Category Archives: Media

Pipe dream: format shifting books for free

I have, of late, been embarking on a huge program of minimalism. I have too much stuff. For the past twelve months, I have been getting rid of a lot of it, although probably not as ruthlessly as I’d like. Everything from old PC hardware, clothes, to computer and electronics magazines have been dumped in recycling bins. I do rather hope that the broken Mac SE/30 which I left out the front of my house, and then disappeared before the hard-waste collection came around, was turned into a fish bowl.

It’s amazing just how much useless paraphanalia is accumulated just from attending conferences. All my LCA t-shirts are going into a Brotherhood bin; I don’t wear them. It would be nice if, in future, LCA registration had a discount option without these. I realise that it probably wouldn’t come to more than about $5 saving, but it’s the principle of the matter – I don’t want resources wasted creating a t-shirt that I’m never going to wear. The same goes for the bags, although these tend to be of much higher quality, and I’ve really liked most of them, but it’s got to the stage where I have enough laptop bags and backpacks to last me a couple of lifetimes, and I just do not need any more.

I lived for fourteen months just travelling, with nothing more than a netbook and a backpack with a week’s worth of clothes. I’d like to get to the point where if I decide to disappear overseas again, I can rent the house out in a furnished state, and have just a small amount of personal possessions that can be left with family. I believe the economic rationalist side of politics would call this “labor mobility”, although I have no desire to pull up stumps and work in Western Australian mines, as they seem to expect everyone else to do, regardless of where their family and support network live.

One of the issues that I haven’t yet tackled is books. Last year, I bought a Kindle, and Amazon DRM annoyances aside (which can be easily worked around), I love it. I do not ever want to buy a hard-copy book again. I do, however, have a library of books that I would like to keep, but not in a form that takes up several cubic metres of space. Given that I’ve already paid for the books, it seems unreasonable to have to pay again for a digital version. Obviously, I could probably find digital versions of most of the books on torrent sites, but then if I were to ever be audited (and given that ACTA has provisions for searching laptops at borders, we can never be sure that such powers won’t be extended into homes) how can I prove that I actually owned the books, after I throw them out?

It’s a shame that Amazon (or someone) doesn’t provide a service where they take back second-hand books, provide a replacement digital copy and then resell the book to someone who does actually want a hard-copy, with a royalty to the author. Probably not cost-effective, I guess. But if there were some way to make it economically feasible, everyone would be a winner; I get to keep the content I paid for, the author gets another sale and a good book doesn’t get pulped.

O’Reilly have an interesting $5 ebook upgrade scheme, but it doesn’t cover all books, and I still bristle at the idea of paying more for an electronic copy of something that I already own.

The same goes for music. I have a CD collection, probably small by most standards, that nonetheless takes up space. It annoys me, because I haven’t played a CD in years, have no interest in the cover art or reading the acknowledgements on the inserts. My two dedicated CD players – one, a 15 year-old portable, and the other, a two-decade old hifi-style component, are both scheduled to be given to my nearest charity shop, if they even want them. Unlike books, the CDs can easily be format-shifted, legally, but if I were to then throw out the physical media, I have no way of proving that I ever actually legitimately acquired them. The only thing I can think to do is sell them, at the heavily marked down prices that second-hand music goes for, and then buy all the albums again from iTunes, which will likely cost more than the CDs sold for.

I do envy future generations. The idea of building up a physical pile of stuff that weighs you down is going to be totally unknown to them, at least from the point of view of books, music, movies and other media that is going completely digital. They’ll never have to waste time going through what I’m doing right now…

Go on Rupert, put up that paywall.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who wishes that Rupert Murdoch would quit banging on and on about how he’s going to put up a paywall around his websites and block off google, and just friggen do it.

Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to bring another period of enlightenment to humanity than to have Rupert’s gaggle of conservative and sensationalist rags locked up where no-one will see them.

I can’t see how it’s going to work, though. Newspapers have never made their profits from their cover price (which pretty much only covers the cost of distribution). Instead, it’s been the advertising they carry – particularly the classifieds – that pays for the journalism (I use that word loosely here). So if Rupert is planning to recover the money lost to sites like Ebay and Seek by charging internet readers, then the price is going to have to be considerably higher than what they’re asking for the dead-tree editions right now. Is anyone really going to pay through the nose for the Herald-Sun when the ABC’s news is free online?

Wikipedia and the media

I have just one thing to say about today’s revelations that staff of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have been caught removing damaging details about certain events from Wikipedia: will someone please tell Australia’s radio and TV journalists and newsreaders that it is pronounced /?wiki?pi?di.?/, not wickerpedia, as every report I’ve heard today has said it. It’s a Wiki, not a Wicker.

