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We live in litigious times, so I should say that content reflects only my opinions!

Saturday December 10 2005

Now here's something funny.

Your chance to scoff at the things idiots do with their computers. Good grief.

 


Posted at 12:11 pm by Jim Woods



Friday December 9 2005

Odeo

is a free service that allows you to create podcasts right from your browser, which are then shared with the lucky old world from your own page. I don't know how well this works, or in fact much else about it, but it seems like a very simple solution to the otherwise perhaps slightly laborious task of making and distributing your own audio material. Good, I suspect, for the technically naive.

When I eventually commence my own podcasting experiment, and I'm sure that day will come, I imagine that I'll be recording either onto my Creative Zen or directly to my PC using something like Audacity, then doing the editing and tarting up before making the things available through my site. This will, however, involve various pieces of software and quite a few steps. I can see the appeal of Odeo as something that just uses the software you already use for browsing, and leaves FTP et al out altogether. How easy it is to edit, though, I don't know. It might be worth a look for a painless introduction to doing your own casts.

 


Posted at 7:10 pm by Jim Woods




We're hosting an

(I'll just check) X-Must Yuletide Xtravaganza - and believe me I have nothing to do with naming these things - tomorrow night. As a band, the tricky thing about this is that we have to open and close the evening. This means we have to open straight up hot enough to make people want to stay for the whole evening and close with sufficient aplomb to top the bill. Given that most of the audience will be there to see the other two bands, this will be no easy task. Still, nothing like a challenge.

 


Posted at 6:57 pm by Jim Woods



Thursday December 8 2005

I'm really liking Pandora.

And if you are fascinated by the way music relates to other music, or you just like to listen to (new) stuff, then you will too.

 


Posted at 10:23 pm by Jim Woods




I found a directory

of free wireless hotspots. Although I don't habitually lug my laptop around with me, it's nice to know that there is the possibility of getting a decent pub lunch somewhere in the summer and being able to do a bit of onlinery in to the bargain. As far as I know, wireless access that has to be paid for - in Starbucks for example - is really rather expensive. The geek in me likes the idea of reading stuff online, rather than a book or magazine, over lunch. Having said that, books are much lighter and don't have batteries to charge. I love reading, and I'm doing a fair bit at the moment. I'll keep you posted as to what when I have finished. For now I have more lawyers meetings to attend and affairs to sort...

 


Posted at 12:27 pm by Jim Woods



Wednesday December 7 2005



Posted at 10:41 pm by Jim Woods




I am currently thrilled by

my bargain-priced, recently acquired, "cordless desktop". Got this Logitech product for £17.49, which seems astonishingly reasonable. I can't say that having a cordless keyboard is particularly thrilling, but the joy of the cordless optical mouse is something that has to be experienced to be believed. Well, I'm easily pleased. It really is great not having to reflexively jerk the mouse all the time to free up the cord which has jammed under the keyboard, or at least it will be when I learn to stop doing it because I don't have to any more. Good stuff.

All this week, I helpfully tell you now that the first two episodes have passed, Channel 4 are re-running "Nathan Barley". Trust me, this is extremely funny and should be watched if at all possible.

 


Posted at 7:02 pm by Jim Woods



Tuesday December 6 2005

What the hell is the point

of a NetMD? A MiniDisc deck that hooks to your computer via USB to allow fast transfer of music to it, rather like an MP3 player - both compressed formats after all - but bulkier, flimsier (in the case of mine) and capable of storing only four albums or so, unless you lug a whole load of discs around with you. MiniDisc excels at quick and simple live recording, assuming that you have a microphone input-equipped unit rather than a hobbled NetMD, but we must face the fact that it's effectively a dead format for other purposes. So what am I doing with one? Well, I recently bought an Aiwa car stereo. Good unit, end of line price, and it came with a free Aiwa NetMD. This can be plugged into the auxiliary input on the front of the car stereo, as can anything else with a 3.5 mm output. That's a personal stereo headphone jack to you; I use the input for my Creative Zen MP3 player as it happens.

I hadn't realised that Aiwa was now part of Sony. I've crossed swords with Sony in the past. Three times.

I bought a Discman CD personal stereo years ago. It turned out that it required a particular power supply to run off the mains, and that unlike virtually every other product one could not simply use a generic multi-voltage wall wart (black thing, converts mains to low-voltage DC - you also have loads of these) of the type that people like me have a load of already. Enraged that Sony wanted me to buy their own in no way superior wall wart for £25 (generic unit = £5, maybe £10) I nonetheless bit the bullet and tried to get hold of one. No dice. Sony UK said that "I should have bought the model that came with one". What really got my goat was that they were happily selling a unit without one, but with the facility to use it, when the power supply was unavailable. Either don't put the external power socket on there or don't sell the unit without the power supply then. I got a refund and bought a Philips that came with a power supply and cost much less. Just as good, too.

