Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Education and technological incompetence

A couple of years back, I completed my Masters degree. It was principally concerned with open, online and distance learning; in short, educational technology in the modern learning environment. Now, while I never really expected to be able to apply all those ideas in my job, since our learning institutions are still very much based around classrooms and traditional structures, I did at least think that it would be generally accepted that, as the information age moves into the digital age, the importance of such technology would be basically unquestioned. The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.

Some six years before that, I worked for an institution which was integrating the internet and computing into examinations. Instead of pen-and-paper exams for each separate discipline, we were beginning to do combined, networked exams. Students would begin in the morning, have a number of tasks to complete over the next few hours, had full access to computers and the internet, and took breaks when they wanted. The general idea was to make the examination as 'realistic' as possible, essentially reflecting a day at work, along with the resources and skills required to deal with it.

By no means was the procedure perfect, but it nevertheless embodied the principle that education and examinations should adapt to the actual way the world works. Educational institutes do not exist in a bubble; they should prepare students in a way which is relevant to society and the work environment into which they will be thrust upon graduation. Even if not all institutes could or should be consistently cutting edge, surely all must be informed by the realities of the world outside.

When I began teaching in the late 90's, I purchased a briefcase which ultimately broke under the weight of the stuff I had to carry around in it: textbooks, dictionaries, cassette players and so on. I quickly lightened the load by purchasing an electronic dictionary, which was soon supplemented with and ultimately replaced by a Palm handheld. Nowadays I have only a MacBook Air, a set of USB speakers, and the occasional textbook. The university has a wireless network which, even if a bit flaky, covers the whole campus. Beyond that, smart phones have expanded internet connectivity to the point that essentially all my students are online at all times. Not being able to access the internet is the exception, rather than the rule.

Textbooks are next for the chopping block, as Apple's keynote yesterday indicates. As mobile computing becomes increasingly powerful, yet also more lightweight and affordable, and as the digital publishing becomes easier, lugging heaps of textbooks to lectures will become a thing of the past. I'm not fantasizing here, nor jumping on the 'Apple will revolutionize education' bandwagon; this is just the way the world is now. This semester, for the first time, I have students using iPads to write academic papers. Between exams today, most students pulled out their smart phones and checked Facebook or whatever. In many ways the important point is that this technology is not brought into the classroom by teachers, but by the students themselves.

In this context, I would argue that it is largely anachronistic that my students today are writing an exam with pen and paper. After all, the only time in their lives that they will actually do such a thing is in an examination. But I accept, with qualifications, that our institution does not have the resources or confidence to administer the kind of networked examination that I described above.

Worse, in my view, is the professor who says, amidst sexist jokes, that universities should be the same today as they were 60 years ago.

I do not expect everyone to be as much of a geek as I am, but people whose job it is to offer instruction to the youth of today should have a basic level of technological competence and understanding. Without that, how can you possibly stand in front of a classroom and offer your students relevant instruction in an appropriate manner?

Journalism in Der Spiegel #2: The apocalypse in anime and manga

The second of two articles lambasting journalism in Der Spiegel.
While we're on the subject of poor journalism from Der Spiegel, I'd like to point to this recent article, published in the wake of the March 11 earthquake Japan. The basic idea here is that things like anime and manga, for all their weirdness to Western audiences, have now proven themselves to be a prediction of the future.

Let's take a look at what the article has to say about this picture, which it gives (my translation) the title Tsunami-Victim in Natori: As if lifted from a manga:

There is a photograph that a photographer took after the earthquake in the town of Natori. Before the earthquake some 70,000 people lived there; today the town has been reduced to rubble. In the picture, a girl cowers at the side of a road. She's perhaps 20 years old; hair dyed red, wearing a black jacket and hugging her naked legs, it looks as if the girl is freezing and she herself is the only thing she has left to hold on to. Next to her are a pair of wine-red Wellington boots, behind her the remains of civilization. As if Godzilla had trampled through the town.

To me, this is dreadful in several ways.

First of all, in an article which claims to be about the artificially of culture, the only way it seems able to view the suffering of this girl is through the lens of popular entertainment. Saying that it looks like something out of a comic book does not suggest much empathy.

