Saturday, February 14, 2009

Going dark

I'm pulling the plug. I started this blog with the intention of putting an edge back on my extremely-rusty writing skills, as I have a fiction project that I wanted to work on, but hadn't written a word of fiction in over a decade. So I thought doing a blog would help me get into a routine of writing something every day. However, the blog has failed dismally at its intended purpose: firstly, I haven't written a blog post a day, not by a long shot. Second, this blog isn't fiction, so the skills I was hoping to hone a little bit remain rusty. Third, it's just been a distraction from writing fiction - when I have written anything, it's been here.

So, this blog needs to go dark for a while so I focus. If I'd written a page a day of fiction, I could have finished by now! This blog has become an excuse for me to procrastinate, nothing more.

Bah-bye, folks, it's been... meh. Only a handful of people were reading this anyway. Thank to those of you who did tune in. Everyone else will regret their actions when the insect overlords descend from Dimension Ten, enslave the planet, and appoint me Overlord.

As a parting gift, here's a draft excerpt from my fiction project.
The Triumphant was a Bussard ramjet: a ship powered by scooping stray hydrogen atoms from the almost-complete vacuum of interstellar space with an electromagnetic net six thousand kilometers wide, and forcing them through to the ship’s engine, where they became fuel for a continual fusion blast. Pending the birth of the genius who would solve the final dream of mankind, to soar among the stars with the ease and swiftness of birds, the ramjet was the best answer available to the vast distances between stars: self-fueling, economical, capable of continuous acceleration to a maximum speed governed by the velocity of the engine fires.

It had drawbacks. A ramjet was an enormously difficult craft to pilot. The electromagnetic fields that formed the scoop were half the diameter of the Earth and bone-shatteringly powerful; they would tear apart any matter in their path and reduce it to its component atoms. Ramjets did not maneuver well, were easily slowed by solar winds, and needed to sail dangerously close to their destination star in order to decelerate. The ship could, in theory, decelerate simply by turning off the fusion motor and letting the drag of the interstellar hydrogen particles collected by the ramscoop fields slow it, but that was definitely the slow way to apply the brake and was rarely used. It was far more effective to sail the ship close to a star, risking annihilation in a myriad ways, scoop up the vastly greater number of free hydrogen atoms in the corona, and apply the energy to the braking thrusters.

Threading a ramjet’s path at thousands of kilometers a second, through the violent storms of a star’s corona, to achieve the correct velocity and vector for insertion to the target planet’s orbit, without damaging the ship or its cargo, was a feat to be attempted only by supermen or madmen. Solar flares – storms of searing radiation millions of kilometers long – could inject themselves into the flight path arose with no warning. To fly near one – let alone through – would destroy the ship. To avoid disaster required the best of AI predictive modelling, combined with human judgment and the reflexes of a jungle cat.

Aaron Stanisic thought he knew his craft. A captain could only pilot a craft once; the sheer length of interstellar voyages meant that each captain was simultaneously the best that could be found to pilot the craft, and an utter novice at actually doing it. Oh, extensive training was undertaken, all ancilliary nano was embedded, any remotely useful software was uploaded, and hundreds of hours of simulation was performed before a captain would set foot inside their ship. But all the preparation was a guess: no-one would ever return from a successful voyage to tell what was actually useful as training, and what was complete dross. Thousands of hours and millions of dollars was spent on training that could, quite conceivably, be totally irrelevant. What were conditions like in the fathomless blackness between stars? How were the fuel-atoms distributed? How did the solar winds blow? Were there pockets of total void where a ship could find itself becalmed? Quite simply, no-one on Earth knew, and no-one would ever know. Not without captaining a ship themselves; and in so doing, to never return.

The captain knew their ship completely and utterly. No lover ever knew their paramour so well. The captain knew the location, designation, tensile strength, manufacture, flex, and every other physical property of every component – every bolt, every plate, every wire. Every other part of their training was conjecture, supposition, myth and fancy.