I had a fairly expensive Sony hifi CD player too, fifteen years or so ago. Packed up after two years, uneconomic to repair. I should have learnt. No other CD player I've ever had lasted less than a decade, including some real cheapos.

A glutton for punishment, I couldn't resist buying a top of the line Sony home cinema amp for a very good price new from Richer Sounds a few years ago. I still have it. It's a real big old beast of a thing, and it was cheap despite being new. Old model, I think. Within months the power transformer cracked - another fault I've never had on another unit of any type - so I went back to Richers to claim a repair under warranty. With much rolling of eyes they said they'd send it back to Sony UK but that I'd need to be patient. I began to get the picture: Just because I had bought a very high end product from a Sony dealer was no reason to expect prompt service. I was also assured that the rate of failure on Sony stuff was way above average, but I suppose experience had taught me that anyway. I simply decided to avoid Sony in the future, and also to relate my experiences to anyone else who cared to listen. In the end they took a month to repair my thousand-pound, three-month-old product. I'd rather thought they might apologize, or compensate me a little for the inconvenience with a small voucher or something, but I guess those days are gone.

So anyway, I recently became inveigled into buying an Aiwa (Sony) car stereo, half price because it was an old model. So far so good. I have no complaint with the stereo, which works well, and as I said above it was bundled with a Net MD unit. Good, I thought, I can now transfer all my recordings of live music - done with full consent I should say - from MiniDisc to my PC and then burn them to CDR. My Sharp MiniDisc recorder, you see, had earlier failed under mysterious circumstances and out of warranty (just - apparently this is not uncommon; does ANYONE make decent equipment any more??). I installed the software that Sony provided with the player, and set to work. Given that Sony are the people whose copy-protected CDs have just infected a load of people's computers with a bloody rootkit, for crying out loud, this was probably a rash move. But then it doesn't seem hopelessly naive to buy a "quality" brand name product and then use it in accordance with the instructions, does it? So I put the supplied SonicStage OpenMG software on my PC and hooked up the NetMD. It became rapidly obvious that the hardware/software combination is hopelessly hobbled to the point where you can do very little with it. Marvellous.

Can you put a CD in your PC and transfer it to the MD? Yes. I haven't tried this with a copy protected CD, mind you, because there is no way that I will be inserting any of them into my system. They always want to install some crap player or other intrusive software, or malware in the case of the Sony offering. I can't afford the risk. I can copy unprotected CDs to the MD, so so far so good. Useless to me as I have a 4 gig MP3 portable, but so far so good. Good job really, as there is no way of recording analogue audio to the device. Sony, who occupy a fairly unique position as a major consumer electronics company as well as a major record label, hate analogue. Analogue is nasty and dirty because you can copy it very easily. You know, make cassette tapes of records and CDs and so on, like we all did for decades. And of course that's a terrible threat to the business model of a major label. I mean, look how the poor major labels have suffered. Home taping, we used to be assured, was killing music. Hmm. Doesn't seem to have adversely affected the music of anyone I know. Last time I looked the world was buzzing with good music, and jolly good too. Lots of derivative crap too of course, but then I guess major labels need something to market.

Anyway, here's what the Aiwa NetMD CAN'T do. At least not mine. You can't transfer music off it onto your PC. The supplied OpenMG software is happy to tell you that you can, and happy to try. It does not work though. "Errors" occur. No more helpful information than that is given, but every time I've tried to do it there has been an error message. What I suspect is this. You can transfer music from a computer to the unit, but the only way to transfer it back is to the same computer. The documentation implies as much, but only as an aside and expresses in terms of "maybe". What the f*ck is open about SonicStage OpenMG then? This sort of disingenuousness does little to endear it to me. I have just tried to transfer a track of my own to the NetMD from my hard drive and guess what? Unspecified error! Could this be yet another way of hobbling the device without actually coming out and saying so? Maybe. So what we know so far is that you can rip a CD to the NetMD and nothing more. Let me try a few things a sec, and I'll be right back...

Right. Now, the OpenMG software will not rip a random CD to my MetMD because it "cannot connect to the CDDB2". F*cking thing. Leaving aside the fact that it cheekily suggested that I "check my network connection", which is currently quite happily doing my email checks, downloading newsgroups, monitoring a few webcams and allowing me to browse several sites, I don't see why it can't just copy the CD. Why must fetching the track info be a condition of doing the copy? Don't I have the right to do without CDDB2?