Secondly, I'm quite sure that the photo looks the way it does because of that. The photographer, or editor, wanted to create an image which made you think of manga / anime. In that sense, the fault is not entirely with Der Spiegel, although they should have noticed the implicit manipulation.

But more importantly, the argument that Japanese popular culture is a prediction of such disasters is, to put it midly, completely arse-about-face. Yes, the geographical situation of Japan leaves it particularly susceptible to natural disasters, and the Japanese have always been aware of the fragility of their existence. But those recurring images of destruction in anime and manga? They're about something far more specific that has already happened.

Yes, you've guessed it: the two atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the USA at the end of the Second World War. Such manga, anime, and movies like Godzilla are not haunted by destruction because of an apocalypse that might happen, but because of the apocalypse that already has. I find it completely unfathomable that the author of the Spiegel article does not feel it necessary to mention this: the bombs are mentioned in passing, almost like inconvenient details which to not fit into the argument of the article. To be sure, some (recent) manga and anime do specifically predict what might happen in the event of an big earthquake in Japan, such as Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or 51 Ways to Save Her. But these are really the exceptions; works like Akira , Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion are far more representative, and in all of those the apocalypse has already happened. Talk about a hint.

This should be so obvious that it doesn't need pointing out. Yet despite discussing Nausicaä, it still doesn't occur to the author of the Spiegel article. But perhaps it explains why they find Japanese culture quite so weird.

Journalism in Der Spiegel #1: The school teacher in Penthouse

The first of two articles complaining about journalistic standards in Der Spiegel.
This week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article entitled 'Not fit for school: Why a teacher is fighting for her right to undress' (my translation). Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Spiegel website, so I can't provide a link; the week before did contain a summary of the news, without commentary.

The story is this: Rachel Whitwell, a New Zealand school teacher, and girlfriend of one of the country's biggest porn kings, decided to pose nude in the Australian edition of Penthouse. The New Zealand educational authority found out, decided to investigate, and ultimately revoked her license to teach. The original photos caused a minor scandal two years ago; then she posed again a year later; and the educational authority's recent verdict is now causing a much bigger scandal. As the title of the Spiegel article indicates, it isn't really about a teacher who strips before the camera, it's about one woman's fight for freedom.

Or not. Der Spiegel goes out of its way to tell us a story about a young woman who wants to be a good mother and spend more time with her daughter, so decides to supplement her teaching job with better-paying nude modelling. Which is such a shame, as she's clearly an exemplary teacher:

She taught five and six year-old children from socially disadvantaged families. She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and tried to encourage them. She says she wanted to bring them up to be free thinkers.
As a teacher myself, I'm not convinced that's such a big deal. She taught the kids The Three R's. She did her job. Incredible.

Worse, Spiegel seems to have got its facts wrong concerning the original motivation for her to strip. Just to prove how lame Der Spiegel's research is in this article, here's how I found out.

The summary article I linked to above refers to a publication called the 'Sunday Times', in which the Ms Whitwell said she saw no reason why posing nude should affect her job as a teacher. Curious about what such an august publication as that had to say about this topic, I googled 'Sunday Times Rachel Whitwell'. In fact, the publication is actually called the Sunday Star Times and refers to itself as 'Sunday News' (article here). Excellent use of sources, Spiegel. Anyway, right above the google link to that article is another from the New Zealand Daily Telegraph in 2009 which contains a little more information from around the time of the original photo shoot. And it turns out that she originally posed nude, not spend time with her daughter, but to get back at her pornographer boyfriend. Half his age, she had decided to test him by anonymously flirting with him on facebook; he organised a rendezvous; she confronted him and sent the photos to Penthouse in revenge.

See any mention of the caring mother in there? Nor me. Sounds more like a retcon.

The latest Spiegel article also fails to mention, as the summary one admittedly does, that Ms Whitwell had previously had erotic stories published in adult magazines, and has her own table-dance studio. I suppose such omissions are understandable when you're trying to make the case for a struggling single mother who accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for truth. Oh wait, that was Erin Brockovich.

Indeed, the Spiegel article reads as if its attempting to answer the call of another article by the Sunday Star Times which bemoans that, with regard to this case, no feminists are coming forward to demand that a woman's body is her own. Let's think for a moment why that might be.

