UK people ‘hate BBC’

When I saw a headline on BBC News entitled UK Asians ‘do not feel British’ I was pretty shocked – did a majority of UK Asians really not feel British? If so, this was cause for alarm. On reading the article though, things were much calmer:

Over a third of British Asians do not feel British, a BBC poll suggests.

The research for the Asian Network discovered 38% of the UK residents of South Asian origin polled felt only slightly or not at all British.

Over a third agreed that to get on in the UK they needed to be a “coconut”, a term for somebody who is “brown on the outside but white on the inside”.

Yet 84% are satisfied with life in Britain and almost half think they have more opportunities here.

So, despite that fact that while almost two thirds of UK Asians do feel British, the BBC sees fit to scaremonger with a title that suggests most UK Asians don’t. This is lazy and disappointing journalism. If the Daily Telegraph came out with a poll that revealed 38% of the British public hated the BBC – but 62% loved it – would BBC News write an article entitled ‘UK people ‘hate BBC”?

Who knows, maybe they’d be dumb enough to.

Update: The article was changed this morning, so that the headline reads ‘Many Asians ‘do not feel British’. It also notes that the survey was among under 34s only, and adds a pie-chart detailing the results. See screenshots of the article before and after the change.

I’m glad that it was changed quickly, but it’s still disappointing that the original article was written so poorly.

The Death of Publishers

Update: Virginie Clayssen has done a wonderful French translation of this post on her weblog teXtes

Adrian Buys an eBook Reader

A couple of weeks ago, I idly visited mobileread.com and discovered something incredible – Tiger Direct in the US were selling Sony eReaders for $100, a discount of $250. Thanks to the rampaging power of the British pound, that’s less than £50. I’d always been interested in getting an eBook reader, so this was a brilliant opportunity to try one on the cheap.

A few frantic instant messages to US friends, and it was ordered. A lot of people at Mobileread were worried the price was a mistake, but we later discovered that it was an experiment by Sony, presumably to see how fast 1000 units would sell. Answer: less than half a day, and that’s only because it began when the US was asleep (amusingly, many of the units consequently went to Europeans).

eBooks and the Future of Book Publishing

The impending arrival of my eReader has had me thinking, once again, about the future of the book publishing industry. Like most of the other early adopters, I intend to load my eBook up with a few hundred out-of-copyright classics from Project Gutenberg; all of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and others would be a fine start (and there goes the classics market!).

What about more recent books that are still under copyright? Well, you can buy novels and short stories from places like the Sony Connect Store and smaller operations like Fictionwise. Unsurprisingly, these books have DRM (like most songs from the iTunes Store) and this can pose a problem for early adopters with eBook readers that aren’t compatible. Also, the prices of the eBooks are startlingly uncompetitive with traditional retailers: it’s almost always possible to buy physical copies cheaper from Amazon or its Marketplace sellers.

All of this means that eBook readers are left with only one advantage over physical books – the ability to carry hundreds of books in the space of an average hardback. That’s still pretty good, but it’s not worth $350.

But what if you could get copyrighted books for free? Now that would change things. Already, there’s a small but growing number of ‘ripped’ books floating around the web and on torrent sites. They’re mostly expensive textbooks or bestsellers; all of the Harry Potter novels are online, of course (that’s where I read the first two) and it’s well known that the final novel was ripped before it went on sale. Since people tend to read pirated books on their computers, which is uncomfortable, it’s not surprised that there’s relatively limited number of ripped books so far. This will quickly change with the advent of good and affordable eBook readers.

Ripping Books and Swapping Them

Ripping a physical book is not as easy as ripping a TV show or CD. Ripping a CD into MP3s is a one-click operation, and recording a TV show is not much more difficult for those who are experienced. Physical books, however, either require transcription by hand, which is tedious (but an interestingly parallelisable task) or a scanner with autofeed (you slice off the spine, then run the pages through a scanner and OCR them). The results aren’t as good as music or videos, since errors creep in and you can lose the formatting, but it’s usually good enough.

