Friday, January 28, 2005

Ein Kol Chadash

"There is nothing new under the sun." The words of King Solomon, wisest of all men, as true today as when he wrote them, thousands of years ago.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a great chess player all by myself. I thought that reading chess books or learning from how others played was "cheating", that the only valid measure of chess skill was the skill you achieved with your raw intellect alone. Naturally I remained a very mediocre chess player, and soon gave it up in frustration.

The point that I missed is that, yes, given an infinite lifespan, it might be interesting to see how far you could get on your own, but in our world, if you don't build on what has been done before, you're not going to get very far. People have been playing chess for hundreds of years. Why not benefit from that experience, and start at the limit of what we currently know, rather than fighting through what others have already done? It's just duplicated effort.

I was reminded of this when, listening to a rap song in the car, I was suddenly struck by how my attitude to rap music had changed. I remember when I heard the first rap songs that used sampling of well-known (to me, anyway) popular songs, such as Puff Daddy's Happy Breath, which uses a sample of the Police's Every Breath You Take. I was really offended. I felt these people were shamelessly stealing the creativity of others, climbing on the bandwagon of a classic song, kind of like a hack artist who achieves notoriety by painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Now I realise that the rap artists are building on a heritage common to all of us, that all artists use. No-one creates music in a vacuum, and if they did we wouldn't recognise or appreciate it. We only like music because we have heard similar material before, and appreciate what the artist has done to build on that body of work. Rap artists place their artistry in the words that they rap and the skill they employ in doing that; the music is less important. Still, by reinterpreting classic music, as Puff Daddy did, a new meaning can be found, a different aspect.

The Police took reggae and ska music that they liked and crafted it into the Police sound, adding their own lyrical and vocal talents on top of that base. The fact that the difference is exaggerated by their playing their own instruments shouldn't hide the fact that they have used a familiar music form. The exact copy that sampling affords means that there is no skill in playing the instruments, certainly, but that is no fundamental objection. One could employ session musicians to perform music without losing one's artistic integrity and licence.

It's interesting that many artists seem to subscribe strongly to the "don't copy" argument, especially when they think someone will copy them, but seem curiously blind (as I wasn't in my nascent chess career) to their own copying. So artists fail to see that their own careers are based on the body of art that has gone before, yet go to ludicrous lengths to prevent anyone from benefiting from their own work on any but their own circumscribed terms (eg Harlan Ellison). Contrast Cory Doctorow, or the artists who contributed to the Wired CD. These people get it. It doesn't seem to make them better artists (that seems to be an independent factor) but I bet they're happier than the ones who obsess about how much they're "losing" to piracy etc. (Entities like the RIAA, of course, do not represent the interests of artists at all, but rather the interests of companies heavily invested in a particular - and hitherto very successful - method of exploiting artists commercially.)

So there isn't anything really, fundamentally new: we are all human, and our responses to the world that we find ourselves in take on familiar forms. Anyone who truly believes he can create something from nothing, that his creativity owes nothing to those who have gone before him, believes himself to be God. And, as the old joke goes, the difference between them is that God doesn't think He's a man.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Microsoft of the VOIP arena?

My ISP (Nildram) recently started conducting VOIP trials, and I signed up. I was allocated an 0870 number, which can be dialled from the PSTN to contact me, and of course I can dial out, using the handy call credit Nildram gives for testing. The voice quality isn't bad, although everyone I've phoned has noticed the difference from normal service. So far so boring; nothing you can't do with an ordinary landline (although it's quite handy to talk and listen completely handsfree when I am working on the computer). The really interesting part of it is my address (really the same as the phone number without the PSTN prefix) on the Nildram SIP server. Using it, anyone using VOIP can call me for free, and I can call them, also for free.

Now when I said "everyone" of course I didn't mean everyone, because of course (there's always one, isn't there?) one player in the VOIP arena have set themselves up with a proprietary standard and a proprietary client application. I'm talking, of course, about Skype.

My friend has a Skype account, and the Skype client on his PC. But the only way I can call him from my Mac (short of routing the call through PSTN and completely destroying the logic of VOIP) is to download Skype for the Mac, get an account on Skype... Why should I do this? I already have a perfectly good VOIP client and a perfectly good SIP server. Why should I bother with Skype when they refuse to play nicely with the other children?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Glo m of Ni t

I just finished the latest Discworld outing, Going Postal. It's definitely one of the better ones, a wry take on City types as Ankh Morpork has its version of the Internet boom. The clacks, a system of communication by semaphor that has played minor parts in previous books, takes centre stage here, complete with obssessive techies and even hackers. No, really. I also enjoyed the return of the golems, and even though they have overcome the tragedy that befell them in Feet of Clay, they remain tinged with melancholy. And Vetinari is in top form as always. Highly recommended.

Career (in the) balance?

I just put up a quick holding page for a friend who's set up shop on his own after working for a career consultancy for a number of years; the site is Career Balance. We'll be putting up a proper site in due course.

Simon is a really top-notch professional with some great ideas on how to go out and get that job you've always wanted. His speciality is career change, which he has personal experience of, as he used to be a lawyer. So if you'd like to change employers (the job market is pretty hot right now) or even change careers completely, give Simon a call.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Do the mini Mac shuffle

Apple's newest iPod, the shuffle, enters stage left: if you haven't seen it yet, it's tiny, has no display (and no hard drive) and is very cheap (£69). You can plug it right into the USB port for synchronising. I think it's a good idea: as small and light as my 15Gb iPod is I sometimes hesitate to take it with me, and I worry about it being damaged when running or skating. The shuffle is a no-brainer: hang it round your neck or stick it in a pocket, it's so light damage risk is slight, and if damage does occur, at least it didn't cost £300. I also think parents will be more likely to buy their kids one of these than a big iPod.

