Putting money where my noisy mouth is

I go on a lot about media and software freedom, but what do I actually do about it?
Realising that talk without action achieves nothing, I decided to put some of my hard-earned money behind some of my principles.

In recent times I’ve become quite disheartened by the record industry’s protection racket. Their business model is failing and, since they are big bureaucratic monoliths, they are struggling to adapt. Their approach has been to stick DRM on everything, which basically restricts your ability to do what you want with something that you paid for, and should technically belong to you.
They say all these measures are to protect their artists, but they really only protect the company profits (and seem to be failing at that anyway). This draconian nonsense caused me to boycott music. I just don’t buy it any longer.

That is, until I looked around on the internet a little and found a vast resource of independent “record labels.” A few examples are:

I purchased two albums from Magnatune, and 50% of what I paid goes directly to the artist.
But Magnatune doesn’t stop there. They tell you to share the album with three friends. They figure that if people are going to be dishonest, then that’ll happen anyway — regardless of whether record companies try to do something about it or not. Might as well encourage sharing — cheap marketing.
Another bonus is that you, as the consumer, get to choose what you think the music is worth. The price isn’t set you decide — but the more you pay the more the artist gets.
The albums I bought are

Take a listen. If you like them, let me know and I’ll give you the url and password to download them (or you can just come over to my house and copy the files — geography and familiarity permitting).

The other music sites have varying business models and they all work differently. Throughout though, the music is DRM-free, and that’s what really matters to me.

I haven’t stopped at music. I’ve extended my approach to software
I’m a big advocate of open source software, but I’ve never given anything back to the community. I use the software. I tell people about it. I lord its merits.
But if everyone only did that, there wouldn’t be any software to promote.

The logical way to contribute to open source software is to write some code and submit it to a software project. I suck at writing code — so there goes that one.
I’m not too bad at writing deciphered words, so I tried contributing to the Ubuntu documentation team. That didn’t last very long. Writing documentation quickly became tedious and mundane. Perhaps I’ll look back into it sometime.
No, the easiest thing to do is contribute money to a project. It minimises your time investment and optimises the value of the contribution because that money can be used to pay an expert to do what you would have done poorly.
I sent the team that develops the Firefox add-on, DownThemAll, a donation. It was really a sort of experiment. They sent me an email thanking me for the contribution. Now I intend to send donations to other open source projects which I find to be particularly useful, and well implemented.

It’s interesting to me that I was inspired to make these donation because my brother had registered a shareware application called Total Commander. It’s not open source, and it only works on Windows. Still, he spoke about how he was so impressed with it that he figured the developer deserved the money.
That sentiment seems to have had a lasting impression on me.

Successful e-book readers: not going to happen

Don’t get the wrong impression about my enthusiasm for e-book reader technology from this post’s title. I’m very excited about it, I just don’t think it’s going to take off unless a lot of things change. I’ve had my eye on e-book readers for a while. Alas, they don’t seem to make it across those vast oceans down here to the southern tip of Africa.
This is probably because they struggle to make much of an impression on the markets into which they are introduced. Africa only gets things imported to it once they’ve been proven in developed markets.
I’ve mentioned Sony’s reader in the past, and I linked to this New York Times article on it.

For your convenience I’ll summarise the NYTimes article.

  1. In 2001 everyone thought that ebooks would revolutionise the printing industry, but by 2003 everyone realised that they actually sucked and stopped bothering.
  2. Sony didn’t agree, and brought out a new, exorbitantly expensive e-book reader that uses exciting new technology — E Ink.
  3. E Ink makes reading more pleasant than it would be on a computer monitor, and can be seen in direct sunlight.
  4. You can buy e-books for it, but they have dumbass Digital Restrictions Management which limit the number of copies you can make of the book and rob you of the right to resale the e-book you purchased.
  5. Fortunately, you can also read non-DRM crippled documents.
  6. The controls are counter-intuitive, but mostly the thing seems to work quite well
  7. Other companies are also disagree that e-books suck, and are trying to produce their own dedicated readers (here’s a list of the devices)

This brings us to why I’m writing about this topic again. Lately I’ve been giving Thought Leader a look, and the blogs there are interesting and insightful.
I noticed that Eve Dmochowska wants a Kindle for Christmas, and I decided to throw some of my thoughts into the fray. I could’ve just posted a comment on that blog, but I have a lot to say and didn’t want to chase her readers away with a tedious monologue. Waffle Group readers know to expect danger when that “rambling waffle” category is used — I doubt Thought Leader reader are properly equipped for the monotony.