So, for the moment, ripping books isn’t quite the industrial, casual operation that ripping music or video is – but it’s getting easier every day. I imagine enterprising rippers will buy Ebooks online, take screenshots of all the pages and then OCR them – or simply crack the encryption. These rippers need not even be breaking the law by doing this – last year, Australia made it legal for people to carry out ‘format shifting’, in recognition of the fact that everyone was ripping their CDs into MP3s anyway. The law doesn’t just let you shift music between different formats – it’s also for photographs, videos, magazines – and books. In other words, if someone in Australia buys a book, they are perfectly entitled to rip it and create an unencrypted copy. Should that copy somehow find its way onto the Internet, well…

It could reach everyone in the world. It only has to be done once.

Ripped books do have one huge advantage over MP3s and videos; they are tiny. An uncompressed novel takes up about 100kb in plain text; even with formatting, you could compress it down to around 50kb. That means that a hundred novels would be 5MB – a wholly unremarkable size that could be emailed between friends easily. Ten thousand novels – say, the last 20 years of books worth reading – would take up 500MB. That’s about the same size as a ripped TV show that millions of people around the world routinely download every week.

The point is that text is trivially easy to send around the internet. We do it every day when we surf the web. When you couple that reality with affordable eBook readers, you have a serious problem for publishers. Continue reading “The Death of Publishers”

How many seconds?

I’ve heard it said that the iPhone has inferior features to other phones. On paper, there is some substance to this. Compared to the flagship products of Nokia and HTC, the iPhone lacks:

  • 3G
  • a high megapixel camera (competing phones usually have 3-5 megapixels compared to the iPhone’s 2 MP camera)
  • video recording ability
  • video calling ability
  • GPS
  • MMS
  • Instant Messaging (although this is rumored to be added in a future software update)

Regardless of whether people actually miss these features in the iPhone (I very rarely see anyone make video calls or send MMSes), they aren’t present, and that’s a minus. It certainly would’ve been nice to have 3G and GPS on the phone, for example.

Then there are the iPhone’s advantages. Many of these are well-known; the web-browsing experience, visual voicemail, iPod, ease of syncing. However, I don’t think that enough has been made of its ease of use. From what I’ve read and seen in videos, there isn’t a phone out there that’s more responsive.

Let me give an example. I have a Nokia N73. About half a year ago, it was one of the most modern and sophisticated Nokia phones out there, and even superior models still use the same operating system, so I wouldn’t imagine my observations to be significantly different on other Nokias. Here’s some data on how much time it takes the phone to do things:

  • 3-5 seconds from pressing ‘Messaging’ to get to the Messaging screen.
  • 5 seconds to open the web browser
  • 7 seconds to activate the camera
  • 6 seconds to switch from camera mode to video mode
  • 11 seconds to open up the photo gallery application
  • 4 seconds to open up the music application

These times are not even remotely acceptable for a flagship phone. I remember standing at an empty tube station platform and seeing an interesting advert. I took my phone out, opened up the shutter, and by the time it was ready, the train’s doors were closing. Who cares how many megapixels a cameraphone has, when it so slow that you miss shots?

How often am I going to use the web browser if it takes 5 seconds to load, then asks me every single time whether I want to connect to the internet (surely that’s the entire point?), and then takes another 5 seconds to begin loading a page?And if it takes over 13 seconds to begin filming video, that doesn’t say much for capturing spontaneity. The fact that the iPhone can’t record video and the N73 can is hardly an advantage given this. In comparison, it takes the iPhone about 1-2 seconds to perform any of these actions.

Those seconds really do matter. They make the difference between someone using a feature and ignoring it. Look at the Nintendo DS and Sony’s Playstation Portable: not only do games load far quicker on the DS, but all games support the ability to instantly suspend and resume when you close and open the screen. Conversely, early games on the PSP either crashed during suspend, or would take around 20 seconds to resume. If you’re on the move and want a quick two minute game or surf of the web, having to wait 10-20 seconds makes all the difference.

Sony eventually learned this and improved their suspend and resume functions, but the damage was done; the DS is outselling the PSP two-to-one and rapidly increasing its lead. Nokia and other phone manufacturers will also learn the same lesson from Apple, and it will cost them.

