Thursday, 26 June 2008

Dates for diaries October 2008

A couple of conferences are coming up that I'd like to attend, so this is going to be a quick post.

The University of Bedfordshire are hosting an event entitled: The End of Journalism? Technology, Education and Ethics on the 17th and 18th of October. Here's the description:
The last few years have witnessed a fresh wave of claims for the potential of internet-based technologies to widen participation in the public sphere. This period has also witnessed a steady stream of jeremiads about the impact of user-generated content on professional journalism. This wide-reaching cultural debate takes places against the backdrop of the ongoing restructuring of the global news industries. In some quarters these changes are regarded with deep suspicion whilst others see a bright future for the media. Central to arguments presented by both sides in this debate is the value of ‘journalistic’ function to wider society.

The End of Journalism conference at the University of Bedfordshire will provide a timely opportunity to re-assess the status and purpose(s) of journalism. It will also provides an opportunity to question the role played by formal institutions (governmental, media, economic and educational), informal institutions and technologies in (re)structuring the ‘journalistic’ function for the twenty-first century.

The conference organizers welcome contributions on relevant topics including (but not exclusively):-

The Impact of New Media Technologies on Journalism
Professionalism, Amateurism and Citizen Journalism
Journalism, Democracy and the Public Sphere
New Journalism in a non-Western context
The Economics and Sociology of Contemporary Journalism
Employment and employability of Journalists
The Methodologies and Tools of Contemporary Journalism
The Ethics of Practice
The Education of Journalists
Academia and Journalism

The conference organizers aim to encourage a dialogue between various stakeholders involved (e.g. practitioners, owners, legislators, technologists, educators etc.) and would welcome contributions, papers and panels from professional journalists. They also welcome a variety of methodological approaches - including theoretical analysis, case studies and practical experiences from journalists – that can provide insights into the global complexities of contemporary journalism.

The End of Journalism conference is organised in collaboration with Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. Papers delivered at the conference will be considered for publication in the journal (see for further details).
Sounds interesting and relevant, although I think the title may be a little presumptuous although it is catchy. I'll be more interested in this once some speakers are confirmed and prices are announced.

I was contacted recently Neil Selwyn of London Knowledge Labs who organised last year's Poke 1.0 symposium on Facebook, regarding a related event being hosted by Liverpool John Moores University. The symposium is entitled Facebook: a network, a research tool, a world? and is held on October 24th.

The details of the event are a little short on detail at this stage:
Facebook is one of the faster growing sites for social networking. Its popularity increases everyday, and so do the hopes, the concerns and the controversies that surround it. This event brings together researchers in Social Sciences, Humanities and Education, who study Facebook and its effect on our life and work. The symposium will explore issues of trust, deception and negotiation of identity; the use of Facebook for student support and learning; the use of Facebook as a research tool; and many more.

Confirmed speakers:
  • Fiona Frank, Department of Continuing Education, Lancaster University and Department of History, University of Strathclyde, title TBA
  • Monica Whitty, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University, title TBA
  • Tristram Hooley, CRAC and Jane Wellens, University of Leicester On-line research methods training programme
  • Jane Secker, LASSIE project, London School of Economics
We welcome additional contributions in the form of short papers. Please submit your proposals to by August the 31st 2008.

Time, venue and programme will be available in September - stay tuned for updates!
There is a downloadable Powerpoint poster for this event available here. I'll add more info as it becomes available.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Lousy Sony Ericsson software update

Can I first start this post with a big GGGGGGGGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!?!!?!

That doesn't even begin to describe my annoyance with the lousy little programme from Sony Ericsson that is meant to 'fix' a malfunctioning six week old mobile phone handset (the K850i tethered to the 3 network). Two weeks ago the handset developed an annoyance in that it decided that it no longer liked to send or receive SMS text messages. Initially, this little bug bear didn't bother me so much as this handset actually belonged to my fiancee but most tech issues end up getting passed to me at some point or other. In the meantime I passed my dearest an old unlocked K800i I had in a drawer so that she could text away.