Kindle is what Amazon.com have recently brought out to compete with Sony’s e-reader. As Eve says, Kindle has potential because Amazon.com already have the connections with book publishers to more easily distribute popular e-book titles. Even more sneaky is the fact that a PC is not required to use Kindle. It has a wireless modem and can connect to EVDO/CDMA networks (provided such network connectivity is available — something she admits would be problematic in South Africa at the moment), and thus can directly download e-books from Amazon.com .
That last sentence is where my optimism about this technology whithers, while Eve’s is nourished. Forget the connectivity issue. Let’s assume that’s all sorted out, as it probably will be in the market where the product is first introduced (the USA).
Eve waxes lyrical about the technology liberating writers from the publishing-house stranglehold. No need to get a publisher to print your novel, just self-publish digitally and you have a simple, cost-effective distribution channel with no overheads for your work.
I totally agree with Eve and the industry shake-up this has the potential to cause, except…

E-books can be downloaded from Amazon.com. Only Amazon.com. And they come in a proprietary format that other e-book readers cannot read. The books are also encumbered with brain-dead DRM.
Certainly Kindle supports some other formats, so one isn’t actually completely reliant on Amazon.com for reading material. Unfortunately some of those formats can only be read on the Kindle if they are converted to Amazon’s format, and to do that you need to email them the document and they’ll email it back in the proprietary format — for a price.
Here’s the problem with proprietary formats and DRM: if this e-book reader thing actually takes off, and Apple brings out an iReader, I might want to ditch the Kindle and go with their uber-cool design and user-interface instead. Sadly I won’t be able to read any of the books I bought in Amazon’s locked file format. That’s the proprietary format issue. Why do these companies use their own secret formats when there is an open standard available? I’m not answering that.

The DRM issue is even worse. Amazon allows authors to upload documents which will be delivered to the Kindle via their Whispernet service. The author chooses the selling price, and Amazon keeps 65% of it. Anyone can publish, and Rick Aristotle Munarriz has tested the scenario that Eve suggests will promulgate itself across the publishing world.
Glorious! I wonder if the Kindle and Whispernet support publishing work under a Creative Commons licence? I doubt it. DRM and CC tend to be an anathema to one another. If you think people don’t publish novels under a Creative Commons licence and make a commercial success of it, think again. Cory Doctorow is an excellent example. I doubt he’ll be distributing via this channel until the DRM stuff is ditched.

If the music industry is anything to go by, DRM just damages sales figures. People get pissed off when you don’t let them do what they want with something they purchased, and irrespective of copyright law, believe that they own.
People who are going to conduct copyright infringement will do it regardless of DRM, because there are always technical work-arounds to this kind of tomfoolery. People who would legitimately have bought the products won’t, because they don’t want the crap and would rather go without music than deal with the idiocy of big corporations.
Digital distribution of music still works though, because the peer-to-peer networks and associated copyright infringement by sharing digital music became firmly entrenched before the recording industry caught on and instituted the DRM foolishness. Now the portable music playing devices are affordable. They may have been expensive when they were first released, but MP3s could be played on a PC too. The compressed format was established and one needed to only wait for the early adopters to buy enough MP3-players to drive the prices down.
This isn’t going to work with books. The DRM is in place first. The e-book reader is too expensive, but unlike music, e-book formats for dedicated e-book readers are not suitable for PCs and laptops. The people who buy the e-books and the readers are going to get annoyed with the DRM thing and the vendor lock-in, and tell their other earlier-adopter friends not to bother. Thus the price doesn’t go down. Thus another e-book reader fails.

I hope I’m completely wrong, because those e-book readers are nifty. I’m not sure they’re “sexy” though (a term Eve favoured in her post).
Seriously, have you seen a picture of these things? Sexy has more curves. 😉

Birthday Observations

Angie turned 28 yesterday.

As part of the celebratory activities, we went for dinner at The Observatory Restaurant.