New Conversations

At GDC this year, I remember hearing some writers talk about the sorry state of story and dialogue in action/adventure games. One of the promising games that they looked forward to, though, was Mass Effect – apparently it would have a brand new conversation system.

Over the months, details emerged. In effect, the game would allow you to choose from a number of ‘attitudes’ to reply in any appropriate situation. The attitude you picked would then determine what you said – so you don’t pick the actual line of dialogue directly. Here’s what it looks like:

http://www.gamevideos.com:80/swf/gamevideos11.swf?embedded=1&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&src=http://www.gamevideos.com:80/video/videoListXML%3Fid%3D13287%26ordinal%3D1184835091185%26adPlay%3Dfalse

It works pretty well, and there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, because you only pick an attitude, and you do it by simply flicking the analog stick, participating in conversations is much quicker and unobtrusive than any other system I’ve seen; in other games, the list of options traditionally has more text and requires you to make additional button presses or movements. Secondly, though you can’t see it here, I hear that the conversations take place in real time. That means that if you don’t answer relatively quickly, the other person will find you a little weird. For me, this turns conversations into a minigame rather than a tedious exercise in tree-exploration.

I wouldn’t at all be surprised if these two innovations made it into practically every action/adventure game in the future, plus a bunch of other genres. They’re not utterly ground-breaking – it’s not as if the developers have created some strong conversational AI system – but they seem to work much better than what’s already out there, and they wouldn’t require many changes in other aspects of gameplay. Incidentally, also at GDC, I saw a few talks about conversational AI, which were enough to convince me that no-one is even close to making it work and that we’re going to have to wait for natural language processing to get a lot, lot better. Anyway, I digress…

Finally, Mass Effect works because the animation, character models and script is all fairly good. It’s not amazing, but it’s better than what I’ve seen before, and ultimately, no amount of technical achievements will make up for bad scripting. You need to get everything right, and hopefully Mass Effect has done that.

Echochrome

One of the most innovative games that’s come out of this year’s E3 is Echochrome for the Playstation; basically, if M. C. Escher could’ve made a computer game, this is what it would look like. I have some questions about the control scheme, difficulty level and gameplay (e.g. does the guy keep on walking all the time? Can you pause?) but I have to applaud it for its originality.

http://www.gametrailers.com/remote_wrap.php?mid=21881

Bits and Pieces: Left Turns

The research at U.P.S. is paying off. Last year, it cut 28 million miles from truck routes — saving roughly three million gallons of fuel — in good part by mapping routes that minimize left turns.

Incredible – something that seems obvious in retrospect, but in practice hard to implement. Interestingly, it wouldn’t work in the UK, since you have to stop at red lights whichever direction you’re turning.

Also, a couple of good passages from the book on weather I’m reading:

When sunlight hits the atmosphere, the light waves are scattered in different directions by dust particles and air molecules. The shorter violet and blue waves are scattered more effectively than the orange and red ones. The effect is similar to what happens when ripples in water encounter a swimmer: small ripples are deflected while large waves continue past the obstacle undisturbed.

A mixture of violet, blue, green, and tiny amounts of the other colours is scattered across the sky. The combination of these colours is blue. The exact shade of blue will vary according to the amount of dust and water vapour in the air. Water droplets and dust particles enhance scattering, increasing the amount of green and yellow and turning the sky a paler blue.

This is why the summer skies of densely populated European countries seem paler than those of vast, sparsely populated areas such as Australia and Africa.

This is one of the clearest, most concise explanations of ‘why is the sky blue’ that I’ve seen yet. Not only does it explain the science in full, not only does it give a very visual and accurate analogy with the swimmer, but it also explores the consequences of the explanation in a way that will be immediately familiar. This is in stark contrast to the ‘explanation’ proffered by the Guardian, ‘A daytime sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light,’ which explains nothing.

Meteorologists distinguish between skill and no-skill forecasting methods. If we consider rainfall prediction, two basic no-skill methods appear to give impressive results. The first is the persistence method, which is simply forecasting tomorrow’s rain to be the same as today’s. In middle latitudes, this typically gives results of about 70% accuracy, but of course fails to predict changes.

