snow or on wet or icy roads is not fun, especially in the dark.

Secondly, use the correct lane. This is especially true of road hogs who insist on sitting in the outer or middle lanes, when there is nothing on their inside. The two outer lanes are for overtaking only. Driving with the excuse that a mile or more ahead you will be overtaking another vehicle is not good enough. These people seem to believe they have every right to restrict traffic flow and bunch cars up, making the likelihood of an accident occurring much greater.

Thirdly, respect other road users. It's not unusual any more to have someone suddenly appear in my rearview mirror, decelerating from 100mph to 70mph, to a foot away from my bumper. I saw a van do it once for a major logistics company, to someone else, while driving in the rain. It annoyed me so much I actually called their "Am I A Good Driver?" hotline number and complained. Just because you can do more than 70mph, doesn't mean you have the legal right to do so, or insist everyone gets out of the way as soon as you appear. If they are overtaking another vehicle, then give them a chance to do so. Hassling them only makes the more resistant. It also means they aren't concentrating on the road properly, as they also have to concentrate on you and watch out for you hitting them when you don't stop in time.

Any one of these is a potential danger, a combination of two or all three is just asking for trouble.

Another annoyance for many people is articulated lorries. During rush hour they also cause excessive traffic build-up, which again increases the risk of accidents. On several occasions I've even seen articulated lorries drive in the outer lane of the M5 over a certain stretch where they seem to believe they have the right to use all lanes. Now that I take a colleague to work, if I spot this again, rest assured I will be getting him to take photos.

A while ago I made a suggestion that any vehicle weighing more than about 4 tons should be restricted from using any road (motorway, main road, country lane or side street) during the hours of 7am-9am and 4.30pm-6.30pm. It seems others had a similar thought as there was a government petition at one point. While I don't believe that lorries are necessarily the cause of all accidents, they do put pressure on some drivers to drive like they do. Taking heavy goods off the road might not be the complete answer, but it might help to make the roads during congested periods a little less stressful.

Obviously the the optimum solution would be for the government to properly invest in our public transport infrastructure, so that for me to get to work wouldn't take over 2 hours as it would currently do. Regular bus and train services, use of appropriate stations and decent rolling stock all need investment and improvements. But then that would also mean we wouldn't use our own transport, and would reduce the fuel consumption (reduced tax income), reduce car ownership (reduced license income) and reduce traffic congestion (reduced toll income), so I can see why the government might be reluctant to invest. However, with global warming and the rise in accidents, surely we should be thinking more about reducing our road usage. I'd rather live in a world with less pollution at the very least.

File Under: cars / driving / rant


Posted on 25th September 2007

This week, 27th-30th September, BT and Intel are teaming up to promote wireless broadband coverage in Birmingham for Liberate Birmingham. There seems to be a big promotion going on with lots of giveaways and prizes, but it's really a basic marketing ploy to get you to sign up to their services. During the promotion they are advertising that you'll get one day free wifi access, but if you read the website, that's part of the standard package when you sign up at any time.

I might have been more excited about it had it been permanently free not just one day, which many other countries are moving towards, or at least a low charge (£10 per month for 4 hours access is quite steep considering that Virgin Media Broadband (Telewest as was) charge £25 per month for a 4MB unlimited link). I can understand that the initial outlay has possibly been quite significant, but charging ridculous prices is not going to get you that many long term users.

I've often wonder why some of these companies don't learn basic economics. Understanding supply and demand isn't difficult, but it would seem that people like BT are being swayed more by the numbers of their capacity, thus scared of the uptake and maybe frightened that if everybody signed up they would be so overwhelmed with the bandwidth that their network would overload and shutdown. Charging a high price for very little doesn't get you much demand, so you never reach your capacity limits.

However, charging £10 for perhaps 30 hours (roughly 1 hour per day), would seem like a much better deal for everyone. The customer thinks they getting a good deal, and the provider is getting a decent demand for the service and more importantly long term demand, because people will be more willing to stay signed up for quite some time. For that kind of deal I'd sign up, in fact I'd probably sign up for a year. But how much usage would I actually get out of it? At the moment I don't spend a lot of time in Birmingham City Centre, but when I do, had I signed up I would probably be getting to use maybe 8 hours of usage total for the month. Despite the fact I never used the other 52 hours worth, I would still feel like I got a good deal, because I would know that if ever I needed the access when I was in the city centre, it would be there. If I worked in Birmingham, I could possibly use maybe upto 20 hours just sitting waiting for my bus (longest I've waited for a 63 is two hours!).