So armed, Aaron Stanisic led the Triumphant, loaded with the data-engrams of five thousand, three hundred and sixty-one colonists – mind and body, soul and DNA – across a hundred light-years of cold and dark. Every shipboard event – equipment malfunction, decision point – was met rapidly, calmly, professionally; analysed, a plan developed, enacted; the issue wrestled to submission, and quietly entered as another simple entry in the captain’s log.

He did well (and more than well) when the ship itself was the problem. Why not? He was prepared for any eventuality and armed with all the armamentarium the enormous shipyards of Earth could offer. Aboard ship, he was a god: omniscient, omnipotent, and (arguably) omnibenevolent. He floated weightless in the command womb, so intimately linked and embedded into the Triumphant so that where he ended and the ship began was a meaningless distinction. It would be as well to ask where your blood begins, where your breath ends, and what your colon has to say about it all.

So, needless to say, when it came to the actual crisis, Aaron Stanisic fucked it up massively.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Your PC: artifical guppy? Um, no.

Hans Moravec is a legendary figure in the sphere of artifical intelligence. He produced this slide showing the power of Moore's Law and drawing analogies to the brains of animals.

It demonstrates two things immediately: firstly, that computers may have the processing ability of a human brain by 2030. Secondly, that the computers we have now have the rough equivalent processing power of a lizard or guppy.

Does that mean that your computer can be held to be roughly analoguous to a lizard or guppy (or, at some point in the future, a human)? Well, self-evidently, no. All this diagram shows is that your computer has the same processing ability as the brain of those animals - it can perform around 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second). It in no way means that your PC is your pet lizard.

So what's missing? What is holding your PC back from being roughly similar to a small, fairly unlovable (except if you're my son Ben) animal? The Turing test holds that a certain level of artificial intelligence has been reached if a person can't distinguish between a computer and another human being in natural conversation with both of them. I think there's a bit more to it than that. What's missing for me is initiative and self-motivation. You don't find your computer getting up of its own accord and finding some DVDs to watch. (This is why I always thought internet-connected kitchen appliances, like a fridge, was a bad idea. Apart from anything else, I do NOT want my fridge browsing the net for bad porn.)

Even if one day we do have computers with the same processing capability as a human brain, there is a hell of a lot of work to do before AI can be developed to the point where it would have even rudimentary self-direction. Personally, I'm relieved. We haven't yet figured out, as a species, how to treat each other with elementary courtesy and kindness, so the problems that arise from bringing another class of intelligence into being are, thankfully, a long way away. Maybe by the time we do, we won't have given them cause to disown us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Danny Nalliah is no man of God

Nalliah, in case you're not familiar with him, has previously been successfully prosecuted for vilifying Muslims by stating that Muslims were demons training to make Australia an Islamic state, that the Koran promoted violence and killing, and that Muslims derived money from drugs. Pause right there, and contemplate how much of a Christian he's demonstrated himself to be. Now brace yourself, because it gets worse.

Today, he has clearly underlined that he is no moral authority - he barely has morals at all - and deserves nobody's respect. He lies, highjacks national tragedies to further his own questionable agenda, and expects everyone to not only accept his pathetic pathological cries for attention, but to applaud and ask for more.

Today, via the SMH:
The Catch the Fire Ministries has tried to blame the bushfires disaster on laws decriminalising abortion in Victoria.
If you can't already see the raging stupidity in attempting to make that link, then I can't help you, and you should leave now. Really.
The Pentecostal church's leader, Pastor Danny Nalliah, claimed he had a dream about raging fires on October 21 last year and that he woke with "a flash from the Spirit of God: that His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb."
It's almost too much to encompass. Please, Danny, go to one of the towns left a blackened, mourning shell by bushfire, and tell the locals about your theory. Please, please go. I'll pay your airfare. And I'll call the ambulance for you right now.