The crowning glory is that unspecified "errors during transfer" are also preventing me from transferring my MiniDisc recordings OF MYSELF from my own NetMD to my own PC! Look, Sony, if your silly little tricks are what is behind this then at least give me a meaningful dialogue box to say so, eh? Or maybe the unit or software is faulty? Whatever. Either it's more hardware failure from a company that in my experience specializes in it or it's obstruction from a company that in my experience specializes in it. Disappointed? Very much so. Surprised? Not really.

Anyway, I got the unit free, so I suppose that it's worth what I paid for it. Certainly not much more. My time is as valuable as the next mortal's, so I'm not going to waste any more of it right now pissing about trying to establish just what I can and can't do with this badly documented software and hardware. I'm simply going to take the following two steps.

Step one. I am going to remove the OpenMG software from my PC. I am deeply suspicious of it because it comes from Sony (rootkit supplier to the unwary), and because I don't fully understand how it is restricting the flow of data on and off my PC. I know that it is hobbled, but they are not explaining to my satisfaction how this is being done or even what exactly I can and cannot do. And in the light of recent developments I must take steps to protect my data from potential threat, best achieved right now by evicting Sony from my setup.

Step two. Unless I am so desperate for something that to do without it would be cutting off my nose to spite my face, I will not be buying any more Sony products at all. Not music on their label(s), not shiny trinkets from the shops. Nothing. These jokers are so restricting my (legitimate) actions that I'm going to give them a good hard kick in the wallet. I work in music, and I spend a fair amount on CDs and other related hardware. So do a lot of people I know. Lucky old Yamaha. Lucky old Tascam. The list goes on, but there's one brand that won't be on it.

I will add that if Sony would like to improve their standing with me and no doubt numerous others, I suggest that making more reliable products, providing prompter after-care, releasing music that people want to buy, not installing dangerously malicious software on their customer's PCs, and prominently stating what their products will and will not copy would all be good things to look into.

Now I'll go and copy the analogue output of the NetMD to my sound card, and then I will finally - at the cost of a fair bit of time and inconvenience - have managed to copy my own work from one medium to another as one would expect to be able to do. Were I a pirate I would do the same. That's what is so pathetic. All that this whole lock-down on copying does is inconvenience and disillusion less tech-savvy, and generally legitimate, punters. Anyone with a little knowledge is going to just go around it anyway. Whatever methods are deployed, some bright kid will post the hack around them to the net within days. Perhaps a little experimentation into the value of goodwill and trust wouldn't come amiss? We could all copy everything we liked before the digital era, and yet we all bought many more recordings. I don't know. I think I'll go and buy a few jazz CDs. On labels that aren't Sony's.

 


Posted at 10:18 am by Jim Woods



Sunday December 4 2005

Well, I'm here to tell you

that my tactic of assessing podcasts by coolness of title and seat-of-pants instinct has resulted in my downloading (largely) a load of old crap. Some good stuff, but rather more facile crap. Clearly I need to either spend more time checking stuff out, which is hardly possible, or I need to seek and take more recommendations. Which means, apart from anything else, that I probably need to actually involve myself a bit more in newsgroups and forums. My socialization online has hitherto consisted of a few emails and comments on blogs and sites, and early flirtations with instant messenging and even a play around with some MUDs ages ago. I liked the way you had to type in a ream of arcane commands to get the simplest thing done. I was regarded as a DOS dinosaur until well after the advent of Windows 95, having held out for nearly a decade against GUIs. I think I thought that making computers easier to use was going to result in loads of clueless users flooding the online community. This, of course, is true. But then in those days the whole point of getting online was to discuss with other perverts how to - well, better get online. Really. We were frightful snobs, I suppose, with our hard and expensively won technical knowledge.

