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Ice Ice Baby

I’ve found that most computer keyboards require far too much force to press the keys – which in my case, means sore hands after even short bursts of typing. Laptop keyboards are much more pleasant, because they use different technology known as “scissor keys”, and I’ve been trying to find a desktop keyboard that uses the same arrangement. In the end, I’ve bought a MacAlly IceKey:

It’s actually my second attempt at the IceKey: I ordered one a few weeks ago but it was faulty. Now I’ve got my hands on a fully working model, I can’t praise it enough. It’s a very fast keyboard and it’s much, much easier on the hands than a traditional desktop keyboard. The IceKey is mac-specific, although similar products are available from PC keyboard manufacturers.

update

I’ve just realised that more cynical readers may think this post is a blatant bit of promotion in return for freebies; that’s not the case. Unless I indicate otherwise, any nice things I say about specific products are genuine opinions on things I’ve shelled out hard-earned cash for, not PR puffery in exchange for cash, freebies or other considerations. Sadly I’m not important enough for PR firms to bribe :-)

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Record label gets it, blows it

The ever-readable No Rock’N’Roll Fun tells the sorry tale of Warner Bros’ attempt to embrace the power of MP3 blogs.

Firstly, here’s proof that Warners gets the power of MP3 blogs:

Warners in the US has been approaching people who run MP3 blogs offering them a Secret Machines track… It’s good that a major label has endorsed these blogs, and accepted what they’re doing, and not merely sent them a cease and desist letter.

And then, Warners blew it.

Warners then had to go and prove their demonic credentials by getting employees to post obviously false positive testimonials in the comments section – it seems that record companies still haven’t learned anything since they first started blighting Onelist email communities in the 90s.

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Free Culture

One of the great things about laptops is that you can use them to catch up on your reading when you travel; in my case, it meant that I finally got round to reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture [free PDF available]. I’ve no idea why it took me so long: it’s great stuff and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the world of copyright law, digital rights management technology and bad laws in general.

In the book, Lessig shows the importance of public domain works – so for example, most of Disney’s famous output is based on others, from Steamboat Willie (the first appearance of the character who would become Mickey Mouse, and a cartoon copy of a film called Steamboat Bill) to films based on the works of the Brothers Grimm. It’s rather ironic that today, Disney is one of the studios behind the constant extensions to copyright that prevent its own works being adapted by others.

The core argument of the book is that the combination of technology and copyright law is enabling copyright owners to do things that are bad for our culture: “code becomes law”, as Lessig puts it. For example, the publisher of an ebook can prevent you from printing it out, cutting and pasting sections into a document or blog post, listening to it with screenreading software (something that’s essential for partially sighted computer users) and so on. Thanks to laws such as the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the European Union Copyright Directive, bypassing these ridiculous restrictions also bypasses the copy protection system, which is an offence.

Lessig backs up his argument with lots of examples: the eBook of Alice In Wonderland, a work that’s in the public domain, doesn’t let you print it out or copy any of the text, two things you are legally entitled to do; a search engine that indexes a network can be sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) if it finds a few illegal MP3s; and so on. He also demonstrates the way in which the combination of current law and the deep pockets of copyright owners can be abused: in the case of a search engine that caught the eye of the RIAA, it’s pretty clear that the developer wasn’t trying to create a tool for pirates, but instead was essentially trying to build a Google-style service for his university network. However, fighting the case in court would have cost $250,000 *even if he won*, while the statutory damages in US copyright law meant that had he lost, he could have been liable for up to $15 million in damages. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, the developer handed over his life savings to the RIAA to get them to withdraw their lawsuit.

Nobody who makes their living from copyright (like I do, and like Lessig does) would disagree that copyright owners have the right to protect themselves from infringement, but there’s a fine balance between protection and abuse. So for example if I write a book, another publisher shouldn’t be able to come along, reprint the book and profit from my work without paying me; similarly I shouldn’t be able to copy and paste someone’s blog post in its entirety, sell it to a magazine under my own name and sit back to count the money, or release my own version of Radiohead’s Greatest Hits and flog it down the market. Copyright law, rightly in my opinion, protects copyright owners from such abuses. However, the technology used to enforce those laws also removes your ability to resell products you’ve purchased, your ability to use the hardware or software of your choice to read ebooks or listen to music, your ability to cut and paste sections for a review or a thesis, and so on. In some cases, it even prevents you from skipping the adverts on DVDs.

We’re still in the early stages of electronic media: ebook sales are tiny compared to real books; download sales are tiny compared to CD sales; electronic magazines are still taking their first, baby steps, and so on. But the assault on long established rights – the right to resell things you’ve bought; the right to criticise and review publications; the right to use the hardware and software of your choice – has already started.

update

Guest blogging on Lessig’s site, Rich Boucher writes about the Pay Per Use society:

Whenever I speak with librarians about fair use or the Copyright Act more generally, I inevitably hear them express concerns that we run the risk of becoming a pay per use society, one in which content is available only for a fee. I am concerned that the bookmobiles we all grew up with and their modern day equivalents will go the way of the eight track and the reel-to-reel, replaced by a world in which access to information will depend on the ability to pay and, worse, a world in which a payment gets you only a license to view or listen to something, not to actually own it.