After a phone call to her mobile network help desk they directed her to the Sony Ericsson UK website to download the magic bullet miracle cure, namely Update Service Version: (Release date: 12-12-2005!). As soon as I saw that release date I felt a pang of pain as I've suffered at the hands of terrible Sony software in the past (the Sony Connect application for their early Network Walkman MP3 range was terrible, as is the Sony PC Suite which regularly fails to read that a phone is connected despite XP/OSX being able to 'see' the damn thing).

So, I downloaded and installed the software only to find that it failed to load because a version of Adobe Flash 8 or later must be installed on the target machine. Strange, as I run a fully updated CS3 with Flash Player installed. I thought this was later than Flash 8. Either way, the Sony software refused to acknowledge its existence forcing me to reinstall their update and Flash player several time (with obligatory restarts - yawn). The end results was the same every time - the software refused to work.

In the end I had to install a clean version of XP on my Macbook without a Flash update and then try to get the damn software to work. Success! Total time wasted on this task: 2 hours. Now, it really does come to something when software 'solutions' are hampered by bad design and aren't kept sufficiently uptodate. C'mon Sony, pull your finger out. I tend to love the design of your hardware but you could learn a lesson or two when it comes to software and user interfaces.

If a regular non-tech orientated person had encountered the same scenario I'm sure they would have echoed my opening frustration and would have given up early on. They may have then been stuck with a phone with limited usability and a poor regard for Sony Ericsson products, and be unlikely to purchase future products. We all know how word-of-mouth feedback operates. This could be damaging enough to warrant a little software update?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

File-sharers eat too much cake?

An article in today's Guardian by Jack Schofield highlights the problems posed by too many committed peer-to-peer networkers squeezing the precious bandwidth of ISPs. He appears to take umbrage at the fact that these peer-to-peer networkers "think it's perfectly OK to grab three quarters of the communal internet bandwidth" and are "defiant" in their rights to do so as they are frequently paying for services offering them exactly that - unlimited connections, free from usage caps. This also has to be set against the reality that many ISPs do not offer equivalent upload speeds when compared to download speeds. My Virgin Media 20Mbit connection certainly doesn't:

There is a valid point in this argument, namely that bandwidth is limited, despite the advertised claims of numerous ISPs, and that network load brought about by constant peer-to-peer filesharing impinges on those users who do not participate in this type of activity. What kinds of solutions are there to this problem?
  • prevent people from being able to share files by disconnection them?
  • introduce a bandwidth 'capping' scheme?
  • improve the network capacity by laying more cables?
  • replace the exisiting cable network with fiber optic?
In the interests of net neutrality I am oppossed to the first option on the grounds that it would involve a fitlering scheme that involves close monitering of what sites customers are visiting and what traffic passes through the network (already in place on some networks I suspect: Virgin Media, I'm looking at you). Whether or not this is done to provide targeted advertising (eg Phorm) or for monitoring the distribution of digital music (BPI & Virgin Media), the implications are far reaching, especially when MEPs voted against the disconnection of file-sharers recently. This raises the thorny question of 'should ISPs be responsible for policing the internet use of their customers?'

The second option has already been introduced by a number of ISPs (once again, Virgin Media, I'm looking at you). Traffic shaping seeks to cap the amount of data a user can upload and download within a given time of day. Once a threshold has been reached, the ISP essentially throttles the connection making larger downloads very slow. This is a distinctly unpleasant practice for families who own multiple computers in their homes and have large connections in order to cope with the demands of, say, a family in which one person may be downloading a game via the legitimate Steam service or others like Xbox Live and WiiWare. Combine this with the legitimate purchase of music, TV and film content from the iTunes store, as well as visiting video streaming sites like BBC iPlayer or the HD channels of YouTube and Vimeo, and you can easily push at the limits of the usage cap. I haven't even mentioned upgrades to operating systems like Vista and OS X (the latter is not known for small download sizes) yet. The idea of unlimited broadband is looking like a far off dream now...

It seems like networks are reluctant to spend more money on digging up roads and upgrading/replacing the existing infrastructure, especially when the business case for providing these expenses seem weak when compared to replacing dial-up with broadband. Will customers really want to pay high premiums for faster data transfer? It seems like the UK broadband infrastructure has been a victim of its own success in recent years. Penetration is high which is good for ISPs in a competitive market but broadband is less exclusive and taken from granted now. Customers expect a certain level of service, especially those customers who have paid for premium packages for many years.