How monstrous, how unforgiveably smug and self-righteous, to say that God has killed hundreds and ruined thousands of lives because of the current state government's laws. Was that prophesied as well? If not, did God tell the voters of Victoria directly? I don't recall any reports of God speaking to them and saying "You go badger your local MPs not to make abortion legal, now, because if you don't, in a few months, I'll burn the whole countryside and make it look like a completely natural occurence! (Except for a few arsonists who I'll stay quiet about to make sure they get the blame.)" Well, if neither, then how precisely were the residents of Kinglake going to know?

Nalliah has no idea what the bushfire victims thought about abortion - statistically, some would have agreed with him (and hence, by implication, with God, although I've yet to find the bible verse with the old Aramaic for "abortion" or "stem cell research"). Is he saying that God didn't care and killed them anyway? Is that his God? Poor, poor man. Or didn't God know? I know Nalliah sure doesn't; we don't even know who a lot of them are yet, and may never know some. Oh, I forget, this comes from the same religious mindset that says it's okay to kill whole cities of civilians in warzones. Or that amputees' limbs don't grow back because they don't have enough faith. Sick, morally stunted, perverse excuse for a human being, you are, Nalliah.

Even if I agreed with Nalliah on the issue of abortion, I'd push him off a cliff for this little contribution. He has done for the abortion debate what Port Arthur did for gun ownership.

Secondly, he's lied. It never happened. There was no magic dream from his invisible sky fairy. How can I say that with such confidence? Well, AAP documented what Nalliah chose to publically speak about on October 22, the day after he was supposedly visited by (cough) prophecy:
Rain and a prime minister of God's choosing were the focus of prayers from 600 flag-waving, singing and dancing Christians in Parliament House in Canberra today. As Pastor Danny Nalliah, from Catch the Fire Ministries, asked God to open the heavens and give Australia much-needed rain the gathering in the Great Hall was joined by 50 farmers taking part in a protest outside Parliament.
"(We pray) that their farmland will be blessed to produce what they need," he said. "We love you, all of you in the farming sector. We thank you and are grateful for all of the hard work you do on our behalf."
Gee. Not a word there of impending bushfires, of the worst natural disaster in Australia's history, of what will be at least 200 dead and thousands homeless.

However, I can almost understand his reluctance to make a prophecy before the event. What was his last public prophecy? Oh yeah, the Canberra Times published this on 30 September 2007:
Nalliah says, "I will boldly declare that Prime Minister John Howard will be re-elected in the November election (if the Body of Christ unites in prayer and action) and pass the leadership on to Peter Costello some time after."
Snort of derision. Piss off home Danny, and shut your pathetic, lying mouth.

And oh yes, I've emailed this post to Catch The Fire ministries. Howdy, boys!

UPDATE: Someone's burning the midnight oil at Catch The Fire. I received this faux-nice, passive-aggressive response a bare thirty minutes after I sent them my link.
May the one true living God bless you Tim with His Saving Truth and Everlasting Love! (John 3:16)
We at Catch the Fire Ministries will keep praying for you to believe the Bible (Word of God) as the mighty Voice from Heaven that calls to you, “Tim, I died on the cross for you and rose from the dead to save you from eternal death, hell and destruction! Repent of your unbelief / doubt and surrender your life (past, present and future) to Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord before it is too late!"

Time is running out as you will soon stand before Him face to face as your Final Judge!

Say, 'Yes to Jesus, Yes to Heaven Forever!'

Say, 'No to Jesus, Yes to Hell Forever!'

Make the Right Choice, Your Eternal Future Depends On It!
Not an auto-mailing - too delayed, too non-generic. A few hints for next time, guys:
* Complete fail on addressing the issues.
* Bright red 16-pont font doesn't convince me you're not a pack of lunatics.
* Random Capitalisation Does Not Convince Anyone You Have a Grasp Of The English Language.
* Please don't pray for me. On the evidence, you need it more than I do.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed"

We all dodged a bullet on this one. Can I just say: HOLY FREAKING CRAP.

