The Null Device
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Today, I cancelled my iTunes Match subscription.
I subscribed to iTunes Match as soon as it became available in the UK, because the idea of being able to upload my music collection into The Cloud™ and access it without physically shlepping it around seemed very useful. Over the next few weeks, I embarked on the project of uploading the contents of my music collection (which, in its unabridged form, resides on a small Linux machine running mpd); manually copying it to a MacBook, dragging it into iTunes and waiting for it to sync up with the servers and verify or upload my music. Slowly but surely, a virtual copy of my music collection took shape in the cloud, accessible remotely wherever I have my iPhone and an internet connection. And then, towards the end, I hit the 25,000-song ceiling, and no more songs would go on.
iTunes Match, you see, has a limit of 25,000 songs per user, not counting purchases from iTunes. This is a hard limit; there are no premium tiers which will bump this up to something more generous for those outliers on the right-hand side of the music-collection bell curve, not at any price. Well, you could always repurchase part or all of your collection from the iTunes Store, freeing up slots for out-of-print rarities and CD-Rs bought at gigs and such, but that kinda sucks. It is not clear why Apple did not offer any sort of reasonable option for prolific music collectors; perhaps the various music rightsholders, long used to the role of the dog in the manger, decided that those people could pay extra and demanded extortionate prices, or just flat out refused to allow it, because they could. Perhaps Apple thought that having different usage tiers broke up the elegance of their iTunes offering, that 25,000 songs was more than enough for the typical user (whose music collection consists of about two dozen albums, among them Coldplay, Skrillex, a few albums of classic 90s alt-rock and the obligatory stylishly understated European indie wallpaper music), and that the tiny minority of power users who need more aren't really the kinds of clients they are interested in. Perhaps this is simply a cynical ploy by Apple and/or the RIAA to arm-twist the punters into repurchasing their record collections in another format (namely a digital file much like the one they already have, but with the option of accessing it on iTunes Match for free). But in any case, the upshot is that one is stuck with the 25,000-song hard limit.
For a while, I made do with the limit. My plans were downgraded from “get everything into iTunes Match” to “get most of it into iTunes Match”. I scanned my iTunes collection, performing triage, coldly relegating albums into a second tier: non-essential; not to be uploaded. The non-essential albums were deleted from my MacBook (there is no way to mark part of your iTunes collection as “yes, I might want to listen to this, but please don't waste any of my 25,000 iTunes Match slots on it”); should I wish to listen to them, I would have to do so at home, on the small Linux box in my living room. Initially, only a handful of albums got relegated, with the rest squeezing in at somewhere over 24,000 tracks. And all was, if not perfect, then acceptable for the time being.
Time went on and, as I bought CDs (some at gigs, some in record shops I visited, and some just because they had artwork and packaging the digital copy was not privy to), every now and then I'd run out of space in iTunes Match, and would do another sweep of my collection, finding more records to consign to the outer darkness. As the low-hanging fruit disappeared, subsequent sweeps became more difficult, until, at some time last year, I resigned myself to not having any new music in my iTunes Match collection, unless it had proved itself so good as to be worth killing something else for; Album Deathmatch.
And so, when the email from Apple came in, notifying me that the renewal date for iTunes Match had come around and I would be billed £21.99 for another year of a flawed service, the choice was clear. Enough was enough, and so I cancelled the renewal. As of now, Apple's systems will have undoubtedly deleted the obscure Australian indiepop tracks that iTunes uploaded some two years earlier.
I would have kept iTunes Match, had it had one of two changes: ideally, the option of a higher limit. Or, if the limit is, for some reason, not negotiable, the option of keeping tracks in one's iTunes whilst keeping (or taking) them out of iTunes Match. The “I like this, but not enough to want to get to it from my iPhone” option, if you will; a no-brainer when dealing with a scarce resource one has paid for.
So what comes next? Well, all the rival services, such as Amazon's and Google's ones, seem to also fall short with large numbers of tracks. I suspect that my next music locker will be a USB flash drive I carry with me; there are 256Gb flash drives on the market now, and while they're expensive, their price will inevitably drop. It's not implausible that, by the end of the year, they will cost less than £21.99.
In what could be one of the most unfortunate printing errors in recent history: the publisher of the German edition of Donald Duck comics has had to recall a recent issue after one of the speech bubbles seemingly used the word “Holocaust” as a term of congratulation. Oops!
In the episode titled "Where is the Smoke?" a dignitary honors a team of firefighters, with the German words, in the bubble above his beak, boasting of the "awards to our brave and always alert fire lookouts! Holocaust!"The word “Holocaust” in the text was not the work of a mischievous translator, but rather part of the English-language text which, by mistake, had not been erased. (The question of how that one particular word escaped deletion in the artwork sent to the German publishers has not been answered. One does wonder whether or not it was a prank by some low-ranking staffer at Disney Corp; if so, it might not be the first Nazi-themed prank by a Disney insider.)
If you use a WiFi-enabled device in any public location frequently, sooner or later you'll find an open network labelled "Free Public WiFi". These appear in the most unlikely places, from secured corporate offices to the giant Faraday cage that is the London Underground, but wherever it is, if you attempt to connect to it, you will face only frustration.
