Tuesday, 29 April 2008

BitTorrent + books = new distribution model?

Not really a new post, but more of an update. TorrentFreak are carrying a story on how authors are increasingly turning to the BitTorrent distribution platform as a way of generating interest which may equate to sales. There's a nice little mention of the difference between the book publishing industry's business model post web-piracy boom in comparison to the music industry's response which is relevant to my MAC281 students doing the first essay on piracy.

I found it a little funny (and not at all ironic) to see Matt Mason's book, The Pirate's Dilemma, appear over on Mininova the day after I ordered a copy of the paperback from Amazon UK (released on May 1st, or May Day, the day often used by protest movements following its association with International Workers' Day and pagan celebrations). Be warned: using the torrent to access copyright material may not be legal in your country.

I'll grab the torrent as well I think. It's the reverse of the new mantra where torrents are meant to stimulate hard copy purchases - I've bought the book and now I'm going to download the torrent. By the way, you can read Chapter 1 of Mason's book legitimately over on his site. If you like what you read, it's always worth a purchase especially at about £8/$16.

NB: MAC281 students attempting the aforementioned question may want to check out this article by Mason too. It deals with the crisis in the entertainment industry post-piracy. It's also where Mason suggests his book may appear as a torrent a full 3 months before it actually happened.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

New torture video from Amnesty highlights human rise abuses

Amnesty’s got a new viral film about waterboarding torture out this week as part of their "Unsubscribe" campaign. It claims to be an accurate recreation of the terrifying 'waterboarding' technique whereby prisoners are partially drowned. Follow the link to learn more about what you can do to take action against human rights abuses.

The video was features extreme performance artist Jiva Parthipan, who underwent a short period of waterboarding to create the ad. It is hoped that video will draw attention to the techniques employed by the CIA in places like Guantánamo Bay.

Earlier this week, the Guardian carried a story which alleged that the type of abuse which occurs in Guantánamo was inspired by the fictional character of Jack Bauer in the US TV series 24. You can listen to Lawyer Phillippe Sands talk to the Guardian about torture here. the 24 connection comes around two thirds of the way into the audio interview.

It will be screened before movies in selected UK cinemas (with a 15 certification) from May 9th, where it's hoped its impact will be big. You can read the original press release which accompanies the video here.

Thanks to Brand Republic for the credit details:

Project: UNSUBSCRIBE 2008
Client: Sara MacNeice - Campaign Manager, Terrorism, Security & Human Rights
Brief: Encourage people to unsubscribe from the CIA ‘enhanced interrogation technique' of waterboarding
Creative Agency: Drugstore
Writer: Marc Hawker
Art director: Marc Hawker
Producer: Jennifer Jackson
Directors: Marc Hawker, Ishbel Whitaker
Production Company: Dark Fibre Films
Water Effects: Pennicott Payne
Music: Adam Freeland
Post Production: James Maclachlan at Prime Focus
Website design: Sam Collett, Russell Schaller

Let me know what you think of the video
Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, 21 April 2008

Game design versus player control?

Gamasutra has an article which caught my attention today. I thought it might be useful for my MAC281 students who I will be meeting with tomorrow to discuss game design and narrative developments.

The article is by John Rose, a gameplay programmer at Nihilistic Software. He is also a contributing author to the 2004 book Software Engineering for Game Developers.

Converse to a recent lecture I gave which praised open-world games, (aka the 'sandbox' game) for their ability to allow player freedom, Rose argues that sometimes, simplicity and limited choice is better for the play aesthetic. I recently enjoyed reading Clint Hocking's thoughts on the problems of games like Bioshock in their offering the player a moral maze to navigate - one that might clash with the premise of who the lead character is actually meant to be.

Rose has claimed:
A recent trend in games is the ability of players to "play their own way." It's a design choice that includes more mechanics than any particular player will explore in a single playthrough. While superficially this seems like the Holy Grail of game design, the idea merely passes on the entertainment responsibility to the player. These games include a myriad of mechanics in the hope that the player will find some to suit him.

I argue that a few well-developed game mechanics in a strong play aesthetic will always be more enjoyable. Players ultimately want to learn and triumph over a system. But the inclusion of too many mechanics only serves to de-systemize the game.
It sounds a little like the utopian idealism of interactive fiction which Jesper Juul critiqued in his early work. Too often, the pleasure of the fiction lies in the progressive development of a coherent narrative, although it doesn't always have to be this way.