The Capital Markets Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, tells C-Span how the world economy almost collapsed in a matter of hours.
At 2 minutes, 20 seconds into this C-Span video clip, Kanjorski reports on a "tremendous draw-down of money market accounts in the United States, to the tune of $550 billion dollars." According to Kanjorski, this electronic transfer occured over the period of an hour or two.
Kanjorski: "The Treasury opened its window to help. They pumped a hundred and five billion dollars into the system and quickly realized that they could not stem the tide. We were having an electronic run on the banks. They decided to close the operation, close down the money accounts, and announce a guarantee of $250,000 per account so there wouldn't be further panic and there. And that's what actually happened. If they had not done that their estimation was that by two o'clock that afternoon, five-and-a-half trillion dollars would have been drawn out of the money market system of the United States, would have collapsed the entire economy of the United States, and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed."

"It would have been the end of our political system and our economic systems as we know it."
We are not safe, people. Never think that you are safe.

Taken verbatim from BoingBoing, because I have no shame.

Monday, February 9, 2009

State of shock

Worst bushfires in Australian history. 108 dead. Whole towns abandoned and burnt to the ground. Hospitals running out of morphine treating the burns.

And this is just the day after. We don't know the actual number of dead, or the true extent of the damage, yet.

How you can help

To donate to the Red Cross State Government Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund:
* Visit
* Phone 1800 811 700
* Any NAB, ANZ, Westpac or Commonwealth Bank branch
* Any Bunnings store
* By direct deposit to the Victorian Bushfire Relief Fund - BSB 082-001, Account number 860-046-797
Myer Bushfire Appeal
* All proceeds to the Salvation Army. Donate at any Victorian Myer store

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Throw your arms around me

A gem I found browsing YouTube - Neil Finn does an acoustic solo version of the classic "Throw Your Arms Around Me".

Also, Powderfinger's "These Days". This song, and the album "Odyssey Number Five" holds immense personal significance for me. When my father was dying in 2003, I couldn't stop listening to it. Every song seemed like it had been written for me. This song in particular would reduce me to tears, and it still does, every time. Dad died a couple of days after the Canberra 2003 bushfires, and this song was echoing in my head as I drove down to Canberra to try to support my Mum as she thought she was going to lose her house and husband in the same day. I'm dedicating this one to the poor bastards who died yesterday in the Victorian bushfires.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Today's bushfires: a snapshot

NSW today was touted as being the hottest place on Earth, with temperatures reaching 47 celsius in some parts. Apparently the Sahara was having an RDO or something, who knows. So, of course, some retards had to light bushfires, didn't they? Entire towns are being left to burn because firefighters are needed elsewhere. Here's a snapshot of the fire locations as at the last satellite pass, courtesy of Geoscience Australia's Sentinel.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Only Talking Sense

A musical interlude, because I'm too stuffed and downhearted to do anything else. Neil and Tim Finn, from their first album together.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

626,369 free songs

Oh, this is fabulous. Some bright spark has put together a searchable database of the music available for free (download or streaming) at the USA's


...although I do have to question the artistic priorities of an archive that has five concerts from Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. Brrrr.

[Via BoingBoing Gadgets]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Net filter: major misrepresentations

I've written previously about why the Australian Federal Government's proposed mandatory internet filter is one of the stupidest ideas to come down the pike, more draconian than China's Great Firewall that blocks any sites the Chinese Government finds inconvenient, will actively damage the economy, and is just plain counter-productive. It will succeed in slowing down the internet speed for all Australians by 86% (which means accessing anything will take five times longer). Most importantly, it will NOT PROTECT CHILDREN. Go read my previous post, in which I use a fairly simple road-traffic analogy to make my points.

Back now? Thanks. Today, ABC News reports that Electronic Frontiers Australia have opined that the plan will not protect kids.

Of course it won't. Particularly in light of recent findings by the Internet Safety Technical Task force - composed of representatives of the computer industry, academics, and executives from Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo, AOL and Verizon - that the greatest online danger for kids comes not from adult sexual predators, but from each other. A child is much more likely to be a victim of cyber-bullying by their peers than a target for pedophiles.

