about this blog

This blog documents my staying at home and writing (and the subsequent whatevers to that writing). It also serves as an online journal for friends and family. It is more-or-less guaranteed to be sans intérêt to most anyone else.

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letting off steam

2006 Reading List

Being a list of books read during the current year.
· Peter S.Beagle: The Last Unicorn
· John Christopher: The Pool of Fire
· Ayerdhal, & Dunyach: Étoiles Mourantes
· Nouvelles des Siècles Futurs, An Anthology compiled by Jaques Guimard & Denis Guiot
Reads from 2003 are here.
Reads from 2004 are here.
Reads from 2005 are here.
 

2006 Film and DVD List

Being a list of films viewed during the current year.
· Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney
2005 Film and DVDs are here.
 
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Small Thoughts about ‘The Half-Blood Prince’

Curiously this was the book that I read the most in 2005, and I can’t really understand why…

I started reading the Harry Potter books when The Goblet of Fire was released in French, and I decided that I should perhaps read that one before Kim. I quickly read through the first ones, and then GOF, which, I’ll admit, shook me more than a little at the time, what with the sudden death of Cedric Diggory at the end. Even the intrusion of the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup was rather scary, containing elements of the rise of fascism in Europe. In fact, the whole “pure blood”, “Death Eaters” and Voldemort business does seem to have very clear fascist overtones, and can be considered heavy matter for children’s reading. Not that I think children’s reading should be sanitised, just that it is a good idea, as a parent, to know what one’s children are reading, and to be ready to accompany them, and to answer questions.

As a reader, I still have problems with J.K.Rowling’s books. It is clear that she has built a solid and convincing world, a sort of mirror image of a certain type of children’s fiction—I’m sure that C.S.Lewis, for example, would feel perfectly at home in the Houses, and boarding school environment, that is Hogwarts. However her writing is leaden most of the time, her pacing is generally pretty off: both in Order of the Phoenix, and HBP, one has the feeling that she has to get some much of the backstory out of the way first that the climax is suddenly rushed. And the whole hunting-the-Horcrux-in-the-green-cave episode in HBP is a complete non-sequitur that reminds me of John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy, when Jerry Westerby disappears off on a wild goose chase into the wilds of Indochina in a fascinating diversion that brings nothing positive to the story except echoes of Joseph Conrad, even if it is beautifully done.

Probably the thing that I retain most from JKR’s writing is that a strong plot, a coherent world, and credible (and complex) characters are more important than a developed or elegant style. Sure, that would be a bonus, but it is surely better to get the books out and read, than to get them perfect. I also get a very strong Dickensien feel from the books, particularly the descriptions of food, of gatherings, and the naming of characters.

I approached HBP with trepidation. I had heard, as a lot of others had, that an ‘important’ character would die. I did not believe that this would be Dumbledore, and, each time I have read the book, invariably, I found myself crying at his burial scene.

I have no qualms about revealing now that Dumbledore dies for two reasons: one, most of those who intend to read the book, have already done so, and secondly, to say that revealing he dies will ruin the book is, frankly, rubbish. This is not a whodunit. A book is not the ‘answer’ at the end. A book is the shared journey through the pages. In fact, were I working on the screen adaptation of the novel, I’d start with the funeral, and us the ceremony to recap the contents of the book, just to get the false suspense out of the way. Why he does [if he does..] is more interesting that the blunt statement: Dumbledore dies.

However, I am assuming that if you are reading me, you have either read the book, or you have no intention of doing so, so consider this a spoiler warning.

I read HBP a fourth time because JKR stated in an interview that Books 6 and 7 could be taken as two halves of the same book, and that there were a lot of clues as to the last tome inside this one. So I went hunting. This is what I find…

Harry and Ron are probably the most developed characters. This is normal. Harry is the hero, and Ron and the rest of the Weasley’s are his substitute family. But we have quite a bit of backstory on a few other characters, and that is interesting.

We know a lot about Snape, surprisingly enough. While it is logical that Book 6 provided Voldemort’s backstory, Book 5 provided Snape’s, with HBP filling in a few blanks. I will be quite clear: Snape is my most favourite character in the films, and I believe that Alan Rickman’s interpretation is masterful. Where the Snape in the books is sallow, dirty, and ambiguous, Rickman’s performance has majesty, menace personified (it is lucky he can fit so much into so little as his lines seem to get shorter and shorter in each film), and a voice that would make a statue tremble as he calls out its name. But, the major question is, Is Snape guilty?

My answer is no.

I base this on an overheard conversation that Hagrid reports to Harry.

From the Bloomsbury UK children’s edition, page 380:
“I dunno, harry, I shouldn’ta heard it all! I—well, I was comin’ outta the Forest the other evenin’ an’ I overheard ‘em talkin’—well, arguin’. Didn’t like te draw attention to meself, so I sorta sulked an’ tried not ter listen, but it was a – well, a heated discussion, an’ it wasn’ easy ter block it out.”
“Well?” Harry urged him, as Hagrid shuffled his enormous feet uneasily.
“Well—I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much fer granted an’ maybe he—Snape—didn’ wan’ ter do it anymore—”

The conversation peters out with Harry and Hagrid trying to determine what ‘it’ was. So why put this in? It is obvious that JKR wants us to understand something. At the time we are lead to believe that this is probably searching Slytherin for evidence of Malfoy’s misdeeds, but why? To set us on a false trail.