It turns out that "Free Public WiFi" is not a scam or some sort of malware, but the result of a Windows XP bug. Some versions of XP, upon not being able to find any network, will attempt to create their own network, with the same name as the last one they connected to. (Why that made sense to someone, I have no idea.) Which means that, at any time, there'd be a lot of zombie WiFi networks floating around, hosted on Windows XP laptops and named after whatever they connected to last; in other words, a broad sample of network names, which don't do anything, other than inviting passersby to connect to them, like a giant petri dish to test wireless network name attractiveness.
Of course, when someone connects to one of these networks, they don't actually get an internet connection (or anything else, for that matter). If, however, they're running an older version of Windows XP, their machine is now "it", and will next create its own network with the same name as the last network it attempted to connect to. And so, the most attractive names spread like a mostly benign contagion though the wireless spectrum, with the most attractive name being, it seems, "Free Public WiFi". (One might argue that "Free Beer" or something similar would be even more enticing, but for the plausibility gap.) Other common zombie network names you may have seen around are the default names of hardware devices' networks, such as "hpsetup" and "linksys".
The perils of automated spellchecking have been illustrated in spectacular fashion in a leaflet promoting cycling published by Kirklees Council (or Kirtles Council, as the leaflet would have it):
Kirklees Council had 7,000 leaflets printed but they repeatedly spell Kirklees as Kirtles, Cleckheaton became Czechisation, Birstall ended up as Bistable and Kirkburton as Kirkpatrick.
The mangled spelling also affected the names of local bike shops, with Spen Velo becoming Supen Vole.
Even more bizarrely, an email address for British Waterways was given as: enquiries.manic-depressive@brutalisation's.co.uk
Two years ago, a Spanish airliner crashed shortly after takeoff from Madrid, killing 154 passengers. Now, a Spanish news article (machine-translated here) claims that the crash may have been due to an aircraft maintenance computer having been infected with malware and failing to flag two faults which, had they been noticed, would have resulted in the plane having been taken out of service. If this is true, would it be the highest body count of any computer virus so far?
Melbourne now has a bike sharing scheme. It consists of rental bikes (apparently the Canadian model used in London, not the French Vélib), which are rentable from docking stations scattered around the CBD and immediately surrounding areas. (Melbourne University and the Docklands are covered, but the programme stops short of, say, Fitzroy, Richmond and such.) In other words, it's much like the systems in Paris and London, albeit with one crucial difference: it's actually illegal to use unless you happen to be in possession of a bike helmet. These are not supplied at the docking stations, and the police aggressively target those flouting Victoria's mandatory helmet laws.
The helmet laws have had an effect on takeup of the scheme: apparently only 70 trips a day are being made on it, despite the 600 brand new bikes made available; i.e., the system is running at 0.5% capacity. The cycling lobby has been organising protests against the helmet laws; at one such protest, the police came out in force and fined everyone. The law is harsh, but it is the law.
It's not clear what the designers of the scheme were thinking; it's less than useful for tourists, who tend not to bring bike helmets with them or want to spend money on them. As for it being intended for long-term commuters, the fact that the bikes are all in the city centre makes that somewhat less than ideal. Anyway, unless the bike helmet laws are amended (and, with Australia being a car-centric society, this looks unlikely), it's likely that the scheme will be scrapped due to poor patronage. Meanwhile, those wishing to borrow a bike around the inner north may be well advised to go to the Little Creatures Dining Hall on Brunswick St. and borrow one of their fleet of Kronan fixies. They're free and come with helmets, though you'd want to get there early in the day as they tend to get snapped up quickly.
The story of how, by a perfect storm of accidents (including a badly designed XML interface, a brokerage address close to the docks and staff instructed never to question the judgments of the corporate alpha-male who made the trade), a commodities trader ended up stuck with 28,000 tonnes of very real coal on his doorstep.
What do you do if you're facing a long prison term for fraud? Well, one option is to plead for leniency, and present photoshopped photographs of your charitable works with the sick and underprivileged as evidence. Unfortunately for one Daryl Simon, his Photoshop skills weren't up to the task and the judge noticed that the images were fake and slapped another 50 months onto his sentence, getting it up to 24 years.
In the US, the FBI recently arrested ten alleged Russian spies, who had been sent to the US in the 1990s, assuming American identities and attempting to befriend influential businessmen and weapons scientists. More details on the alleged spies (and more here); by all accounts, it seems that they weren't spectacularly successful at stealing secrets; one or two of them were better at milking their expense accounts, but others seemed to have lost the trust of their handlers; their tradecraft also seemed rather old-school, with the addition of a few new twists such as uploading data to surreptitious WiFi access points in cars. Meanwhile, David Wolstencroft, the creator of BBC spy series Spooks, describes the incident as Smiley's People with a laughtrack.
Some of the alleged spies took the cover of married couples; apparently they were paired up in Russia by their handlers and given their identities, before moving to America and actually having children together as part of their cover. The children are now in state custody, and their parents, should they end up in federal supermax prison or deported to Russia, are unlikely to see them again. I wonder whether hypothetical American sleeper agents abroad would go to quite that extent to maintain a cover or whether that degree of acceptance of individual sacrifice (both on the agents' part and that of the children brought into the world essentially as cover props) for a collective goal is specific to Russian culture.