Clearly, there are problems with all of these scenarios. In relation to the improving the network infrastructure Schofield make the analogy that "it's like building more roads to 'solve' the car problem". I'm not sure this is quite so simple especially given that the eco-impact of building more roads for CO2-producing cars doesn't play out so dramatically when alternate solutions for fiber laying exist (such as H2O's decision to use the sewer system to house 100Mbit/s cables). The problem seems to be that the growth of broadband penetration has not been matched by structural reform. 100Mbit/s connection are already de rigour in some nations (eg Sweden, France, South Korea, etc), and the UK may be lagging behind.

There is an argument which suggests that faster technology breeds innovation, which Schofield attributes to Google's Vint Cerf. When usage is restricted, businesses who offer excellent services like Vimeo's HD content or the BBC's iPlayer may find themselves unpopular, especially when customers may have to watch their data use.

It seems like the BitTorrent protocol is being targetted in particular. BitTorrent is a fantastic protocol which allows for the rapid dissemination of files across ring-fenced networks and the wider web more generally. It works so well because of its decentralized nature which males it more efficient than if every person wanting access to a file was to try and get it via FTP. Just look at the problems Mozilla had when attempting to break the official download record for Firefox 3 on June 17th. Demand was 'overwhelming', servers ground to a halt and crashed temporarily. BitTorrent distribution would have circumvented this problem.

There is an assumption that all peer-to-peer traffic is driven by illegal activity when this isn't always the case. Schofield goes so far as to label the protocol as 'poisonous'. There are grounds for criticism when "10% selfishly grab around 75% of the internet's bandwidth", but is it fair to blame the protocol for its ease of use and speed of distribution or those users who want to get the advertised connection speeds they are paying for?

I suspect that there is no easy answer to this question. I'm not even convinced that it (or Schofield) asks the right question. It may be that ISPs need to included a caveat or two in future proclamations, similar to stock market share prices - something along the lines of 'your broadband speed may go up or down in line with the user base of the network'. Can you imagine ISPs offering a sliding scale feature on their front pages showing the impact of having more customers on their network? Then they really would be victims of their own success...
Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, 16 June 2008

The problems with streaming HD video content

I recently participated in a study which looked at a number of different ways to stream HD encoded video. It was headed by Edgar Huang and the results of which were presented to the New Media Consortium summer conference in Princetown University a few days ago. You can find background details of the study, including the methodology, here.

The study seemed to be focussed around a series of tests which sought to compare and contrast a number of different video codecs dealing with the same footage and assess how well they streamed. It was thought that some of the codecs may find it a little difficult to strike the balance between full size 1280 x 720-pixel screen ratio data delivery whilst maintaining a decent image quality and whilst also maintaining a decent frame rate (30fps). What good is fantastic video quality if you need to wait around 5 minutes to watch a 1 minute clip? Similarly, constant buffering of data makes for a distinctly unpleasant viewing experience. Finding a happy balance is tricky

It was with those thoughts in mind that I'd thought I'd take part. I was a little skeptical as to the usefulness of my contribution given that I was sat at my iMac at work which seemed to fail the required 5MBps connection speed. This just happened to be during term time when the denizens of the student piracy party were clogging up the pipes with their BitTorrent traffic, meaning that my connection speed was a little compromised to say the least. I cannot really complain though - it is usually very speedy:
Can you see the speed of that baby? How can you tell the seeders/leechers have gone?

Another issue I feared was that my media player plugins would let me down. Perian and Flip4Mac were installed and managed to deal with most of the codecs but there was one which got in the way of the study in that it forced me to open VLC outside of the browser (Safari) in order to play it.

So, which codecs were tested?
At first I thought I knew exactly what the winner of this contest was going to be as I've played around with most of these codes whilst using Handbrake, the open source cross platform DVD to MPEG-4 converter. DivX is widely used but tends to produce artefacts in its SD incarnation. The Windows Media codec always seemed to suffer from a lack of consistent development. I figured that the QuickTime H.264/MPEG-AVC codec would be the winner due to its history and excellent results in Handbrake. I knew little about Vividas... As for Adobe HD, I suspected their 97% market share of the SD streaming world would give them an advantage, despite its relatively short life to date.