Dumbledore knows he is being overheard. He is, after all, a most powerful wizard and he could easily (and silently) cloak the conversation. He knows Hagrid is there, in the same way that he knew Harry was under the Invisibility cloak in The Prisoner of Azkaban, and he knows that the conversation will be reported to Harry. He also knows that, when the time comes, it is necessary for Harry to know this. For if Snape ‘kills’ Dumbledore, it is on Dumbledore’s specific orders.

Go reread the chapter of the killing and you will see, quite clearly, that Dumbledore is reminding Snape of his duty and his engagement, not pleading for his life. But why?

[note I have just found a site that supports my theories, go see dumbledoreisnotdead.com ]

Dumbledore knows that only this ultimate sacrifice can allow a number of things to come to pass… What are these things?

One, and probably the most important, is to protect Malfoy. Dumbledore is, before being one of the most powerful wizards of his time, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, and as such, he has a duty to protect his charges. At this point Malfoy has not committed the irreparable; in fact, he has serious doubts, and Dumbledore uses his last breath to encourage the boy, and show him that there is hope, that all is not inevitable, he can resist, and the Order will assist him. We saw from what Moaning Myrtle told us, that behind the façade, Malfoy is not at all at ease with what he has got himself into. Dumbledore offers him hope and forgiveness. In my opinion, Malfoy’s dilemma should be central to Book 7, as Harry will need allies in Voldemort’s camp.

The second point is precisely that: Who, after he has ‘killed’ Dumbledore, can ever doubt that Snape is the most faithful of Voldemort’s followers. Snape will be confirmed as the closest helper of the Dark Lord. Ready to help Harry, although Harry will probably not realise this until it is too late, blinded as he is by his hate for Snape. I expect Dumbledore’s portrait—sleeping peacefully at the end of HBP—to provide some explanations here, even if Harry doesn’t want to believe it.

Finally, Dumbledore, through his love for the school and for Harry, had to protect Harry. Why did he freeze Harry? Snape noticed that there were two broomsticks on the tower. He knew, or guessed that Harry was there under the Invisibility cape, but did nothing. He didn’t kill him either as Harry chased him through the school grounds. Dumbledore, making the sacrifice, like Harry’s mother before him, shows that Good Magic will always be more powerful that the Dark Arts.

And we should remember that Dumbledore’s familiar is, after all, a Phoenix. Expect surprises here… No, he won’t rise from the dead, but he will be back in Book 7.

But can Harry really beat Voldemort?

Voldemort is supposed to be the most powerful practitioner of the Dark Arts. He has mastered spells that Harry can’t even imagine. He has returned from the dead, and is quite prepared to do that again, and again… yet Harry was unable to attack Snape, or even perform a summoning spell, while frozen under the cape. And this boy thinks he can defeat the Dark Lord?

He will need help from Ron and Hermione, probably from Ginny as well as we know she has a strong character and a good way with hexes, and I doubt that she’ll let Harry let her go. And her parents will be horrified. Even more so as most of the Weasley children will probably come down on Harry’s side: don’t forget that while Fred and George love their work and a good jape as much as the next person, more than just monetarily, they feel they have a debt to Harry. After all, it was he they chose to give the Marauder’s Map to, not to Ron… (I fear Luna and Neville will also help, as they’re like that… Good loyal friends. I also fear for them, as it is likely that they could be the first victims.) Snape and Malfoy will have their parts to play, and without this combined assistance Harry will not be able to vanquish Voldemort.

But will Harry die?

JKR has stated quite clearly that there would be seven books and that’s all. The easiest way to make sure of this is to do a Conan-Doyle and to kill off your hero. (Well, at least he tried.)

I don’t think Harry will die. He will lose his scar, I’m pretty sure of that. But he won’t die, and neither will Voldemort necessarily. I see Voldemort as being banished into a non-life, trapped forever inside one of his part lives, one of his Horcruxes. This would be a far greater ‘punishment’ for his actions than just dying. Perhaps Sirius Black and the curtain in the department of mysteries plays a part in this banishment…

If Harry does live, I’d rather like to see one more book. A sort of “Twenty Years After”. When, rather than danger, Harry, Ron, Hermione and the others have to face the fact that they’ve grown up, that they have children of their own and jobs and responsibilities to the wizarding community, and all that that brings with it. It would be a fitting ending for this saga that having year by year watched the heroes and villains grow from children to adults, it also accompanies them onto to the next generation.

Well, I can wish.

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a certain form of vindication

A couple of months ago I wrote up a hasty reply as to why I thought that one Dave Birch’s suggestion, as relayed by The Guardian newspaper, of making a screen-saver to bombard websites that might contain images of child porn was a bad idea.

It seems that while most people agreed with me on this point—other journals, personal letters to me from visitors—not everyone could put one and one together, and come up with two. A couple of week’s later, the net conglomerate known as Lycos decided to launch a screensaver that would send requests to sites that were supposedly the ultimate destination of all that spam that blocks our collective electronic mailboxes. The idea being that these requests would suck up 90% of the available bandwidth. Besides the questionable legality of such a move—something that I pointed out—[and besides the other issue of determining that you are, without any doubt, only targetting evildoers… not at all easy…] within hours, the actual Lycos server went down under a DDoS attack. That is, the very same people that these net vigilantes were going up against, pulled down the site within the first hours of operation.