It's all about perception. It's how banks work. The perception is that a bank will always give you your money whenever you need it, and in virtually all instances that happens. The reason being that your local bank contains enough money to pay out a reasonable amount to any customer who wanted it. If with the case of Northern Rock recently, customers suddenly flood the tellers with requests, then the reserves run out fast and those unable to get their money out panic and demand suddenly escalates. Thankfully this rarely happens.

With BT's wireless service, if they had a signup of the service for 100 users, when they know they could only cope with 80 users, the chances of all those 100 users accessing the service all at the same time is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely. Maybe when an international disaster hits there might be a flood of people trying to get access, but no-one would find it totally unexpected to struggle to get a connection at those times. During regular daily usage I would expect maybe only 40-50% of users would be using the service at peak periods (probably home time). Most people are only likely to use the service in the evening or weekends, when they're out at the pub (possibly on a quiz night) or wandering around the shops. With the increased usage of the wireless mobile phone, potentially the usage could be a little higher, but in most cases people are using their work connection on their desktop or laptop, or they're at home. I would be extremely surprised to see all the access points at 100% for connections and CPU usage at any point of the day or week.

I find it sad that UK business is still greedy to make as much money as possible out of their customers. I'm not against anyone making money from this sort of service, but I am against them making it sound like a good deal, then actually offering you very little in return. Signing you up only to find you use up your monthly allowance in the space of a few days, is not likely to get you many long term customers. With the government moving to speed up the rollout of high octane fuelled 100MBps broadband across the country, it would be nice to see some of those plans to also include the provision for cheaper wireless network services. The UK is falling behind many others around the world, and it's increasingly embarrassing to explain to non-UK geeks why you're so excited to sit in a pub and have FREE wireless access!

File Under: birmingham / commerce / rant / wifi

Message In A Bottle

Posted on 4th September 2007

Recently someone posted to the Birmingham Perl Mongers mailing list trying to sell their tickets for The Police at the NIA. When I originally heard that The Police were getting back together I was delighted, as I never got around to seeing them in the early 80s. Then when they announced the tour I was eager to get tickets. Unsurprisingly everywhere sold out within minutes. Unless you were one of the privileged few, and I mean privilege in terms of your affluence, then you stood no chance.

What is wrong with ticket prices these days? The Police tickets were over £50 for the cheap seats and over £150 for good seats. The guy who posted on the list had been charged £144 for 2 tickets and these were in the upper tiers, not even on the floor! Seeing as fans bought them, there is obviously a demand, but it's one of the reasons why people are buying less music these days. Greedy promoters, record companies and many bands themselves are taking as much from their fans as they can get, at the expense of other smaller bands, who can barely get anyone to see them for £5.

The Police are not the only ones, every major band that has toured the UK playing the 10,000 seater venues in the last few years has started to charge exorbitant fees to see them. The cheapest ticket for the NEC Arena I've seen in the last few years has been over £30. Even Crowded House, who are playing later in the year are the same. When they last played a full UK tour, I saw several dates up and down the country, as the tickets were around £15. I won't be going to see them on this tour because it's just too much to pay. There are plenty of bands that I would love to see again, Peter Gabriel, Yes and others, but ticket prices are rarely priced to make me feel like I'll get value for money. I've seen several comments about the rip-off of ticket prices, but the rip-off doesn't end there.

The venues are also guilty of ripping off fans when they charge over £3 for a small bottle of Panda Cola, that can be bought in the corner store for about 40p and probably from the local cash'n'carry for about 5p a bottle. I can understand a slight markup, but when fans are being ripped off to the tune of several hundred percent for very basic food or drink, it's a joke. Especially when you are banned from taking food and drink into the venue.

Once upon a time I used to go to around 100-200 gigs a year, up and down the country. In my late teens and early twenties I wasn't on a big flash salary, in fact my first proper job was working in a warehouse. I could afford to go to the gigs as they were roughly the same price as an album at the time, about £10. Rather than buy an album, I'd buy a ticket to go and see a band. More often than not, I'd actually pay nearer £5 and see gigs in smaller venues such as Rock City in Nottingham, Princess Charlotte in Leicester, The Roadhouse in Manchester or The Marquee in London. Top name bands would tour those venues in preference to the big Arenas so they could actually see the fans.

