The Null Device
If you're planning to buy a new MP3 player, beware, as many of the new ones use a proprietary interface protocol tied to Windows Media Player. Whereas a lot of older players (the Archos Jukebox series and iRiver H100 and 300 series, to name two, not to mention various generic Flash-based players) were USB Mass Storage devices (i.e., looked like external hard disks to a computer), new ones use a proprietary Microsoft protocol named MTP, to transfer data to them and possibly enforce RIAA-mandated inconveniences on the user.
MTP appears to be based on the Picture Transfer Protocol used by some digital cameras, only with some Microsoft extensions, and is tightly integrated with the Windows Media Player; it is currently possible to hack gPhoto, a command-line PTP client, to talk to at least some MTP players. There is some doubt over whether or not this infringes on patents. Users of pre-XP Windows systems, however, may be out of luck.
For Penguinheads and other Windows refuseniks, the Apple iPod is apparently still usable. It looks like a USB Mass Storage device (or a FireWire hard disk), and can be copied to/from, though requires music files to be indexed in a proprietary database file onboard, which iTunes writes; there exist open-source tools, running on UNIX-like OSes, for writing this file as well. (Disclaimer: I've never owned an iPod and so have no experience of how useful or clunky it is to use without iTunes. My way of filling my MP3 player involves mounting it as a disk and copying files or directories to it.)
An interesting link from Momus: Market research firm Environics has conducted a survey of changing values in America, and come up with some disturbing conclusions. Over the past 12 years, their results show, the meta-values underlying American society have shifted away from engagement within society towards a paranoid, Hobbesian, every-man-for-himself world-view; this has fostered both libertinism and authoritarianism:
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that the father of the family must be the master in his own house increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that men are naturally superior to women increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that violence is a normal part of life -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.The research was done by plotting survey responses on a rectangular "values matrix", with two axes: authority-individuality and fulfilment-survival:
The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, anomie-aimlessness, and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, theres a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or self-clustered.
Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on every man for himself. Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.(If I recall correctly, fulfilment and survival are at the two opposite extremes of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with individuals whose survival needs are met progressing to focus on fulfilment needs. Could the reversion of the focus to survival be the result of respondents perceiving that their survival needs are threatened?)
On a related note: here is a PDF file of a presentation analysing British political opinions along similar lines, and finding that, while the old labels of "left" and "right" are less meaningful, opinions are divided along two axes: the Socialist-Free Market axis of economics and, more significantly, the "Axis of UKIP", which sorts respondents on their opinions on crime and international relations. At one end are the Daily Mail readers, who believe in isolationism and capital punishment, and on the other end are "chianti-swilling bleeding hearts" and cosmopolitanists. The centre of gravity is a little towards the UKIP end, which is why xenophobic, fear-mongering tabloids sell so well. The presentation also has diagrams of the distributions of positions by political affiliation and newspaper choice, with some interesting results.