Result? A flat-out and clear victory—whatever spin Lycos subsequently tried to put on it—to the spammers. If you are going to be so stupid as to do something, you should at least be prepared that your opponents are not going to take things lying down, that they aren’t waiting there for the tummy roll. You should have redundant servers waiting, be prepared to switch IP numbers very quickly, have scripts ready preventively to filter out massive bombardments. You should have at least seen enough Clint Eastwood movies to know that it helps for the good guy to have an iron plate hidden under his poncho…

Mark Pilgrim pointed out, over a year ago, that spammers weren’t urchins with dirty faces any more. That their tactics were increasingly dirty, and straying through into real life. Causing real pain and damage in their efforts to stop you stopping them.

Naïve vigilante do-gooders, whether they are fighting child porn or fighting spam, are only doing harm with their half-baked suggestions and efforts. While the harm is happening in cyberspace, the real actions are needed IRL—in real life.

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in which I see red...

“Violence on the streets is a pressing issue – but we have the ability to stop it in our spare time,” says someone who should know better in the Guardian yesterday.

Let me explain…In my neighbourhood we all have pets, and can often be seen of a night, walking with the dog. It occurred to me that, while we were out like this, in our leisure time more or less, if we saw anyone creating trouble, or littering, or picking his nose, or sizing up joints for a little burglary… well we could all jump him, and in next to no time, our streets would be safe again.

OK, you can switch off the irony detector now. Sounds ridiculous? Dangerous, even? But that is basically what this article in the Guardian is proposing…

Let’s investigate…

First a short introduction and preliminary points. Those who know me in real life, know that I am a father of three [all girls] and my first reaction—probably not the wisest one, I’ll admit—were anyone to get nasty on one of my girls would involve extremely violent thoughts. The same applies if someone get fresh with other kids that I know. I’m a big softy like that.

The article in the Guardian is written by one Dave Birch, with a Guardian by-line. It is not a letters’ page, it is not a feedback page. It appears to be Guardian-sanctioned content by a regular columnist.

But not only what this guy is proposing unethical—as my intro seeks to point out, it is dangerous in implying that bad and simplistic propositions could provide help to a serious problem.

This isn’t helped by that fact that Child Porn is also a very red-rag-to-a-bull subject. So let’s start by exploring the edges…

Porn is legal in most Western countries. Porn, that is, images [film, text, etc.] portraying consenting adults engaged in acts of a sexual nature. You can call this porn, or erotica, or filth; it all depends on your beliefs. That doesn’t change the fact that the creation and possession of such material is generally either tolerated, or legal, depending on the country where you live.

By definition, Child Porn cannot be legal, as, by its nature, it does not involve consenting adults. Nor should anything be tolerated that encourages or supports child abuse.

Fierce words.

The age of sexual consent varies widely, from about 14 to 18, depending on the country. Some countries— like France for example, where I live—accept that a minor may have sexual realtionships, but try to avoid minor/adult relations through specific legislation. This can lead to problems when a 17 year old is dating an 18 year old, and the younger one’s parents object. Technically, if they do have sexual relations, this is an offence and the police can [and do] become involved. But two 16 years olds, for example, will be left alone. At least by the law.

Please note, I don’t give a fig about the gender of the people in these examples, that is a private matter for the people involved, and irrelevant for the arguments. But it does make for heavy-handed phrases.

Point one: if a sixteen year old takes a lewd photograph of a similarly-aged sexual partner and leaves that picture, with the other person’s consent, on a computer or website, is that trading in child porn? In the States, probably, as the age of sexual consent is generally 18. In France, probably not. I’d agree that it is probably not a wise thing to do, but at 16 people do do dumb things. And that’s not the question. Is age the only concern? In that case, my parents have plenty of photos of me, pre-adolescent and nude. Lots of family albums do. Yet, because of the red-rag effect, communities now often protest and soemtimes block exhibitions and shows that might portray naked children. In most cases, this is ridiculous hysteria.

Point two: having child porn found on one’s computer is the 21st century equivalent of leprosy. And most people would agree that only severely repressive sentencing is enough to punish offenders. Others will talk about chemical castration, even physical castration as not being good enough… Yet, everyone has heard of how easy it is to attack a person, almost any person, through the Internet, through phishing attacks, or browser exploits. Most reasonable people should have already stopped using Internet Explorer and Outlook because of that… but even so it is child’s play to place incriminating images on another person’s machine… [I have image-loading turned off in my mail client, and view only text, but there again, I’m not writing a technology column in the Guardian…]
Here goes. Craft an HTML mail in the Mozilla/Netscape mail application, or in Thunderbird. Place an image in that mail, something easy to identify like a big red cross on a black background. Now, make that image 1 pixel by 1 pixel. Slip it in as a full stop… Mail it to a friend. Chances are that image will be downloaded and placed in the cache used by your friend’s mail client. An image scan of that computer would find it. Try using the new Google Desktop, for example. Of course, your friend didn’t knowingly download the picture, but it was found on her computer, after all. Now think how easy it is to replace the red cross with something more vicious. And how easy it is to spam ‘x’ million people on the ‘net.

Point three: not too long ago, Pete Townshend, the Who’s composer and guitarist, was tarred with accusations of pedophilia after a credit card used on a child porn site was traced back to him. It is known that he has spoken in the past about being abused as a child, and it is theme present in some of his songs. So when he said, yes he did go there doing personal research, I’m inclined to believe him. And feel for him, not against him. Perhaps credit cards could be traced to other people retracing similar painful journeys, or to legitimate, and mandated, investigators. First impressions are not always what they seem…

I hope that you have realised by now that the points above are destined to show that not only is very difficult to define what is Child Porn—especially in borderline cases—, to define what is downloading, as well as to guess the motives of those visiting so-called sites. I have also managed not to mention Nabokov and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson…

This is a complex matter. The abuse and exploitation of anyone, anywhere, anyhow is bad [evil, in my books]. Children are under our collective responsibility, if that bad happens to them through our negligence, that makes things worse.