The other no-skill method, the climatological method, uses long-term averages. If, for example, the statistics for a particular location show that during January there is an average of 10 rainy days, then we would forecast rain every third day. Our forecasting accuracy would again be about 70% for many middle-latitude locations.

These methods take no account of the actual weather. For a forecasting technique to demonstrate skill, it must be more accurate than these no-skill approaches.

For some reason, it pleases me to know that you can reach a 70% accuracy in weather forecast simply by saying ‘tomorrow is going to be the same as today’. It makes me understand how priests and shamans could get away with their predictions.

Bookmooch

Along with selling a whole bunch of games, I’ve started addressing the problem of my overflowing bookshelves. Granted, I only have two bookshelves, but I’m not really at a stage in life now where I have the space to keep hundreds of books. A couple of weeks ago, it was getting so bad that I had practically nowhere to put new books – and that would’ve been disastrous, since I define part of my existence as constantly buying new books. The only option was to get rid of some books; a drastic action, but a necessary one.

Two routes I briefly considered and abandoned were selling the books via eBay (too little return, would take too long) and giving them to a charity shop. I’ve given a bunch of clothes to charity, but I didn’t feel comfortable with giving away my books – it just didn’t seem like they would go to a good, book-loving home. Plus I have a pretty eclectic collection.

Next, there was Bookcrossing. Bookcrossing is a great idea, in theory – you register all the books you’re giving away on their website, which gives you an ID code to write in the front of the book. Then you simply leave the books somewhere – anywhere – and notify people on the website of the ‘drop point’. Sure enough, someone will have picked them up, registered them online (thus recording the journey of the book through different owners) and presumably read them and passed them on again.

I have a few problems with Bookcrossing. The first is that while it’s very easy to give away books, it’s quite difficult to pick them up. Even if you sign up to notifications of books being dropped in your area, they’re almost always gone by the time you get there – especially if you live in a place with a lot of Bookcrossing people (e.g. university, London). The second problem is that you’re unlikely to get any books that you actively want to read – it’s completely random. That’s not to say that the books are bad, but if there’s a particular book you want to read, you’re going to have to get it another way.

Also, personally speaking, as a giver of books, I would like to know something about the people who are receiving them. My books are pretty important to me, and I would like to know they’re going to a good home. I know it seems like a lot to ask, but I really wouldn’t be happy if I dropped a bunch of good quality books off somewhere to have them snarfed by someone else who won’t share, or worse, sells them.

My final problem is that I just have a visceral dislike of books that look old, feel old, smell old or used in any way. That’s why I don’t like libraries either. Who knows where the book’s been? Yes, I can look in the trail of ownership, but that’s likely to be incomplete and it won’t stop the book from being used.

Ultimately, I think Bookcrossing is better seen as a charity project or experiment rather than a way of actually giving and receiving books among people. As such, it’s a great idea. But I have to confess, my charity doesn’t extend that far – it extends in other directions, which I’ll mention in some future post.

Despite all of this, I did give away about eight books at a London Bookcrossing event at the Southbank Centre. Penguin had sponsored it and contributed 1000 new books, all of which had predictably disappeared by the time I got there 90 minutes later. There were still a couple of books contributed by other people that I sort-of wanted, but nothing stellar. The books I gave away were ones that I really wasn’t bothered by.

This was a good start, but I still had too many books. It was at this point that Naomi told me about Bookmooch. Bookmooch is a more straightforward book-swapping community. You list the books you want to give away, and you also create a wishlist of books you want. People ‘mooch’ books off you, for which you receive points, and you ‘mooch’ books off others, for which you spend points. It’s not a zero-sum system though, because points are injected at various points to encourage trading. No-one pays anything, since postage is fairly constant for all books. And the whole site is free.

The upshot is that there’s a pretty good flow of books both within countries and between them (although international swaps obviously costs more points). Three of my books have been mooched already, and you can see my current live list of books I’m giving away now:

http://widgets.bookmooch.com/widget/en/html/inv_recent_cover/adrianhon/10000/+/
I’ve also received one book that I actually want to read. It’s in good condition, and even better, I was informed of this fact not only by the book description, but through communication via the moochee and his reputation score. In that respect, it’s quite like eBay.