First of all, no one has said that she isn't allowed to strip before the camera if she wants. She's not being prohibited from posing in Penthouse. The NZ education authority has just decided that she's not allowed to do that and teach children. That may or may not have to do with the conservatism of the authority; but given the erotic stories, the table-dancing, the pornographer boyfriend, and then the photos and subsequent interviews, you can't exactly say that she's making it easy for them to be open-minded. Challenging them at every opportunity, more like.

Secondly, Ms Whitwell hardly went out of her way to be anonymous. Claiming, as she does here, that she had no idea that anyone in New Zealand would see the original photos is naive beyond belief. There's this thing called the internet, see? And Australia? It happens to be this huge mass of land not far (relatively speaking) from New Zealand. Penthouse? That's hardly an obscure magazine. And actually posing as a teacher in the photos and on the cover of the magazine? Very tasteful.

Thirdly, this isn't about women's rights, because a male teacher would be treated no differently, and probably worse. Indeed, that fact that Ms Whitwell is a woman probably made the whole posing in Penthouse thing more acceptable, despite the authority's verdict. I'm quite sure they would have come down on a male teacher posing in Penthouse like a tonne of bricks, and I can easily imagine suspicions of paedophilia flying around too.

Finally, the key question, and one which Spiegel conspicuously fails to ask, is whether you would want such a woman (or man) teaching your children. For most people, the answer is surely, 'No'. Spiegel almost suggests that this is hypocrisy, since no-one bats an eyelid about a fireman posing in a nude calendar. But firemen and women aren't responsible for children in the same way that a teacher is. And as I said before, Ms Whitwell hasn't exactly been discreet about this whole issue.

What I'm really getting at, though, is Spiegel's botched attempt to make this about freedom and women's rights. It isn't at all: it's about responsibility. If Ms Whitwell wants to pose nude, let her. But she should take responsibility for the consequences. If she taught at a university, she would have to deal with students and teachers who are capable of googling her name; if she worked in an office, she'd have to deal with colleagues and customers who do so; as a primary school teacher, she has to deal with parents. That's part and parcel of the choice she made by posing nude in the first place.

The women's rights movement was always about choice and equality: the right to choose the same things as men. It was never about freedom to do anything you want without concern for the consequences. That's a form of anarchy. The fact that Spiegel, which is supposed to be 'good' journalism, can't tell the difference, is disappointing.

No Smoking

Today I walked into 'Bagels and Beans' to have one of their freshly-made bagels for lunch; and the first thing I did was gag on the smoke. I suppose the effect was accentuated by the contrast with the slightly chilly autumn air outside; but still, my first inclination was to walk right outside again and find somewhere else. Instead I stayed, and watched the woman behind the counter prepare the food, all the while aware of the unpleasant stink in the air.

Since we got back from Britain, I've felt disgust at cigarette smoke more than before. The trip was a revelation. For the last 9 years I've considered almost every aspect of German café/pub life to be superior to its British counterpart—not least the fact that there is hardly any distinction between café and pub. But in Britain they now have something better that the lack of drunkards, the ability to order coffee or hot chocolate at night without being looked at like a freak, and cafés that stay open until one in the morning—in Britain, they have no smoking in public places. And this, good people, is awesome.

Of course, all the smokers will complain about having to go and stand outside when they want a fag. Irrelevant, as far as I'm concerned. The next step in the argument is to accuse us non-smokers of being hypocrites—while our objection is that smokers impose their habits on us, our solution is to impose our will on them. Their habit makes us uncomfortable; we solve it by making them uncomfortable. We limit their freedom to relax by forcing them into the cold night air. How illiberal is that?

But there is an important difference. If smoking was a habit which did not impact on everyone else, then there might be some truth in the claims of hypocrisy. But one person smoking in a pub results in everyone else smelling of smoke. You might not feel unclean after a cigarette, but I do. My hair stinks; my clothes stink. Do you have any idea how revolting it is to eat food while a person on the table opposite is puffing away? It's no fun, and that's a fact.

No: the issue is not about one side imposing their will on the other. It's about responsibility. You chose to smoke; you know it's unhealthy, and that passive smoking is bad for everyone around you. You chose to fill your lungs with tar; now live with the consequences. True, smoking is your choice, and a liberal society should be amenable to people's choices (I'm with The Economist in believing that all drugs should be legalised)—but don't think that the right to choose gives you the concomitant right to infringe on everyone else's rights.