Personally, I favoured the QuickTime encode for vividness of colour and speed although there were some visible artifacts in fast moving sequences. The Adobe codec was more impressive in its ability to capture fine detail, although it did give the footage a washed out feel. It was very hard to decide which was better as they both had their negatives and positives. The Vividas codec caused me the VLC headache I mentioned earlier.

You can view Edgar's findings here. There are a number of interactive results tables allowing for a useful explorations of the results. In terms of image quality, it seemed most participants also favoured the QuickTime codec with Adobe coming a close second. Adobe came out ahead for initial start-up speed with QuickTime placed third. Other variables were also accounted for and Adobe ranked highest overall (by average) with QuickTime in second place. Unsurprisingly, the worst performer was Window Media HD, as Edgar points out:
Informed customers may make their decisions based on the fact that MSNBC, a Microsoft company, even uses Adobe Flash video, not Windows Media Video, to stream videos.
I was pretty shocked at the price difference though: $995 for the Adobe codec compared to $29.99 for QuickTime. I'm not so sure I'd be willing to stump up that kind of cash for marginal performance improvements.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Download The Pirate's Dilemma

Now, I know I've mentioned Matt Mason quite a bit on this blog over the last few months but I don't want to stop doing that just yet because he's announced that his publishers have agreed to release his book, The Pirate's Dilemma, for free.
It’s been in the works for sometime now, but today is the day we have finally been able to make the book available for free online. Both my English language publishers (Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Penguin in the U.K.) agreed we should release the book free online after the UK launch was out of the way, and that time is now.
Click here to be taken to his site.

I say 'free', but you are given the option to reimburse the author and the publisher for his work. The checkout defaults to $5.00 which is a fair price for an easy and enjoyable read. You will have to provide your name and an email address before you can access the downloadable file.

I think Mason has got the courage to stand up for the position he advances in his book. It would have been hypocritical for him to advocate that intellectual material is information not property and then not be supportive of the electronically distributed version. He makes this clear:
By treating the electronic version of a book as information rather than property, and circulating it as widely as possible, many authors such as Paulo Coelho and Cory Doctorow actually end up selling more copies of the physical version. Pirate copies of The Pirate’s Dilemma are out there online anyway, and they don’t seem to have harmed sales. My guess is they are helping. To be honest, I was flattered that the book got pirated in the first place.
If his sales are doing well then he must feel vindicated. He took a chance and it seems to be working out for him.

I have to admit I already have an electronic version of the book as I found it on The Pirate Bay. Strange, I can't seem to find the ebook on there now ;-) No need for that now anyway, but it did make me wonder if that original pirated version on TPB was an advance leak as part of a promotional drive.

Just to be clear, I also own the dead tree version too. The electronic copy is for convenience. II will be drawing from some of this work when I teach on MAC301 next year, so any students out there would be doing themselves a favour by getting a hold of this now.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Radio 2 to celebrate the anniversary of the second summer of love

What's that I hear you say? Radio 2 is going to engage with rave? Indeed it is... A press release on the BBC site lists a number of different shows lined up (see the list at end of this post for full details).

The series kicks off with Zoe Ball on the 21st of June, tracing the history and evolution of dance music from Northern Soul to the present in a three-part show. It will go by the rather catchy title of The Definitive History of UK Dance Music.

There will also be a show comprising of oral histories from clubbers entitled Don't Start Me Talking About ... Dance Music. I shall have to catch that one via iPlayer due to Glastonbury commitments, unless Speechification features it on their site.

The Beeb also seem to have a show which seeks to untie old rave and nu-rave, fronted by Chris Coco going under the banner of Acid House - The Next Generation.

I think they'll all be quite valuable resources for the Dance Music lecture I give on the Popular Music module (MAC351) at work. I'm also taking the liberty to post these show on here as a reminder to myself that I want to get hold of these. I don't really have an effective media capture/reminder service for things like this.

