With all this fuss around "In Rainbows", and discussion of whether this is going to revolutionize the music industry, no one seems to have mentioned that there is an entire industry that has been running on essentially the same principal for decades.

Public Radio in the US (think Radio 4, only twee in an entirely different set of ways) basically operates in exactly the same way: it gives its wares away from free (broadcast radio), and requests the listener to make a donation. Since there's no necessity to comply, they perforce request 'whatever you think is appropriate', although they are keen to give suggestions as to what is appropriate ($10 per month, or 'just a dollar per day' are common examples). The model is a little different in places: since the good is a continuous stream, rather than an album, they periodically interrupt this stream to beg for money. Sometimes for days at a time. Moreover, the game theoretic aspect is slightly altered, since there is a greater incentive to contribute to NPR: fail to donate, and the service might go away, or at least become less usable (more begging, less content). Probably you can argue the same about Radiohead albums, although it's more discrete, and there are more competitors than there are for speech-based radio stations not broadcasting insane rants.



Motivated by the sudden spurt of interest, I watched "Points Of View" this week for the first time in ages. It's, um, not how it used to be. Gone is the catchy version of "When I'm 64" from the opening, either because Paul McCartney now is 64, or else because "Send me a postcard, drop me a line" didn't seem to be easily replaced by "Write on my messageboard, post a snarky blog entry". Instead we get (youchoob embed):

I'm not sure that I particularly like their insinuation, that all the comments are nothing more than "blah blah blah". And that faux jazz tune -- I hope the composer is rightly ashamed of what he has wrought.

The show retains its short (10-15mins) format, but the issues raised seem much more petty than I remember. Perhaps they ever were, but it seems particularly unnecessary to whinge about scheduling decisions in this age of PVRs and timeshifting.

One notably irritating point: just as before, the letters seem to be read by actors. However, in an apparent attempt to fool the viewer, some audio manipulation is added to make it sound as if these are telephone messages. Apart from the dissonance of hearing carefully read speech (with no 'um's or 'ah's), many of these come in over the internet and so are attributed to pseudonymous names like "Bax of delights".

The highlight, though, was probably a rather bizarre segment in the middle which seemed to involve a cut-and-paste piece of found poetry on the subject of BBC cooking shows. I'll leave it to you to work out what that's really about.


Yoof TV

After Charlie Brooker's devastating take down of the current state of Yoof TV, I decided to remind myself of how things were when I was a youth myself. In particular, thanks to the magic of the internet I found a rather grubby copy of "Teenage Health Freak" from Channel Four in the early nineties. I ended up watching the obligatory "Drugs are bad, mmkay?" episode, which was just as cringeworthy as you might imagine it. The basic plot was that the requisite unattainable girl turns out to be regularly getting high on ecstacy tablets, and ends up half-inching some replica guns belonging to the protagonist's cowboy-obsessed father. He confronts her about her misdemeanours, and she takes him to her supplier to retrieve the objects, which ends in about as cheesily a brutal confrontation as you can imagine. The problems with this are principally: (1) there's only so much violence you can show in an early-evening teen themed comedy-drama (2) the sinister pusher and bowling alley manager was played rather unconvincingly by cheery ex-Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan, which rather made the entire episode entirely pointless.

The upshot is that after this confusion, the unattainable girl remains unattainable but at least renounces her life of illegal highs with immediate and lasting effect, and the show moves on with startling rapidity to tackle the equally serious topic of teenage eating disorders equally decisively in the next episode.

Unhelpful tips

Lately, I have been waking up with a brilliant idea in my mind, only to discover on later reflection that it's completely useless. Here's one recent example:

Web programmers! Do you find it too tedious to insert comments into your hand-written HTML files! Is that open-bracket, exclamation mark, hyphen hyphen just too tiresome for you? Then why not try including comments simply by writing them following a # at the end of your embedded URLs, like:
It's easy, and fun!


Record Labels Sue Usenet

According to this story, it seems that a bunch of record labels are suing usenet.com. Although, reading the article, it gives the impression that the labels actually think they are suing usenet itself. Which is somewhat akin to trying to sue email. Wonder how this will play out in court.


Academic Spam

As an occasional bit-player in the world of Academia, I sometimes get special Academic Spam. Usually this is in the form of messages from arch-cretin Nagib Callaos inciting me to participate in his or her Serious Cybernetics Conference, or The Open Applied Mathematics Journal casually bombarding people with garbage. The irritating thing about these messages is that you at first think that you have been specially invited to contribute based on your reputation, and only later do you work out that it's a mass-distributed mail to all and sundry.