Child Porn, and Child Abuse are part of that. Along with violence [of which they are a form] they are probably the worst of what our world has to offer.

Nothing in Mr Birch’s comments would improve matters. In fact, public electronic lynchings—which is what he calling for—would make matters worse still. And by diverting attention to a bad solution, more children will be in danger as money and energy is spent where it shouldn’t be.

Now his article.

“A cursory search on any of the file-sharing networks reveals the IP addresses of servers distributing child pornography. These “sick servers” change frequently, but they are discoverable. That is obvious, otherwise the judges, teachers, policemen et al, convicted of downloading such material wouldn’t be able to find it.”

“But what to do about them? Knowing that a sick server in some far-flung former Soviet province is distributing child pornography is one thing, stopping it is another.”

I don’t use file-sharing networks. It is my personal belief that they encourage leeching from valid content creators, so I can’t yea or nay his claims here. However, by definition you must find a server, it doesn’t find you. Someone must go out, look for it and report back. This person has now—in France and probably in GB too—probably committed an offence by accessing the server and the images. Pornography exists only in a space between the object and the viewer/reader. A file is just a file until it is looked at or read, then it is harmless. Or not.

So how do you ‘discover’ these servers [on file-sharing networks, on UseNet, or on the Web] without committing an offence? And your motives in the matter do not give you prior clearance, you can possibly explain that to the Judge as a mitigating factor, but it does not give you ‘carte blanche’ to investigate. That is taking justice into your own hands.

Part of the social pact, this strange, abstract web that makes up the fabric of our societies, agrees that we delegate that power of investigation to agents who act on our behalf. If you stumble on something, fine you should avert those agents. When you go searching the only difference between you, and somebody who is ill-intentioned is that you want me to believe your intentions are clean… And the other one has bells on.

“The scale and distributed nature of this problem makes conventional policing impossible. There are simply not enough resources to track down every sick server, find the people behind them (even if you could), and then prosecute.”

I don’t believe you. Please prove what you are advancing.

Why don’t I believe you… Well, Microsoft, for example, are incapable of finding their own e-mails, but Google can index the net, which is slightly bigger that Microsoft’s mail servers [and they through everything useful away anyway] so, I can find what I’m looking for in a couple of seconds. Thanks Google. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Google has, as far as the web is concerned, already indexed those Child Porn sites. Without the need for humans to go and visit. A similar solution, of a Google-type crawler could perhaps trawl your file-sharing networks, working for our delegates—those we pay to do our dirty work, like policing—can search. And act. They have the authority to contact the server owner in “some far-flung former Soviet province”. And if the FBI have the power to seize Indymedia’s servers in GB—or not—they can send the black helicopters anywhere in the world. If they really want to.

“A more realistic goal may be to disrupt the servers. In many cases, the owners of the servers have no idea they are being used in this way. But if their servers go down, then the distribution of the material will be halted and the owners alerted to the problem. If a web-hosting company sees a server go down, I am sure they will do something about it.”

Again, we have another blanket statement with no backup. How does he know that “In many cases, the owners of the servers have no idea they are being used in this way”. They may not realise what is on their servers, but any one who has a fileserver knows that it serves files, duh…

But what he is proposing is called lynching. DDoS attacks should be a crime, if they are not already. As more and more economic and social life passes through the net, deliberately provoking massive failure of servers is irresponsible, and should be severely punished. It’s not pushing Child Porn I agree, but it is mob rule.

And where do we stop? Is the Co$ authorised to DDoS all sites that it doesn’t like because, it claims, they’re broadcasting what it claims are sacred scriptures. Personally, I think they’re all nuts, and some may even be dangerous nuts at that, but that doesn’t mean I’d condone DDoS attacks against them either. But someone might. And if I were a pornographer, what’s to stop me taking down the Guardian’s site because I feel your article is threatening my livelihood?

“One approach might be to capitalise on the internet dynamic of decentralised co-operation. Instead of internet users calling for someone else to police their environment, perhaps they should band together to tackle it themselves.”

No. This is not anarchy, this is chaos. This is lynching. This is mob rule. Those with the more powerful botnet and able to launch the strongest DDoS attacks rulz.

“Internet users already cooperate in a distributed, coordinated way to tackle other big problems. The canonical example is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti). Around the world, users have downloaded screensavers that crunch through the signals picked up from outer space, searching for patterns that could indicate unnatural sources. When they find one, as happened earlier this year, they report the signal to a central system for further investigation.”

You previously said that “There are simply not enough resources to track down every sick server,” and here—like my Google suggestion—you say that you can. You can’t. But you can try. And there is a vast difference between a robot trawling a network and indexing it, and someone connecting in to look.

“Suppose they were, instead, searching for sick servers? Instead of merely reporting the problem, they could launch a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.”

Now you have stepped over the line again. A useful suggestion would be to speak with a police technology department, and propose that groups of hackers program such a bot, but that results are forwarded to a technical police team. I think that they’d probably tell you, thanks, we’ll call you. But you never know. I’m pretty sure that they’d tell you that if you did take action in coodinating or launching a DDoS attack, you’d get to see them again. On the receiving end.

