Recession or not

So the UK may not be about to enter a recession as manufacturing reports a bit of an uplift in January. A recession is two consecutive quarters of negative growth and should we be deemed to have entered one, there will be endless ill-informed blether from journalists and MPs alike about the end of the world as we know it, and demands that the Government must do something. Since we have just had a negative quarter, it all depends on the next two months. Growth of 0.1% or above, OK, minus 0.1% or more, the end of the world. Does it never occur to the wittering journalists, politicians, and economic commentators that the idea that you can measure a large modern economy to one decimal place of a percentage is completely risible, and that to then make such a fuss or not depending on whether that figure reaches or breaches an arbitrary technical measure is probably not a suitable pastime for a grown-up.

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iTunes, iCloud and the Halo effect

The Halo effect describes the tendency of we humans to ascribe attributes about which we have no knowledge to people or entities to which we have already ascribed another attribute. Some victorian “scientists” thus used to describe a “criminal physiognomy” by which you could tell a bad ‘un without having met them before, and this persists among many in the population today in the form of “I wouldn’t trust him / her because …” followed by some such attribute as their eyes being too close together, a generally nervous (“Shifty”) manner, having a “weak” chin, or even being short.

The inverse is equally common with behavioural scientists often telling us that tall and beautiful / handsome people are often considered more trustworthy or competent even at first meeting. Which is sort of where I find myself with Apple.

Whilst adding my library to iCloud recently (See earlier post) quite a number of my songs remained unmatched and therefore had to be uploaded. Apart from the time this would take, and the fact that the quality of the songs would not be upgraded unless I dug out the CD and re-ripped them at a higher bit rate, at least part of me was upset that the files had not, in some way, reached Apple’s high standards and had been rejected. Apple’s “Bella Figura” had been discomposed by the “Brutta Figura” of my files. There may even have been a bit of shame in there. This is so powerful that I nearly downloaded versions of these songs to replace the ones which until now I had considered perfectly adequate from the iTunes store, a process which begins with me spending money.  Nearly.

Rural broadband

All those packets of data on the internet pass around the globe as pulses of light in optical fibre, across oceans and countries as light or sometimes as waves in line-of-sight microwaves, then as to the local exchange from where they continue in the same way if you are in a city or a new build urban development, all bright and shiny and at or near the speed of light. If you are not in a new-build, or not in a city, once the packets get to your local exchange they run to your nearest telegraph pole or underground connection in copper. In our case they then connect to the house via a piece of edwardian copper with the bandwidth of a bit of wet string. (See http://nrg.cs.ucl.ac.uk/mjh/string.html).

The asymmetric part of ADSL means that the bandwidth of the connection is split to give about ten times the capacity (Speed) to downloads that it gives to uploads. For most people, who mostly surf the net, watch YouTube or iPlayer, and receive lots of junk e-mail this is fine and dandy and we only notice a bit of slowness when sending e-mails with photos attached. On a good day, when everyone else in Hay is out or has a power cut, I can get 6mbps (million bits per second) download speed, the rest of the time it’s nearer 2mbps. Fairly predictably I can get 50kBps (thousand bytes per second, where a byte is 8 bits plus a couple for checking) on an upload day or night. This equates, roughly, to 500kbps or around a tenth of the download capacity. Pushing 4,000 songs up this feeble, constricted pipe made my poor Mac struggle for nearly two weeks and it often got quite hot with the effort.

As I imagine it, this means that all the incoming data packets come flashing round the world, only to get near my house and collide with each other like keystone cops as they try to get down the last leg, piling up somewhere waiting. All the outgoing packets stagger up the wire to the telegraph pole and then find open roads along which they can race. For this poor capacity we rural users pay exactly the same as those in towns or cities getting much better service. I know there are increased costs to service provision to dispersed communities, and I also know that we are lucky to be served with broadband at all here as many rural areas are not, but it’s still not good enough. The situation only arises because as an early adopter of the telegraph / telephone we have a large and unwieldy infrastructure which took ten years to upgrade all the exchanges to digital and still hasn’t properly addressed the need to run fibre into every home (Or use some equivalent wireless transmission). In many asian countries with no landline telephone network, they have 3G mobile and 100mbps broadband commonly available, leapfrogging us europeans by a technical generation.

In a day I could have copied all the songs to a thumb drive and given it to someone in a better served area, and they could have uploaded for me. It would almost have been quicker by post.

I therefore demand that somebody do something immediately to provide proper, modern high-speed broadband to we rural users, just in case I ever have to upload 4,000 songs to iCloud again and don’t fancy waiting two weeks for it to happen. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, do you?

The pitfalls of pioneering

I’ve listened to my music via an mp3 player of one sort or another for more than 10 years now, starting with a 6GB Creative Jukebox before the first iPod made its appearance. I still buy music on CD, but immediately rip it for listening, the idea being that I can always redo this if I lose the player or PC library. I don’t use the CDs at all other than that as I hate them.

