Far Afield: Soundscape Music

Far Afield is a fascinating soundscape compilation album which is free to listen to and download from the Internet Archive.

Similar to the Birdsong DAB radio station that I’ve mentioned in the past, Far Afield consists of field recordings of sounds from both natural and artificial sources. But the recordings don’t turn out as walls of random noise because the recordings are specifically focused around using the rhythms and melodies as focal points.

Curator Fred Yarm says:

The results that I received were astounding. The tracks represent everything from highly composed tracks telling stories or capturing the essence of far away locales to straight field recordings that the artist felt did not need any processing to demonstrate the beauty of the situation. Cracking ice on a lake, cicada songs, rusty gates, dripping water, moving trains, and a handful of other captured sounds provided the instrumental palettes for these compositions. Many thanks are to be given to the artists who accepted this challenge to coax such delightful music and beauty out of unplanned and un-orchestrated events.

It’s well worth downloading this CC-licensed album, putting it on your iPod and having a listen. In our daily routines: the commute to work and the incessant ringing of the phone in the office, we’re all too used to hearing the same sounds again and again. Far Afield can immerse you in an altogether different place.

P2P Intelligence and Monetising Media

Creative Commons License photo: Alex // Berlin (Stay in Madrid)

One interesting element of writing this blog is seeing how old posts are viewed. For example, last year I wrote about bugs inside my LCD screen. Since then, the post has been getting a couple of hits every day as people find it through Google and other search engines.

Over the last 3 or 4 days, traffic to that individual page has increased ten-fold. This coincides with the warm weather in the UK over the last few days. So obviously the fact I’ve been getting so much traffic on that page indicates that a lot of people have had problems with bugs inside their computer monitors lately.

It’s certainly an interesting piece of information or a trend that I’ve discovered by looking through my logs.

And it looks like media companies are finding their own sources of intelligence by looking at downloads on peer-to-peer sites. According to The Economist, 20 times as many tracks are exchanged on peer-to-peer sites than through legitimate stores.

Of course, sharing music on peer-to-peer sites is illegal. P2P sharing of music is not restricted to country borders and there is an infinite supply of it (since it’s free). That makes it dead useful for the media companies to discover where music is popular. For example, they can see where the music is popular even if it hasn’t yet been released there. And by finding out what other kind of music fans are listening to, especially in the younger generation which uses P2P, record companies can better organise supporting artists for tours.

Red iPod Nano
Creative Commons License photo: Andrew*

The dilemma for the record companies is of course that P2P file sharing is illegal and that means they are very reluctant to use data from it.

There is of course a middle ground. For example, Deezer is a legitimate music service which combines freely-available streaming music with a social network. Deezer spreads well through viral methods such as MSN Messenger, blogs and forums. Deezer can use cookies to link together all the different songs and artists you like. And when music costs nothing upfront, people are more willing to listen to new music. That means Deezer knows the music that you’re interested in: iTunes only knows what music you’ve purchased from them (and most people probably don’t buy all their music from one place).

Google Adsense transformed content on the web by showing relevant advertising. Amazon has transformed the way many of us shop by analysing what we buy and suggesting we buy them together. Instead of fighting piracy, I wonder whether these two approaches could be combined to align the goals of ensuring artists are properly rewarded with allowing people to discover new music organically and virally.

The Fifth Face of Mount Rushmore

We had the photos from our holiday in America developed and it was a surprise to see this photo of Mount Rushmore. But alongside the four faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, there is one more…

If you can’t see it, it’s above Abraham Lincoln!

Economic Warfare

Dollars !
Creative Commons License photo: pfala

When I was in America I saw a television news chat show where some of the contributors were suggesting that the US was under “economic attack”. That is instead of using guns to fight back in the “War on Terror”, rogue states were deliberately increasing the prices of food and gas to cripple the US economy. It sounds a little ridiculous to me but the idea of fighting a war by attacking an economy isn’t a new idea.

In World War 2, there was a German plan called Operation Bernhard. The aim was to attack the British economy by flooding the country with forged British banknotes. The forged currency would have served two purposes. The British would sell goods (exports) in exchange for counterfeit currency which is obviously no use.