Unlocking a SelecTV satellite decoder

Last year, I subscribed to SelecTV, a newish satellite pay-TV provider, because it seemed like the easiest way to get news stations like BBC World and Euronews that I watched quite a bit when I lived in Amsterdam.

The thing I liked about SelecTV was that their service is set up so that customers can use commodity equipment to receive their signal – that is, any DVB-S receiver with Irdeto encryption. This means that their customers own their equipment, there’s no contracts, so they can cancel the subscription whenever they like … and most importantly, it can be used with a home-brew PVR – unlike Foxtel, where it’s necessary to fork out a couple of hundred dollars for an iQ box, which has to be returned if the service is shut off.

SelecTV is broadcast from the Intelsat 8 satellite. Before I subscribed, I went outside and took a few ad-hoc measurements with a compass … and found that the path between my house and the satellite was blocked by the huge, ugly housing commission building down the road from me; the same building whose construction was responsible for the demolition of the lovely (or so I’m told) old house that my grandfather had been born in. Politicians and architects of the 50s, 60s and 70s have a lot to answer for.

Not sure whether the building would present a problem, I wanted to be certain that it all worked (and it did) before I paid any money, so I decided to go with the SelecTV-provided equipment; satellite dish, LNB and a UEC-990/DSD990 DVB-S receiver. This is an entry-level receiver, and it is somewhat lacking in features. Furthermore, it is locked to SelecTV’s signal, by default. This is somewhat annoying, as there are a number of free-to-air signals on that satellite from other providers, and I wanted to see them.

I’ve been trying to find out for quite a while if it is possible to unlock it, and if so, how to do it. finally today, I found an answer, at the end of this forum post. I’ll repeat the steps here, in case the forum disappears:

  • Press the Menu button, go to Advanced Options
  • Choose Change Dish Installation
  • Enter a PIN of 9949
  • Choose Signal Setup, and then enable each of the Signal Setup options 2 – 6
  • Go back to the Change Dish Installation menu and choose Tune and Rescan

That’s it. Once it was done scanning, there were dozens more channels – although most of them were encrypted, and hence not available without the correct card. The extra free-to-air channels were mostly Arabic stations, with a couple of Chinese stations and one from Bosnia … and also Deutsche Welle TV, which broadcasts alternate hours of English and German. I’ll find that very handy for a bit of language practice.

My next step is to buy a three-way LNB holder, a second LNB and a diplexer, so I can get the free-to-air broadcasts on the Optus B3 satellite; BVN is available there, broadcasting in Dutch, another language which I’d like to get more practice with.

Australia’s pathetic media

There are plenty of reasons for John Howard and his vile government to apologise, but forgetting the name of one of his party’s candidates for the next election is probably the least of them:

Forced to apologise? Hell, half the time I can’t even remember what I did an hour ago, let alone the names of 226 MPs, Senators or prospective parliamentarians, and I’m half his age.

This is a non-story. Why aren’t these useless journalists getting him to apologise for taking the country to war on a lie?

The Great Global Warming Swindle

Why is the ABC showing the “Great Global Warming Swindle” on both ABC-TV and ABC2 at the same time? There’s nowhere in Australia where the second channel can be received that the first channel can’t also be received. And it’s not like ABC2’s miniscule audience is going to add anything to that which ABC-TV will get; of the few people who have digital receivers, how many of those even know ABC2 exists?

In all, it smacks of a cowed ABC giving in to a badly stacked board. I don’t care if they show it on either channel, despite the fact that it has been thoroughly discredited; but there’s simply no good reason to be showing it on both channels at once.

Seven reasons why embedding media players is bad.

I often wonder who it was that thought it would be a good idea to embed streaming media players into web browser windows. I can’t imagine that the public beat on the doors of software designers and told them, “You know, we like this internet radio thing, but hey – put it in a web browser!

Back in the days when streaming audio on the internet was just starting to become a commercial proposition (and don’t we all remember Xing), radio stations would put a link on their webpages, which, when clicked, would spawn a separate application to play it (based on the link’s mime-type).

Somewhere, along the way, this changed. Stations started embedding their players into web pages – hiding the url, in most cases. These days, I’d estimate that probably 70%25 of online radio stations make their listeners use embedded media players, and those who want to listen to the station with a dedicated application have to go hunting through the javascript source code for a link.