These days online means online. You're online or you're not. In large measure you plug in your broadband or <shudder> dialup modem and you're pretty much as online as anyone. The net is at your feet. Back in the day, on the other hand, you'd dial in at 2400 baud or so to a BBS and then try to get something done before the modem spuriously dropped the line or overheated or line quality deteriorated or the phone bill imperiled your finances too much. There was a pioneer spirit to the whole thing that involved Fidonet daisy-chaining local call areas to spread messages, knowing how to talk the Hayes command set to a modem, and an awful lot of f*cking about. Bizarrely, the only thing I remember doing online that wasn't related to data communication - we were so self-referential it beggars belief, looking back - was collecting loads of recipes from the admirably lively cookery forums; American women, probably stuck out in the rural midwest or somewhere and blessed with free local calls, were terribly early adopters of this new form of communication. And bless them. They certainly taught me to cook. At that point I wasn't allied with the other early adopters who had interests beyond network engineering and cookery - by which I mean the role players. Those who loved Tolkien and strange multifaceted dice, and who seized on the communications revolution as a means to set up multi-user realms where spells could be cast and dragons slain. I had avoided all this at school. after all, preferring to spend my time being disruptive, being drunk and stoned, and riding motorcycles as an effective method of impressing the hairdressers and schoolgirls who lived just outside the boarding-school gates. It worked pretty well too, but that's all outside the scope of this discussion. No RPGs for me then, save for the odd go with a rocket-propelled grenade on the Yorkshire moors during our week-long training with the regulars as a cadet in the CCF. All good stuff, but none of it tending to build a sense of cooperation and equality. Belated attempts to get into online communities based on fantasy proved that I'd already become a different sort of person. But the online gamers were, by and large, very helpful and friendly. I just couldn't "get it", although I rather wanted to.

These days I feel that the more people online the better. After all, now that the technology is pretty well sorted and most people (at least in the first world) have bandwidth to burn, we've progressed a long way beyond having to simply figure out how to get things to work. There will of course always be those who find anything to do with technology a trial, but we have to accept that pretty much everyone is apprehensive about change and that a regrettably large proportion of parents and educators fail to instil in their progeny and protégés that life is an ongoing process of learning rather than a problem with a defined and absolute set of solutions. And if we expect this leap of faith, and by we I suppose I mean those of us who have a degree of affinity for technology and who to some degree work with it, then we have to keep our side of the bargain. We have to provide the best interfaces to it that we possibly can, and we have to provide good and clear documentation for devices, and we have above all to fight the urge to flaunt our technical knowledge in such a way that the non-cognoscenti are tempted to simply turn away and carry on as before. Because machines are the servants of man, and they bloody well need to stay that way. Therefore car repairs can be carried out using information freely available online, and good meals can similarly be cooked, and bad companies can be outed as such, and so the list goes on.

The internet is all about empowerment if we let it be, and it's all about intimidation if we let it be. It's the individual's call. We can be as dependent or independent as we like, but in information technology we have a powerful tool to level the playing field considerably. We just have to use it judiciously, and to be aware of the risks inherent in taking anyone's advice, and to learn to develop character judgement and common sense. Don't click on something just because it says to. Consider a variety of viewpoints. Be widely inquisitive but also focus when focus is required. Evangelize the net to unbelievers, but concentrate on the advantages to them in specific. Don't confound them with the sheer amount of stuff available, but tell them what they could find that will really benefit them. Because none of this stuff will go away, as its detractors hope, and if it does they will be no better placed to cope than those of us who've made hay while the sun shines. More information on the net is like more channels on the telly. It means more crap. The argument that we don't need more crap would be a persuasive one but for one thing. There is no arbitrary point at which the ratio of crap to utility, signal to noise if you will, can be fixed and writ in stone. I know plenty of people who are absolutely convinced that Freeview is a great Satan. They believe that the five or six channels they receive already will suffice, and that Freeview is merely more crap. In one sense that's true. More channels will give you more crap. But hey, firstly, why run when you can walk? Make the effort to use the new technology now, because it'll eventually be forced upon you in any case. And secondly, it isn't that the terrestrial channels are devoid of crap is it? Fear of the new hides behind spurious logic.

Anyhow, before I get any more involved in this epic rant and lose even more sight of the point I wanted to make, let me summarize in a few points the way in which I hope to proceed with the online part of my life - a fairly large part, as it happens, but then of course I was always keen on the reading and the writing...

There is no substitute for education. Better reading and writing skills empower in all of life, and not just online where they happen to be the almost exclusive mode of communication.

Technology is great, in principle. Implementation of it, however, is often flawed or obtuse or subject to market machinations on the part of manufacturers or even governments. The more you know about it, though, the more chance you have of reaping the benefits without falling prey to the pitfalls. If you choose ignorance, then there'll be a price to pay. Fine, if you're willing to pay it, but it may not be clear what that price will be. As always, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

You get what you pay for. This equally applies to learning. But a knowledge of, for example, the finer points of web searching with regular expressions will repay the initial pain again and again.

And lastly, at risk of repeating myself, never stop looking for better searching tools. That's how the tide of crap can be tamed (good crap, nice crap, sit boy!).

This is how I intend to find better podcasts, but it'll also be how I find better advice on loads of things. Exercising choices is hard work. But not nearly such hard work as not having them. Freedom is absence of choice? True in a sense, but that's only one kind of freedom...

 


Posted at 11:03 pm by Jim Woods





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