Meanwhile, according to MI5, the number of Russian spies in London is up to cold war levels.
Another horrible example of public transport privatisation gone wrong, this time from Auckland, where the efficiencies of the free market have produced a system that's expensive and inconvenient, and encouraged the public to drive:
City planners impose various pseudo-quantitative performance indicators on the contractors, such as sophisticated GPS systems to monitor on-time performance. But even this minimal nod to public accountability produces unintended consequences. Bus companies fear being fined for missing schedule targets, but are driven by the profit motive to ruthlessly minimize outlays on equipment and staff. The resulting pressure is intense on drivers (some of whom don’t even get paid overtime) to meet unrealistic timetables – a media exposé last year showed this often requires breaking the speed limit. Several times, we’ve watched an awaited bus race by without stopping, the driver shrugging helplessly and pointing at his watch.
Yet Aucklanders still pay for transit – three times over. Once through taxes – subsidies to private transit consume half of all property taxes collected by the regional government. Then again at the fare box. And finally a third time through inconvenience. No wonder Aucklanders take transit one-quarter as often as Torontonians.The article is written by a Canadian journalist resident in Auckland, and is in response to a debate about privatising Toronto's (fairly highly-rated, by all accounts) public transport system.
Bitten by the "new media" bug, the Tories try their hand at this grass-roots web campaign thing, and launch a Web2.0-licious site, with the irreverently catchy title of "Cash Gordon". This site allows Tory supporters to earn "action points" by donating money or spreading the word. Unfortunately for the Tories, some people notice that it looks awfully familiar:
It turns out that Cash Gordon wasn't developed by David Cameron's bright-eyed web whiz-kids, but was a derivative of several web sites from the US Right, including sites against carbon taxes (see fig. 2), health care reform and gay rights, and for the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation.
The Tories' misfortune doesn't end there, however. In their haste to embrace the Web and be down with the kids these days, the Tories (or perhaps their American associates) decided to integrate the site with Twitter, and have it automatically display any tweets posted with the #cashgordon tag. It turns out that, in their haste, they didn't anticipate the possibility of basic cross-site scripting attacks, instead displaying HTML tags intact. And it was not long before unsympathetic parties were making the most of it, and potential Tory activists were being rickrolled and Goatse'd.
For what it's worth, Meg Pickard has a graphic of how events unfolded:
The social network site Facebook is supported by advertising. Being a social network site, it has the advantage of being able to serve (anonymously) targeted ads to its users, who volunteer demographic information about themselves in using the site; advertisers can target ads to users whose profiles or recent activities match certain criteria. Unfortunately, when handled clumsily, the effect can be disconcerting or creepy:
One campaign that flooded the site in recent weeks, before Facebook cracked down on it, tries to take advantage of consumer interest in Apple’s iPad. “Are you a fan of Eddie Izzard? We need 100 music and movie lovers to test and KEEP the new Apple iPad,” one version of the ad says. Louis Allred Jr., 29, a Facebook user in Los Angeles who saw the ad, said he figured it was shown to him because he or a friend had expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Izzard, a British comedian, on their profiles.Off-key and/or sleazy ads on Facebook are nothing new, of course; ads juxtaposing pictures of hot chicks with unrelated, often dubious-looking, offers, for example, have been on the service for years, and presumably have snared a number of not particularly discerning individuals. But now Facebook are allowing advertisers to effectively write templates to be filled in with users' details ("SPECIAL OFFER FOR $gender AGED $(age-1)-$(age+1) WHO LIKE $interest"). Which sounds like a way to game unmerited trust out of punters, but, more often than not, falls into an uncanny valley, falling short of being convincing and coming off as unsettling, or worse:
Women who change their status to “engaged” on Facebook to share the news with their friends, for example, report seeing a flood of advertisements for services and products like wedding photographers, skin treatments and weight-loss regimens.And the knowledge that ads are targeted by some data-mining algorithm can, in itself, add a dimension of unease to what might well be coincidences:
Jess Walker, 22, from central Florida, was recently presented an ad for Plan B, the morning-after pill. “What do I have on my Facebook page that would lead them to believe I would need that?” she asked, adding that she did not want her sexual behavior called into question.
US troops in Iraq now have an iPhone app for tracking insurgents; well, for displaying tactical maps in real time. Meanwhile, the insurgents have found a Russian-designed program which can be bought for $26 and which allows them to watch the video feeds of Predator drones, which happen to be unencrypted. (Oops!) The military is planning to fix this, though it's harder to do than it sounds due to the expensive proprietary design of the aging drones.
This juxtaposition between content and automatically served ads has recently been brought to my attention:
It would appear that the culprit is Google's ad-serving algorithm, which seems to be based on keywords or word frequencies in the content; in this case, I'm guessing that it noticed that the page was about strings, and it had an ad targetted at a number of keywords, including "string". And, hence, we have an illustration of why naïve keyword-based content matching can fail.