In the UK our first sight of CDs was on the weekly technology show “Tomorrow’s World” where they were compared to scratchy, low-fi, easily damaged or warped vinyl as the robust and superior product of the future. As I remember it we were shown a CD being played after being smeared with jam or honey or some such as an illustration of how the surface we could touch was irrelevant as the laser in the player focussed on the aluminium disc within, ensuring that even surface damaged discs would play. This has not been my experience with barely visibly scratches causing skips or rejection. Things were compounded when the music industry magnates, who had just made unbelieveable and surely unexpected sums selling us our entire lp collections again at considerable cost (CDs initially cost between 1.5 and 2 times the cost of an lp), realised that CDs were being played on people’s PCs and could therefore be copied to the PC and written out again. Because we could do this, they assumed that most of us were, and that this was costing them money. Various types of “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) techniques were then employed in an attempt to make CDs that were playable on CD players but not copyable on PCs. In a further bout of greed, a levy was suggested on blank CDs which would be given to the Music industry as they were capable of being used to copy music CDs. (Imagine if publishers demanded levies on paper and ink on the assumption that we were to copy down extracts from copyrighted works). DRM techniques made many of my CDs unreliable on my audio CD player so I had to upgrade that, as well as making some impossible to rip to mp3. By what peculiar route have we got here, where the seller of a piece of entertainment can determine the circumstances under which you can consume what they have so expensively sold you? Do book publishers try to stop us reading their books in the bath or WC? Anyway, most DRMs are now abandoned or functionally invisible so that’s all right.

The misery was further compounded when the CD was packaged in the “Jewel Case”, possibly the most vile and unfit-for-purpose piece of industrial design of the modern age. They chose a material which :-

a) Would scratch if a spider walked across it, so that the cases were always scratched when you bought them.

b) would crack if it received anything stronger than a harsh look, and

c) would shatter if you dropped it.

They used this material in a case which held the booklet so tight it would crease or tear as you tried to get it out, and would hold the CD with horrible little teeth which would break in a strong breeze and then rattle about in the case waiting for an opportunity to scratch the face of the CD.

Why nobody has ever been publicly vilified for the whole CD concept is beyond me.

Anyway as I said, I have long preferred to access my music via mp3 players, so I have a library which has been through three iterations, Creative’s player manager, Microsoft Media Player, and now iTunes.

Creative’s manager only used the Artist, Album and Track names, Media Player added more info and cover art, but because the player I had didn’t show it I used the minimum resolution to save space. With iTunes and the iPod touch / iPhone these were shown to be inadequate and shabby, so I have been though the library sprucing them up, as time and temperament allow. Of course many of the files themselves are the original rips I made all those years ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with iTunes match, the basics are that for some £20 per year you can include up to 25,000 songs in iCloud. If the immensely clever and mysterious matching process recognises your song, it is “matched” i.e. just added to you library in the cloud as available for download to any of your devices. The download you get on your device is not your old mp3 file, it is the m4a file you would have got if you had bought the song from Apple. In my case this is at a rather higher bit rate than I originally ripped at and there is a noticeable improvement in quality. If your file is not recognised, it is uploaded and then delivered to your devices as your file. You are allowed 5,000 of these as part of the standard deal, you can pay more for more.

Because the matching process compares with the currently available version of your song, and many of mine have been superseded by digital revamps of one sort or another, and because much of my music is somewhat esoteric, nearly 4,000 of my songs failed the match and had to be uploaded. In addition, some songs within an album will not match while the rest do. Apart from the personal affront this engendered (See later post on Halo Effect), it meant that I had to wait while these 4,000 or so songs were uploaded into the cloud. On my connection (See later post on rural broadband) this was slow, and halfway through Apple made 17 other countries live slowing their servers dramatically, so it has taken the best part of two weeks to complete.

Had I started buying my music later, much of it would have been the later, matchable releases or just bought as downloads so immediately available anyway. I did waste some time re-ripping some unmatched CDs at higher bit rates to see if this improved the matching rate but not once did this work. As i said, the matching process is very clever at passing even a low bit rate rip of the correct song, but not a high bit rate copy of the wrong song.

For most of my music I now have a stable off-site back up, so I can get rid of all those dreadful CDs. Hooray.

Obscured by clouds

Cover of Pink Floyd's excellent album Obscured by Clouds

 

I’ve invested the best part of the last two weeks getting my iTunes music into the cloud with iTunes match. I can now download any part of my music collection to any of my devices wherever I am as long as I have good 3G or broadband connectivity. This means that my iPhone in effect has all 17,534 songs (1521 albums) on it, which is cool.

However my experience has highlighted problems learning opportunities in three areas viz:-

1. Being an early adopter of technology,

2. Rural broadband in the UK, and

3. iTunes doesn’t always work properly and displays almost fractal complexity as you dig into it.

It has also given me a personal insight into the Halo effect surrounding Apple and its products.

In an attempt to be tidy, I’ll cover these in separate posts.