Secondly, an excessive amount of money would lead to inflation. For those who do not study economics, when there is more money chasing the same amount of goods, prices must rise. This is inflation. We only have to look at Zimbabwe to see an example of how much harm inflation can do to an economy. When inflation and uncertainty is high, businesses might not have the confidence to produce the products which people need and we can see why that’s a big problem. If they’re not producing the products, then unemployment goes up too.

The CIA believe that the North Koreans are printing counterfeit US currency (superdollars) to destabilise the US economy.

But it’s not just counterfeit currency: so much of the functioning of our economy relies on confidence.

Creative Commons License photo: Henry.

If people expect shares to fall, they sell them. By selling them, they cause them to fall. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we think inflation will be 10% next year, we’ll all ask for a 10% pay rise so that our real take home pay doesn’t fall. But if we all ask for 10% pay rises, that’ll lead to 10% inflation. Another self-fulfilling prophecy.

Isn’t it concievable to think that by planting false information and priming people to believe negative things about the economy, someone could do some serious harm to our economy?

Perhaps it isn’t such a ridiculous suggestion after all. I don’t believe that the credit crunch and rising fuel & food costs are due to “economic terrorism”. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a major instrument of warfare alongside cyber warfare in the future.

Similarly, we must ask the same questions about economic warfare as we must ask about cyber warfare.

  • Does economic warfare or an economic attack count as a declaration of war?
  • Is a country allowed to respond to an economic attack through conventional means?

Should Internet Access be a Fundamental Right?

ice ice baby
Creative Commons License photo: mugley

A few days ago I wrote about the G8’s proposed ACTA legislation which could have a big effect on the Internet Freedom. And today I stumbled upon an article over The Register at a proposed French amendment to the European Telephone Package which is an EU-wide piece of legislation. The lowdown:

France has suggested an amendment to the pan-European Telecoms Package, which would bar broadband access to anyone who persists in illegally downloading music or films.

Last month, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy insisted on a similar “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” scheme for France. Under a cross-industry agreement, ISPs would have to cut off access for up to a year for third-time offenders. Sarko believes “there is no reason that the internet should be a lawless zone”.

I’ve had a bit of a think about the consequences of what would happen if I had no internet access.

  • In the UK, the only way to apply to Higher Education is through the internet. Anyone barred from the internet would have higher education closed off to them. Student finance is also set up on the internet.
  • Aspe Bag Advertising
    Creative Commons License photo: LiveU4

    The vast majority of my assignments and research involve research on the internet. So even if I could have applied to higher education and the relevant funding, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything when I got there.

  • I do a lot of banking online and some of my bank accounts (the e-savers) can only be accessed online. Without access to the internet, I would not have access to my own money.
  • I do much of my shopping online. If I couldn’t, I’d have to go shopping on the high street. For me, that often involves having to travel a fair distance and prices are usually quite a bit higher on the high street.
  • I personally make use of Facebook to organise much of my social life and I know that is the norm for many students of around university age. Losing internet access would also have a big impact on what I do in the “real world”.
  • I listen to much of my music and watch a fair amount of television and video on the computer. Without the internet, I would no longer have access to this entertainment!
  • Anyone who makes money online or works from home may be unable to continue in their current job.

culture is not a crime
Creative Commons License photo: Dawn Endico

I’m sure that all of us could think of a hundred reasons why we couldn’t live without the internet but I’ve listed a couple of my main ones and I’m guessing that a lot of people will agree with me on those.

As the internet becomes a more integral part of every day life, access to the internet becomes more and more important to being able to participate within society. So today I put this question out to you guys: Should the access to the internet be a fundamental right? Is it fair to remove somebody’s internet access for breaking copyright laws?

Global Anti-Piracy Treaty – Pretty Worrying

Copyright Criminal
Creative Commons License photo: amidanyorai

If you haven’t already read about this, the new G8 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) may peak your interest. It’s an international law so it’ll affect people around the world. ComputerWeekly has an article.

If agreed and implemented, the framework will give law enforcement officials new powers to enter and search premises and to confiscate goods that infringe copyright.

Critics believe this could extend officials’ powers, enabling them to seize and search laptops and iPods for illegal downloads.

And according to New Scientist (subscription required):

The proposed treaty has progressed with remarkable speed by the standards of international law. Quietly proposed by the Bush administration in September 2007, it quickly gathered support from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and Mexico.