Rose goes on to suggest that Bioshock confuses players because it gives the player too much choice: choice over weapons, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth elements, etc. This is different critique to that of Hocking, which deals more with the 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' of either harvesting or saving the Little Sisters. I'm not sure I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that Bioshock suffers from a diluted design strategy given its critical reception. I agree with most of his other claims about solid gameplay and logical gaming mechanics. I'm not sure quite what he would make of Far Cry 2...

Anyway, his article is well worth reading. You can view a counter arguement to his logic in Christopher Kline's presentation from IGDA 2007 below. It's entitled 'Saying "Yes" to the player'

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Free Culture and Free Content

I am always interested in getting something for nothing - who isn't? It seems that advocate of the Free Culture movement, Lawrence Lessig is offering a free e-version of his book on the subject here. It's well worth a read.

If that wasn't enough, the Pirate Bay is (legitimately) hosting two e-books which might interest Apple fans. The Cult of Mac and The Cult of Ipod are written by Wired editor Leander Kahney and are being distributed by No Starch Press. Why are they doing this you might ask? This if from them:
It's no secret that content providers have mixed feelings about file sharing. But rather than worrying ourselves sick over it, we're experimenting with something different here: Free, publisher-provided torrents. So enjoy the book, seed the book, tell your friends about it even. And if you like what you read, please consider buying the dead-tree version. The book looks great in print, and it's available for purchase just about anywhere.
It's seems a similar philosophy is at work in both these offers - if you like go buy it. It's an idea often toted by music pirates who claim to try before they buy, and seems to have something similar to what Matt Mason identifies as the Pirates Dilemma. If you can't beat them join them? Well, not quite but Mason claims businesses should be paying attention to what pirates are doing, not to penalise them, but to learn from them so as to best compete.

You will need a BitTorrent client like Azureus, Transmission or µTorrent to download the ebooks.

Danah Boyd has discussed her objections to the locked down nature of academic writing on the basis that not many people will ever get to read work in obscure journals in this blog post.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

New Budweiser Advert

I'm back after an extended weekend down in London, boozing and schmoozing in Shoreditch, Camden and Covent Garden. I stayed over at the house of a friend of mine who is a Creative for the ad agency Fallon. He gave me the chance to look at the new advert he has been working on for Budweiser. This is the same Creative team who produced the infamous Skoda Car Cake advert which won awards last year.

Shot on location in Nashville, the advert is just one from a range of spots which will emerge over time and feature an amazing little band drawn together by members who perform with Lambchop and Silver Jews to name a few. They can play any tune with any instrument. I saw a few of the spots which most likely will not run due to them being a little surreal but I'm sure you'll like these.

Anyway, enjoy the ad:


Project name: True Dedication
Creative agency: Fallon London
Client: Vicki Kipling, Marketing Director, Anheuser-Busch (Europe) Ltd.
Brief: Encapsulate Budweiser's passion and dedication
Executive Creative Director: Richard Flintham
Creatives: John Allison and Chris Bovill
Agency Producer: Jo Charlesworth
Planner: Stephanie Newman and Gareth Goodall
Group Account Director: Alex Best
Production Company: 2AM Films
Director: Harmony Korine
Editor: Leo Scott at Speade
Post-production: The Mill
Audio post-production: Jungle
Media Agency: Anheuser-Busch Media

I am going to see if we can get John to come up to Sunderland and work with our Media students...

Friday, 11 April 2008

Where next for the music industry?

It's been an interesting week on the web for those interested in the ongoing debate regarding the future of the music (and the movie) industry.

Today TorrentFreak posted an interesting account of how the MPAA are being challenged by IKT Norway, the body acting on behalf of the Norwegian ISPs (which I talked about here). TorrentFreak have also announced that Demonoid, one of the biggest semi-public torrent trackers, may return under new management. It seems you cannot stop the hydra (not to be confused with Project Hydra although both are related to file-sharing). Demonoid was a huge sore on the behinds of the major labels due to the large amount of content it pointed to - having it back will only upset them further. Once you cut one of the heads off the file sharing beasts, such as OiNK, others are quick to take its place.
Image courtesy of Canapial.