I imagine that Google could do better than this. They have (a) a copy of the entire Web, stored and indexed as they see fit, and (b) huge quantities of parallel-processing power to crunch through this and data derived from this. They have already used this to great effect in building statistical models of language, which they use in things like their language tools and the context-sensitive spelling correction in Wave. I imagine, though, that it could be used to implement a machine-learning system, taking content classification beyond word frequencies.
Imagine, for example, if there were a classification engine, trained on millions of web pages (and auxilliary data about them) that, when fed a web page or document, could assign it a score along several axes with some degree of accuracy. Some axes could be the obvious things: a "sex" axis, for example (with thongs falling on one side and C++ classes well on the other) could be used for things like SafeSearch. An "emotional response" axis could be used to classify how likely content is to arouse strong emotions; on one end would be accounts of lurid violence and depravity, and on the other end things like source code and stationery catalogues, with art, celebrity gossip and LiveJournal angst falling in the spaces between. As soon as a page crossed a certain point on the axis, the ad-serving algorithm could stop matching ads by keywords (you don't want ads for airfares next to a piece about an air crash, for example), or even reverse them (so that topical ads aren't shown).
In fact, one need not restrict oneself to pre-imagined axes; it's conceivable that an ad serving company with Google's resources could set up a learning engine, program it to categorise pages according to a dozen arbitrary axes, and see what comes about and what it's useful for, in turn coming up with a model for clustering web content into crisply defined categories that no human would think of. Of course, for all I know, someone at Google (or Microsoft or Facebook) could be doing this right now.
A word of advice: if you're a fugitive from the law, don't post your location to your Facebook page. And if you absolutely must do so, don't add any law enforcement officers to your friends.
The New South Wales Police's Computer Crime Investigation Unit has some advice for people who do their banking online: don't use Windows.
The first rule, he said, was to never click on hyperlinks to the banking site and the second was to avoid Microsoft Windows.
"If you are using the internet for a commercial transaction, use a Linux boot up disk - such as Ubuntu or some of the other flavours. Puppylinux is a nice small distribution that boots up fairly quickly.
"It gives you an operating system which is perfectly clean and operates only in the memory of the computer and is a perfectly safe way of doing internet banking," van der Graaf said.Meanwhile, one of the people chosen to have a Windows 7 launch party, is putting the party kit Microsoft sent him on eBay. He's keeping the copy of Windows 7, but in its place, adding a list of the excuses that all the people whom he invited gave for not being able to show up:
Chris: Found out Windows 7 not available on 5.25" floppy.
Kevin: I'll be over as soon as I shut down my laptop. XP still has 72 updates to go.
Mike: I was going to come to your launch party but then a girl called.
Ira: Sorry, my guild has a raid.
Collection of unintentional humour of the day: Regretsy, a compedium of the inexplicable and inexcusable found on handcraft trading site Etsy, from badly painted Twilight-themed trainers to things made from dead animals to the surprising abundance of gynaecologically-themed articles on offer.
In an attempt to wrest back the spotlight from Apple, Microsoft are organising launch parties for their new Windows 7 operating system. For merely the cost of your dignity as a human being, you too can host a Windows 7 launch party, and Microsoft will supply balloons, napkins (printed with the Windows 7 logo) and tote bags, as well as a free copy of Windows 7 for you.
Microsoft have even produced a video, showing how it's done. In the video, four regular people (the Mom, the older lady, the Urban Outfitters cool-dude (casting brief: slightly hip and with-it, but not intimidatingly so, like those Mac-toting hipster douchebags) and, of course, the Token Black Guy*) stand around a Sony Vaio laptop in a regular American kitchen and discuss the activities you can do at a Windows 7 launch party. Awkwardness ensues. Yes, you too can have highly organised fun.
The whole video has that unmistaken sheen of ersatz authenticity so typical of a poorly-made astroturf campaign: the combination of shaky, pseudo-amateurish camerawork, professional editing and implausibly even lighting that suggests that the layers of Microsoft management who signed off on the campaign weren't sure of what they wanted: something that seemed "fresh" and "organic" but, at the same time, didn't let down the professional production standards one would expect from a Fortune 500 corporation campaign.
And here is The Register's impression of what a Windows 7 party, with a middle-class middle-English bent, would be like:
Now you'll have to excuse me for a moment while I do my hostess duties. If everyone can just come in here for a minute, and gather round the laptop, then we can begin. Yes, very funny Eric, you are allowed to bring in your drinks actually, so no it isn't at all like being at school again, and that was a silly thing to say. If you want to hear something funny, you should listen to what Verity says. Wooj, come on through and bring the others, will you?
* may not be available in all countries.
Think your privatised public transport service is shoddy? It could always be worse, like, say, the buses in Delhi, which are privately owned, with strong free-market incentives. Unfortunately, they're incentives to drive faster, overtaking the bus in front and grabbing potential passengers, whilst skimping on any avoidable maintenance, rather than providing a useful service:
While a city-run service would prioritize getting its citizens from A to B, a private driver is less focused on customer service than on overtaking the next bus down the road. After all, the faster he drives, the more competitors he passes, the more passengers he picks up, and the more money he makes.