Well, I got another invitation yesterday, which had me puzzled for a while. It read as follows:

Dear Professor Dr. Anchor

The Scientific Committee of the Fifth International Conference of Applied Mathematics and Computing (Plovdiv, Bulgaria, August 12-18, 2008) kindly invites you to deliver an 30 minutes invited lecture during the Conference.

You will be accommodated in a room in a five stars hotel (with usual facilities: fully air-conditioned hotel, direct dial telephone, satellite/cable TV, internet access, etc.).

A member of Organizing Committee will meet you at Sofia airport. He will help you with the trip from Sofia airport to Plovdiv.

A little bit of rooting around for the website for this conference and for the conference for last year is enough to convince me that this is simply one of these rather dubious conferences where every submitted abstract is accepted (or "mathematics conferences" as they are sometimes known). The carefully worded CFP fails to mention that you will not be reimbursed for your travels. A check on the previous year's site fails to reveal any list of papers or program, which is a big warning sign.

Still, my paranoia runs deeper: what if this is actually a twist on the traditional con-trick of the 'internet pen-pal' scam, where the lovelorn sucker is fooled into flying off to some Eastern Bloc country to meet the woman of his dreams, only to be kidnapped, and extorted for his life savings in return for his freedom.

I can just imagine getting of the plane in Sofia to be met by "a member of the organizing committee", only to be bundled into the back of a transit van, and deposited unceremoniously in a darkened basement, to be greeted by the sight of a variety of other luminaries of the field chained up to radiators.

Well, no thank you, ICAMC. I think I'll sit this one out, if that's all the same to you.


Columbus Day

I pause briefly to note that it is Columbus Day today, which commemorates my arrival in 2002 in this land. I commemorated the day by organizing all the new music I've acquired in the last year, ripping CDs, putting them into directories, collecting the cover art, integrating them into playlists and so on. Somewhat theraputic, although it seemed to take much longer than it needed to.

Part of the influx of new music came from a trip at the weekend to prex, for an annual scrimmage through the cheap CDs. Came back with a large selection of discs from the mid-nineties that I liked one or two songs from when I head them on the radio a decade and a half ago.

The experience was slightly marred by the witless other shoppers who insisted on making pointless comments about their own selections. And at the checkout, I noticed before I walked away that I had been double charged for the most expensive of my purchases (a sampler CD from Flight of the Conchords). The shop assistant gave me some weak excuse about a problem with the scanner, but I'm not convinced. I wonder if this is a trick they try on all the newcomers.


I have a beef...

Or, strange meat processing companies are trying to kill me.

I happened to get the train into the city yesterday and happened to sit in a seat which happened to have a discarded local newspaper in it which happened to have a story about a recall of meat tainted with E. coli. The brandname looked familiar, so when I got home, I looked up the recall online and after some hunting found a website with a PDF containing UPCs and dates of affected batches. Comparing to the box of burgers in my freezer, I found a match.

So now what am I surprised to do? I threw out the meat (although, since 3 of the 8 burgers were already consumed, I imagine already dodged whatever bullets there may have been; nevertheless, recollections of the Corned Beef Incident reminded me not to take any chances). I suppose I could follow the instructions, and mail in a copy of the UPC to the manufacturers, and be rewarded with a $5 refund, but it hardly seems worth the effort. And I have to go to the effort of finding some replacements next time I'm in the supermarkets, and moreover, finding a new brand since it seems that this producer has now gone out of business over this mess up. There's just no compensation for this sort of petty irritations.


Netflix entertainment value

I've been greatly enjoying watching the shenanigans on the Netflix prize leader board. There's been a great flurry of activity in the last week, which I think is because the deadline for the first year's progress prize was coming up. (it was Oct 2 00:00 UTC, which I think was midnight last night but I'm never sure how to interpret midnight). Team BellKor (who have finally set up the BellKor webpage) was leading for a long time, then just a day ago, Team Gravity and Dinosaur Planet teamed up to form When Dinosaurs and Gravity Unite, and pipped them. For a short while, they were on top, with BellKor so close behind that you couldn't see a gap. Then, overnight, BellKor came back with a winning blow, and just for good measure, introduced a team called KorBell at 23:25 to go another two hundredths of a percent. Gravity/Dinosaurs tried to rally, but only managed 8.38 -- the winning number is 8.43. This is about the only sporting event I am interested enough to watch.