Radio 2's Dance Music Season:

The Definitive History Of UK Dance Music (Unique Productions) – begins Saturday 21 June at 7.00pm

Acid House – The Next Generation – Tuesday 24 June at 10.30pm

Don't Start Me Talking About... Dance Music – Friday 27 June at 7.00pm

The Greatest Dance Records Of All Time (Unique Productions) – begins Tuesday 1 July at 11.30pm

Behind The Velvet Rope: Studio 54 Uncovered (revised repeat) – Saturday 12 July at 7.00pm

Saturday Night Chill (repeat) – Saturday 19 July at 7.00pm 6.6.08.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

UK file-sharers beware?

It has been quite some time since the demise of the BitTorrent music tracker, OiNK, following the joint bust by Cleveland police and the combined industry bodies, the IFPI and the BPI back in 2007. At that point, only the site owner, Alan Ellis, was arrested but things have changed. There have been 6 further arrests in the last week.

Three of the arrests were made on Friday 23rd May and three more on Wednesday 28th May. The arrested individuals are five men aged between 19 and 33, and a 28-year-old woman.

As usual, TorrentFreak was first with the news:
Suspects were taken to their local police station for questioning and required to provide DNA samples and fingerprints. According to our sources, they were arrested on suspicion of “Conspiracy to Defraud the Music Industry” although this hasn’t yet been confirmed by the police.
Initial reports were viewed with skepticism by many torrent site users. SOme even went so far as to doubt the credibility of early reports. Knifeboy over at said:
I'll need a more trustworthy newssource before I could even comment on this (2008-05-30 18:55:58 BST)
However, it didn't take too long for the reality of the events to take hold. The Register maanged to get the following statement from the BPI:
The BPI and IFPI worked with the police in order to close down the OiNK tracker site last October. The illegal online distribution of music, particularly pre-release, is hugely damaging, and as OiNK was the biggest source for pre-releases at the time we moved to shut it down. We provided the information to assist this investigation, but this is now a police matter and we are unable to comment further at this stage.
It is presumed that the police have been wanting the former users to provide them with the account passwords so that details can be matched up with the ISP/IP details. Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act can be used by police to force suspects to disclose encryption keys and passwords. Failure to comply with with a section 49 order carries a prison sentence of up to five years. One wonders how long the excuse of password fatigue will last?

In the US last year, single mother Jammie Thomas became the first individual to be successfully prosecuted by the RIAA for copyright infringement. She was ordered to pay $222,000 (£113,085) in damages after being found guilty of illegal file-sharing. The fine amounted to $9,250 (£4,711) for each of the 24 tracks she was prosecuted over.

However, the recent UK arrests are the first time British police have taken direct action against individual users of a file-sharing site (source).

The forums of popular private torrent tracking communities have been buzzing with rumours as to who can next expect a call from the police. Some have gone so far as to claim that this is evidence that the police have very little evidence to go on. It must be noted that what follows is based on little more than web-gossip and second guessing of the police's motivations.

One theory which seems popular suggests think the only reason people are being arrested now is because Allan Ellis' court date is July 1st (after being extended twice) and the authorities, knowing they don't have anything more than perhaps civil charges to bring against him, are trying to intimidate other users of the site into giving them additional info. It has been claimed that the police are asking the recently arrested former users for their passwords and whether they personally knew Ellis.

Filmaddict08 (2008-06-02 02:41:26 GMT) over on Goem has identified a problem for the authorities:
The problem, as far as I see it: if Ellis' trial doesn't go well for the authorities and record companies in Britain, and heavy charges are dropped, they're going to start going after more users. They won't admit defeat and will want to take this as far as possible. Right now it's just in the UK but if the trial doesn't work out the way they want it to - and it probably won't - they may very well hand over all their info to America, i.e. the RIAA.
Whether or not this is true, what is evident is that the paranoia switch has been flicked to "on" mode for a lot of torrent sites and their users as a result of these arrests. This raises the question as to whether or not closed, private torrent communities are actually any safer for users than the open public trackers of sites like Mininova or The Pirate Bay. Are users safer hiding away from huge public scrutiny or are they safer being a a tiny fish in a massive ocean?

One of the dangers of private trackers is that the RIAA/MPAA/IFPI/BPI (delete were appropriate) are regularly attempting to infiltrate the user bases of these communities so as to gather evidence and monitor traffic and releases. Staff are employed whose day job consists of doing exactly what pirates are doing - downloading files. The catch is they are collecting evidence. A reason to be paranoid?