I can understand why some bigger named bands would want to play the Arenas, as it means they get to play to more fans with fewer dates. Some bands don't actually like touring, so playing a UK tour of 7 dates is often preferred over one that might take 3-4 weeks. But why should that mean you now have to rip off fans and double, triple (or worse) your ticket prices. That £50 you're charging for a "cheap" seat, means that your fan is sitting so far back they need binoculars to see you, they rarely hear decent quality sound, they have to sit awkwardly on uncomfortable plastic seats and cannot get up and dance or jump about as they get told off by security staff and ejected from the venue if they refuse to sit down.

There are some bands who I greatly respect for taking the time to play venues where they can reach the fans. Nine Inch Nails could easily play Arenas in the UK, but they don't and only charge £22.50 a ticket, which considering their status, I feel is quite reasonable. They also give value for money, as in addition to their performances recently they were giving away USB memory sticks with a song from Year Zero on it at gigs. Prince has even started giving away albums at gigs. The Cure usually play the larger Arenas now, but the last few times I saw them at the NEC tickets were around £18. Considering they play for nearly 3 hours, that is most definitely value for money. I wonder how long The Police will be on stage for? If they play more than 90 minutes I would be very surprised. It's not been unheard of for major acts to play an hour (mostly solo artists from what I've heard) and head off to the hotel.

If you're going to charge stupid money for tickets, give people a reason to feel like you actually value their faith in you, give them a show that is out of this world, give them something to remember for years to come. I would love to see The Police, but I won't be seeing them on this tour. It's been reported that they are recording another album, so I suspect they may tour again. I hope that the next tour has more reasonable ticket prices and that the prices for this tour are only because they knew they could get away with it for reforming. I seemed to recall that The Eagles dropped their prices on tours after reforming, so it's a possibility.

In the meantime I'm looking forward to seeing Henry Rollins in January and Jello Biafra next month. Both are doing spoken word tours and both are charging less than £20 to see them :)

File Under: commerce / gigs / music / rant

Wipe Out

Posted on 7th August 2007

Recently I've been looking for an alternative venue to host the Birmingham Perl Mongers social meetings. Although The Wellington is a nice pub with some excellent real ales, it doesn't have a free wifi connection. The pub itself is wired live to the internet, as the instant a pub runs dry the staff update the website, so they do have the potential to add a wireless router. However, in most of the pubs that do have wireless, they seem to be signed up to people like The Cloud.

While trawling the web looking for alternative locations, I happened across an article posted last year, that highlights two things about the wireless internet business in the UK.

First off is that the prices are way too high to be anything but greedy. One person connected to The Cloud for 24 hours would be enough to pay the bandwidth on a 4MB broadband line for a month, and at least 2 routers, with the rest covering any administration charges. Public WiFi in the UK is expensive. If a company wants to make money out of the use of a service like this, why are they charging such a high rate. Think about it. One person might pay £2.99 per 30 minute session, but you're more likely to get more than 3 if it was under £2 per hour. I also don't get why the pubs, cafes and the like don't put more effort in to promote free wifi and get people like The Cloud to charge the venue a standard fee. This fee would then be offset by attracting more people to their establishments and selling more drink and food. In this day and age there are more and more people are carrying portable wireless internet enabled devices, whether it's a laptop, mobile phone or a Nokia N800. What better way to attract them in for a quick pint or two than to allow them to do some web surfing at the bar?

The second issue is about the content people are viewing, and why some may fear being prosecuted for transmitting that kind of material. With companies like The Cloud routing all web surfing activites through central servers, internet level security companies, such as MessageLabs, are well placed to enable that peace of mind and block all inappropriate content. There is no reason for the fear, other than for the service providers to give a reason why they need your credit card information so they can track your surfing habits.

Free WiFi internet access is growing in other parts of the world, because the pubs, bars, cafes and clubs all realise the additional revenue it brings in, when punters buy their main retail items such as drink and food. The UK seems so far behind in this realisation that it's almost backward. I only know of one pub in the whole of the Birmingham borough (not just the city centre) that provides free Wifi. If it wasn't in such an odd spot, I would move the Birmingham Perl Mongers socials there ready for the next meeting.

After I started to write this piece, I've been well informed (thanks Kake), that JD Weatherspoons now have a special deal for WiFi users in their pub. Buy a pint and you get 30 minutes free wireless internet access. This is exactly the kind of thing that pubs should be offering. After all, if they're going to offer free WiFi, the least you can do is buy a pint. Though it does pose a problem for slow Guinness drinkers like myself ;) We have a social meeting tomorrow, but it's a little late to change venue, but we may well look to see whether we should decamp for next month to The Briar Rose (only a few doors down from The Wellington).