I feel that the other new arrival, the Mac mini, is an idea with great potential. Think of all the weary PC users, ground down by spyware, ready to tell Bill to shove it. But the Apple option requires them to throw away, not just the beige box, but the monitor or flatscreen as well, which seems like a waste, and the iMac is not exactly cheap either. Hmmm, maybe Bill isn't that bad.

Now comes the very affordable Mac mini; you keep your monitor or screen and even mouse and keyboard if they're USB: the Apple upgrade path is suddenly a lot less steep, and doesn't require such a major commitment. Hey, what the hell, I'll give it a try.

I think there's a lot to be said for easing people into change by offering small steps.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I've used eBay on and off for the last few years to buy and sell various odd bits of mostly computer-related hardware, and, apart from one buyer who never made contact, have had no real trouble. So I tended to discount the reports of rampant fraud that I occasionally heard from those I condescendingly regarded as less experienced than myself, being the possessor of 14 whole positive feedback points.

Came last week and I commenced an auction of an 02 XDA smartphone, quite a valuable piece of kit, and easily the most expensive item I have ever auctioned. Functioning rather like the bloody chum that shark fishermen throw into the water to lure the sinister beasts, the XDA attracted some very unwelcome attention indeed.

All seemed well at first, there were the usual questions that a careful reading of the item should have rendered unneccessary, some reasonable bids, and then.. (cue sinister music) The Question. A chap in the US (let's call him The Buyer, since it ends up appearing that he is the winner of the auction) emails me to ask if I would mind shipping the item to Australia, seeing as it's his friend's birthday. He seems to be alright, with reasonably good feedback, so I say fine.

He bids, and his bid turns out to be the winning bid. I send the PayPal payment request, adding on a generous amount to cover the extra postage, which I hope there won't be arguments about. The next day, a payment notification arrives from PayPal. All seems to be well: in fact another £15 postage has been paid on top of what I requested, reason being urgent delivery required to meet the birthday deadline. Very nice. Or is it?

The first nagging question to squeeze past the sight of all that money and come knocking on the door of my attention, is this: the person who sent me the money via PayPal (let's call him The Payer) is not The Buyer! Or doesn't seem to be. The PayPal verified name of The Payer is not the name of The Buyer as supplied to me by eBay. The name of The Buyer appears together with an address under the heading Unverified Address in the PayPal advice, but it most certainly does not appear under the heading Verified Sender: that heading has a completely different name.

The second nagging question appears in the Notes section of the PayPal advice, where The Payer has, inter alia, given me the address of his friend in Australia. He has also advised me that he is paying for an eBay item. However, the item number given is not the number of my item, and the description doesn't match either.

Quickly entering this number into eBay brings up a similar item to the one that I believe I have just sold, and sure enough, The Buyer is the high bidder and the auction is completed. And in the question section is a request for the seller to ship the item to a friend in Australia, as it is his birthday....

Further research on eBay reveals that The Buyer has been quite busy recently, buying up a lot of stuff and asking for it to be sent to his friend in Australia, as it's his birthday. (For those items where this is not apparent on eBay itself, I emailed the seller: "Did the buyer ask you to ship the item to Oz as a birthday present?" "Yes, how did you know?")

In the meantime I get several emails from The Payer, begging me to send the item off to Australia with all due haste. I demur, and instead invite him to explain why he is not the person who actually bought the item, and also why he or his alter ego has been buying so many presents for this most fortunate of Antipodeans, his alleged friend. To this I get only more urgent requests to dispossess myself of the item in question.

At this point I phone PayPal. As I hear myself explaining the situation to the young lady on the other end of the line, I realise there isn't the slightest chance that this transaction is on the level. Still, having called her, I ask her what I should do. "PayPal recommends that you only send the goods to a verified address. If you do that our Seller Protection Scheme will protect you." Hmmm, not only is The Payer's address unverified, I'm not even sending it there. "If I send this to Australia, and [The Payer] contacts you and says his friend never got it, what will you do?" "Reverse the payment." Yikes! OK, XDA, put away the sunscreen: you ain't going near Oz, mate.

One more question: why is The Payer's address unverified? PayPal Lady isn't sure: it's not required to have a verified address. Playing around with my PayPal account, I discover I can add any address I want to my account: it's obviously unverified until I link it to a credit card, but it's there and I can use it to make a payment. Hmmm...

OK, so it seems obvious The Payer is gaming PayPal by getting me to send the item out to a completely non-verified address so that he can reverse the transaction (no wonder he was so free with the postage!) But why the difference in the names? Using a magical tool that I have at my disposal (it's called Google) I conjure up a phone number for The Buyer, and call him in Minnesota. He's surprised by my call. No, he hasn't bought anything from me: he hasn't used eBay in over a year, although strangely enough, he tried to use it a few days ago, and couldn't log on: eBay wouldn't accept his password...

The Payer included a telephone number on his payment advice. The number has a Florida area code. I call it. There's no answer, so I leave a message explaining the situation. Someone calls back. No, he never bought anything from me. He thinks someone may have copied his credit card number while he was Christmas shopping. Hmmm...

Shortly thereafter PayPal send me an email. They are placing a temporary hold on my account while they investigate whether a payment I received was unauthorised. Twenty minutes later, another email. The payment has been reversed, as that "was determined to be the appropriate action". Gone, baby. Like it was never there.

Here endeth the Lesson: Shalt though never sendeth an item to an Unverified Address, lest the wrath of PayPal be aroused, and smight thee mightily. Yea, for howsoever thou might hast thoughtest thy buyer be genuine, yet canst thou place thine trust only in the PayPal Seller Protection Scheme. (And cold, hard Cash On Delivery, of course!)