“Why not link the automated scouring of the internet for sick servers with the distributed power of screensavers and the DDoS? I am writing this on a plane: at home there are two G4s doing nothing. If I could download a screensaver that either searched for sick servers or obtained a list (from the Internet Watch Foundation) of servers to attack and then cooperated with thousands of other machines to launch DDoS attacks against those servers, I would be doing something to help.

The police could spend their time chasing the paedophile sources of the sick content rather than trying to put their fingers in the dyke. My screensaver might become a life saver.”

Why indeed? And not, you would be doing something to help. You would be just creating a new problem there where there wasn’t one before. This is where he finally slips over the edge into raving bonkers [altitude sickness?]. Who is to decide what is Child Porn without viewing? Who is to decide that so-and-so server must be taken down?

First you start with local vigilant groups, then you start imposing the beliefs and morals of a specific group on society at large. No thank you.

If you want to see the end of child abuse—in all its forms—there is not simple one-two punch to pull. Put simply, abuse breeds more abuse. And bad education and poverty don’t help either

If you really want to act now:

  • demand urgent reforms of prison and sentencing:
    jail is not just a means to take people away from society at large, and in that removal punish them while protecting society. If it also doesn’t also have the finality of preparing offenders for re-integration then it is just barbaric. No person who has been abused, or has abused another, should leave a court or a prison without receiving help and treatment, even if this person is the offender.
  • improve the wages, conditions and consideration of teachers and social workers:
    these are the people on the front line in helping your children—our children—grow up fit and well. If we expect 120% from them, they should get corresponding consideration. On all levels.
  • get involved in after-school activities:
    some people don’t have a family life, and don’t get on well at school. If you want children to grow to find their place in society, and to stamp out all forms of abuse, then get involved in scouts, homework projects, whatever. Your community needs you.
  • get involved in organisation that work to protect children here and abroad:
    I don’t know of any charity that would refuse help, be that time or money;
  • prevent national social security schemes from being dismantled:
    these are the first line to ensure that all, especially the weakest members of society, those without a voice, get the ncessary care and attention to grow up strong and healthy in body and in mind.
  • stop grumbling and stand up and say you want to pay more taxes:
    these things cost money, and money doesn’t grow on trees, it has to come from somewhere. Or give tax-deductible money to charities, then you pay less, and they can do more.

    Nope, none of this is as sexy as cyber-vigilantes with killer screensavers. And it’s old-fashioned, and it’s slow. But, unlike Dave Birch’s article, it works.

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more music

Of my experience with eMusic

I signed up yesterday; this entitled me to the free 50 tracks download. The signing was more painless than Apple’s and more precise about decisions and consequences. I signed up for the Basic Account; this means that I pay 9.99/month and can download up to 40 songs. I got a signing bonus of 50 downloads. There is also the possibility, at any time, of buying an additional block of downloads; 10 downloads for $4.99, 25 downloads for $9.99, 50 downloads for $14.99.
There is no limit. When you sign on you have 10 days to profit from your free downloads before the monthly subscription starts. You can—and there are no hoops—sign on, grab the fifty tracks, and sign off.

So why shouldn’t you?

Apart from that the web interface is very clunky [worse than iTunes—I’m beginning to see why iTunes, while bad, is considered best of the bunch] but just as slow. The indexing is very bad*. An example: an album that I was seeking, Harold Budd with The Cocteau Twins, The Moon and The Melodies does not appear when you search for “Budd”, “Harold Budd”, “Cocteau Twins”, and a variety of other things including ‘Tracks containing the word Moon’! Another example, I have just stumbled on the lovely Soundtrack that Tindersticks recorded for Claire Denis’ film Trouble Every Day. Of course, it is filed under Alternative and not under Soundtracks.

[* Apple’s is better, but not much. I was seeking Peacemaker’s Blues by Big Head Todd and The Monsters: iTunes proposed “Gerry and the Peacemakers”—What?!? I have stumbled on tracks that don’t appear when searched for and not in the correct categories: I found a Gerard Manset album in a category called Vocal that, apparently, doesn’t exist in the category index.]

eMusic downloading uses a separate app, and then the material needs to be imported into iTunes; while it’s annoying, I can live with it. Album art doesn’t get downloaded, and as it doesn’t appear to be of sterling quality on the site, I have, generally, found it is easier to just seek out and copy this in from Amazon.

The web site was obviously made when the graphic designer was asleep and the ergonomics consultant away on vacation. At least it’s not glitzy, just a bit rusty.

So, as I was saying, why subscribe?

Because if you like this sort of music, you can’t really get it much elsewhere. So far, I have downloaded Coma Girl, Redemption Song and Long Shadow from Joe Strummer’s posthumous album Streetcore. Also the wonderful Disturbed by Ilya that I heard on Radio Paradise, as well as Dead Can Dance and The Cocteau Twins. I have been using the sort of shopping bag feature—MyStash—to set aside disks as I find them; the Search, as I have said, being so strange that you might not be able to find them again.

The tracks seem to be ripped better than Apple’s on iTunes; so far, the bitrates vary from 141 [lowest] to 201 [highest]—Apple has 128 everywhere. And, there is no ‘This track is Album only’ like on iTunes.

Finally, there is no copy protection, no DRM software nor encoding. Thesea re vanilla mp3s. And even at entry level prices, tracks are 4 times cheaper than Apple [Reminder, as this is a dollar payment, check how much the bank will grab on transactions…]

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how many roads must a man walk down..?