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Alien in 30 seconds (and reenacted by bunnies)

I have a weakness for daft Flash animations, and Albino Black Sheep’s series of film parodies (all in thirty seconds, all starring bunnies) is dafter than most. The latest epic is Alien in 30 seconds (and reenacted by bunnies).

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More Mac musings

The Register reports that Apple has filed a trademark application for what looks suspiciously like a tablet computer:

Inevitably the rumour sites are ablaze with speculation, and the Apple Product Cycle has started all over again.

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When PJ met Powell

PJ O’Rourke abandons his usual sarcastic sniping for a face to face meeting with Colin Powell. O’Rourke admits it’s more of a conversation than an interview, but it’s interesting stuff that covers terrorism, economic development, The Beatles, Elvis and Volvos. [via MetaFilter]

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I have sexy vowels

Or at least, I do if this New Scientist article is correct. A study by a linguist found that:

men labelled with names including “front vowels,” such as the “aaa” sound in Matt were rated as more attractive by website viewers than photos labelled with “back vowel” names, such as the “aw” sound in Paul. The opposite was true for women’s names.

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Return of the iMac

The new iMac won’t be one of the candy coloured wonders I posted about yesterday; apparently, it’s going to be a “sleeker” version of this Sony machine:

That’s what Think Secret says, and it has full specifications from an apparently reliable source.

The information certainly looks credible, and it fits with the rumours that have been floating around the Web for a while; however, if Think Secret’s source is on the ball then the new iMac will be the same price or even more expensive than the recently canned range. I’m not convinced that’s a good idea: by making well designed but very expensive products, Apple is becoming what Dell boss Michael Dell calls “The Bang & Olufsen of the computer industry”. Personally I’d rather see a well designed iMac without an integrated monitor, as that would reduce the cost of the iMac and tempt many more people into the Mac family.

We’ll find out for sure on 31st August; however, if I were a betting man I’d put money on Think Secret being correct.

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Wishful thinking

MacKompass.de has created a rather nice mockup of a G5 iMac that would make a lot of Mac fans very happy indeed.

I doubt it’s even close – we’ll find out for sure in a week or two – but it’s a nice idea.

[Via Cult of Mac]

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Music magazines aren’t working

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s wrong with the redesigned Q Magazine, and I think I’ve finally worked it out: it’s emphasising quantity over quality.

Q has fallen into the trap of thinking that the number of reviews (and lists, and songs) is all that matters, so an issue with 137 album reviews is much better than one with 122. It’s a trait shared by many other music mags too, many of which have reduced the per-review word count to enable them to squeeze more reviews into the same space and put the all-important “we review everything!” claim on the front cover.

So what do you get for your money? In most cases, those reviews will be capsule reviews: 100, 120 words to describe an entire album. If you’re not familiar with the artist, that’s not enough space to get you interested; if you are interested in the artist, it’s not enough to sate your desire for information. So it’s a waste of space for non-fans, and a waste of space for fans.

The second problem with such reviews is that the overwhelming majority of them will be for records that aren’t truly excellent and aren’t truly awful; it’s the territory of the dreaded two- or three-star verdict. Have you ever rushed out to the shops to buy a CD from an unknown artist on the basis of a review? If you have, I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t a two- or three-star review.

The third problem with the reviews section is that the world has changed. For example, let’s look at 1988 – when I was hopelessly addicted to a weekly fix of NME – and 2004.

The way it was: 1988

If you were a fan of alternative music, the NME was a lifeline. Radio wouldn’t play “your” bands, and the mainstream press didn’t bother with them. If you wanted to find out about tours, record releases or news, the NME and Melody Maker were your only sources for that information. Each week, you could also see what records were due to be released the following week, and whether they were worth rushing down to the record shop for.

The way it is: 2004

If you are a fan of alternative music, the Internet is a lifeline – but it isn’t your only lifeline. “Your” bands are covered in the tabloids and played on mainstream radio, which is desperate to ditch its “smashy and nicey” image. If you want to find out about tours, record releases or news, you can get it direct from the artists’ web site, or from an obsessive fan site. By the time records are reviewed in the music press, they’ve been on heavy rotation on Radio 1, MTV2 and Kerrang TV for six weeks, and you downloaded the MP3s from Kazaa a fortnight ago. More and more people are getting their music criticism from weblogs and from e-zines, and in most cases that criticism isn’t crammed into a three-paragraph review that has to describe the record and introduce the artist to the uninitiated at the same time.

The way it should be

Given that the combination of radio, the Internet and satellite TV has effectively rendered capsule reviews redundant, the music monthlies should dump them altogether. Instead, it could do what those media can’t do: provide readers with access to big-name acts and tell interesting stories. It could also dump the dross, and instead draw people’s attention to the music that’s worth bothering with – the four- and five-star records, not the two- and three-star ones.

Word Magazine knows this, and despite its older target market the title is thriving. However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that with its numbers-heavy redesign, Q has taken a big gamble – and bet on the wrong horse.