Earlier in the week Katie Allen, media business correspondent for The Guardian, reported that home copying of music was burnt into the psyche of teenage consumers. This is very bad news for the music industry. Offline home copying occurs as often as 5 times per month amongst two thirds of 18-24 year olds. The anti-piracy attention recently has been on what illegal activity occurs online at the expense of offline copying:
"Overall, 95% of the 1,158 people surveyed had engaged in some form of copying, including taking the music contents of a friend's hard drive - 58% - and the more old-fashioned method of recording from the radio."
It shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that CDs shift without any DRM protection, not that this type of protection works in the favour of the industry.

Meanwhile, European politicians have narrowly ruled against the call to disconnect persistent file-sharers from the web claiming that such a move conflicted with "civil liberties and human rights". It would seem that web offers users more than just the opportunity to breach copyright, it gives people greater access to information and services which serve democratic aims.

Cory Doctorow has an interesting take on the ways in which ISPs are attempting to snuff out all BitTorrent traffic, even if that means disrupting legitimate traffic.

It seems Last.FM are very happy with their recent decision to change the way in which they operate, judging by Jemima Kiss' article. The decision to offer listen-on-demand services has been linked with the recent upsurge in sales - an increase in sales via Amazon of 119%.

And finally, Billy Bragg is interviewed over at The Register today lamenting how artists are losing control over their creative output. He doesn't like the idea that Web 2.0 tech heads are getting rich whereas artists are suffering for the want of promoting their material online at little or no cost to the consumer. Matt Mason gives a good account of the problems and issues Bragg is struggling with here
Blogged with the Flock Browser

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The BBC is losing some friends...

...but could it be gaining others?

Another day, another report of how the BBC is upsetting the apple cart in ISP land. The Register is carrying this report of how the ISP Tiscali is up in arms about the high bandwidth consumption being driven by the iPlayer (as I mentioned recently).

It seems that Ashley Highfield's comments regarding ISPs have incurred more wrath as Simon Gunter, strategy chief at Tiscali, claiming it's
"bit rich that a publicly-funded organisation is telling a commercial body how to run its business".
The issue here seems to be that the BBC have delivered a simple service that people are wanting and are willing to use, yet this is having an adverse effect on ISPs working on slim margins.

The suggestion that the BBC be charged with a bandwidth tax for driving web content is a bit rich given that other sites like YouTube seem to be excluded from this rhetoric. Who knows where this will end up?

Meanwhile, just to add further flames to the fire, Anthony Rose announced that the BBC were bringing its popular iPlayer to the world's favourite console, the Nintendo Wii. IGN are reporting that the Wii is outselling the PS3 in Japan by a ratio of about 3.5-1 through March. The homepage of nexgenwars keeps a rough estimate of consoles sold to date (note that the Xbox 360 is 2 million sales behind the Wii despite being on the market a year longer).

The BBC announcement is a little misleading - it's not as if Wii owners are going to get a dedicated iPlayer channel on their Wii-desktop just yet. They will need to use the Opera-based Internet Channel that came free with the console at launch (but later at a cost of 500 Wii points, or approximately £3.50) and bookmark the iPlayer URL.

The major problem the BBC is facing here is the Wii's native use of an inferior quality video codec for playback as Rose spells out:
"Nintendo Wii supports only Flash 7, which uses the Sorenson Spark codec rather than the ON2 VP6 codec introduced with Flash 8. Unfortunately the Sorenson compression isn’t nearly as good as ON2 VP6 compression, which is why most video sites gave up encoding their content in Flash 7 compatible format."
This means that the BBC are having to transcode their programmes to fit the console. However, they figure that instead of people watching iPlayer content on laptop or desktop monitors, there are plenty of Wii's connected to flat panel televisions in the front rooms of the UK (approximatively 2.5 million) - ideal for those people who don't have Virgin Media's 'catch up on demand', Sky+ or another PVR option like Tivo.

