Compact Disk

This could make me feel old but I’m not going to let it.  This year the CD celebrates its thirtieth birthday.  I was seven when I watched the famous demonstration on Tomorrow’s World of how you could spread jam on it (clean it off) and it would still play.  They didn’t mention that it you cleaned it with anything more scratchy than a swan’s tail feather and then played it in a less than perfect CD player it would skip more than, oh I don’t know, a bush kangaroo.  But in those early days Sony and Philips’ shiny new disc and player were the future of high quality, high fidelity digital music in a time where computers still had mono screens and games consoles still had faux-mahogany cases.

Today MP3 downloads and streaming services like Spotify are said to sound the death knell for CDs, like those same hypnotic discs were meant to do for vinyl.  I still buy most of my music on CD because I like the experience of getting a new album, opening the case, putting it in the CD player and listening to it all the way through while looking at the booklet.  Once it’s on the computer it’s all to easy to skip tracks and shuffle it with all the other albums.  But then I’m the same with books.  Sales may fall but I’m sure there will be plenty of people like me willing to buy them for some time still.

So happy thirtieth you little iridescent disc you, many happy returns, or should that be repeats.

I Heard It On The Wireless

While there are still hundreds of CD players available more and more people have digital music, even if, like me, they buy a CD then rip the tracks onto a computer.  Having all, or a large portion of your music collection in your hand isn’t a new idea but recent advances have made accessing it so much more than just plugging in headphones.

No more sitting intimately close to your CD player, having to remember not to move too far for fear of yanking your equipment off the shelf or your ears off your head; no more long extension leads trailing across your living room ready to trip up your unsuspecting nearest and dearest.  No, now technologies like Airplay, DLNA and Bluetooth enable quick and simple wireless connections between phones, PCs and speakers and Near Field Communication technology lets phones like recent Sony and Samsung models connect to an output device or share a playlist with a simple tap.

Add into this phone and tablet apps that can remotely stream from or control a computer, or a dedicated media streamer and you can access your whole library of digital music and films at the touch of a screen, through your hi-fi or TV.

The device I use can also form the basis of a portable, rechargeable Bluetooth speaker that only cost me in total £20.  The receiver pictured above automatically pairs with my phone when I switch the Bluetooth on and I can play music either on the portable speakers or on either of my CD players or car stereo via the aux inputs.  The most impressive thing though is being able to pair it with my laptop, set up a remote control of either VLC media player or Windows Media Player via WiFi from my phone and play music from my collection via Bluetooth back to my hi-fi in the living room.  It may not be as seamless as Airplay but considering the variety of hardware it still “just works” and the sound quality is fantastic despite the music being beamed here, there and everywhere before hitting my ears.

Renting Books?

Book ChaosI have a book on my desk, The Consolations of Philosophy, it cost me £3.49 from the Oxfam bookstore, on Amazon it’s £7.36 paperback or £8.99 in the Kindle edition.  So it costs more to have it digitally sent to the Kindle app on my tablet than to have it sent through the post.

I’ve often said that I prefer paper books and for that matter CDs and DVDs because of the sense of ownership, having a physical object in my possession but a recent problem encountered by a Kindle owner illustrates how with digital media the issue of “ownership” is less clearcut.

We’ve known for years that computer software is not owned but licensed and that when you buy a book you’re only buying the medium not the content but as the story outlined by Gizmodo shows an online book or music store can, as per their terms and conditions, remove your access to what you have paid to use and the term “buy” is not strictly accurate as you already own the medium (the Kindle, Nook etc).

Recently a Norwegian woman was, for unexplained reasons, locked out of her Amazon account and as her Kindle had broken she could not reload the books she’d paid for onto a new device, it was however eventually resolved following coverage on various websites.  Amazon said that if a user’s account is closed then they still have access to the books on a device, but it appears that if you change devices you wave bye bye to “your” content.  So it’s not really “yours” at all.  Imagine if you opened up a novel you were half-way through and it had turned into an unlined notebook.  Apart from having the opportunity to write your own ending you’d be a bit miffed.

Of course you could say, as the music industry has done for years, that this prevents illegal copying, that if you lost or damaged a physical book you’d have to buy a new one, and occurrences like this are rare anyway but it highlights a question that needs answering, the industry needs to either enable access to content you’ve paid for regardless of whether you or they have closed an account and promise not to arbitrarily remove content or say up-front that what you’re getting is little more than a long-term hire agreement.

[Gizmodo UK]

Pets & Passwords

christmas cats

If you’re thinking of getting your child a pet this Christmas there’s one thing you need to make sure of beyond the practicalities of its food and where it’ll sleep and whether your kids or you will end up taking it for walks (or if it’s a cat, letting it in or out of the living room/bedroom/bathroom et al).

Bizarro Comics points out the importance of giving the creature a unique, hacker-proof and, most importantly, memorable name as it will almost certainly end up as a security question some twenty years down the line.

[Bizarro Blog via Gizmodo]

I’m Listening

Quietz!  I hearz sumpin coming...

Quietz! I hearz sumpin coming… (Photo credit: pjern)

Voice control of computers has been a dream since before Scotty tried to chat up an Apple Mac in that Star Trek film and now processing power is enabling it to be a reality even though it is still comparatively basic at the moment; even Apple’s Siri is a human-friendly front end of what is effectively a search engine.  Both Siri and Android’s voice actions allow commands to be given to the devices and although they are pretty good at recognising what you ask them to do it’s still not an artificial intelligence.

Nuance, the company that created the technology behind Siri, are working on voice recognition systems that don’t need to be told when to listen (by a tap or a voice command like “Hi Siri”, “Xbox listen” or “Computer?”).  These systems are always listening, just waiting for you to say something that it might be able to do something about; just mumble “I wonder what the weather’s going to be like at the weekend” and your phone will instantly have the weather news for you like the world’s fastest personal assistant, never having to be asked, always ready with the answer.  The idea has great potential in streamlining device use, or customizing the information shown on services like Google Now.

But how annoying could it become if you’re having a normal conversation or even talking to yourself and your phone lights up “sorry, I didn’t catch that, do you want me to find something for you?”  to which you instinctively say “no, I wasn’t talking to you.”  Even more annoying is when your phone replies “oh, well if you’re going to be like that.” and sulks for two days.

No doubt the software will eventually have ways of detecting whether there is more than one voice being heard so it can ignore questions that aren’t directed at it and just sit there making notes about what you and your friend, relative, partner or cat are talking about in case it can find something relevant should it be called upon but there could still be occasions when it may go off and search for something that it shouldn’t perhaps.  Will it apologise for getting you into an embarrassing situation based on something it heard on a tv show?

Of course this will have the conspiracy theorists worried that it’s sending everything you say to the government but that’s inevitable, they probably also think the government’s reading their emails too.  Now where’s my phone hiding?

[Gizmodo UK]