Dear music and telly industries: stop punishing those who buy your stuff

The BBC reported on Friday that it’s once again illegal in the UK to rip CDs to your computer. This might come as a surprise to you. First, you might not have been aware this was illegal in the first place. Secondly, you might be nonplussed that the pathetic changes to the UK’s fair-use laws have in part already been dialled back, but there you go.

About a year ago, I wrote for Stuff.tv about government changes to personal copying exceptions, and how they didn’t go far enough. My argument was (and is) that while companies should be allowed to weld DRM to released media, individuals should be able to circumvent it for personal use, as long as there’s an expectation of ownership with the purchased media. (In other words, you shouldn’t be able to ‘back-up’ music from Spotify or video from Netflix, but you should be able to make personal copies of CDs, digital books and comics, DVDs and games.)

The key sticking point is plainly noted in the BBC piece:

A judge ruled that the government was wrong legally when it decided not to introduce a compensation scheme for songwriters, musicians and other rights holders who face losses as a result of their copyright being infringed.

UK Music estimated the new regulations, without a compensation scheme, would result in loss of revenues for rights owners in the creative sector of £58m a year.

In other words, because you’re not rebuying again and again, rights owners potentially lose money, and so they want something for nothing. They should somehow be ‘compensated’ for you making personal copies of items, for your own use. I imagine they’re pretty angry about the portable nature of digital files, too, since they can be used across devices and platforms, without you having to rebuy for each new machine. Naturally, everyone ignores the fact people have finite money, and people still very much into music are still buying it, often on physical formats; they’re now just once again being punished for having the audacity of wanting to back-up this content.

At the time of the Stuff piece, given the craven and half-arsed nature of the changes in law, it never occurred to me that we’d go backwards and end up again at the status quo. The BBC adds in its story that it’s “unclear how the change will be enforced”, but then it’s almost never been enforced. What is clear is that once again we have industry representatives effectively punishing those who pay for things. All this does is piss people off. By making it illegal to rip your own CDs to your own computer and legally listen to the music you paid for, these organisations are hastening the decline of income from said purchases, not protecting their artists.

 

July 20, 2015. Read more in: Music, Technology

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PR in the UK, or: Do you want 80 UKIP MPs?

The UK now has a Conservative majority government, after a night where the SNP took over Scotland, the Liberal Democrats self-combusted, Labour did poorly, and the Greens and UKIP barely made a dent in the Commons.

However, looking over the votes cast tells a different story. When comparing only the larger and non-nationalist parties, and looking at how many votes it took to get an MP elected, the imbalance is stark:

  • UKIP (624 candidates): 3,875,409 votes per seat
  • Green Party (568): 1,154,562
  • Liberal Democrat (631): 299,983
  • Labour (631): 40,258
  • Conservative (647): 34,292

Unsurprisingly, calls for proportional representation have now erupted, and for the first time the ‘left’ is joined by the ‘right’, given that UKIP amassed a third of the votes the Conservatives did, but the latter party got 331 times as many MPs. (The Greens did ‘better’, in getting a single MP on about an eighth of the Labour vote, which returned 232 MPs.)

However, there’s also considerable push-back against the idea of proportional representation, not least people saying: But do you really want 80 UKIP MPs? Of course not. My political leanings are progressive, not extremist Tory. But I recognise that they are my political leanings, and not those of an entire country. I feel it’s absurd over a million votes returned just one Green MP, but it’s actually more unfair all those people who voted UKIP have barely any representation in the Commons.

The ‘80 UKIP MPs’ argument also supposes British people would vote in exactly the same way under a PR system, which no-one knows for sure. Certainly, people would be less likely to vote tactically, and there’d be no safe seats. But even if PR did return that number of UKIP MPs, better the UK is mature enough to own its politics and who supports whom, rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet — especially if trends continue. Although many small-party voters are now disillusioned, what if they double down in 2020? How will the UK look if the Conservatives and Labour between them amass 16 million votes and 85 per cent of the seats, but UKIP and the Greens get half as many votes, but still only a few seats between them?

The narrative surrounding various other aspects of PR is also troubling. I keep hearing the argument was laid to rest when we got a referendum on PR, but we never had that. In 2011, we were offered the choice of the status quo or switching to Alternative Vote, described by some as a “miserable little compromise”. AV is not a proportional system — it essentially assist the third party at the minor expense of others. At the time, the Liberal Democrats would have benefitted slightly; now, UKIP would. In either case, the result would not be proportional.

Additionally, many argue PR would wreck the constituency link, but that doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Electoral systems like AMS retain such links, and the UK could have reform where MPs for the Commons were returned on a fairly tight regional basis, for example by county rather than region. (The latter is currently how MEPs are elected, and would perhaps be an option should the Lords be replaced by an elected senate.)