File Under: beer / birmingham / pubs / rant / wifi

Who Are You

Posted on 20th July 2007

So I've been banned from Facebook.

They claim I can't use a fake name, but have failed to appreciate that they are a social networking site. In addition what is a "fake name". Barbie is my pseudonym, I've used it for over 20 years in both my careers in the music industry and the IT industry. Using a combination of 'perl', 'barbie' or 'birmingham' will bring up pages of me on Google. Most people in the companies I've worked for in the last 15 years have all referenced me as Barbie, including most CEOs, Managing Directors and board directors. Some have never been introduce to me with my birth name.

I find it a bit odd that a social site would try and impose their way of thinking onto anyone who doesn't fit their idea of who everyone should represent themselves online. I do understand that they might want to retain my birth name should they need to take any legal action for something I may write on their site, but I do not want my birth name to appear publically, just because they feel that everybody who uses their site must give up areas of their privacy.

I've emailed them to explain that Barbie is a true identity, and legally I am entitled to sign cheques and the like as Barbie. It is my professional pseudonym and for my last 3 jobs it has been stated from the outset that I am Barbie in the interview.

However, Mark has highlighted another issue with their system, that affects those that have names made up because either us westerners can't pronounce their true names or their language characters are not something westerners know how to pronounce. Are they going to be banned too?

The email I received stated that I have to provide a full first name (no initial) and a full last name. I can have a nickname providing it is derived from those one or both of those two fields. Why? I honestly fail to understand the logic of that. Many people I know have nicknames that are completely unrelated to their birth name and I find it difficult to understand why a social website wants to insist on what I call myself.

Are they a secret government site with covert reasons for knowing everybody's birth names? Somehow I don't think so. Do they have ideas far beyond what the rest of the world expects of them, quite probably. Will they reinstate me, probably not.

I hope they learn to understand their audience and not impose such silly restrictions on something that is essentially about connecting with friends and colleagues. They all know who I am, and I'm pretty sure every single one would vouch for me. Pity then that the people at Facebook have some draconian rule that they feel they need to enforce on those of us who don't fit their profile.

File Under: facebook / rant / web / website


Posted on 15th July 2007

I bought the Mail on Sunday today, in order to get the latest Prince album, Planet Earth.

Reading the article in the paper, Kim Bayley, director general of Entertainment Retailers Association, is quoted as saying...

'It devalues the music and the losers will be new artists who are trying to come through . . . Consumers only have so much listening time in the week and if they receive the new album from Prince then they don't need to buy new music and will spend their money on something else.'

Is it just me, or can anyone else spot the absurdity and contradiction of that statement? So if Prince gives away an album, then the fans are getting an album they would have bought at full price for just £1.40 (the price of the newspaper), thus they have all the money left over to buy another album, perhaps by a new artist. It's also possible that some, perhaps those who buy the newspaper regularly, will listen to the album and become Prince fans, thus going out and buying more music. The only real losers are the music moguls who have suddenly lost out on significant profits from the sales of this one album.

Prince doesn't need to worry about the loss of royalities as he still makes plenty from his other albums, and he still gets the royalities when the songs are played on TV or radio anyway. Prince is in a priviledged position as he has amassed his wealth and invested it wisely. His investment in other artists, such as Wendy & Lisa, Vanity 6, Sheila E, The Times among others has helped new artists to carve their own careers. While some may not feel the investment worthwhile, it is still considerably more than any major record company has done in over 20 years.

In the last 20 years the music industry has turned into a industry run by accountants and money makers. The people who were once passionate about good music have been sidelined or pushed out. These days it's exceptionally hard for a new artist to actually make a name for themselves. Hence why many have resorted to selling or giving their music away on the internet. The live music scene for unsigned bands these days is a very pale comparision to the one that existed during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Once upon a time a new artist would be able to work the pubs and club making a name for themselves. A&R men would often scour the same venues looking for potential new talent. If they found someone they thought would be worth investing in, they would often get some time in a recording studio to make a demo, which usually would expand into their first album. Record companies would invest in 4 or 5 album deals with the expectation that the promotion of the artist would build with each album, until they "made it". It wasn't unusual for artists to make 3 or 4 albums before they became a financial success.