Let's be completely clear: all of the people who are best qualified to know oppose it vehemently. Not a single ISP in the country supports it. iiNet's CEO says it will be fail dismally and iiNet is only participating in the trial so that the results won't get swept under the carpet and the filter pushed ahead anyway. Opponents include the System Administrators Guild of Australia and the Internet Industry Association as well as Electronic Frontiers Australia. The IIA's opposition especially should be noted: it's the industry peak body.

Despite the very clear reasons why a compulsory Australia-wide net filter will be an abject failure, some groups continue to say that they support it. Their arguments are completely without merit and remind me of nothing so much as the woman from the Simpsons whose sole contribution to any crisis is to wail "Won't someone think of the children?!?". Let's take today's comments from the Australian Christian Lobby's managing director Jim Wallace:
"...[Wallace] has dismissed claims the trials will show the system will not work."
I love that. Wallace can't compete (or even argue) the technical issues, so just dismisses them. Wallace, you're arguing against industry experts, ISP CEOs, and the ISP peak body. They know their shit. You need to have good arguments or just shut up.
"The advances in performance and accuracy shown in the Australian Communications and Media Authority trial results internet filtering released in June last year over the previous 2005 NetAlert Ltd trial show that it is both sensible and responsible to continue with the trial process."
That's almost word for word from the executive summary of the ACMA's report on Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Content Filtering. You know what the main difference between this and the NetAlert trial was? "Closed environment". It was done in a test lab. Ask an IT professional how good the correlations are between results in a test lab and results in the real world. When they'v finished laughing, you'll get an earful.

Finally, Wallace quotes a 2003 Newspoll commissioned by the Australia Institute - a well-known right-wing think-tank - and says:
"A Newspoll commissioned by the Australia Institute in 2003 found that 93 per cent of parents of 12 to 17 year olds were in favour of automatically filtering out internet pornography at ISP level unless adult users asked otherwise," he said.
C'mon, it's the Australia Institute. Can we spell "foregone conclusion", children? No? How about "clear bias"? Let's have a look at the actual wording of the question:
‘Would you support a system which automatically filtered out internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise?’
So let's summarise Wallace's statement:

* a complete failure to address the issue or argue anything of substance

* quoting the results of a lab test conducted by a Federal Government agency in support of a Federal Government proposal. (Who really thinks the ACMA would have published an anti-filter finding? Anyone...?)

* quoting a 2003 heavily biased push-poll that contained no caveats or downside to the hypothetical filter.

Yeah, I'm sure convinced. /sarcasm

If you want to check the numerous, extremely good, reasons why it won't work, start at and then check the "Further Reading".

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Catholic Church loves anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers

Pope Benedict XVI once again displays that he's hardly joined the 20th century, let alone the 21st, and re-admits a Holocaust denier, as a Bishop no less, to the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop Richard Williamson gave this interview on Swedish television just days before the Vatican's announcement that they would rescind their ban on him.

It's noteworthy that Williamson wasn't banned in the first place because of his profoundly distasteful, insulting, dishonest views, but because he was ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre was out of favour with the Vatican because he thought the Second Vatican Council was too liberal. To quote Wikipedia: "Lefebvre responded with a letter claiming that the modernisation of the Church was a "compromise with the ideas of modern man" originating in a secret agreement between high dignitaries in the Church and senior Freemasons". Ah yes, it's always the Masons behind every worldwide conspiracy, that's well known, and doesn't make you a class-A kook at all.

(As a nice piece of irony, Freemasons were also persecuted by Nazi Germany, with upwards of 80,000 masons being killed by the Nazis.)

Lefebvre had founded the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) and it is this order to which Bishop Williamson belongs. The SSPX website tells us that "Jews are cursed with the "blindness to the things of G-d and eternity." As a people, they stand "in entire opposition with the Catholic Church." "Christendom and Jewry are designed inevitably to meet everywhere without reconciliation or mixing." Jews "should neither be eliminated from among us, nor given equality of rights."

And the Pope's reaction to the shitstorm caused by his readmittance of Williamson to the Catholic Church? "We love Jews! Y R U so ANGWY?? Be kewl! Kthxbye!" Yeah, I'm convinced. Actions speak louder than words, Ratzinger.