I like Bookmooch. I feel like that I’m making a connection with people I swap with, even if it’s small, and I can check out their profile or visit their website. While it does not have anywhere near all the books I want, it has a few and I’m sure that number will increase. Of course, it helps that I only live 2 minutes from a postbox and I can print out postage from home.

My only problem with it is that the site is pretty slow and has a mediocre design. Beyond that, though, I get free books, and I can clear up my bookshelves!

Bits and Pieces: Centuries

Weather

In a book about weather (called ‘Weather’) that I’m reading, there’s a fact that blithely states:

Driest location: The Atacama Desert in Chile has virtually no rainfall (0.08mm annually), except for a passing shower several times a century.

Not several times a year. Several times a century. What impresses me about this is not the fact that it’s a dry place, it’s that records exist to the extent that meteorologists can say this with confidence.

eBay

I’ve been selling a bunch of games on eBay lately, and I have to say that it’s really improved. The last time I sold something on eBay was several years ago, and the entire experience was unpleasant, from listing the item, to writing the label, to queuing in the post office. It wasn’t something I wanted to repeat, so I didn’t.

In the meantime, I was always amazed by the fact that several hundred thousand people in the US alone make their livings over eBay. How were they not driven into a murderous rage by the clunky interface and the all the other attendant irritations? The reason, it seems, is because the selling interface is really pretty decent now. What’s really cool, though, is a tool that lets you automatically buy postage – with the correct address already on it – and print it out at home. Given my long-standing hatred of the post office, I really appreciate anything that lets me avoid the place. It’s not a particularly sophisticated tool, I suppose, although it did need eBay, PayPal and the Royal Mail to all work together. In any case, it’s not the sophistication that matters, it’s the result. Well done eBay!

24 hours and 39 minutes

That’s the length of a day on Mars. What you’re thinking is probably, ‘huh, why is it 39 minutes longer than our day?’ But what you should be thinking is, ‘wow, why is it so close to our day?’ The fact is, there’s no reason why it should be close: the day length on Venus is 243 (Earth) days, which is 18 days longer than the time it takes to orbit the sun. I don’t think anyone knows why it’s so close, but it is certainly convenient for anyone who wants to live there.

The Mars Society has a base in the Arctic that is an ‘operational’ simulation of a base on Mars. Long-time readers will know that I spent a couple of weeks at a similar base in Utah a few years ago. Since the base in the Arctic is 75 degrees north, and it’s currently summer, the base is basically in eternal sunlight. By blacking out the windows at appropriate times, this means that the inhabitants of the base can effectively simulate living on Mars time. The question is, will the people at the base be able to cope with their usual routine (e.g. collecting rocks, conducting experiments, etc) without suffering any number of ill effects? And will Mission Support be weirded out by the time on Mars apparently slipping forward by 39 minutes every day? That’s what makes this (apparently unprecedented) experiment so interesting, and I’ll be waiting to see the results.

Rock Band

While writing this post, Firefox suffered a bizarre semi-crash that stopped it from talking to the Internet and then lost everything I’d written. Let me just say that while I love Firefox, it clearly has some real issues. To calm myself down, here’s a video of Rock Band, the spiritual successor to Guitar Hero:

Say what you like, but one thing’s clear: those guys are rocking out. So come Christmas, when the games released, I’ll definitely be buying it. Along with a 360 or PS3 – whichever has the least rubbish lineup by then…

Feeding the weblog

Now that Feedburner has been bought by Google, I’ve signed up with them so that I can see how few people subscribe to my RSS feed. In theory, this should make absolutely no difference to anyone who is subscribing to the feed, since the current address automatically redirects to the new Feedburner address – but if there are any problems, let me know.

Another nice Feedburner feature is that it can send my weblog posts out via email (yes, I know that WordPress can do this as well, but it seemed a bit more difficult to set up). So if you have a look to your right, in the sidebar there’s place you can enter your email address. I can’t see a lot of people using this, but if you do everything by email, maybe it’s the right thing for you.