The restaurant is part of the Aloe Ridge Hotel which is situated in a game reserve. I didn’t properly register this fact before arriving there. The reality of a restaurant inside a game reserve was driven home to both of us as we drove there.
The tarred roads ended and we drove upon the dirt roads. Depending on where we were along the road, the quality of the road surface sometimes left much to be desired. As we drew closer we were warned to drive slowly as there might be hedgehogs crossing.
Didn’t see any though. Perhaps this was because of the next warning sign which mentioned the crossing of rhino and hippos at 40km/h. I felt a little more nervous at this point, but I figured they wouldn’t want to stampede over my car.

Once we finally reached the restaurant (for some reason I was surprised that it was placed near the top of a ridge) we got out of the car and were met by zebra.  Up close and personal. They wandered over to us and seemed to expect us to provide them with something to eat. When we didn’t oblige, they ambled off amicably.
We started to follow them since they were headed in the direction of the restaurant, but another restaurant patron stopped us.

“You can’t go there. There’s a rhino in the path.”

Ha ha. These jokers.
And yet there was a rhino in the path. I took some photos, but they came out blurry since I wasn’t brave enough to use the flash and risk enraging the rhino (who seemed a little restless in any case, especially when it started herding the zebra).
Eventually the hotel staff herded us to the restaurant and the security of brick and mortar.

Food at this restaurant is excellent, and I highly recommend it.
In addition, during the night one is called from their table to take a look at the night-sky. I vividly saw a cluster of stars on the edge of the milky-way that appeared as a fuzzy, barely discernible blob by the naked eye. I saw another galaxy, beyond our own.
My understanding was that we would also be shown a comet, and possibly other sights during the evening. Unfortunately we had to leave a little early because the Neil-and-Angie-Spawn was making Angie tired and nauseous. Even so, we both had a wonderful time and are probably going to be forced to return in the future.

Anniversary celebrations at Valverde

Way back on the 30th of August, Angie and I anniversaried! That’s four years of married love (plus five earlier years of unmarried, sinful love of the flesh).

Valverde buildingsWe went to a place called Valverde Country Hotel for one night. It’s situated in Muldersdrift, along the M5 beyond Oakfield Farm.
It being situated beyond Oakfield Farm is significant, because we were married at Oakfield Farm. Sneaky me.

I didn’t tell Angie where we were going, so as we drove past Oakfield she suddenly looked a little perplexed. Hehe. I was a sneak.
After a little while she eventually asked where we were headed, and I refused to say.

As we came into sight of the place, the first thing I noticed was the sign advertising Paintball. I was already a little nervous about the whole thing because our anniversary is special and I wanted the venue and the experience to be beautiful. I was quite worried that Angie wouldn’t like it, and since I hadn’t been there before there was no sure way of me knowing the quality of the place.
Signs advertising paintball at a supposedly romantic venue gave me cause for concern.

Fortunately, as we drove in it became apparent that the paint ball facilities were situated on one side of the property.

On checking in, the receptionist seemed to take a liking to us, and upgraded our room to the honeymoon suite (something I’d kind of asked for when booking, but hadn’t received confirmation on). Nifty!
The room was wonderful, with four-poster bed, rose petals on the sheets, and complementary champagne. Everything had dark wooden finishes, and all of the windows were fitted with blinds. When we arrived, the room was clean and tidy (it didn’t stay tidy for long, but that had nothing to do with the hotel). The only improvement I could suggest was that the on-suite bathroom be fitted with a larger bath. We could both fit in the bath that was there, but it was a little bit of a squeeze. Seriously, honeymooners want to share a bath with enough space for movement.
But even if the bath wasn’t big enough for movement, the king-size bed certainly made up for it.

The venue itself has lovely, landscaped gardens, with fountains and pillars (but no gnomes). The gardens edge towards kitsch, but stay far enough away from the full-blown cheesiness border to maintain the illusion of authenticity.