The iPlayer normally streams at 500 Kbps and delivers excellent quality video (way better than YouTube which is most likely why they are not being dragged into the furore), but in order to make this work on the Wii, Rose points out that the BBC:
"had to increase the bitrate to 820Kbps because the Sorenson codec used by Wii simply needs more bits to achieve the same picture quality. So, for a smooth playback experience on Wii you’ll need an internet connection that can give you 1Mbps or better."
So what does this mean for the ISPs? You guessed it - more data being streamed adding to their woes. It shouldn't be too long before this kind of service gets integrated into Xbox Media Centre or the Playstation Network, further compounding the bandwidth situation. That is if Sony and Microsoft agree to open up their services. Is the BBC purposefully sticking its head above the parapet and deliberately antagonising ISPs? Is it hoping that if it gets enough people using its service it can justify itself and its license fee?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The BBC vs ISPs

It looks like the current bête noir of the web, at least in the UK, is not the pirates but the BBC. Charles Arthur over at The Guardian is running a piece on the extra traffic that the BBC's iPlayer is generating.

Recently, we have had rumour and denial regarding Virgin Media's decision to implement the three-strikes-and-your-out policy on customers using peer-to-peer software on their networks. Earlier this week, Charles Dunstone, head of the Carphone Warehouse and Talk Talk openly rejected demands from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) that the ISP should police it's networks on their behalf. It seems that the ISPs have bigger concerns than a minority of users sharing music and film -

Now, it might seem strange to hear that the BBC has a two part iPlayer: one which streams data much like the kind of streams we see on video sites like YouTube; the other which works like the current BitTorrent protocol via the BBC iPlayer Download Manager - data from files is distributed across users computers and shared in a decentralized way, thus making distribution more even and efficient. The video quality of the second option is far superior than the first option.

One can guess that the streaming bug is a no-brainer for web users accustomed to clicking the play button and expecting their good quality BBC footage streamed on demand. The peer-to-peer option is a little more complicated (but the BBC have done a good job of making it fairly simple). Indeed, a BBC press release from January points out that users stream video at a ratio of 8-1 over the more efficient peer-to-peer route.

YouTube itself is already testing higher quality streamed video as reported by Lifehacker. This looks set to add further misery upon the already strained ISPs as the data load increases.

But let's get back to the iPlayer traffic. Arthur is reporting that all the extra streaming people are doing is adding to the costs of ISPs who tend to pay BT per gigabyte of data used due to the relaince on the latter's IPStream technology. The cost of streaming has almost trebled for some ISPs in the first month alone. These IPStream pipes ted to come in at 155-megabits. Arthur estimates that this means when 300 people are streaming BBC content at 500 kilobits per second, the pipe is choked.

ISPs have suggested the BBC contributes to the situation, perhaps by installing hardware within the UK Broadband network (The Telegraph leaked this last year, dubbed Project Cheetah), although the BBC's head of future media and technology, Ashley Highfield, used a BBC blog to claim that ISPs need to get their house in order and actually deliver on what they advertises to customers. Unlimited broadband should mean just that.

The BBC may be setting itself up for a fall if it is not careful. With the future of television looking increasingly to the internet they do not want to upset those companies best placed to provide the content - it's not as if the BBC own the pipes that connect the houses of the UK. Yet.

ISPs may want to exert some pressure back on the BBC and close down the iPlayer streaming service if it costs them too much. After all, it is carried on port 1935 and we have seen ports blocked before. China does it very well. It would not be too surprising if the BBC was forced to curtail the streaming service in favour of the peer-to-peer model...

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, 7 April 2008

Bad PR to run(a)way?

This week's "Question of the Week" from The Guardian centres around the recent Heathrow Terminal 5 shambles. When staff were beset by problems of capacity, communication and crisis, British Airways' Public Relations spokesperson, Richard Goodfellow, turned his back on the press and ran.

It would seem that BAA and BA had no crisis plan and were ill prepared both at the level of physically managing the opening and at the level of preparing for the worst. Rather than admit the terminal was undergoing problems which would be addressed in the future, was ignoring the press the best decision?

As a public relations exercise, the initial launch of the new terminal had all the hall marks of a successful campaign. BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, greeted customers at the terminal and was in front of cameras in time for breakfast shows. However, it didn't take long for problems to surface. At this point, it has to be asked if Walsh was the best person to face the press? It maight have been better had Julia Simpson, BA's head of corporate communications (ex-adviser to Tony Blair and the Home Office) been placed in the headlights.

Follow the link to see the comments of various PR related professionals.