Did you know Ratzinger was a member of Hitler Youth and fought as a soldier for the Nazis?

Orac at Respectful Insolence does a lovely job of taking this issue apart bit by noisome, rancid bit.

This is, of course, on top of Ratzinger's recent condemnation of homosexuality and transsexuality, saying that the world "needed saving" from these DANGEROUS ideas and that it was just as important as saving the rainforest.

Joseph Ratzinger: anti-Semite, anti-gay, stuck in the fifteenth century, yet the moral and spiritual guide for 1.131 billion people worldwide. I'm so thrilled for us all.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Welcome aboard the Shuttle, Captain

Look at this and tell me you wouldn't want to pilot the Space Shuttle. Go on, look me in the eye, and tell me.

This will haunt my dreams for years to come.

Via the Bad Astronomer.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard: "We now expect the global economy to come to a virtual halt."

I have a suggestion. We shoot the world's top 100 richest people, on the grounds that no-one deserves that much wealth and the unwavering pursuit of its accumulation betrays a broken moral compass, and we use the money to fix this mess that they help create. Write to me care of this address and I'll send you the bullets.

At home, my advice is to not become unemployed any time soon. You love your job, yes you do.

This is why I'm not in politics

Man shows Turnball his penis. The resemblance, if any, is not recorded. Yes, I get bored at Centrelink as well, but really.

My Friend The Chocolate Cake

Yes, that is actually their name. Led by David Bridie, one of the most influential Australian artists you've never heard of. This was the performance that got me into this band.

I dearly love Flacco's contribution, although the funny thing is, I actually do think this song would be improved by some trumpet - it keeps stepping back from a crescendo, which it took me some time to appreciate, instead of being left unfulfilled.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Love the outfits, girls

I have a suspicion that this duo are being forced to sing at gunpoint.

I'll miss my smokes

...for a little while. And I think this graph will help.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gitmo detainee tortured, can´t be prosecuted, won´t be released

This makes me hugely, insanely, bone-shatteringly angry.

A man suspected of being the 20th conspirator in the 9/11 attacks has been tortured, admits a senior Bush administration official, and therefore can´t be prosecuted. Or released.

Excellent work, you ethically deficient pond scum.

The human rights abuse makes me want to scream. When I hear stories like this, I want to grab the perpetrators and haul them before the International Court of Justice. How do they look at themselves in the mirror? I don´t care whether Qahtani is Hitler reincarnated; there are things that simply should not be done to anyone.

And now we will never know if Qahtani is guilty or not. If he is, he deserves to spend the rest of his life rotting in a small windowless cell. But we will never know, because his interrogation is fatally compromised by the use of torture. Unsurprisingly, people will say anything to make it stop. It achieves nothing.

You sold your souls for a good result, then, didn´t you, you stupid, dangerous, DICKHEADS?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The death of copyright as we know it - iTunes goes DRM-free

This is big news and will shift the playing field for recording artists, the music industry, and every other form of digital entertainment now or in the future. Apple has announced that iTunes will go DRM-free.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. It takes the form of encryption and other software that prevent a song or video (or other form of electronic media) being played on anything but the platform it was licensed for. In other words, a song that you bought and downloaded through iTunes could not be played on anything other than the iPod that copy of the song was licensed to. You couldn’t burn it to a CD, put it on another MP3 player, or share it with anyone in any form. It's sneaky and frequently installs itself without the user being aware of it. Trying to get rid of it can kill your computer. Sony's particular DRM was so bad it left infected computers wide open to attacks from elsewhere on the net.

DRM has given most people the screaming shits, for all of the afore-mentioned flaws, and on sheer principle. “I’ve bought the damn thing! I own it! Why can’t I do with what I like?” is the major argument. And it’s a bloody good argument. You don’t have those restrictions placed on you when you buy a book, for example. You can lend it to friends, swap it around, gift it to someone else, and so forth. DRM’s restrictions on those common and fair uses got up a lot of noses.