Which is why the last thing a Blueline driver ever wants to do is come to a stop. Every move he makes is done with the intent of keeping the bus in motion: slowing just enough so debarking passengers can jump off, then picking up speed as the new passengers run alongside the bus, swinging themselves up and in as the conductor screams at them to hurry. And before the last passenger is fully aboard (sometimes pulled in by his fellow passengers), the driver is already shifting gears, spewing mocking black smoke at hapless would-be passengers still running after the bus, and bulldozing the bus back into traffic.
But with an estimated 2,200 Blueline buses careening across Delhi on any given day, it’s no wonder the newspaper reports are almost identical every day. After an accident, the driver tries to flee, an angry mob beats him, the police impound the bus, the driver is thrown in jail, the owner of the bus is not mentioned. Sometimes the driver escapes, in which case the mob finds its release in setting fire to the bus.The Delhi government wants to replace the privatised system with a modern, city-run one, though is expected to run into powerful opposition from the owners of the private buses.
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Doing its part to cope with the global obesity epidemic, the subway system in Sao Paolo, Brazil, has introduced double-width, reinforced seats for fat people:
The seats are bright blue and have stickers above them marking them out as special seats for the use of obese persons. Strangely enough, they seem almost always empty; presumably, a lot of those who can fit into a regular seat or can bear standing are not keen to self-identify themselves as severely overweight.
One wonders how facility planners could cater for a widening population without coming up against against stigma and denial. They could, of course, go back to flat benches without divisions, except that those allow homeless people to sleep on them, which is unacceptable for various reasons. (Not all people are sufficiently enlightened and compassionate to share their daily commute with the aromatically homeless, and if public transport facilities adopted a secondary role as a homeless shelter, this would drive out many of those who are sufficiently well-off to avoid public transport, putting more cars on the road, and resulting in the money spent on running the actual trains being wasted, but I digress.) Possibly some sort of design with all seats being double-width with a low-key, or movable, divider in the middle, would do the trick; though that could have the unintended consequence of encouraging amorous couples.
(via london-underground) ¶ 0
Yahoo!'s Christian Crumlish posits the five principles of good social software design:
He also puts forward five anti-patterns, or ways in which sites get it wrong:
- Pave the Cowpaths
- Talk Like a Person
- Play Well with Others
- Learn from Games
- Respect the Ethical Dimension
Briefly, the Cargo Cult means imitating superficial features of successful websites and applications without really understanding what makes them work. Don't Break Email warns against the practice of using email as a one-way notification or broadcast medium while disabling your users' ability to hit reply as a normal response. The Password Anti-Pattern is the pernicious practice of asking users to give you their passwords on other systems so that you can import their data for them, thus training them to be loose and insecure with their private information. The Ex-Boyfriend Bug crops up when you try to leverage a user's social graph without realizing that some of the gaps in a person's network may be deliberate and not an up-sell opportunity. Lastly, a Potemkin Village is an overly elaborated set of empty community discussion areas or other collaborative spaces, created in anticipation of a thriving population rather than grown organically in response to their needs (see also Pave the Cowpaths).
(via Boing Boing) ¶ 0
Struggling major record label EMI (you know, the one whom a venture-capital firm bought out a few years ago) has come up with another plan for snatching defeat from the jaws of slightly more prolonged defeat: to cut costs, they are now going to distribute records only to big "one-stop" retailers like Wal-Mart. Independent stores wanting to carry EMI-signed artists (like, say, Sigur Rós or M83) will now have to send someone down to Wal-Mart to pick the records up at the retail price. Of course, anyone wanting non-current back-catalogue material not likely to be found on the shelves of a big-box retailer is out of luck. Way to go, EMI.
The Australian government's plans for a national internet censorship system seem to be running into trouble. Firstly child-protection groups condemned the plans, then ISPs refused to participate in live trials, and now, the proposal has been blasted by an ultra-conservative pro-censorship senator for being too draconian:
In a post on his blog, South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi expressed concern that the filters would inadvertently block legitimate content and be expanded to cover other controversial material opposed by the Government of the day, such as regular pornography.
"Already we have a filter on the internet for all parliament house computers. It blocks some political sites, alternative lifestyle sites and other sites that, while not to my personal taste, are hardly grounds for censorship," he wrote.
"Imagine if such censorship was extended to every computer in the country through mandatory ISP filtering. Who would be the ultimate arbiter of what is permissible content?"
Bernardi, who tried to censor Gordon Ramsay by calling for a Senate inquiry into swearing on television in March, is known for his conservative views. The pro-life Senator has questioned whether global warming is caused by human activities, has opposed therapeutic cloning of human embryos and protested against proposed laws prescribing equal treatment of same-sex relationships.With any luck, the whole scheme will disintegrate sooner rather than later.
Recently, Swansea council in Wales needed to erect a road sign warning advising lorry drivers to avoid a residential area. Being in Wales, the sign would have needed to be bilingual, so the council emailed a translation service to get a Welsh translation of the text, and upon receiving the reply, promptly printed it on a sign and put it up. Only after the sign had gone up did people point out that the text was an out-of-office auto-reply:
All official road signs in Wales are bilingual, so the local authority e-mailed its in-house translation service for the Welsh version of: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only".
Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".Which leaves a few questions unanswered: are there really so few Welsh speakers in Swansea that the council couldn't find one on staff to run the sign past? And surely a translation service would have made their out-of-office messages bilingual.
A 21-year-old Australian call centre employee is facing unspecified disciplinary action after taking sick leave and bragging on Facebook that he was absconding from work due to a hangover. Kyle Doyle's undoing seems to have been that, at some earlier time, he had added his boss to his friends list, which suggests that he might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer; if you're looking for a partner to pull off the perfect crime with, he's probably not your man.
Heaping irony on top of stupidity, the snapshot of his profile that is circulating with the damning admission lists him as a supporter of the "Liberal Party of Australia", the right-wing party which introduced harsh industrial relations laws which, among other things, allow employers to demand medical certificates for as little as one day of sick leave.
A few weeks ago, officials in Lancaster, California allowed the Honda company to grind grooves into a stretch of road, so that the wheels of cars driving along would play the melody of the William Tell Overture, at least if the cars were similar in dimensions to the Honda Civic, as part of an advertising campaign. Now, faced with complaints from nearby residents, the officials are planning to pave over the musical grooves:
The road is tuned to a car just exactly the length, and equipped with tires the same size, as a Honda Civic, a spokesman for Honda said. But other vehicles are also successful in playing the notes, if a little off-key.
That noise is not exactly music to the ears of persons living in a nearby subdivision, who are telling the Daily News that the notes blend into a cacophony that keeps them awake at night.
"When you hear it late at night, it will wake you up from a sound sleep," said music critic Brian Robin, who lives a half mile away from the project. "It's awakened my wife three or four times a night," he told the newspaper.There's a video of the musical highway here. You can probably imagine how, with several cars traversing it at different speeds, it could sound quite cacophonous.
I wonder how feasible it would be for guerilla art pranksters, MySpace band self-promoters and/or viral marketing scumbags to surreptitiously cut their own grooves into roads without any sort of permission. I imagine a device that lays down grooves whilst driving innocuously along, and doesn't attract the attention of the local road police, would be infeasible.
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The latest trend in spam seems to be incoherently bizarre headlines mentioning Britney Spears, and promising videos:
Britney vagina transplant to erase fools' memory syndromePresumably they're aiming for the same demographic that would download files named "enraged baboon fucking a nipple factory".
Britney heartbroken as Diana's Butler beds Winehouse
Britney Spears has Fanny Magnets Grafted in to Attract Papparazzi
Britney sues vagina for divorce
This seems to have started two days ago; before that, there was a brief burst of Angelina Jolie-related spam, following on from a number of "Weekly top news" headlines like "sperm-flavored cocaine all the rage in LA" (which sounds like they got Warren Ellis in as a copywriter).
A writer from GOOD Magazine ("for people who give a damn") examines why America's passenger rail system has fallen so far behind Europe and Asia, by taking a train journey from New York to Oakland:
The American passenger rail—once a model around the globe—is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains “would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria.”
The reasons for Amtrak’s bad reputation are totally damning—its service is neither practical nor reliable. Impractical because most of the time, it’s cheaper and faster to drive or fly. Unreliable because more often than not, the trains are really, really late. There are stories of 12-hour delays on routes that would take six hours to drive; of breakdowns in the desert; of five-hour unexplained standstills in upstate New York. Then there’s the mother of all Amtrak horror stories: a California Zephyr that stopped dead on its tracks for two full days, victim of both an “act of God” (as corporate legalese wisely defines a landslide on the tracks) and gross staffing negligence.A lot of Amtrak's reliability problems are structural, stemming from the fact that the passenger rail company (a state-owned, loss-making private company) doesn't actually own the tracks it operates on. Nor are the tracks owned by a separate entity (as is the case with Britain's privatised railways; not usually a model to emulate, though looking surprisingly good compared to Amtrak); they're owned by the freight companies, who are legally obliged to allow Amtrak to operate on them. Since it's more profitable for them to move freight around, passenger traffic gets the rough end of the pineapple, and often has to wait.
The correspondent's train eventually made it to Oakland at 2:30am, a little over eight hours late.
Though while America's legacy rail network languishes in decline, California is planning its own high-speed rail system, initially going from Sacramento (north-east of the San Francisco Bay) to San Diego (right near the Mexican border), via Fresno and LA. (A branch to San Francisco, following the Caltrain route and terminating at the Transbay Terminal, is planned.) The site comes with glossy computer renderings of state-of-the-art high-speed trains speeding through unmistakeably Californian landscapes, sometimes with high-rise buildings rising like VU meter bars behind them.
The Graun takes Woody Allen to task for being not as good as everyone has been led to believe.
To those of us who have watched Allen's two-decade decline into that cataleptic Eric Claptonesque state where an artist is revered as a god, but not by anyone who originally worshipped in his church, Allen's Grand Tour of Europe is baffling. I have seen Match Point three times now and simply cannot keep a straight face during Allen's perplexing and in many ways offensive attempt to make a Mike Leigh movie. The film is ostensibly about class: a penniless Irish ex-tennis star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is determined to rise above his station by reading Dostoyevsky, attending La Traviata and Damien Hirst exhibits and marrying Emily Mortimer.
