Friday, August 28, 2009

Cemeteries are an endless source of fascination to me. In my local necropolis, there are two plots of note. One is over 100 years old, and is the family vault for James Maconochie, a pioneer of food canning and co-proprietor of Maconochie Brothers, whose first factory was located in my street. If you have relatives who served in World War 2, ask them about Maconochie stew. Another dates from a mere 20 years ago, and commemorates a man whose nickname, emblazoned on the headstone for all to see and scratch their heads over, was 'Pimp'. How did he get the name? Was he pimply? Was he Lowestoft's answer to Percy Blakeney? Or was he just a ponce?

It all reminds me slightly of the night when a friend admitted to having a relative with a shady past, whose tabloid nickname had been 'Harry the Ponce'. I'm guessing that Harry's gravestone doesn't bear this legend.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The news that the Government is considering various measures against file-sharers, including cutting off their Internet connections is more amusing than worrying, from where I'm sitting. After receiving David Geffen's hospitality, of course Mandy's got to make harrumphing 'something must be done' noises. Is it even remotely enforceable, though? Save for a few well-publicised legal actions brought by the RIAA in 2002 or thereabouts, the threatened wave of mass prosecutions has failed to materialise. A few people have received legal letters from computer game developers demanding compensation for alleged file-sharing naughtiness, but all can quite reasonably claim that it must have been someone leeching off their unsecured wireless broadband and tell the beaks to piss off. The Pirate Bay verdict has not resulted in the site's closure, and those responsible for running the site remain free men, despite ludicrous sentences being handed down. Even if it were possible to monitor every last bit of data sent or received, it would, effectively, criminalise the vast majority of computer users. If you've looked at even a single clip on YouTube, you've almost certainly been a party to 'copyright theft'. Most of those computer users will also be voters.

I share files. I've put things on YouTube to illustrate points I want to make here, I use Bit Torrent, and I download music and video from blogs and other sites. However, none of the stuff that I send or receive is available commercially. I encode and share records and archive TV programmes that haven't a cat in hell's chance of a DVD or CD release, but which a small number of people still want to see/hear. Some of the things I've hoovered off the Web have been vital for my researches into light entertainment. If I want something, and it's available to buy, I buy it. Legally, there's no distinction between sharing the contents of a commercial DVD and a forgotten comedy show retrieved from a Betamax tape, but, morally and ethically, I think there's a considerable gulf between the two acts. Just recently, I saw a newly-released DVD of a 1970s TV series turning up on Bit Torrent sites on the day of its official release. I'm afraid that's not cricket, chaps.

Maybe I'm just post-rationalising my own transgressions, but I can't see a problem with sharing commercially-unavailable material. For one thing, doing so drives a coach and horses through the distasteful practice of bootlegging for profit. For another, sharing an obscurity can help create awareness and interest for an eventual commercial release. The DVD of the Armando Iannucci Shows, an excellent series overlooked at the time of transmission in autumn 2001 because of various world events, came about largely because comedy fans had been sharing the shows online in the years since, bringing them to a new audience who'd missed them when they went out. The fans then began lobbying for a proper release. Hell, I've even seen things that I've encoded turning up as the source of clips in TV programmes - in which case, the broadcasters are the ones doing the illegal downloading. How do you like them apples?

If Geffen gets his way, will I be left without an Internet connection? Believe when see. In the meantime, the 'creative industries' should stop insulting their customers and potential customers, cease bellyaching about file-sharing and simply try to work out ways of making it generate revenue for them. Home taping didn't kill music.
Keeping with the theme of digital radio instant nostalgia, was the Digital 1 multiplex so named because it had only one station worth listening to? The demise of Oneword was a sad day for UK radio. On a budget that wouldn't cover Mark Damazer's annual expenditure on coffee and Danish pastries, it provided a good, intelligent, broad-based speech radio service, with nary a phone-in to be heard. Maybe I'm biased, having had several mates who worked there, and having nearly bagged a show of my own just before it went tits up (the first time, that is), but it was a good, talented little outfit, producing splendid stuff. If the backers had held their nerve a little longer, who's to say it wouldn't have turned the corner?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Regular visitors to this corner of the WWW will know already that schloss Cheeseford is home to all manner of strange, wonderful technology. My family of open-reel tape recorders rule the roost, but there's room for more recent obsolescence such as the object on the left. That's what affordable digital radios looked like in 2000. Well, I say affordable. When launched, the Psion Wavefinder was £299, and you needed a PC with USB ports for it to be any use at all. I sprung for mine when they came down to £99 a year later. At the time, I was reviewing radio for the New Statesman and I felt I needed to keep up with all of this digital lark. That and the fact that, despite putting my life in peril by hanging out of my 2nd floor flat window with an electrically-unsafe drill to install a suitable antenna on the side wall, my VHF reception was still far from perfect. Unfortunately, I chose to opt in at the moment that the BBC dropped the bitrates of all their stations (save for Radio 3), so I was merely swapping one set of sonic compromises for another, but with timer recording and other rather neat features, it was a worthwhile bit of kit. When it worked.

I've lost count of the number of times I reinstalled the drivers and the front-end software. I unplugged it, plugged it back in again, found a piece of third-party software that disabled the resource-hogging lights (I should take some video of the lights in action. They're oddly calming. When they work.), and I tried it with slimline salad dressing. Unfortunately, every which way I turned, it was a buggy piece of crap. I kept it for dire emergencies, but came to rely on satellite and Freeview for my radio reception, as well as an improved VHF aerial installation when I moved to my present house. Finally, when Windows XP Service Pack 2 came out, it was bye bye Wavefinder, as Microsoft had done something under XP's bonnet to make the Wavefinder even more of a dud than it had been before. I hung it on the far wall of my office as a lesson to myself never again to be an early adopter.

Then, last week, I read on Mike Brown's excellent TX list that the ruddy things work again in XP SP3. I went through the rigmarole of reinstalling it, and yes, it works. Sometimes. I had hoped that having a computer several times more powerful than the one I had in 2000 might have helped the Wavefinder realise its full potential, but no. It's still a buggy piece of crap. And yet I can't bring myself to get rid of it.