Imagine how fabulous it would be if all the smokers of the world realised how unpleasant their habit is for everyone else, and voluntarily decided to leave cafés to smoke. An excellent world, but it isn't about to happen any time soon. But short of that, it's only right that governments take matters into their own hands and ban smoking in public places—if you're not prepared to take responsibility for your antisocial habits, don't be surprised when others make the decision for you.

Come on, Germany: what are you waiting for?

Universal Music shows its true colours

So Universal Music has decided to offer DRM-free music for download. Hooray! Except they won't be doing it through iTunes, but through all its main competitors. Universal's argument is that Apple's DRM has stifled growth of the online music market, and thus they will not be offering their DRM-free music through the the leading online distributor. As John Gruber said, WTF?

It's quite simple really. Universal are painting Apple as being the big bad guy who needs to be toppled. The iTunes Music Store is the leading distributor of legal online music—and it's achieved that position because it was the first service to convince the major music labels that there really was a way to distribute music online and legally. DRM was the catalyst which got the record companies on board, despite it being clear that what the public wants is DRM-free music. And now that the whole DRM model has become increasingly unsustainable, everybody is tripping over themselves pointing fingers at each other and saying that the whole DRM thing was someone else's idea.

Hence, Universal are now claiming that Apple is addicted to DRM music, because it locks people into the iPod. True, Apple's-DRM based music will only play on iPods. But iPods will also play pretty much everything else except WAV. In fact it's a blatant lie: given that Steve Job's recent 'Thoughts on Music' was backed up by offering DRM-free music in collaboration with EMI on iTunes, it should be clear to anyone with a modicum of integrity that Apple isn't bothered about the so-called iPod lock-in. iTunes is the market leader; the iPod is the market leader; and they will both remain so because they simply blow the competition out of the water. Just like being able to install Windows on your Mac via Bootcamp: yes, Apple could lock you in to Mac OS X if they wanted, but given the choice, you're going to stick to Mac OS X anyway. People will use Bootcamp for playing games, that sort of thing—but they'll live in OS X because the user experience is so much better. At the risk of sounding too much like an Apple fan-boy, the key thing that you have to remember about Apple is that they are absolutely convinced that they don't need lock-in: they've got quality instead. Hence Job's comments that they won't be bringing out a budget-priced Mac even though it would garner market share—there's certain lines they won't cross, like releasing rubbish.

The whole DRM finger-pointing is just a distraction from the real issue, which is cleverly hidden down at the bottom of the NYT article:
Under Universal’s arrangements with digital retailers, at least some of its new music will be sold in unprotected form for 99 cents, company executives said.

At least some—that's the key. The problem is that Apple has steadfastly refused to change the pricing strategy on which iTunes is based—99¢ per song. When EMI and Apple launched the iTunes Plus concept, with DRM-free songs of twice the quality for $1.59, there was some discussion with how that would fit together with the rest of the store. Again, quality—this time of user experience. There is a simple, elegant pricing strategy which permeates everything. But once they were convinced that the whole online thing could be profitable, the big labels have decided that such transparency was not what they wanted (EMI excluded, hopefully). What they want is variable strategies, with 'budget' prices for back catalogues and premium prices for everything else. Lonny Donegan you'll be able to buy for peanuts; you want the Pussy Cat Dolls, you pay through the nose.

While Apple and EMI have shown us what the future of online music could look like, Universal are digging their heels in and trying to recapture the past—a past where the consumer is kept in the dark as much as possible, because lack of and clarity consumer iand clarity is deemed an economic advantage. This isn't about DRM at all. It's about whether quality vs. quantity, transparency vs. obfuscation. The basic aim is the same—naturally, all these companies want to make money—but the methods are different. Do they provide you with the kind of service where you part with your cash willingly, or manipulate you into thinking you're getting a bargain when you're not?