DRM can also radically screw your computer. Right now I’m playing Neverwinter Nights 2, a D&D-based game, which now that I’ve sorted out the performance issues with my laptop, is screaming along and I love it to death. However, it comes with a copy-protection widget called SecuROM, which has been known to cause performance issues. Enough gamers are opposed to SecuROM on principle that there was a significant backlash against Spore, a long-anticipated game, because it uses SecuROM. There's even a lawsuit over it.

The final major problem with DRM is that when the company that encrypted the song goes belly-up, or just discontinues their music service, you’re left with a set of songs that you’ve bought and paid for, and cannot play. You see, DRM commonly goes online when the song is cued up and checks that there’s a valid account that bought the song, and blocks the media player from playing it if not. Lots of consumers have been caught by this, and now have a library of music that is completely useless, or they have to break the law and pirate it to access the product they have legitimately paid for. As XKCD put it, you can pirate now or pirate later, but with DRM you have to be a pirate eventually.

The music industry is the only one that (it thinks) benefited from DRM. The thinking was that it would restrict piracy and ensure consumers went and bought the music they wanted. However, they were sadly deluded. In reality, there’s no DRM that can be made that can’t be unlocked if you know how – it’s usually beyond the capabilities of the average home user, but it just needs one guy somewhere to remove the DRM, and they can share it any way they wish (usually through peer-to-peer sharing such as KaZaa or Bittorrent). Any lock that be made can be unlocked; it’s that simple.

Significantly, it’s been fairly well demonstrated that consumers will happily pirate and share DRM’d files – but if it’s DRM-free, they will voluntarily pay for it and not pirate it. This, I admit, is counter-intuitive, but speaks well of the basic honesty of most people. This may be because the majority of DRM-free downloads have, to date, been released by the artists themselves, and people are very happy to pay the recording artist directly rather than pay a greedy record company that skims off 90% of the swag for the privilege of giving you a metaphorical middle finger.

So the music industry has been fighting tooth and nail for DRM, saying that DRM-free music will kill off the industry and everyone will be the poorer for that as there won’t be the money or resources to promote new acts. To this end, the industry has vigourously pursued any perceived copyright breach to the extent of demonstrating its bona fides by prosecuting housewives for half a million dollars for inadvertently sharing 30-odd songs. They’re not in it for the money at all, no no no, how could you think such a thing? They’re poor merchants just trying to make an honest buck.

Some companies, such as Amazon, have been listening to the goings-on, decided that DRM is anti-consumer (no, really? You think?) and been dropping it from their services. It’s been good to see the momentum gathering, but with Apple dropping DRM from iTunes, the battle is all but over.

iTunes is such a major player in the music download business that this will radically change the landscape. Other music services will be forced to do the same. The consumer can only benefit.

But most significantly, Apple’s decision will drastically transform the music industry, and probably publishing and software and Hollywood business models as well.

The music industry has been bleating for years how online file sharing is killing the CD business. This is crap. Consumers are quite happy to pay a reasonable amount for a music product – they just object to unwarranted restrictions placed on them as to what they do with it once they’ve paid for it. Radiohead released their last album for download with no restrictions whatsoever – not even a payment was required. They said, simply, “Pay for it what you think it’s worth.” Yes, quite a few people chose to pay nothing. But enough people not only paid something, but quite a few paid enough, to make it a viable model - for a popular band like Radiohead, at least.

It’s been pointed out to the industry time and time again that instead of kicking helplessly about how the net is destroying their profit margin, that they need to find a new business model where they can make a reasonable profit from a quality product without impinging upon consumers’ rights. They have steadfastly refused to even contemplate such a radical concept. By doing that, they’ve effectively killed themselves off. The “recording label” of the past few decades will now transform into the “music download service” that we see now with iTunes and the like. Given the excesses and ethical negligence they’ve happily indulged in, I certainly won’t shed any tears over their passing. I predict the effective death of the music industry in the next six months. They’re dead men walking, they just don’t know it yet. The corpse may continue to scream for a while, but their day is over.