As an aside, it might not be so well know now, but Genesis only "made it" in the UK after their 4th album. The record company, Charisma, funded the tours and the records because they believed in the band. However, they were more popular in Italy than they were in the UK. It wasn't until Foxtrot (their 3rd for Chrisma) started to climb the album charts in the rest of Europe, that their popularity started to increase in the UK. They had been growing their fan base by constant touring and word of mouth created a buzz about the band. Chrisma's belief paid off, and the band went on to bigger and better things as did Peter Gabriel, who also stayed with Charisma. In fact technically both acts are still with the label as Virgin bought it ;) In this day and age I don't believe any one of the big four would ever make a similar kind of investment.

When I started as a roadie in the early 80s the only bands I worked with were unsigned. The chance to play pubs and clubs was fantastic and we played most of them. Personally I had a great time, but it was a hard slog as I would be away from home for weeks on end. Unfortunately the network of venues has diminished and the promotion of unsigned bands in the NME and Kerrang! is nothing like what it used to be. The rise in cover bands is heart renching. It seems the fact that people are more willing to listen to something they know, even if it's not done anywhere near as good as the originals, than to take a chance with a new artist. But that's another rant ;)

Getting back to the Prince issue, when record company executives start spouting "It devalues the music and the losers will be new artists", then you know that the truth is more likely to be that the winners are the new artists and the losers are the record company execs themselves. I don't pay alot for my CDs anymore, as there are various sources, including retailers, which enable me to pay less than £10 for a brand new CD. Occasionally I will pay a bit more for limited editions, but a tenner for a regular CD is a reasonable price. I always feel that the price should be affordable for teenagers to buy with their pocket money. It's what I did, and when my pocket money always ran out, I found part time work to help pay for more.

To give Prince his due, this release is a very credible piece of marketing. He's gained many more column inches from this move than he would have got from releasing the album through the usual channels. He also shaken up the dinosaurs, who to be honest need a bit of a reality check.

As for the album itself, personally I don't think Prince has ever done a bad album, although I wasn't particularly enthused about the Batman album, but it was still a great album. Planet Earth isn't as stunning as perhaps Gold or 1999, but it is still a good album. The interesting thing I get from the album is how different each track is from another. Each track is very definitely Prince, but they all hint at the several styles he's used on various albums over the last 15 years or so. My first thought was that this is an album release similar to The Vault, which was a collection of songs that never got on an album, but I think in this case the album is simply a collection of random ideas and experiments that he has been working on. I like the album, especially the "single" Guitar, but I would have to confess it wouldn't have been an album I would normally have rushed out to buy on the day of release, but would probably have shopped around for a few months down the line.

I don't expect other artists to ever follow suit, and if they did I wouldn't expect it to have the same impact. I've a great respect for Prince, particularly during the Symbol years. He stood up to the record companies because he believes that the artists should have control over their own music. At the time he was much derided, but those of us who have worked in the music industry can understand the frustration he felt. This instance is another example of Prince ensuring the record company understands he's calling the shots. It's a shame that other artists don't have that control, but at least when they get to be in a position like Prince, they know they can stand up for themselves.

I have always believed that the artists should have control over their output. Unfortunately record companies get involved and decide that they know better. Some artists however, know their audience far better than that or are willing to take risks. Prince is one such artist who does the latter and understands the former. If only there were more like him.

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of Prince's first album being released. Planet Earth is his 38th album of studio recordings. It kind of puts to shame some of those bands that take 5 years or more to put together sub-standard albums and endless repackaging of tour videos to take more and more money from their fans. And if a certain San Franciscan metal band with a Danish drummer comes to mind, then we're on the same wavelength. Judging from Prince's prolific output he should be releasing his 40th album in time for the 30th anniversary celebrations. I'm looking forward to it. I just wish I was able to go and see one of the dates on the Earth Tour. The ticket price of £31.21 is certainly value for money when you consider he gives away albums to everyone who attends the gig.

File Under: music / prince / rant / roadie

Both Ends Burning

Posted on 13th July 2007

During José's talk, 'The Acme Namespace - 20 minutes, 100 modules', at YAPC::NA in Houston, he mentioned one of the Acme modules that accesses the info for a Playboy Playmate, Acme::Playmate. After he mentioned it, Liz "zrusilla" Cortell noted that she used to work for Playboy and worked on the site that was screen scrapped by the Acme module, informing us that she wrote the backend in Perl too, "so you see it was Perl at both ends". At this point the room erupted, Liz got rather red and I'm sure wished the ground would swallow her up :)

Despite the rather salacious connotation that can be drawn from that remark, it was a phrase that struck me later as being rather more descriptive of the state of Perl. I started to think about the community, business and the way Perl is perceived. Drawing a line with the individual at one end, moving into community through small businesses and onto corporations at the far end, we can see Perl is not only used at both ends, but all the way through. But people still ask isn't Perl dead?