Tool, Flaming and Falsifiability

Well, I’ve been flamed and by, some definitions, engaged in a bit of flaming myself, over at Thought Mechanics. I do tend to take the bait, that’s true. But for crying out loud, all I wanted was a decent debate about the relative merits of Tool’s new album. But it’s reached the point where if I put up a post saying ‘come on, what happened to the debate’ I will have lost, in so far as that will elicit another response from the idiot Stefan, who will conclude that I have to have the last word, that I am a smart-arse trying to prove that I am smarter, and that he has won. So instead I will back off, because there is no longer any point. He will, of course, conclude that he has won because he has ‘shouted me down’ and I have given up. There is no possibility of 'winning' against - or countering, or responding to - such arguments.

Every viewpoint should meet the basic criteria of falsifiability. It should admit the possibility of counterexamples. If, as in the case above, everything that I do or say will prove my opponent right - in his view - then there is no longer room for any debate, and his view - not mine - is shown to be inadequate. Objectively speaking, he has lost. And I am not a smart-arse for saying so - it may be that I am a smart-arse, but for different reasons - because his argument has defeated itself.

I know that I argue in detail, at length, and that I try to do so persuasively. This does not, in fact, mean that I believe that I am right and you are wrong. One black swan will disprove the theory that ‘all swans are white’; I’m looking for the black swan in your argument, and hope that you will do the same to mine.

As far as the Tool debate goes, I’ll not go back until someone else has posted something worth responding to. In my last post I quoted Oscar Wilde:
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

Of course, this too can be falsified. It just seemed to encapsulate the general tone of the debate well…

Against Copy-Controlled CDs

There has recently been a shift away from the largely authoritarian prohibitions adorning CDs to a more ‘personal’ approach: rather than the familiar “All rights reserved. Unauthorised copying blah blah blah is prohibited”, recent EMI CDs have sported the spiel reproduced below.
Thank you for buying this music and for supporting the artists, songwriters, musicians and others who've made it and made it possible. Please remember that this recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Since you don't own the copyright, it's not yours to distribute. Please don't use Internet services that promote illegal distribution of copyrighted music, give away copies of discs or lend discs to others for copying. It's hurting the artists who created the music. It has the same effect as stealing a disc from a store without paying for it.

Apart from the somewhat whining tone, this is a shift of focus away from what we might call ‘professional’ copying (pirating CDs en masse and selling them in shops as actual substitutes for the originals) to ‘casual’ copying (making copies for friends). The latter has apparently reached such proportions, and the copies such high quality, that it is considered the more threatening to the music industry, or at least threatening enough to warrant a direct appeal. This appeal is apparently to the better side in all of us, the side of us which is basically law-abiding, and the side of us which doesn’t really understand the implications of what we are doing when we copy a CD for a friend. However, I find it sentimental, patronising and on the verge of insulting.

That illegal copying and downloading have reached unprecedented proportions is beyond question. What is questionable is the explanation presented in the passage quoted above. You and I copy CDs because we don’t understand what we’re doing, how it’s hurting the poor musicians and ‘others’ (I wonder who they are? - perhaps the same people who were so afraid of releasing Terry Gilliam’s most famous film that he had to put an advert in the newspaper which read, "Dear XYZ, when are you going to release my film Brazil?" - in short, the pushers of pens). It’s like stealing from a shop, and you and I wouldn’t do that, now would we? Yet we copy CDs. The unavoidable implication of this is that the music industry regards the likes of you and me not so much as customers but as potential (or actual) criminals. How generous. And if we could only realise how it hurts (and don’t forget, as R.E.M. once said, that “Everybody hurts”), could let our hearts fill up with sympathy and empathy, instead of apathy, we could rise above the sinful temptation.

Do I go too far? Perhaps. But please note that there in no mention of the over-pricing and poor standards of commercialised music in the passage cited (admittedly, how could there be?). All the blame for the current proliferation of copying and downloading is the consumer’s responsibility. The music industry have (needless to say) absolved themselves of the need to produce quality music at a reasonable price - in short, of giving us value for our money. And so long as the blame is one-sided, and seen as solely the prerogative of the unscrupulous consumer rather than the unscrupulous producer, there will never be a solution to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting the illegal distribution of CDs and I am not an inveterate copier of CDs myself (I own over 800 bought CDs). I most definitely agree that we should pay musicians for what they do. What I am disputing is that the problem lies where the music industry think it does (or better: where they are telling us it lies) and that it can be solved in the way they think it can.