Unfortunately, Allen gets it all wrong: when you shoot a Mike Leigh movie, you aren't supposed to make Mummy and Papa and their grouse-shooting twit progeny the heroes. And when you repeatedly show Mummy and Papa and Twitty and Tweedledum at Covent Garden going into raptures over Verdi, you can't then have Mortimer salivating at the prospect of attending Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White. It makes you look like an idiot. Here, as in so many other Allen films, art, music and literature serve a phony, ornamental function; you never really believe that any of his characters actually enjoy abstract art or have read Aristophanes. It's just an excuse for the college drop-out Allen to show off. "Look, Mom! I know who Modigliani is! See, I can pronounce the word 'Proust'." Match Point is like a dozen other Woody Allen movies: Low-Fat High Culture, Bergman for Beginners.The article (by an American commentator, who points out that the perpetuation of Allen's career is one thing Europe, not America, must take the blame for) points to Allen's habit of casting himself alongside attractive young actresses (though, to his credit, he has given up on putting himself in love scenes with them) and, noting that Allen seems to have moved on from London to Barcelona after his last two London flicks (the most recent being a gangster/geezer criminalogue titled Cassandra's Dream; no, I haven't heard of it either) flopped, speculates on where he'll go after he wears out his welcome with the Spanish:
I can see a Zagreb-based Woody Allen film where the director plays a washed-up Serb stand-up comic whose career is suddenly revived by meeting a perky Bosnian-American exchange student played by Thandie Newton. I can see a Polish Woody Allen film about a washed-up klezmer player whose career is revived by a chance encounter with a Santa Cruz forensic scientist (Tina Fey) investigating Chopin's suspicious death. I can see a Macedonian film about a social-climbing rag merchant who keeps getting visits from a ghost who claims to be Alexander the Great, but is actually a delusional Second Avenue deli counter man named Herbie Schlegel.
I can see movies with names like Fulvio's Inamorata, Anne-Laure et Ses Tantes Amusantes, The Caper Was in Copenhagen, the Kapers in Kiev and Trust Me, Mahmoud, I Can Get It for You Wholesale! I can see the sultry, maladroit, pointless Johansson cast as Mata Hari, Marlene Dietrich, the Empress Dowager, Helen of Troy, Judy Garland and Boudica's long-lost twin sister, Vicki. I can see Allen casting himself opposite Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Audrey Tautou and three dozen as-yet unborn children.
Boris Johnson, Tory joke candidate, has just won the London mayoral election by some 140,000 votes. As of now, Londoners have forfeited the right to make smug remarks about Americans having voted for Bush.
Johnson didn't have any positive policies (other than the bizarre magic-Routemaster promise, which can be translated as either "let's divert a few million pounds from boring things like housing and education into designing a cool-looking retro bus" or "let's play a game: you pretend you're an idiot and I'll entertain you"), but got elected on (a) his raffish, loveable-buffoon image, and (b) dog-whistles to reactionary resentment (too hard/expensive to drive into London, too many unruly coloured youths/scary Muslims, "It's political correctness gone mad!"). In fact, he had expert coaching in the art of dog-whistle politics, having been managed by Lynton Crosby, who helped keep a right-wing government in power in Australia for 11 years, tapping into much the same reactionary sentiments and unspoken but popularly accepted bigotries.
It's overwhelmingly likely that the next four or so years won't be an era of innovative initiatives in London. Don't expect things like the Paris bicycle hire scheme, bold new green initiatives, pioneering public transport policy (something Ken Livingstone was actually really good at) or forward-looking visions for a metropolis at the centre of global culture. We can almost certainly expect the congestion charge to be abolished or "rationalised" to the point where nobody has to actually pay it (except perhaps for those pesky cyclists who get in everyone's way), and the axe to fall on Ken Livingstone's public-transport expansion programmes (you can forget about the city tram or the East London Overground reaching Clapham Junction), and quite possibly on Transport For London itself, abolishing this Inefficient Socialist Bureaucracy and flogging off individual tube lines to bus companies. The daily commute won't get any less slow or cramped, though at least those who own cars will have the option to drive. Also, if Crosby's previous client is anything to go by, expect the ugly politics of division and the "culture war" to come out, to see Johnson publicly beating up on cosmopolitan elites and "un-British" foreigners, to mass applause from the Daily Mail readers who voted for him. Certainly, Ken's celebrations of multiculturalism will be replaced by fields of Union Jacks, with Land Of Hope And Glory blaring through the tannoy. But the good side is that it'll be really easy to find parking at the Olympics.
The gist of this is that it now looks like, over the next few years, London will become an even less attractive place to live, even more paranoid and mean and self-absorbed, a backward-looking place whose glories are all in the past, with Boris Johnson's rhetorical Routemasters. And in four years' time, Londoners will look over their dirty, traffic-choked city and Ken Livingstone's reign will look like a golden age in comparison.
Spare a thought for Mark Boyle, the 28-year-old English hippie who planned to walk from Bristol to India without any money for world peace or something similar, subsisting only on the charity of strangers. Alas, it was not to be, and Mr. Boyle gave up his quest at Calais after his lack of money and inability to speak French caused the locals to think of him as a free-loader or an asylum seeker.