ACTA would make it illegal not just to share copyrighted material, but to operate websites that index the locations of such material that people can download. It would also outlaw systems like BitTorrent or Gnutella that help users find files on “peer-to-peer” (P2P) networks of computers.

When the move was first mooted last November, French president Nicolas Sarkozy dubbed it “a decisive moment for the future of a civilised internet”.

Pirates in tawny waters
Creative Commons License photo: jmpznz

Now I’m a firm believer in intellectual property rights and fighting piracy. As an economist, I know that these laws are very important for technological progress and the economic well being of the whole country. In fact, some people argue that without them the Industrial Revolution would have never happened. So in principle, anything to protect property rights is a good piece of legislation.

However, from what I’ve seen of ACTA, it appears that it has some big impacts on our freedom. ACTA makes it illegal to operate websites that point people towards the downloads of illegal material. Does this mean Google won’t be allowed to operate? What about my own site – I don’t knowingly link to anything which is illegal or copyrighted but since I allow comments from readers, there is no way I can ensure that comments don’t link to copyrighted material. Am I ultimately responsible?

I believe the right to link is one of the fundamental freedoms of the internet and this law could be dangerous. And if P2P software such as BitTorrent would be considered illegal, why wouldn’t FTP and HTTP?

I’m also worried about this law making it illegal to download copyrighted material. ACTA means ISPs can disconnect people from the internet for downloading copyrighted material. Seeing as we now do more and more things on the internet – run businesses, set up social events, do our grocery shopping – it’s a big threat.

radio debian
Creative Commons License photo: aloshbennett

How can one be sure that a website is properly licensed to use copyrighted material? Are the internet radio stations we listen to licensed? Well, they say they are. But then AllOfMP3 said they were and they’ve been closed down.

The effect of this is that people won’t get their music or films from any of the small retailers – only from the big names such as Amazon and MSN that they trust. It’s harmful to competition, and that’s bad news for the economy.

Certainly something to keep an eye on and we need some public debate.

Obama adds 11MB to everyone's Vista install

Creative Commons License photo: jurvetson

It seems like Barack Obama has added 11MB to installs of Windows Vista across the world and is responsible for Microsoft pumping a 56MB download across the world.

The Register reports.

That’s an awful lot of megs, to be sure – just how many words are we talking about here? Microsoft explains:

The words “Friendster,” “Klum,” “Nazr,” “Obama,” and “Racicot” are not recognized when you check the spelling in Windows Vista and in Windows Server 2008.

Oh, and it’s an important update. It means that you won’t get Osama suggested for when you type Obama into Microsoft Word Mozilla Firefox still suggests Osama as a correction for Obama.

Does your name trigger a red wavy underline or an interesting spelling suggestion in Microsoft Word?

Via Uneasy Silence.

Wii Fit: The Verdict

Wii Fit Stand
Creative Commons License photo: włodi

I’ve wrote my initial thoughts on Wii Fit in May just after I got it but since I’ve had it several months now, I wanted to give an extended review.

I initially reported that it was hard to get a copy of Wii Fit because it was sold out everywhere. I had to go to a Woolworths across town, and at the time I remarked that Wii Fit is “so well designed that you can start getting fit before you even get home and set it up”. The box is pretty heavy. Why a pair of bathroom scales is so heavy I don’t know. There is a video on the Nintendo Channel discussing how the Wii Fit board was designed and manufactured. Since then, the stock shortages seem to have eased up a bit so you shouldn’t have problems getting hold of a copy.

So the basics. Wii Fit consists of two parts: a body test that you take daily which measures your weight and balance and a series of “games”. You’re supposed to take the body test every day around the same time and it plots your progress against your time. It also gives you a “Wii Fit Age”. Mine has fluctuated between 18 and 30 on different days so you definitely shouldn’t read too much into the results from any one particular day.

Sleeping on the job
Creative Commons License photo: Iain Farrell

The second part of Wii Fit are the games or exercises. Whether they are “games” or not is a matter of debate: I call them games because they’re fun. Nintendo calls them exercises. The “games” are split into four categories:

  • Yoga
  • Muscle workouts: Including press-ups
  • Aerobic Exercise: Boxing, hula hooping, jogging, etc.
  • Balance Games: Ski jumping, Skiing and snowboarding slaloms, tightrope walking, etc.

