Quick review: Logic 3 i-Station for iPods

There are lots of speaker add-ons for the iPod, and they tend to fall into one of two categories: great but expensive goodies such as the Bose SoundDock, and rubbish external speakers you’d expect to find on a cheap PC. The i-Station doesn’t fall into either category, and while it’s definitely got some bad points it’s still rather nifty. I bought one the other day, so here’s a quick review.

The good points:

* It’s a lot louder than you’d expect, and the sound quality is very good
* It’s a 2.1 system, and its little subwoofer is surprisingly effective
* If you run it on AC power, it charges your iPod
* It comes with various adapters so you can use it with any dock-compatible iPod, Mini or Photo
* It runs on AA batteries
* The power brick comes with both UK and EU plugs
* It’s very small
* It’s reasonably cheap
* It doubles as an iPod dock and includes FireWire and USB cables
* The back of the unit doubles as a protective case for travelling
* It works with anything thanks to the (included) line-in cable
* It’s better than broadcasting to your stereo with an iTrip (and legal!)

And the bad:

* You have to shove the iPod onto the connector with some force, and the iPod wobbles when it’s sitting there.
* There aren’t grilles on the speakers, so it’s easily damaged
* It’s pretty ugly
* It’d be nice if there were forward and back buttons in addition to the volume controls
* The 3D button attempts to make the sound “wider” but often introduces distortion
* Sound quality depends on well-encoded MP3 files

The i-Station is currently £49 from Amazon or £59 in the high street.

Let’s introduce an asshole tax for the entertainment industries

No, really. Every time they do something that makes people go “Christ, what a bunch of assholes”, we should choose a record company or film studio at random and force them to hand over a few billion quid. Today’s reason? The “iPod tax” about to hit the Dutch. With rates of up to £2.22 per gigabyte mooted, that’s £120 on an iPod; when players get bigger, the tax will be £440 on a 200Gb hard disk and a very reasonable £2,220 on the not-far-off 1 Terabyte hard disks.

It’s a novel twist: the music industry (or at least, its agent) has moved beyond wanting people to pay over the odds for downloads to wanting them to pay over the odds for *nothing at all*.

*wanders round the office, swearing*

The important thing about this particular outbreak of idiocy is that it’s a tax on hard disks. How much of an iPod Photo’s hard disk will be used for music, and how much for photos? And how much of the music, if any, will be dodgy? No idea. Impossible to work out. So the whole thing gets taxed. Same applies to portable media centres, video iPods, high capacity mobile phones, and ultimately anything with a hard disk in it. They can all potentially store illegal copies of copyright material, so they’re all arguably within the scope of the tax.

*jumps around the office, swearing some more*

As the Register/Faultline article notes:

Already in Germany there is a levy on PC hard drives, that will soon become larger than the entire PC industry revenue if it is left in place. Within two years, as disk drive sizes move to terabyte class on notebooks, and petabyte levels on home DVRs, the tax will come to far outweigh not just the cost of the drive, but the cost of the device.

If you think this is an isolated occurrence, you’re wrong: it’s been tried before, albeit on a slightly less silly scale, in Canada.

Disturbing technology: the defrost-o-plate

A few years ago, my dad bought a mad thing from JML (they advertise on TV and their slogan should be “we sell weird shit for your house”). I dubbed it the defrost-o-plate: it claimed to defrost food in record time, without heat. Bollocks! I cried. My dad showed me it in action. I bought one for myself.

My defrost-o-plate (I’ve no idea what it’s officially called) is a rectangular metal tray, painted matt black, with a half-dozen grooves in it (although as the photo shows, there are other designs out there). You don’t need to heat it up, it has no power source, it doesn’t seem to be made of anything unusual, and it is clearly of human origin: the feet fell off within days. And I have absolutely no idea how it works.

I tried an experiment: I got two ice cubes and put one on the defrost-o-plate, with the second ice cube on a normal plate. After half a minute, the normal-plate ice cube was starting to look a bit shiny; the defrost-o-plate cube was a puddle of water. If I leave a couple of steaks out to defrost, they take a few hours; on the defrost-o-plate, half an hour.

Naturally, I think it’s a great thing – but my complete inability to work out how it does its magic is driving me daft. There are lots of sites offering defrost-o-plates on the net, such as this one, but nobody tells you how it actually works. So I’d like to turn this over to you, as you’re all much smarter than me. How can a bit of metal perform such magic? Is there a scientific explanation, or is it witchcraft?

//update, December 2012

Thanks to Ken Kimberling, we’ve tracked the super magic defrost-o-plate down – the one I’ve got is here on Amazon.