Not one to be easily dissuaded by the cold hard impact of reality, Mr. Boyle has strategically downsized his plans to a walk around the coast of Britain, learning French as he goes, for another attempt in future.
The Guardian reports that users of Windows Vista are experiencing severe audio performance problems, with choppy, glitchy audio from applications, which is annoying home users and driving professional musicians to old copies of XP or else the Apple store. The Graun article gives the reasons a cursory examination, essentially writing them off as growing pains of a shift to a new, improved driver model, though somehow managing to miss the elephant in the room, i.e., that at any time when there is the possibility that a Windows Vista machine might come into contact with copyrighted audio or video content, a draconian DRM regime kicks in, diverting a large proportion of the machine's resources into ensuring that you, the user, cannot do anything with the content that you're not explicitly permitted to.
Wal-Mart, the US retail behemoth that manages to be both socially atomising and socially conservative, is now attempting to launch its own teen networking site, sort of like MySpace, only with its own unique values. Hilarity ensues:
The opening page shows video of four teens -- a bubbly fashionista, a Texas football player, a quirky skateboarder and an aspiring R&B singer from New York -- who are clearly actors reading a script, although the videos are positioned to appear authentic. Within, there are pages such as "Beth's Backyard Club," where you find a picture of her in a strapless prom dress above the approved quote: "I'll school my way by looking hot in my Wal-Mart clothes to school to catch a cute boy's eye. ..."
No doubt leery of all the problems with MySpace.com, Wal-Mart's site disqualifies any video with "materials that are profane, disruptive, unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, hateful, or racially or ethnically-motivated, or otherwise objectionable." That's why "pending approval" notes dominate pages already created and content is limited to a headline, a fashion quiz and a favorite song. Wal-Mart also plans to e-mail the parents of every registered teen, giving them the discretion to pull a submission.
Here's one for the next edition of the Book of Heroic Failures: a West End musical adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask, written by a 72-year-old aerospace engineer and funded with his own money, closed early, after some of the most damning reviews in recent memory:
Staging it was the last wish of his late wife, Shirley Ann. As she lay dying of cancer, she made him promise that he would present his show in a West End theatre.
The Times wrote: "The lyrics are mostly vile . . . The twists of behaviour would take platoons of psychologists to unravel." Others suggested that the only member of the three-strong cast to emerge with any dignity intact was the central character, and only because he spent the evening with a bent saucepan on his head and would therefore be unrecognisable at auditions for future work.
Walking along Regent St. (a block or two south of the AppleTemple), I noticed that a shop had opened for the sole purpose of demonstrating and selling the Gizmondo game units. These are handhelds, looking sort of like the ill-fated Nokia N-Gage. They're developed by a British company, cost about £220, run some form of Windows CE, have a handful of games available, and also include a digital camera (of unknown quality), GPRS mobile phone functions and a GPS receiver (which one game, a gang-warfare simulator, is said to use; which could be either nifty or daft). There's a version available for £100 less, which requires the user to view an ad a day to keep using it; the era of attention rights management could be beginning.
They had a few units attached to the wall for people to play with. I started a game on the unit, and was presented with a metal sphere moving along a road of coloured tiles heading into the distance. This looks familiar, I thought. Then I realised that it's a remake of the old Commodore 64 game Trailblazer, right down to having a late-90s-rave-techno version of the tuneless in-game music.
I suspect that the price of Gizmondos will come down dramatically after the PlayStation Portable comes out; after all, the PSP is about the same price and has a much larger screen and more titles.
Also: given that it's a WinCE machine that uses standard SD cards for storage, I wonder how hackable it is. Most game consoles are designed to prohibit the use of unauthorised software, because the business models are based on the manufacturer collecting royalties on each game sold, and the consoles being often sold at a loss (for example, Microsoft lost money on each X-Box sold, and only profited if the user bought about two or more games for it; which undoubtedly made it all the more satisfying for penguinheads to buy X-Boxes and convert them into improvised Linux machines just to stick it to Darth Gates). Presumably the Gizmondo would be a similar case, and would have some sort of cryptographic measures to prevent users from running unauthorised code on it. Though if the Gizmondo could be hacked, it could be an interesting platform; perhaps once the PSP stomps the price down, it'll be worth picking one up.
Stupidity of the day: a nightclub night, advertised on the front of a street paper from a few weeks ago, calling itself "Le Belle Donne". If they're going to act all sophisticated and Frenchified, it would help if they actually got the word genders right.
Anti-porn Internet filtering system, installed in US libraries by government order, blocks all references to the city of
(Why? Look carefully at its name.)
A young British National Party member's dreams of becoming Führer were abruptly dashed when his mother found out, dragged him to the civic centre and made him remove his name from the ballot paper. And probably sent him to bed without supper too. (via NWD)
A church in Canberra, alarmed at those wicked Harry Potter books seducing children away from the truth of Christianity, has distributed a leaflet to its members about the dangers these books pose to children, and their contribution to the rise of juvenile devil worship in America. Unbeknownst to them, the text of the leaflet was taken from a piece in the Onion.