So here, in a little more detail, are my objections.

1) The argument from stealing goes like this: if I copy a CD for a friend, I am depriving a store of the sale of that CD. If I hadn’t copied the CD, my friend would have bought it, and as such the shop would have made its €16, and thus I am effectively stealing. Fallacy #1: there is no reason to think that my friend would necessarily have bought the CD if I had not burnt it for them. True, they might have; but might have is entirely different from would have. They might have listened to it in the store, decided that there were only two good songs on it, taped them off the radio, and waited for the Greatest Hits to come out. In that situation, exactly how has the copying deprived the store of money? It hasn’t, and my point is this: even if copying CDs often deprives stores of money, it does not categorically deprive them of money, and as such cannot categorically be compared to stealing.

Which brings up to Fallacy #2: copying a CD for a friend is not like stealing it from a shop, for the simple reason that I bought the CD which I am copying. Naturally this does not give me copyright over the material. But I still paid my €16 for the CD, and even if the store has diminishing returns on that CD the more I copy it (one copy = €8, two copies = €5.33, and so on), at least there are returns. When I steal a CD from a store the returns are immediately €0 for everyone involved. True, the store doesn’t make its second €16, but it did make its first, and in this copying a CD is significantly different to downloading songs from the internet or indeed stealing it. To accuse the general public of effectively stealing a CD from a store when they copy it for a friend is over-simplistic and sensationalist.

However, it might be argued that even if what I say is true, when I copy a CD from a friend, the analogy with stealing is more appropriate, since I have paid nothing. But that still depends on whether or not the friend bought the CD or downloaded it from the Internet, since ultimately what interests the music industry is how many CDs are sold, not who buys them.

2) Why isn't the industry clamping down on second-hand record shops? Don't they re-sell CDs at reduced price and prevent people from buying them at full price from high-street stores? (Okay, that’s a bit pedantic....)

3) It is disingenuous to suggest that artists are only hurt by copied CDs, since it ignores the role that ‘burnt’ CDs can play in selling CDs indirectly, or at least judges it insignificant. To take an example: suppose I have two copied CDs of Ani Difranco at home. But I could qualify that by saying that I have eight bought CDs by Ani Difranco at home as well. If I hadn’t been given copies of those CDs by a friend several years ago, I would never have discovered her music and bought every album she has released since. So in this case, surely even if those two copies of CDs are comparable to stealing, the threefold returns of subsequent sales must offset that.

Ani Difranco has a far better slogan than the EMI blurb on her CDs:
Unauthorised duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.

This strikes me as much more honest. Ani Difranco is herself a fine example of what is meant by ‘while sometimes necessary’, since her career is built on the distribution of bootlegged tapes of her earliest album(s) during the early nineties, which built a following because of the quality of the music (pushers of pens take note) that allowed her to become a successful independent artist thereafter. Just how many artists have built their careers on great live performances and casual copying? My estimate would be many, although admittedly confined to the so-called ‘independent’ scene. A great British example would be the Ozric Tentacles, whose early albums are all 60 minutes long because that was the length of the cassettes they were recorded onto. But if we start talking about unauthorised copying possibly being more threatening to some artists than others - namely, more threatening to the commercialised, over-promoted artists who only have hits because we are told that they are good, than to those who eschew such machinery and consistently produce good music and live performances without top 40 hits - then we are entering a wholly different ball-game.

4) Someone may accuse me of having a deficient sense of morality: that just as stealing is wrong (=illegal), copying a CD is wrong (=illegal), and that, after all, something is either right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. The answer is that there are shades of grey. Remember the old commandment of Thou shalt not kill? Try explaining that it means in all cases to any God-fearing Christian of the crusades, or latterly born-again Christians like George Bush. My views about the war are irrelevant here; just that when even self-professed Christians believe that killing is acceptable in some circumstances, what compels the rest of us to accept that stealing is in all cases wrong? And furthermore, anyone who sides with the music industry should stop being an apologist, since surely no-one in their right mind thinks that the industry itself believes in black-and-white morality. Just watch the sliding standards of sex/advertising on any music TV station you care to mention if you don’t agree.