As you progress through the game and do more exercises, new levels and new games are unlocked for you to play.

Highlights for me include rhythm boxing, where you throw punches and dodges in time to a rhythm. In bubble balance, you’re inside a bubble and need to navigate your way downstream without bursting the bubble by colliding with the river bank.

Hula hooping is a really good laugh to play when friends are around although you’ll have to trust them not to record a video and to post it onto Youtube. The 10 minute version “Super Hula Hoop” is very challenging!

There’s an odd one called Zazen which looks like some kind of Buddhist meditation exercise. Wii Fit still gives you “exercise minutes” for it so it’s kind of a loophole for working your way up to your 30 minutes without doing any work.

Let it glow
Creative Commons License photo: Guillermо

For each activity, there is also a “high score board” where you can compare your scores against those of your family. This is another great feature of Wii Fit and encourages you to be competitive and work a lot harder.

So what’s the overall verdict? Is Wii Fit good fun? Definitely yes. It’s better than Wii Sports and it’s my favourite Wii game to date. It is pricier than most games but you get the Balance Board with the game. Have I done more exercise since getting Wii Fit? Yep. But nowhere near the 30 minutes a day – probably only once a week or so. The exercises can get a bit boring after a while and I just personally find it very difficult to find time.

Wii Fit gets a “strongly recommended” rating.

More Reviews of Wii Fit at TestFreaks.co.uk.

How Distributed Grid Computing Could Cut Costs and Help the Environment

Cat-5 Cable
Creative Commons License photo: Darren Hester

The dream of distributed computing (or grid computing) is that it can cut the costs of computing and cut carbon emissions. In this post, I am to explain how it works.

Let us imagine a scenario where both Carl and Daniel have computers. Carl has a computer which is twice as efficient – that is it costs him half as much to do the same thing on his computer. Let’s say it costs £1 in electricity for Carl to run a computer model; and £2 for Daniel. In total, it costs £3 to society to run the computer model once for Carl and once for Daniel.

Cost to Carl: £1
Cost to Daniel: £2
Total Cost to Society: £3

With Distributed Computing

Now imagine the same scenario but with one addition: distributed computing. As it costs Carl less money to run the model on his computer than it would cost Daniel, Daniel could pay Carl to run the model for him. Imagine that Daniel paid Carl £1.50. It only costs Carl £1 to run the model Daniel’s model for him, but he has gained £1.50 for his effort giving him a profit of 50p. Daniel only spends £1.50 to have his model run, as opposed to the £2 which it would have cost him to run the model himself.

Everybody benefits by saving money and the end result is the same: Carl and Daniel have both had their model run.

Cost to Carl: 50p (£1 to run his own model, subtract 50p profit from running Daniel’s model)
Cost to Daniel: £1.50 (He pays Carl £1.50 to run his model for him)
Total Cost to Society: £2

What assumptions have we made?

Creative Commons License photo: Ack Ook

There are no costs involved in the transaction itself. Imagine that it costs £2 for Daniel to send a copy of the computer model to Carl and then to receive the results. If Daniel had to print out instructions on how to use the model, then FedEx it to Carl and wait several weeks to see the results of the model, that’s perfectly conceivable. In this case, it costs of Daniel asking Carl to run the model for him would be £3 (£1 for Carl to run the model on his computer and £2 in transaction costs). In this case, he might as well have run it himself. Real world transaction costs would include slow network connections and incompatibilities between different computer systems. So for distributed computing to work we need fast, reliable network connections and software compatibility.

Daniel would happily allow Carl to run the model for him. Are there privacy implications for example? Daniel must be confident that he can allow Carl to run the model for him and be equally confident that Carl couldn’t have a peek at the results of his model. After all, there might be trade secrets in there. Similarly, Carl must be confident that Daniel isn’t sending him malicious software which could break his computer. For distributed computing to work, there must be a foolproof and hackproof way for Carl and Daniel to trust each another to keep to their side of the bargain.