Here’s why I dislike them so much:

  1. It’s annoying for the user. Who wants a hulking great web-browser window on their screen, just to play music? The audio should be going on in the background, not sitting prominently on their screen, forcing the user to iconify it. Just let them run a separate application in the background, minimised.
  2. Most web browsers are unstable. Browsers are big, complex applications. They tend to crash, or hang, a lot. When this happens, embedded media players – which are generally just a bunch of shared libraries, dynamically linked at runtime, will die in sympathy. There’s nothing quite like having the White Stripes halt mid-chorus just as you accidentally click on some tweenie’s all-singing, all-blinking Myspace page.
  3. Most media players are unstable. They’re not big and complex like web-browsers, but I’ve found media players to be, by and large, pretty bloody awful. A bit of network lag, a stream pumps out something the player didn’t expect, and bang, that weblog entry you’ve been working on disappears with the player’s plugin.
  4. Not everyone uses a graphical browser. Good luck getting your javascript monstrosity in lynx – which probably rules out most visually handicapped users from accessing your stream. While most commercial radio organisations probably don’t care about this (although they should), government-funded broadcasters – who need to provide equal access to all – certainly should be taking it into account.
  5. Embedded players are often difficult to bookmark Want your listeners to return again and again? Well, they can’t, if your web pages launch a javascript window without the browser’s menubar on it. Let them bookmark the stream in their favourite media application instead.
  6. People want to use an interface that they are familiar with. I don’t care about that snazzy interface your web design team has dreamt up. My media player of choice is gxine. It’s small, light, and with libxine behind it, it works for the vast majority of radio stations I want to listen to. I have no desire to use any other application to listen to audio, certainly not one with your radio station’s logo plastered over it … and people who aren’t IT-minded will be confused with all the millions of different interfaces that these web-designers waste money putting together.
  7. Hiding the url makes life difficult for people with streaming appliances. There’s a bunch of products coming to the market that are effectively internet radios. It’s probably not far off from the day when mobile internet rates are cheap enough that people start listening to internet streams in their car or while jogging as frequently as they’d listen to a normal radio; as it is, I tend to use my wireless PDA as a portable radio, around the house. If you’re a radio station hiding your url behind a huge web of indecipherable javascript in an embedded player, you’re going to be bleeding listeners. Just provide a damned link.

Furthermore, should any radio station managers or CTOs read this article, please use an open codec, such as Ogg Vorbis for your station’s stream. There’s no good reason to be using a proprietary player – it’s as ridiculous as the sealed set scheme, which was used early in Australia’s radio history, where radio sets that could only be tuned to one station were sold to listeners. Needless to say, it wasn’t particularly successful. By using a codec that people are free to use without restrictions or patent fees, it will open the market to a wealth of new applications and devices, and allow your station to be accessed in ways you might not have considered. Consider how far radio would have gone if it had stuck with the sealed set model…

(And as an aside, there’s just no excuse for publically funded organisations like the ABC, the BBC, CBC, Radio New Zealand and RTE to be using proprietary streaming systems. I really don’t see why government money should be going to prop up one or two software vendors, thereby forcing the public to use proprietary products to listen to programs that their taxes have paid for).

You watched it, you can’t unwatch it.

Today’s Digg user revolt should be a lesson to the various DRM interests in how not to handle bad news on the internet. Their heavy-handed attempts to block the publication of a 16-digit hexadecimal number have now resulted in it being distributed far more widely than it would have been if they’d just ignored the issue; and as an added bonus, there’s probably quite a few more people educated about the evils of DRM.

Governments have this problem too, especially the all-singing, all-dancing and all-censoring Australian government. If they hadn’t censored the 2002 film “Ken Park”, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about it. The resulting shitstorm that the censorship caused brought the film to my attention, and I made sure that I saw it – legally, while travelling in Norway, a country with a considerably more liberal attitude to its citizens’ abilities to make up their own mind about what they may see or do, than Australia is. And of course, the film was available via bittorrent, so the government’s banning of it did nothing to stop most people with decent broadband access from getting it.

So, some advice to anyone who’s had some bad news leaked onto the internet: don’t bother trying to suppress it. You’re only going to make it worse for yourself.

Oh… and naturally, I couldn’t help but contribute to today’s chaos myself 😉

New media laws start on April 4th.

Governments always like to make potentially unpopular announcements when the media is preoccupied with other events; today, in the shadow of the boat crash on Sydney Harbour, the federal government has managed to sneak an announcement about the assention of their new media laws out, with barely anyone noticing at all.

There is certainly a risk in doing this now; prior to passing the legislation in the Senate last year, John Howard and Senator Helen Coonan swore black and blue that the new laws wouldn’t cause a rush of media mergers and then were left with egg on their faces when it happened within weeks. A sudden merger of media in Australia is not a good look in the run-up to the election; perhaps the government is counting on a buyout of Fairfax by a conservative leaning proprietor

So, expect Australia’s already dismal media to get even worse; where we have around ten or eleven independent commercial outlets in Melbourne and Sydney, this will now be able to drop to five. Expect newspapers to end up in the hands of TV stations, dumbing-down and endless cross-promotion.