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

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