Perl hasn't died, in fact it's probably more vibrant now than it has been for several years. The difference now though is that it isn't flavour of the month. I did a Perl BOF at LUGRadio at the weekend, and it was a subject that got brought up there. Is Perl still be used? It would seem that Perl publicity to the outside world is extremely lacking, as several non-Perl people I've spoken to over the past few months have been surprised to learn that Perl is used pretty much in every major financial institution, in email filtering or network applications, for the Human Genome project (and bioinformatics in general) and pretty much every type of industry you can think of. It isn't dead, it just isn't sticking it's head above the parapet to say "I'm still here".

Last year at YAPC::Europe, Dave Cross talked about speaking in a vacuum. Inside the Perl community we all know that perl is great and gets the job done, but what about the people who are struggling with other languages, or project managers and technical architects who are looking at what skill set they should be using to write their new applications? What about big business that is continually confronted with the marketing of Java from Sun or .Net from Microsoft?

I see Python gaining momentum simply because several in the Linux and Open Source communities started using it to see how good it was, and now with Ubuntu using it pretty much exclusively, it has gained a large foothold with the wider developer community. Ruby has been seen as great for creating flashy websites, but beyond 37 signals, I've not heard of any big name sites that have been created with it. It gets featured at every Open Source conference and developers generally seem to think its really cool, but I'm still waiting to hear of any big take up outside of the cool, hip and trendy set. Maybe that's Perl's problem. It isn't cool, hip and trendy anymore, it's part of the establishment, part of the furniture. Does the job, does it well and without any fuss.

Perl has generated such a great community, that we seem to have forgotten that there are other communities out there, and they've partly forgotten us too. YAPCs are great conferences, but they grew out of the desire to have more affordable conferences for the developers, students and self-employed. Their success has been to the cost of Perl people wanting to go to other Open Source events such as OSCON, and keep Perl presence in the wider developer communities going. As a consequence Perl is almost seen as an add-on for legacy reasons to those conferences.

Looking back at that line I drew at the beginning, although I see Perl in our community, it doesn't feature very much in the wider communities, and as such small businesses don't notice it so much and look to other languages to develop their applications. The individual or hobbyist still uses it, and the corporations would struggle to remove it now, so to the outside world Perl is very much at both ends, but only at both ends. It's lost its focus in the middle ground.

At LUGRadio this year, I kind of felt rather relieved that people who came and spoke to me, knew me for being part of the Perl community. Most of these people are hardcore Linux, C or Python developers and although several know Perl, don't often use it. I've spent a lot of time speaking at Linux User Groups this year, and plan to speak at more later in the year. I've also been invited to speak to the PHP West Midlands User Group, invited to attend PyCon and will be attending GUADEC next week, but it's hard work to try and remind these other communities that Perl is still there. Although the personal touch certainly does help, I can't help but think there needs to be another way to promote Perl. This isn't about success stories (although they do help) or about talking at conferences and user groups (although they are just as important), but about reaching to the other communities and thus small businesses to remind them that Perl is still a viable choice, and that rather than competing for market share, the different languages can work together.

Having spoken to some developers of other languages, I'm amazed that the FUD of all Perl is unreadable, obfuscated and too hard for the beginner to learn properly is still being peddled. Challenging that mentality is a bit of a battle, but I've had to state on several occasions that you can write unreadable, obfuscate and unmaintainable code in any language, and in fact most of the respected Perl community and much of CPAN strives to write readable, clear and maintable code. It seems the Perl code from over 10 years ago and the dodgy scripts of certain archives are still poisoning the well.

Part of the problem (possibly fueled by the above FUD) that we have in the UK is overcoming the fact that several new Open Source initiatives don't even feature Perl when they talk about Open Source languages. If the networks that work between the communities and small business aren't promoting us, then it's going to be a tough slog. I've already written emails to the National Open Centre and tried to get OpenAdvantage to be more inclusive, but there are other similar initiatives, both here in Europe and in the US that need reminding too. Once they're helping to promote Perl, then it might just be something that Universities and Colleges include in the curriculums again. From there small businesses will be able to see that there is a pool of Perl developers they can employ and Perl again becomes a viable choice.

I firmly believe Perl 5 will still be around in 10 years time. Whether its running on Parrot, within Perl 6 or as it is now remains to be seen. I was asked to describe Perl 6 at the weekend and responded with a generalisation of "Perl 6 is to Perl 5 as C++ is to C". C++ took C into another realm, but C is still around. I just hope that the constant confusing information given out about Perl 6 to non-Perl people, isn't the reason why some think Perl 5 is all but dead.