Creative Commons License photo: JohnSeb

Thirdly, Daniel must actually be able to cut his costs. Let me explain. It’s possible that Daniel will have his computer on 24/7 anyway. That is, it’ll cost him £2 whether he’s runs the model or not. If he’s leaving his computer running at 100% but idle and still asks Carl to run the model for him, he essentially pays for the model to be run twice. My computer doesn’t dynamically underclock so whether or not I’m using it, it’s eating up the same amount of energy. For distributed computing to work, our own computers must make much more efficient use of resources. We need to have thin-client computers with neglible costs.

The real world

Distributed computing hasn’t taken off yet on any large scale. The three conditions don’t yet exist:

  • We need fast, reliable network connections and software compatibility. This definitely doesn’t exist at the moment: I don’t trust my own network connection to be 99.9999% reliable. It’s OK for downloading files and sending e-mails but it needs to be good enough for me to be able to send entire computer programmes over the network in under a second. Additionally, software isn’t at the stage where it’s “write once, run anywhere”. We need standards, standards and standards.
  • There must be a foolproof and hackproof way for Carl and Daniel to trust each another to keep to their side of the bargain. There is no way I would let anybody run a piece of software on my computer without me checking it first. If I had to pre-approve every single piece of software, that adds to the transaction costs which I discuss. Virtual machines are one way we can get around this issue by creating safe ways to isolate software and to track it’s progress. Still, I’m not sure if there is a secure way to run software on a computer with the confidence that the owner of the computer can’t take a peek. And I’m not sure if we’ll ever reach the point where people will happily allow third-parties to run software on their computer and have no possible way to find out what it’s doing.
  • We need to have thin-client computers with negligible costs. I’ve already debunked this one. My computer uses exactly the same amount of power whether it’s active or idle. I don’t believe that people will drop the idea of “a computer on every desk in every home” until they are confident the first two criteria have been met. Only then will they accept owning a thin-client computer.

It’s already being used…

Last year I worked at a company which employed distributed computing on a smaller scale. They had a small cluster (~20 computers) with identical hardware, each linked with Gigabit Ethernet. Software ran inside virtual machines and those virtual machines moved around between computers depending on the amount of spare capacity each one had.

The reason why they could employ distributed computing is because within their own system, they knew that:

  • They had a reliable intranet connection and because all the computers were identical software worked on every single computer.
  • Because they only ran a limited number of programmes and all the computers were under their own control, there were no trust issues.

Creative Commons License photo: Petrick2008

Distributed and grid computing isn’t yet practical on a worldwide scale but I think we’re making progress. Networks are becoming more reliable. Software platforms appear to be becoming more standardised. Virtual machines are coming of age. And our computers are becoming more environmentally concious and adapting their resource usage to the amount of processing power required.

So there is the blueprint to how we can lower the costs of computing. You might be wondering what that’s got to do with the environment. Well, simply replace the £ sign with Joules of energy. Like free-market trade can leads to an efficient allocation of resources in the real world, the trade of computer time in a distributed grid of computers leads to a more efficient allocation of computing resources. And that lowers the energy consumption of computing and it’s environmental impact.

TestFreaks: Product Review Aggregator

TestFreaks is a new breed of technology product review website (still in beta). It is very easy to use and aggregates information from all over the world and all over the web. You’ll find both expert (from selected magazines and websites) and user reviews. There are also forum discussions, images and videos aggregated from both YouTube and Google Video.

According to the TestFreaks website the site utilises the following sources: “User reviews, professional reviews, prices, blog posts, forum threads, news, rumors, manufacturers descriptions and specifications, manuals, videos and more.”

Products are categorised tidily and logically and you’ll find everything here from new TV and DVD player to a new webcam for your computer. Under each category, it’ll tell you the most popular product and also the website offering the product for the lowest price.

There is a feature to compare the specifications of products side-by-side as well as the price on different online shops. Scores (“FreakGrades”) for each product are calculated from user reviews. Given the strong pound, more and more British consumers are buying gadgets abroad so it might have been nice for TestFreaks to have an option of looking at non-British stores (although they do have a US website).

Finally, TestFreaks also has their own forum to discuss consumer gadgets. It seems quite quiet at the moment but TestFreaks is still a young site and I can see a community developing around the website as it begins to gain more users.

An easy-to-use and powerful website which can save you a lot of time and money – I know I’ll certainly consult TestFreaks next time I buy a gadget.