I bought Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks from iTunes . Again, it cost me 9.90 euros. I have noted, at last, a couple of other things that interest me there. Nothing absolutely, totally, utterly can’t-live-without-able, which is why they are currently on a waiting list. But buying Blood on the Tracks made me think about what I was really buying.

I think that this is the third time that I have bought this disk. I first got it as a vinyl, then as a CD, now as a collection of files. In each case what am I buying? Am I buying—in the case of an object, the disks—the right to possess that object, to keep it, to lend it, to resell it. I think so. I am not buying the right to hire it, nor to broadcast it. In all cases. That is pretty clear. I have also a right to make backup copies for personal use.

Here is an interesting case: when I was serious about buying vinyls I would tape the disk as soon as I bought it, and only use the disk again when I thought the tape needed renewing. What would have been the situation had my disks been stolen [or the more usual situation of a friend forgetting to return them?] Would my tapes immediately become illegal? That is, somebody else’s illegal actions would cause me a double prejudice [loss of the original documents, illegal possession of the tapes]? Or would the fact that I had bought the disks cover my continued listening to the tapes?

But it is not clear what part of the purchases is just the carrier—the vinyl and packaging, the CD and such—and what is the artist’s rights. Now it would appear to me that when I bought a CD of a disk that I already owned as a vinyl I had already paid the artist’s rights. I should be just paying for the new support. They could even had put together a trade-in from vinyl.

CDs are easier and cheaper to produce that vinyl disks. When they were first produced the record companies argued that the transition to new technology, new plants, new high standards for engineering created one-time costs that had to be passed on to the consumer. But these were only a temporary stop-gap measure. As soon as these costs had worked their way through the supply chain then we would see the CD prices drop.

I hope no one believed them.

The record companies have been riding on the more-than generous profits that the transition to CDs generated. That wave is no ending as most people have transitioned to CD. The wave is also ending for two other reasons. People are aware of the record company greed when they buy a blank CD for 1 euro and wondered where the other 19 go when they buy a disk… And the music that is currently being offered is just plain dreck. The record companies are so used to rolling in money that they need more and more, so empty ‘artists’ are being launched with mega-marketing-budgets that they must absolutely recover… And this is why you no longer listen to the radio Mr Jones…

Most of my CDs are in Gilles’ cellar. Why is not the issue here. Suffice to say that I have downloaded from P2P networks quite a few of the tracks that, for reasons I don’t wish to discuss, I don’t have here with me. I have no problems with this as I own the music, even if it is not here with me, physically so to say, at the moment.

I also download, quite often, tracks from different sites that offer bands music as mp3s in order to discover and find out. Matson Belle and Sigur Rós for example, both provide this. The Emigre Type Foundry also have a record label with free samples. Lots of free online-only record labels are available at archive.org . So I now have 4.5 Gb of music on my iBook.

S’funny that I should keep it on my iBook…

Did you know that France has a tax not only on blank media—tapes and CDs—but also on hard drive? This is designed to cover the loss to artists to illegal copying. I have burnt quite a few CDs, generally to give material to clients, or to back up my files. Hundreds of disks if you think of it… For each of those disks I paid a tax because someone decided that I could have been making illegal copies*. As far as I know, only France also taxes hard drives in this way. Now I have 3 computers here, two external drives, and the original HD that was in my G3 PowerBook as I changed that. That means I have paid taxes on 6 hard drives. I believe that the tax also applies to the flash card in my digital camera because, you know, I could just possibly keep illegal music on it.

[ * This is akin to adding a tax to petrol, for example, to cover parking offences. Because it is so much easier to tax you because, you know, you could be parking badly, rather than really look at the problem of towns clogged with cars and poluution and underfunded repressive public transport systems…]

The tax money from digital media is currently sitting in some collecting agency because people don’t know how to re-distribute it… to the artists, of course. Once the record companies agree on their cut.

I won’t even mention the tax on phone lines as that isn’t to cover possible and supposed illegal copying, but to provide Universal Access to people too poor to afford that universal lifeline that the telephone has become. So all the other telco operaters in France have to pay an annual percent of their turnover to France Telecom in order to cover the losses that France Telecom makes in providing Universal Access. Except that the Universal Access has never gone into operation. Making all of this into a disguised tax on the other operators in order to further the unfair advantages that FT enjoys… FT, of course, can’t spend this money. But it exists in its millions and millions, earning interest, improving balance sheets. Ho hum…

So, all in all, the sooner that the artists put together iTunes-like services and I can download material directly from them, and let them get my 0.99 per track directly, and let the record companies disappear altogether, the better things will be for all.

[BTW. The Record Companies argue that they need high margins in order to find, support and develop talent. Judging from their track record [no pun intended] in recent years, this is like highwayman explaining that they are an important part of the redistribution of wealth in rural areas.]

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iTunes

So I finally tried out iTunes to see what it was like… There was some good news, but overall I’m disappointed albeit with one proviso. Let’s start with that.

I am clearly against the ‘subscription’ model for renting music [the All New Napster ModelTM. I don’t want to pay 9.99 euros for months on end and then have my music disappear. I had reserves about Apple’s model, but no more. I went online, bought a disk that I had been seeking Glassworks by Philip Glass, all 6 tracks for 5.94. Reasonable.
I have just looked at amazon.fr and it is currently available as a CD for 10.50. Once I downloaded the tracks I immediately burnt them to CD as an audio disk and tested this on the home audio system. No problem. Whatever copy protection there is, is not carried onto the audio disks. This was my worry: you can use the iTunes-purchased tracks on only 3 computers I believe, and I change about every two years. I read that one can remove authorisations from a computer, but I have no idea how this works [This is, in itself, worrying, if I a computer geektype like myself cannot understand this stuff what will Jane Public make of it..?] But by burning the material to CD I am assured that I will continue to have the files that I have bought as music available to me as music, even if it is not a carbon copy of the original file that that music was delivered as [hope you’re following].