Valverde Gardens (with fountain!)Angie in the garden, with the pillars. Angie is not a gnome
We walked in the gardens and took in the fragrances of the herbs that were planted there. It is unfortunate that the metropolis is slowly encroaching on Muldersdrift, and evidence of human activities nearby are very prevalent. Occasionally busy roads pass by the venue, and if you are looking for a complete sense of isolation, Valverde might not be your best choice of venue.
No-one was playing paintball while we were there, but I imagine that had people been playing while we were there our experience may have been a little different (although not necessary worse). Valverde is also a wedding venue, and I sincerely hope they never double-book weddings and paintball sessions. There is an open-air chapel, and the paintball area has line of sight of it. Certainly potential for a Gary Larson “trouble brewing” comic panel.

Albino llamaWhile exploring the venue we discovered two llamas in an enclosure. The discovery of the llamas played a big part in how much I enjoyed the venue, but I am a little quirky.

We went for dinner at the restaurant and, thankfully, there was no llama on the menu. I’m not sure what they keep them there for.
The restaurant had a set menu, with a number of options, which included a vegetarian selection — something which is very important to me. The food was outstanding, and I highly recommend eating there. The service was perhaps a little slow, but we weren’t in a hurry. We could excuse slightly slow service because I’d gone and been a little difficult.
When we arrived at the restaurant, we found it in a thatched roof building with fluorescent lights mounted high up. The lights cast a harsh glow on the room, and it wasn’t subdivided at all. Not exactly the most romantic setting.
I was difficult because I went up to the waiter and asked whether we could set up a table in a more pleasantly lit environment. I identified a lovely spot just outside the restaurant, where the light from inside filtered through the window providing a much more appealing, muted lighting. Out there it would be possible to hear flowing water from the fountain. The skies were clear and starlit, and the temperature that night was quite comfortable. Add some candlelight and I was certain the ambiance would be perfect.
I asked that they move a table to the desired spot, and provide me with a candle and fire with which to light the wick. The staff were completely accommodating, very helpful, and overall friendly throughout the exercise.
As I mentioned, speed of service (but certainly not quality) was slightly impacted upon, but understandably so considering how we were no longer in the restaurant.

If you are looking for a spot to get away for a night, don’t want to travel too far from Joburg,  and don’t want to pay any of your limbs, give Valverde a try.

Driving to work is stupid

Note: This post has been sitting around in draft form for longer than expected, thus references to dates are likely to have inadvertently been turned into lies.

I conducted an experiment. It’s an experiment I’ve been meaning to carry out for a while now, but it involves getting up a little earlier in the morning than I usually do. Getting up in the morning isn’t something I have a natural aptitude for, and so it is understandable that getting up even earlier than normal was something the core of me abhorred.

On Tuesday this week, I managed to drag my protesting body out of the bed in time to eat breakfast and leave for the office on foot.
I could’ve risen at the usual time and just left for work when I normally do without my car, but then I’d have arrived late. Arriving late means staying late, and since I’d have walked to work I’d be needing to walk back home.
Since I live in Johannesburg, I didn’t feel to comfortable walking home late at night.

I set out into the suburb by taking a short-cut past the dam that my property overlooks, instead of leaving home via the main entrance and walking a circular route to get back to the main road.
Walking on the grass next to the dam, feeling the wind on my face and hearing the birds chirping was something I missed out on while driving. The squeaky noises from the yapper-dogs, who disrupted the serenity with their barking, were less appreciated. The barking soon faded away behind me, and I paid it very little attention.
As I approached the road I noticed a great number of cars parked along-side it. That was my first impression, but I quickly realised that the reality of the matter was not that the cars were parked, but rather that they were stationary. Occupants resigned to their fate of slow, painful progress up the hill to the stop street. Slow, painful progress turning left into the next road, and then excruciatingly slow and painful progress of turning left on to the M5 and trundling along towards the turn-off to the highway. Most cars had only one occupant, and they all seemed so lonely and detached.
I walked passed them all.

Probably it is only fair that I point out how close I live to my place of work. Most people work a lot further from their homes than I do, and so walking to work is likely to impact dramatically on their commuting time.
I live about 3.5km from my office, yet I’ve been driving there every day. The walk took me roughly 40 minutes and, considering my life has lapsed into a somewhat more sedentary style, if I did it every day it would be an excellent substitute for dragging myself off to the gym. Remember that I’d be walking back at the end of the day too.
For those who try to make as much distance between their homes and their offices as possible (probably due to hating their jobs inordinately) the challenge of walking to work is much greater.
Most of those people probably haven’t explored the possibility of driving their vehicles to a certain point, and walking the rest of the distance. How practical that might be will vary from person to person.
Angie has tried it by leaving the car at a conveniently placed shopping centre (positioned where the traffic starts to get unpleasant) and walking the rest of the way to her office[1].