The theme for the 2005 YAPC::Europe in Braga was "Perl Everywhere". I don't think that's true, but I wish it was :)

(this has been cross-posted from my use.perl journal)

File Under: education / opensource / perl / rant / technology

Shout It Out Loud

Posted on 11th July 2007

This post is mostly to trigger my shiny new Technorati Profile into recognising this "blog" as mine.

For some time now I've wonder about the use of the word 'blog'. I know it comes from weblog and is in reality an online journal or diary, but the word 'blog' doesn't conjure up anything like the kind of articles, news and thoughts I plan to post here. In fact I find it quite a dismissive word.

That's not to say the people who actually create these online diaries are not important, they are. For friends it's a way for me to see what they're up to, what's bothering them and the like, and likewise those who I know through social networks. They're also valuable to those of us who are looking for solutions to a particular problem, answers to questions or looking for thought provoking posts.

The medium itself is a valuable tool for allowing the average person to be heard in amongst the often inflated egos of some journalists I've met (particularly in the music industry ... but that's another story). I like the fact I can find bits of news and information from sources I would never otherwise knew existed.

What I don't like is the term 'blog'. Bit too late to try and change it now, and I doubt a lone voice would get much airplay, but it would have been much nicer to associate myself to a term that conveys the value of the online community of storytellers. For me, blog just doesn't cut it.

File Under: rant / usability / web

Where's Captain Kirk?

Posted on 6th June 2007

I've just seen the unveiled logo to promote the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Hideous is one word to describe it, although there are several more I've read. It does amaze me how companies and organisations place so much trust in marketing and advertising companies, when their own staff or the general public are often only too willing to help and suggest much better alternatives. The Daily Mail has a gallery of reader logos and in the paper there are several more that are far better than the official design.

I'm actually quite surprised that this wasn't opened up to a public competition, perhaps run by Blue Peter who have a history of helping to create classic images for this sort of thing. It would have been cheaper for a start, a prize of a few thousand pounds would have been far less than the £400,000 spent on the effort a "professional" company could produce. I'm off to sign the petition at gopetition.co.uk, not that'll do any good, but hopefully someone will see sense and realise that such a bad wave of criticism is not good, and will likely mean a distinct lack of support from the very people who are supposed to be benefiting from the event, the British people.

The other thing that gets me, is that it is now unlawful to use our capital's name and the year the Olympics will be held there, together in anything that consistutes public material (e.g. a website). Read their rules to see how far they take absurdity. Technically then I cannot legally promote the games, mention the website or even link to it. So maybe I should remove that last link and hope you can find it! Idiots. I can understand why the branding should be for the sole use by the sponsors for merchandising, promotion and to label products, but to say that unless I gain the permission of the committee I am not allowed to mention the name or use the logo to link to the official site is just too daft to mention. But then again I'd not want to advertise the current logo anyway :)

File Under: design / london / olympics / rant

Smoke Get In Your Eyes

Posted on 1st May 2007

There is some talk of resisting the forthcoming government ban of smoking in enclosed places. Being a non-smoker I'm going to be quite relieved to not go home stinking of someone's smoke after a night out. If you're a smoker, take a step back and ask yourself the following:

  • Would you light up at a restaurant?
  • Would you light up at your work place, if you work in an office?
  • Would you light up in the cinema?
  • Would you light up on the bus?

In many cases, hopefully most, you'll have answered no. However, it wasn't that long ago that you could quite happily do all of the above without worrying about being fined or worse. The latest moves to make pubs smoke free, at least inside, will eventually become as expected as the 4 places listed above.

Although it doesn't stop me from going out, I do know of others who avoid smokey pubs for health reasons. For non-smokers it isn't a nice taste or smell to have to endure. I already help pay for the damage done through smoking related illnesses, I'd rather that money was spent on treating conditions and diseases that sufferers have not bought upon themselves.

File Under: government / law / rant / smoking

Dead And Bloated

Posted on 30th April 2007

If you've ever bought a desktop or laptop in recent years, that has come with a version of Windows on it, the chances are that there is an awful lot of "bloatware" preinstalled and taking up valueable resources, which often hinder the performance of the machine. It's often a reason why I've heard non-IT people complain about Windows. Now a technical savvy person can generally get rid of most of the unwanted applications, but I am seeing far too many getting in under the guise of helper and support functions.