Less certain, but probable I think, is the transformative effect upon the publishing, movie, and software industries. With music now being DRM-free – giving the consumer the effective option to try it, and then pay for it if they like it – other entertainment media will, sooner or later, be forced to follow suit or die, I think. This is already starting to happen in PC gaming; many gaming developers are openly musing about not making any more games for PCs because they’re so easy to copy and share. No DRM has been found yet for a game that can’t be cracked in fairly short order. The culture among the under-25s consumer demographic now is “why pay for it when I can download it?” As a result developers are focussing much more on games for dedicated consoles like the Wii, Xbox and so on because it is much more difficult to pirate the game and engineer the consoles to play such pirated copies. It can be done with a hardware mod, but it’s not something the average consumer is up to doing for themselves (although if you ask around there’s always a guy who will “chip” your console, for a price).

DVDs are routinely hacked around by home users, copied and shared. No-one thinks anything of it, and there’s no cultural stigma attached to it. Everyone who has a computer has either done it or watched a copy of something that has been copied illegally.

This all adds up to a complete remodelling of the concept of “copyright”. The trend is crystal clear. Copyright as we know it is dead. Consumers now expect, and will get (one way or another), the ability to try something for free, and they may or may not then pay for it. Canny artists realised this some years ago, and not being violently anti-consumer like the RIAA, adopted the “Creative Commons” model, whereby the creator could release their product freely authorising its redistribution, and could choose whether or not they permitted its modification and use in part of whole by other creators.

Creative Commons is the new copyright. The legal system of every Western country will take some time to catch up, but traditional copyright is dead. Long live Creative Commons!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Boosting your computer's performance

I have been annoyed for over twelve months by a niggling performance issue on my laptop. My machine is a $4,000, gaming-spec'd beast (okay, from 2006, so it's not quite cutting edge), and I've been disappointed by the poor framerate and responsiveness I was getting out of it. Framerate in games was often (but not consistently) poor, quite often the mouse pointer would be jerky, and the keyboard would miss keystrokes, making it a frustrating experience even when simply typing in Word. I have tried so many things to try to remedy this I couldn't begin to explain it. I've been extremely careful in not loading it down with unnecessary software, so was really frustrated at what was obviously a software issue, but Toshiba couldn't help, and nothing I could find online was cutting the mustard. I'd spend days trying one remotely-plausible fix or another, give up in frustration, but have to try again after a while because using it was just so awful and I was convinced there would be a simple explanation for it somehow.

Then I stumbled across the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion.

The performance boost I've gotten from following some of the recommendations in the TGTC is nothing short of stupendous. The Toshiba is extremely responsive now, I'm getting framerates of 40-50 fps in NWN2, and my boost-up time has reduced from over a minute to 34 seconds! It's a dream to use now. I'm in lurve with my machine all over again. I cannot recommend this guide highly enough.

If you're at all dissatisfied with your system's performance, then give it a good go. It's the only resource I've found that has made any substantial difference in performance and responsiveness, and that difference has been profound. Even if you are happy with your comp's performance, give it a go - you could get more out your machine than you realise.

It's written clearly in plain English, explains the terminology it uses, clearly flags any tweaks that carry any risk of harming your system, and is utterly comprehensive. I'm a bit of a techno-geek - wholly unqualified, but an interested layman - and I was quite comfortable with it. It's a big document, but it's not necessary to follow it slavishly through from start to end to get benefits from it - I only applied some tweaks from about halfway through onwards, mostly because I know my system BIOS and drivers were up to date (that's the first piece of advice you get on the net when looking for performance improvements, and it had done bugger-all for me).

Go on. Try it. Your computer will love you for it and will definitely not want to kill you.

Oh, and I think the basic cause of my performance issues (yeah yeah, keep your mind out of the gutter!) was the Windows Indexing Service. The comp would slow down every time it accessed the hard drive, and the Indexer would be using the drive almost constantly. Not no more. Happy happy happy happy!