My walk to the office was invigorating. I was outside, in the world. Feeling and experiencing it more fully. I wasn’t enclosed in my personal confinement capsule, detached from other people. I wasn’t able to delude myself that those other people were not really people, but arseholes who conspire to ruin my drive to work by cutting me off.
I couldn’t do this because I walked passed people on the street, and if I wanted I could reach out and touch them (they might have been a bit alarmed by this though). I confirmed their existence as real, living people — not obstacles in my way to my destination. They were the ingredients that added to the richness of my journey.
I could interact with these people. If I said “hello” they greeted me back (sometimes with puzzled looks on their faces, other times with more enthusiasm). Not one of the people I greeted ignored me or showed me the contempt that other drivers showed me when I drove my car.
A white guy walking to work in South Africa is quite a rarity and because of this I had one guy whistle to me from across the road. Once I spotted him, he seemed abundantly happy and waved at me enthusiastically. I returned the gesture.

What a rosy picture I paint. There were a few drawbacks though. Something unavailable to the pedestrian is the driver’s isolation. I’ve just shown how isolation is a bad thing, but isolation also allows the occupants of the vehicle to keep exhaust fumes out of their lungs by closing those air-vents. I could wear a gas-mask with a filter of some sort, but I think people would be more inclined to cross the road to get away from me when I attempt to greet them.
Walking is exercise, and depending on the ambient temperature, perspiration ensues. I forget to apply deodorant at my peril (or possibly everyone-in-my-office’s peril).
Walking hurts the feet, but that’s just because I don’t do it every day. I’m upgrading this experiment to a habit, and so I think my feet will get used to it (although they do ache a little at the end of the day at the moment, and I have a blister).
Pavements and sidewalks are in short supply. Apparently municipalities don’t expect people to walk any where near a road. Roads are for cars, and everyone important has a car, right? There are some pavements scattered about, but the effort to lay pavements has been organised in a very decentralised manner. A little pavement here, and then long stretches of heavily eroded dusty footpaths.
I’d like to say that if more people walked, then more pavements would be laid, but that’s ridiculous since most people in South Africa walk to work, or walk to catch a taxi which takes them to a point where they must walk to work. Understandably, pavements might not be a top priority in South Africa, but maybe they could be nudged up the list a little. Expect more on this pavement issue in a future post.
Smokers stuck in the traffic get nervous and need a cigarette but find they have none left. They might ask you for a cigarette as you walk by. This isn’t really a drawback, but since I’m not a smoker I felt bad not being able to ease their pain just a little.

As with everything, there are positive and negative aspects. My contention is that the positives of walking to work easily trump the negatives. I’ll be walking from now on, unless I need the car to get to a meeting or something, because driving to work is stupid.
You should try it too. Probably walking to work (or taking public transport) will be too much for you to do every single day. That’s not a problem. Try it for one day.  If it works out ok, try it  another day. Set a goal to get to work by alternative means once a week, or once a month.
At the very least, even if you decide not to adopt the behaviour, you managed to experience something different.

[1] I lie. We’ve simulated this when I needed the car and dropped her off at the mentioned shopping centre. The end result is the same though.

Piracy on the Lake of Zoo!

Sunday was a most curious day of inept piracy on the low fresh-waters of the Lake of Zoo.

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Latter-day pirates, especially in landlocked provinces like Gauteng, are something of a rarity. In order to spot them, it is best to seek out bodies of water where boats and other watercraft may be found.
Zoo Lake may seem like an unlikely spot to find such miscreants, but in fact it is not. Numerous pirates converged on the Lake this Sunday past. I and my kitchen-wench were amongst them.

Yaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrr!!

We dressed in the manner of pirates, and converged upon the lake. Or rather, the others dressed in the manner of pirates. We dressed in the manner of witches and daemons.
We set upon the boats and attempted to row. Herein lies the ineptitude of the pirate dressed in the manner of a daemon.
Rowing is all backwards, and counter to the intuition.