That was the good point.

Now the bad ones. I had read that the interface was supposed to be exemplary. It is not. I found it wasted space imposing thousands of choices that were in no way interesting [Top Ten, Other people bought, Playlists…]. And worse than that, there is no way to personnalise it. I want, for example, to say that even though I am in France I am not at all interested in French Pop music [about 50% of the content of any given page], and would prefer it to open on the ‘Alternative’ page with music and info about these ‘x’ artists and groups that I have selected. Then I can get directly to the music that interests me. [Were navigation quick and simple that might not be so annoying…].

On a minor point, I would also like to see Wishlists: where friends can go on line and buy me music and that it would be waiting for me with a short note the next time I go online. I would like to see an affiliate program so that I can add links to these pages, for example, and earn some mullah on buy-throughs.

Another minor irritation: even though the interface mimics a web page, it is not posisble to spawn a new window through cmd-clicking a link. This means that you spend all your time clicking backwards and forwards. And not only is the downloading and rastering of the pages slow [I have a boradband connection—what can it be like for a dial-up line?], but there appears to be no page caching, and so each page is painfully downloaded again and again. A most excrutiating experience.

If iTunes is supposed to be the best interface, then what are the others like?

But the worse point is in the selection of music available. If you want anything with any personality that exists out of the mainstream [I accept that some mainstream music does have personality, but it is not its primary characteristic] it is simply not here. I have been looking to buy Yann Tiersen’s Rue des Cascades for some time. Unknown. Even his very nice soundtrack for Good bye Lenin is unheard of. And the world famous Amélie soundtrack: nada. Even Amazon.com scores better on this. I have been wanting the track Your Ghost by Kristen Hersh for years, but don’t want to buy the album. This is the sort of thing that iTunes is made for, surely. Except it doesn’t know her. Oh well, Gary Jules singing Mad World from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. You guessed it: unknown. I can go on: Michael Nyman’s film music..? Hector Zazou? Paddy McAloon? Disturbed by Ilya, No Peter Gabriel at all… [I’m looking for The Tower that Ate People]. No R.E.M., no XTC later than about 1998. I’m pretty sure that I will end up finding albums and tracks I want, as I think that other material will eventually come on line, but it is balefully lacking on that front at that moment.

One final point that I did not like at all. I opted for a shopping basket rather than a one-click purchase [I don’t like one-clicks OK? It is my right not to like it: bear with me]. On any other site you browse and put your material in the basket. Then you get your card out at the checkout. Not on iTunes. You have to create an account giving all your details in order to create a basket. I do not like this. This and the fact that the service doesn’t have enough of the music I enjoy will be the reasons that I will not stick with this beyond a trial period.

Next week I’m going to give eMusic a try out. It offers a simple download of up to ‘x’ mp3s a week according to a subscription scheme, but once you have downloaded, it is yours. They also have an offer of about a dozen free mp3s when you sign up.

Can’t be bad…

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cats

There is a cat conspiracy out there… and no-one is writing about it. I was peacefully reading Daring Fireball, basking in the thrill of being able to get in again, and not being sent off to some bit bucket in space by a hell hound proxy server somewhere, when I read this:
In short, a hobby-level Daring Fireball will resemble much more a typical weblog — blurb-length posts, often only to link to articles elsewhere. No cat pictures, but still.

Nothing to write home about you say.

Then I thought about the number of sites and blogs that I visit that have cat pictures and talk about cats. And—let this be clear—I am not a cat-enthousiast, and am not browsing the web actively seeking cat-news, cat-pix or cat-whatever.

Is the web in fact just some huge cat cabal to get their pictures everywhere? Does Tim Berners-Lee have a cat I ask myself?

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reading
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more book title complaints

Just finished reading The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll. It was a great romp, and interesting twist on old time travel paradoxes and generally a good time was had by all. Parts of it were riotously funny: I burst out laughing when the central character met his father during one of his time jumps. Very funny, very well done.
The only bad thing about the book was the title. In French it is translated as “À l’aube du huitième jour”. Now this is a theme in the book, and so is not so bad as The Amber Spyglass being translated as ‘The Amber Mirror’ as happened for Philip Pullman which is plain false and inexact. What annoyed me is that Carroll could have called his book, The Dawn of the Eighth Day quite easily. But he didn’t. He called it The Wooden Sea. That is part of his creative process, the book title is part of the book. So why do translaters (in France), or perhaps publishers, change the title? Ludivine postulates that they are frustrated writers and so this is an area where they exercise their ‘creativity’. It could be an answer, but it seems like a poor excuse.

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writing
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film criticism

About a film that I was invited to see..

The best thing to do about it [the film] is to ignore it. With a bit of luck it will go away and everyone will forget about it. It will become discouraged and despondent and will eventually get the hint and drag its ugly carcass outside to the kennel. There it will die a lonely and prolonged death and will be well forgotten until years later when Dad finds it while hacking back at the undergrowth that once formed the croquet patch and discretely digs a hole to shove it down deep before anyone notices anything amiss. At the same time he will get rid of all the collected (false and yellowing) milk teeth that the children have been setting out for years to trap the tooth fairy who wasn’t having any of it and so left the job to Dad—which, as you may have gathered, happens with all the dirty work anyway. He also slips in that rat from the attic that he eventually caught as he is lucky enough to have the pit to hand. It is that sort of film.