//update, February 2013

Thanks to Greg Gann, who’s sent me some more product links. He says:

I’ve read your page (numerous of times) and there are a variety of different thawing trays out there. There were the thin ones (I think most people see) that sold for $20. And there was the “Thaw Master” which was thicker, sold my Mr. Food, and they sold for $40.

I noticed some of the people commenting on your post were looking for some, and I’ve came across the thicker, faster, Mr. Food trays and have them for sell at the same price of the thinner ones…$20! (50% off!)

I have silver ones here: http://www.ebay.com/itm/221161604053?ssPageName=STRK:MESOX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1559.l2649

There is no difference in the colors, it’s a matter of the material. Therefore the thick ones work faster because of the thicker material.

Offers bloody over

My lovely wife and I tried to buy a house the other day. We didn’t get it. Am I bitter about it? Bloody right I am.

Scotland’s system for buying and selling property is different from England or Northern Ireland. There’s one major benefit to our way of doing things: you can’t be gazumped, so when buyer and seller come to an agreement the house is taken off the market and that’s it. Hurrah. However, it has a major disadvantage, too: the practice of selling houses at “offers over” prices.

Normally when you buy things from people, it goes like this:

You: So, how much do you want for this, then?
Seller: Well, I want an impossibly large sum of money.
You: You’re having a laugh! I’ll give you half that amount, and a packet of crisps.
Seller: Nine-tenths and a multipack of Monster Munch.
You: Three quarters and a family pack of Salt’n’Shake.
Seller: I bow to your superior negotiating technique. Done.
You: Done.

It usually applies to houses, too.

You: A hundred grand? Come on! The windows are made of cheese and there’s zombies in the cellar.
Seller: They’re good zombies, and it’s very fine cheese.
You: Eighty grand.
Seller: Piss off! Ninety-five.
You: Will you kill the zombies?
Seller: Yes.
You: Ninety-one.
Seller: Ninety-two.
You: Okay then.

But not, as you’ve probably guessed, in Scotland. With offers over, the process is reversed.

You: So, how much do you want for this?
Seller: Hmmm, well it’s a very nice house. Fifty pounds.
You: I tell you what. I’ll give you A MILLION POUNDS!!!!
Seller: Sorry, but I’ve already been offered ten million pounds and the freedom of the city of Birmingham.
You: Damn you, offers over system! Damn you to hell!

Here’s how the system works: someone decides to sell their house, and the estate agent comes and works out how much it’s worth. The house is then advertised with a stupidly low price that the seller wouldn’t accept in a million years, and people come out to view it. They pay for surveys that tell them the house is on the market at a stupidly low price that the seller wouldn’t accept in a million years, and then they pay their solicitor to lodge a Note of Interest with the estate agent. That’s a legal document that says, “if you sell this house without letting us bid, we’ll sue your ass”. Or something. I’m not good at legal terminology.

With me so far? Okay then. When two or more notes of interest have been filed, the property usually goes to “closing”. That means by a specific time, say noon on Friday, everybody who’s interested in the house gets their solicitor to file a sealed bid. You don’t know how much anyone else is bidding, so you basically have to guess how much the house is worth using the magic offers over formula. If you get it right, the house is yours.

The magic offers over formula is:

* Take the asking price
* Add 10% if it’s not a nice bit of town, or 20% if it is.

Simple. Unfortunately, everybody else uses the same formula, so you have to use the super enhanced offers over formula, which is:

* Take the asking price
* Add 20%
* Guess what the other people might be bidding
* Add a bit more

But of course, everybody else is using that formula too. So you have to turn to the super mega enhanced offers over formula, which is:

* Take the asking price
* Forget the asking price
* Get down on your hands and knees and beg your bank manager to give you a stupidly large mortgage
* Offer all of the money in the world, plus 10%

Stupid, isn’t it? Naturally, we tried that – and we didn’t get the house. The winning bidder paid the asking price plus 45%. Forty-five-fecking-per-cent.

There’s an internet angle to this, honest :-)

Thanks to the internet, we can now see what prices have been paid for houses in a particular street – which means the offers over system creates a bubble. As soon as one house goes for silly money, buyers and sellers know about it; as a result, anyone else in that street wants the same sort of money, and every canny buyer knows that the going rate isn’t 10% or 20% over the asking price, but 45%. And the more people know that 45% is the going rate, the more likely the winning bids will exceed even that.

Not all buyers are canny or web-savvy, though, and as a result they use the basic offers over formula. As a result, the system bleeds them dry: every time they make an offer at 20% over the asking price, they’ve paid their solicitor and they’ve paid the surveyor in order to make an offer that there’s absolutely no chance of the seller accepting. The costs soon mount up: I know of several people who’ve spent months looking for houses, and who have spent two or three thousand pounds on surveys and offers for houses that they had absolutely no chance of getting.