Yaaaaaaaaarrr! Curses!

Still, the pirate/daemon/witches eventually came to terms with the treachery of reverse-backward rowing tricks.

Alas! Witches and daemons are not pirates at heart, and partook of less rum than those who rampaged across the low fresh-waters, terrorising children and geese alike.
The rum turned the  pirates unruly, and they strayed from their noble cause of ransacking the lake of litter to ransacking fellow pirate/witch/daemon vessels of supplies. Witches lost hats. Daemons lost arcane powers of patience.

Grrrrrr.

‘Twas verily a morning well spent, and had we witches and daemons been more inclined to drink, ‘twould a well spent afternoon have been too.

Daemon!
Daemon

Witch!
Witch

Pirates!
A small selection of Pirates of the Lake of Zoo

Dodgy Movie Reviews

Breaking my “don’t follow random links” rule has led me to an amusing film review, by the self-proclaimed Mister Peace.

In some ways it made me think of Dodgy Movie Review. Dodgy movies were examined. But unlike Dodgy Movie Review (where an attempt is made for objectivity, and dodginess is placed on a pedestal) Mister Peace is in fact warning us to stay the hell away from films he found to be appalling.

He attacks Boondock Saints with gusto (something Dodgy Movie Review may attempt to refute at some point), and reveals something about one of the actors that has changed my impression of the film a little.
This, however, is not Mister Peace’s main focus. Mostly, he just spouts off about whatever he finds amusing. He spouts off in an amusing fashion. I was so amused I added him to my Chinese Government Approved Reading List.

Ultimately, the whole purpose of this post is to see whether or not the custodian of Dodgy Movie Review will post a rebuttal.

Duplex Printing with Word

Here is the scenario. You have a document that is mostly portrait orientation. This is the normal state of affairs.
You want to insert a table, but it’s quite wide and you cannot easily squish it within the boundaries of the page. You insert a next page section break, via the Insert->Break menu. You set the page to landscape orientation via the File->Page Setup menu.
The table is quite long and spans several pages. At the end of the table you insert another next page break, set the new page to portrait orientation and go about your business.
All is well, until you press print.

You see, the problem is that Microsoft Word controls an evil empire of document-writer frustration. Word has lots of features, but if you actually try to use them, it gets annoyed with you. It doesn’t tell you it’s getting annoyed — it just does it on the sly.
You only find out that something is amiss when you attempt to print your document, and the pages arrange themselves in creative, novel ways, making the flow of the document confusing.
Is it art? Possibly.
Is it what the user wants? Certainly not.

To give Microsoft’s Office team some credit where it is due, Word 2003 does manage to print double-sided without any issues — as long as you don’t try to do anything too dynamic, such as mixing pages which have both landscape and portrait orientated pages. If all the pages are landscape — no issues. Likewise with portfolio orientated documents. However, cases (like the one above) occur where people would like to include both.
This eventuality seems to be have been something beyond the imagination of the Word designers.

I have suffered through a great deal of pain in order to give you this useful work-around to the annoying landscape/portrait orientation printing mix-up. I’ll avoid relating all of the pain, because if you googled in here, then you already know the pain and probably don’t want to relive it.

You made your mistake when you inserted a next page section break. The secret is to insert an odd page section break. In fact, it’s critical. And you need to insert on before and after the landscape orientated section.
If a landscape page prints on the reverse of a portrait page, everything will be screwed up. Inserting odd page section breaks is the only solution I’ve managed to come up with. It doesn’t solve the problem with page numbering (which will now be orientated with the landscape page — but you can’t have everything).

That should solve most of the issues, but when I implemented this I found that Word would often let me insert an odd page section break and then, once I’d moved on, automatically (and most unhelpfully) turn it into a next page section break. This didn’t improve my spirits. Especially since it would only come to my attention once I’d printed my 144 page document.
It took me ages to figure out why, and actually I still don’t know why it was doing that. I do know how to make it stop doing that, which ultimately gives us the same result — a document which prints as intended.
Here is how:
Make certain that for every section in your document, the section is set to start on an odd numbered page. Do this by clicking on a page of the section in the document, then clicking File->Page Setup.
On the window click the Layout tab, and select the Section start drop-down. Choose Odd page.

I hope that will ease your pain a little.