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recycle

It would take two simple things to cure 90% of traffic problems in Paris: – no cars park where they shouldn’t – no cars engage on a crossing if they are not sure to be able to clear that crossing.

Regularly people will call for more resources to improve the traffic situation. Probably putting radars and cameras everywhere. Of course, both of the things that I mentioned at the start are part of the French highway code. The only thing that they need to be effective is to be applied. As ever, the French prefer to rant and rave and call for more laws which will not be applied any more either.

This is very French this refusal to use the means already to hand and to create a wonderful new inefficient solution. At the moment they have wonderful occasions to do this.

Saturday night Ludivine took me to the Ballet at the Opera Bastille—it was lovely but that isn’t the point here. When we arrived, 15 minutes early, which is a reasonable delay and we had the tickets so it wasn’t as if we needed to queue for anything, we saw an major queue pressing to enter. Why?

Security, I said. They’re searching everyone’s bags. And sure enough, twelve minutes later when we got through the doors they asked to search our bags. I didn’t have one. They have to ask because strictly speaking they can’t search them. So they ask nicely and if you refuse they will probably, just as nicely, refuse to let you in. In that way everyone’s fundamental civil rights are respected—French style. And why are they searching everyone’s bags? Security. Remember that there was a major terrorist attack in Spain three weeks ago.

Yes, of course, says everyone and opens his/her bag.

I am wearing a large bulky coat with lots of inside pockets. I could be carrying explosives, gases, or biological material inside these pockets and all this would probably take the same bulk and weight as the notebooks, wallets pens, pencils and tissues that are in fact in there. I could be wearing a waistcoat of explosives. No-one asks me to open my coat.

I’m not taking terrorist attacks lightly. I clearly remember when bombs were exploding in waste-paper baskets and in the Paris Metro and how I was terrified at the thought of my girls getting caught up in it when they went into Paris to go to the cinema, but if people did stop everyday life then the terrorists are winning because your ordinary everyday terror is showing through so you shut up, grit you teeth and continue ‘ordinary’ life.

However, searching bags in this manner does not deter and has not prevented one single attack. In fact, I suspect that inefficient measures like these are like anti-virus software on a computer in that they lull people into a sense of false security. They also mean—through this erosion of civil liberty—that the terrorists are winning. No bag search can stop someone from leaving a bomb in the metro, only constant and responsible vigilance by all citizens can. No bag search can stop someone from throwing a hand-grenade, from firing a machine gun randomly in the streets, from throwing a bomb, from leaving it in the street. These are how terrorist attacks have killed people in Paris in the past.

As a corollary to this matter, all the dustbins have been sealed in the streets of Paris and the Metro. This seems logical considering how they have been used in the past. Although it is very unlikely that any future terrorists will use the same modus operandi. Passons.

So we have piles of rubbish around the dustbins. These can just as easily hide a bomb. Either the street dustbins serve no useful purpose, in which case they can be removed. For good. Or they serve a purpose, and in that case a substitute refuse collection system is needed. And, if you want this system to be very efficient so that you can quickly spot any suspicious dumped parcels (think Israel). In fact you need to clear the trash away more often than when you had the dustbins in place. But we’re in France where the authorities only pay token lip service to ideas like security. They’re too busy doing things like criminalising poverty and youth (which are other stories altogether).

In the town where I live—due east of Paris and the name begins with a ‘M’—they have another wonderful lip service system in place. It’s called, sorting your household rubbish. In Paris when they brought in this system they suggested, in the glossy leaflets they left in your letterbox, that you have three dustbins, that is, one for each of the different types of rubbish you produce, not forgetting bottles and glass which are extras. Real estate in Paris is so expensive that people cut down on everything, and the flat where I lived then had a kitchen that was under 1.5 square meters in floor surface. Empty. Put in a fridge, a washing machine and one dustbin under the sink and you just have the room to crush yourself into the kitchen too. Plus the fact that it was on the sixth floor so the idea of carrying three different dustbins—and the bottles—down all those floors was a no-no. Everything went into one big sack and that was that.

In M, the kitchen is a decent size, but that is not the issue.

Just go shopping. I do. I don’t buy anything special, it tends to be the cheapest articles at Franprix. And never any brands as I don’t see why I should pay twice the price of the own brands for just a ‘name’. Then get the shopping home and look at all the packaging that is left over when you just put the articles in the fridge and in the cupboards and on the shelves. This isn’t even when you use the stuff. All these companies pay their duty to the recycling people to get their little seal of approval, but they just keep on producing more and more packaging. And glass, and plastics, and bags and blisters. And I am supposed to sort all of this? The real answer is to seriously tax packaging to incite smaller, lighter, more recyclable material. And thus take the pressure off the consumer to do the work that the industrials should be doing. Too easy. Although of course the French will eventually do this, but then they will not use the tax for eco-projects, instead just putting it in the kitty like for the green point now.

So why am I ranting about rubbish when I was talking about terrorism?

Because, on the street, about fifty metres from where I live, are two enormous containers. One is for bottles and the other is for paper. Next to these two is a sealed dustbin. Now a bomb inside that bottle container would be extremely nasty, spraying glass shards all over. But neither of these are sealed. And there is a pile of refuse where the dustbin isn’t.

Do I really need to point out how ridiculous all this is?

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