It’s a racket, of course, and cynics would point out that in the property game, many estate agents have very lucrative legal and surveying wings – so some of ’em have a vested interest in getting people to make offers that won’t be accepted. “Sorry, you didn’t get the house!” Ker-ching! “I know! It went for 45% over the asking price!” Ker-ching!

Thankfully, change is afoot and there are moves to make the system less evil – and let’s face it, short of throwing acid in buyers’ faces and giving them wedgies, the current system couldn’t be much more evil – although it probably won’t happen for at least a year. The new system is called the single survey system, and it works like this:

* Seller puts house on the market
* Seller pays for a survey, which is available to all prospective buyers
* Everybody knows exactly what the property is worth

Although I suspect it will probably work like this:

* Seller puts house on market
* Seller pays for survey
* Everybody knows exactly what the property is worth
* Everybody ignores the figure and offers all the money in the world, plus 10%

Hurrah for progress!

A question of copyright

I uploaded one of my articles to this blog yesterday, prompting Derek to ask: “Would I be able to pass that onto some people at work, or would that infringe on the copyright?” The answer is, of course, go right ahead.

The whole point of sticking things up on the net is so that people can read them, email them, get irate about them or whatever, but to make things clear I’ve updated the copyright notice on this weblog to make it a Creative Commons licence. That explicitly states that you’re free to copy, distribute or build upon stuff I’ve done provided it isn’t for commercial use (ie, provided you’re not making money from my work without giving me a cut).

Politicians and the internet

I’ve been looking at the various political parties’ web sites for next week’s elections, and while they’re all fairly boring things the Scottish Tories site was particularly bad: the manifestos available were for the 2001 and 2003 elections, the “find out about your area” link didn’t include the new constituency names, etc etc etc.

Being a cheeky chap, I sent a very sniffy email to the Scots tories’ central office yesterday morning, suggesting that their web site was a pile of pants and that they might want to consider, y’know, actually telling people what their policies are.

This morning, the site has been changed dramatically – and by the looks of it, by someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

[Incidentally, I’d have sent the same email to labour central office, or the SNP, or the Lib Dems, but their sites are all pretty good. It’s not a political thing for me, it’s irritation: I get really annoyed when I want to read something and can’t find it.]

I’m sure it’s a coincidence rather than the result of my email, but if I were a web-savvy tory I’d be shaking my head and wondering why it took them so long. Until this morning, the site’s message was “we can’t be bothered” – hardly the most inspiring way to campaign in a country that’s pretty much a guaranteed labour stronghold.

There’s a certain irony to all of this when you consider that again and again, we’re told that the problem with politics in this country is voter apathy – and some of the parties can’t be arsed to update their web sites.

For any political party, the internet matters. So far I’ve received a grand total of one election leaflet, so if I want to hear the parties’ own words without them being filtered through the media then I have to go online. If I go online and get a four-year-old manifesto (hello tories!) or one that says “it’s pretty much the same as the 2003 one, which you’ll find here” (hello greens! Although I suspect that maybe they’re trying to recycle pixels) I’m not going to come away with a particularly strong impression. After all, how can you be trusted to run a country if you can’t even run a web site?

There’s more to this than mere sloganeering, though – there’s also the way in which special interest groups (positive and negative) use the internet to incredible effect. We’ve seen the results of co-ordinated campaigning by whack-jobs such as Christian Voice, and the white power mob are particularly good at this internet lark. If someone wants to find out about, say, labour’s immigration policy or the Tories’ plans for the health service, it would help if they could actually read the parties’ policy rather than rely on second-hand reportage from racist nut-jobs or religious extremists. By not paying enough attention to their online presence, political parties are effectively playing into the hands of the lunatics.

The Tartan Podcast

If you’re interested in discovering new music, a nice bloke called Mark Hunter has created The Tartan Podcast to showcase new Scots music. The current edition features some friends of mine (Glasgow pop act Gum) along with some bunch of chancers called Kasino.

Sage advice from Mr Sun

Everybody has a favourite comedy bookmark, and my one is Mr Sun: I’m usually guaranteed at least one belly laugh per day. Wandering around his site I found this gem: Mr Sun’s guide to humour on the web. It’s all sage stuff, particularly the section on robots and monkeys.

monkeys and robots are to humor as UPS is to packages: they deliver, baby!

Here are a few simple rules for leveraging this important fact:

  • Use a lot of pictures of monkeys and robots.
  • Frequently refer textually to monkeys and robots.