5) Copying a CD for a friend is vastly different to downloading music from the Internet or indeed posting music on the Internet for others to download. Such a song is readily available to thousands upon thousands of people, which is somewhat different to the limited number of CDs that could be burnt for a circle of friends that have similar music tastes. Internet sites which promote illegal downloads of music are more comparable to the ‘professional’ copying I mentioned earlier than to casual copying through the sheer magnitude of potential downloads.

6) I find the Apple Music Store, which recently celebrated its 10 millionth download amongst American Mac users alone, instructive in several ways.

i) The obvious: that it is commercially viable to sell music downloads over the Internet, if the price is reasonable, the service effective, and people have the right to do what they want with the music (such as burn it to CD) when they have downloaded it. All the previous solutions offered by the music industry were overly paranoid and incredulous, like suggestions that people could ‘rent’ the music on subscription or pay for the number of plays.

ii) The principle fear of the music industry - that such a service would promote ‘greatest hits’ or ‘Top-40’ downloading rather than downloads of complete albums - has proven unfounded. Now just why were they worried about that? Perhaps because the multi-media morass which is popular music sells mediocre albums on the back of two or three hit videos which are indistinguishable from all the other hit videos and promoted to the point of saturation, and that given the opportunity the public would judge the rest of the album for what it is and ignore it. After all, not everybody (hardly anybody) is, like Michael Jackson, capable of producing an entire album of viable hits (as was certainly the case with Dangerous). And Kaboom! all those low-quality-driven profits are out of the window. But for whatever reason - maybe we’re just too well trained - it didn’t materialise.

iii) The introduction of the Apple (iTunes) Music Store in Europe is currently planned for the euro-zone only. One wonders why. Administration purposes? Hardly. The truth is surely that the euro-zone, with its single currency, has a certain degree of price parity, while the main country outside the euro-zone, Britain, has no price-parity whatsoever with the countries within it. A new CD in Germany costs say €16 or €17, while it costs the same in pounds sterling. With a conversion rate of approximately £2 : €3, that means that the average British CD costs around €24. The excuse for this, as for all the extortionate prices of Britain, is import costs (which of course is why Guinness, imported from Ireland, is cheaper in Germany than in Britain). And here we have the real reason for euro-scepticism amongst British companies. After all, what self-respecting British company would willingly subject itself to a transparent pan-European enterprise which highlighted just how much they had been overcharging the British public for decades? The same is true of the music industry in Britain in relation to the Apple Music Store.1

7) Copy Controlled CDs don’t prevent copying. Any fool can copy a copy controlled CD, by simply buying a cable from a local electrical store, connecting the headphone jack on a standard hi-fi system or disc-man to the input jack on the computer and importing the sound with software like the open source Audacity. True, it won’t be a digital reproduction but an audio one, yet the point is this: Copy Control does not prevent anyone who actually wants to copy the CD from copying it. It simply takes a little longer (1:1 playback), and doesn’t even involve fancy software which can be outlawed, just around €3 for a cable.

8) They are intensely annoying. I don’t have a hi-fi system, or a TV, only a computer (I fell for the Apple propaganda about a digital hub, all right? You know, all that stuff about a computer being able to do what you want it to and not needing six different appliances to do what one thing is perfectly capable of doing?) The software that comes along with these CDs is rubbish, since it keeps jumping, stopping and utterly ruining the listening experience. So either I have to connect my disc-man to the computer every time I want to listen to a Copy Controlled CD, or for simple convenience, I am encouraged to employ the method described above to circumvent the problem in order to listen to the blasted CDs whenever I want to do so with the minimum hassle. In other words, Copy Controlled CDs may even encourage people to find ways of overcoming the inconvenience.


Those are some of my reasons for disliking the spiel now found on Copy Control CDs. It targets the wrong consumer problem (which is downloads); it treats the consumer like a criminal; and it ignores the responsibility of the music industry to produce things which are worth parting with our money for. It is a cynical, and above all frightened, manoeuvre. What is the music industry frightened of? Change in the face of technology. So far its response to the increasingly open and global scale of technology has been increasing protectionism, increasingly aggressive attitudes towards those who do not play the prescribed game. For the music industry the dot-com bubble never burst: it never even began.

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