My sister had a problem with her machine, and asked me to take a look. Apparently it took ages to load up and wasn't particularly fast when it did finally load. Considering it's a 2.70GHz machine, this wasn't a good sign. I did suggest getting some more memory, so before I called round she bought a 512MB memory stick, to compliment the 256MB she already had.

I started by turning on the machine and watching it load. It took nearly 10 minutes! She was running Windows XP, and even though it's sluggish on my laptop, it's nowhere near that bad. Then trying to open anything caused the disk drive to be almost permanently spinning. Taking a first look at the Taskbar and Start Menu items revealed a large collection of apps that mostly just sit there, then come alive to "check things" every few minutes. I immediately removed them all, except a couple of essential ones. I then install TweakAll, which I've often found to be a handy utility for find all the "invisible" start menu apps. Several featured, which on closer inspection where phone home type apps. The worst offender turned out to be Hewlett-Packard. They have a "Motive Chorus Daemon" application installed when you install the drivers and image apps from their CD, which came with my sister's All-In-One Scanner/Printer. I've blocked some of the network traffic, but I suspect there's more.

It really is horrendous how many spyware and intrusive applications are bundled with software these days. All the unwanted apps on my sister's machine were all either preinstalled or installed by driver CDs with new devices. It took 5 hours to clean the machine, after which I'd reclaimed over 1GB of disk space. The machine loaded in roughly 1 minute, and opening a browser window now happened in seconds with the disk drive barely spinning. In fact if you blinked you'd probably miss the orange flash of the LED. Not surprisingly my sister is very relieved, as it's been a cause of frustration for sometime.

I recently bought a new laptop from Dell, and although I specifically said I wanted a bare bones system, I still got bloatware on there. Thankfully not very much, but enough to be a nuisance to uninstall. However, on both the laptop (even though I made a point of explicitly saying 'remove it') and my sisters machine, there was a little app that appears to have different names, but does exactly the same thing. Remote Assistant. If you ever see anything like it on your machine, I would advise you to get rid of it as soon as possible. It allows someone to remotely log on to your machine, without you asking or even accepting, and alter your machine. This cropped up recently on a thread in a LUG mailing list and was thought to be a hoax. Unfortunately not. I'm absolutely amazed that vendors have actually got away with this, but then Microsoft have finally found a way to sell you software to cripple your machine, so why not the vendors too.

Incidentally the BBC reported the fact that Dell are offering XP again on some models. If you email them directly, like I did, you can get XP on any model you want. There is no way I wanted Vista installed anywhere near my machines, and from reports around the internet, there are too many driver and incompatible device issues that would ever encourage me to use it. The fact that it also comes with inbuilt "security protection" of DRM is now just another reason not to go near it. I don't think I've ever seen such a negative response to a new Windows OS. At a recent Birmingham Perl Mongers technical meeting, the comment made about the fancy graphics was that if you wanted XGL that badly, why not just install Linux. I installed Ubuntu :)

File Under: rant / technology / usability

The Long & Winding Road

Posted on 3rd April 2007

It still amazes me how badly some people drive. I drove from Gloucester to Milton Keynes last night, which is a distance of about 80 miles. It took 2 hours. Seeing as much of the roads were either main roads or dual carriageway (the trek on the M40 was only 5 miles), it should have taken quite a bit less.

However, driving 40-50mph in a 60mph limit doesn't help. Having idiots slow down and even break, because a car several hundred yards in front of them slowed down is just ludicious. I used to think lorries were the most infuriating as they clog the motorways during rush hour, but it seems there are even worse drivers who thankfully steer clear of motorways.

It would also seem that road hogging crosses the age barriers as well as gender. I've noticed more and more that you cannot stereotype the kind of person that gives little care for other road users. I do wonder though, whether children see how their parents drive and pick up the bad habits.

In the UK you have to redo your driving test once you reach 70, which is a good thing, as many older drivers develop disabilities that may impair their driving, which unless tested, they may not even be aware of.

But I do think there should better testing done earlier too. The current driving tests give the new driver an open road. Even though they have not had any proper experience driving on a major road or motorway. It's not very often that your driving lessons give you in any sort of medium to long distance driving situation.

So I would like to see better take up of the Provisional Driver (Green P plate), so that new drivers can get further lessons for motorways and regular driving along major and country roads. Then for them to have an extended test where they are asked to take a journey of 1-2 hours, so the examiner can see whether they are being over cautious, too aggressive or just inconsiderate. It might help to curb some of the bad habits some drivers pick up.

File Under: driving / rant / road

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