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

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