The final issue is that coalitions are inherently unstable, apparently. If we were to head down the PR route, a majority government would be extremely unlikely in the UK. (But if it did happen, it would be because the majority of the country actually voted for the party in power, unlike now, when just over a third of voters — and under a quarter of the electorate — backed the Conservatives.) The thing is, I don’t see Nordic countries descending into chaos because of their proportional systems, and Germany seems to be doing quite well, despite electing its parliament in this manner.

Still, with the Conservatives in power now and Labour still presumably reckoning it can again win a majority in 2020, I doubt we’ll see any electoral reform happen. Far better to bang on about fairness while ensuring most votes fundamentally don’t matter, and gamble on winning those few that do. Politics: British style. Partying like it’s 1899 in 2015.

May 11, 2015. Read more in: Politics

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General Election 2015: what I discovered from reading all of the party manifestos

This year’s general election in the UK is a crapshoot. The outdated voting system — combined with the rise of UKIP and the SNP, the curveball of the Greens, and general anger at the coalition — makes the result impossible to predict. Plenty of people call themselves undecided voters, but just as many fall back to habit, voting for parties they assume speak for them. I’d largely made up my mind how to vote, but decided to read the manifestos of all of the main parties with candidates in Great Britain (as in, England, Scotland and Wales). The results were insightful and frequently surprising.

In a general sense, I found it very clear how much of people’s perception of politics is warped by the media, but also how the actions of a small set of politicians doesn’t necessarily correlate with what a party claims to stand for. Arguments about how all parties are the same are impossible to support on actually reading their policies; while there’s no doubt the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are often seen fighting for a certain kind of middle-England voter, I wonder how much of that is down to the broken electoral system rather than what they actually believe in. Certainly, the manifestos showcase three very different parties — although not necessarily standing where you might expect.

What follows is my reaction to the manifestos for each party, in the order that I read them in.

UKIP‘s manifesto, to my surprise, wasn’t a kind of rambling embarrassment. The party wants to be seen as a properly mature political force, and the manifesto is evidence of that. My personal politics are at odds with much of what the party’s suggesting, but the document is some way from the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ label the media frequently paints the party with. That said, the party does retain some oddball thinking at times, such as banging on about British seaside holidays and funnelling money into saving such towns, and its overall stance on policy was, to my mind, coming from a fairly extreme Conservative viewpoint.

The SNP manifesto was broadly impressive, human, and positive. Whether the economic figures within are accurate, I couldn’t say, but there was a refreshing openness and humanity throughout, not least in displaying a candid position on potential post-election support. The party’s policies on the whole now appear to veer towards socialism, with a progressive bent that I’m sure plenty of people outside of Scotland would vote for. It’s easy to see why the party is on course to take a huge number of Scottish seats. Purely on the basis of the manifesto, ‘the SNP will destroy the UK’ alarmism seems misplaced. Like Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s long-standing aim is to usher in an independent country, but the manifesto goes to great lengths to say the party wants to be a positive influence on all of the UK.

The Conservative manifesto was in some ways a tougher read than the UKIP one, and it had strange ideas of its own, such as dredging up the A303 tunnel near Stonehenge as policy. It referred heavily to Labour and the mess the party left so often that it may as well have just added ‘REMEMBER: LABOUR IS EVIL’ as a footnote on every page. But I was nonetheless surprised with how caustic the manifesto was. In practically the same breath it talks about eliminating child poverty, it then says the party would lower the benefit cap by three grand. It talks about the BBC World Service being vital, yet elsewhere argues for the licence fee to be frozen. Education policy also seems positively Victorian, demanding core subjects include history or geography, but ignoring IT, creativity and social studies entirely. Elsewhere, there was a lot about rewarding people for work, but the policies on tax and benefits are more about rewarding the rich. If anything, I disliked this manifesto more than the UKIP one, and noted on Twitter that the Conservatives truly are the Selfish Bastards Party as we head into this election.

With Plaid Cymru, I was expecting the Welsh version of the SNP, but for some reason the spark just wasn’t there. I’m not sure why. Somehow, the Plaid Cymru manifesto seemed a little lacking in ambition, and it probably didn’t help later on when some of its big-hitter policies on devolution and train nationalisation are very similar to those in the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos. Still, the party’s broadly progressive aims were evident.

The big surprise for me was the mammoth Liberal Democrat manifesto, a 158-page document that looks like it’s been spat out from Microsoft Word. It’s a baffling read in many ways, not least because it’s for the most part really good. Policy-wise, it reads like a mix of new and old Labour, with largely socialist and well-meaning policies that I was hoping for (but often didn’t find) in Labour’s manifesto. It was the only manifesto that seemed truly savvy about the potential in digital and technology, and the UK’s role in that. However, it did also make me wonder why we don’t actually see this version of the Liberal Democrats anywhere. If the party in government was this party, it’d be polling in the 20s at least, not single figures. Maybe it is this party, but the media has hammered it; but the Liberal Democrat voting record suggests otherwise. Perhaps had we got a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, things could have been very different.

The Labour manifesto was perhaps the weirdest one. The others generally outline their policy in specific areas, but Labour’s lumps policies together under rather broader umbrellas like “Helping our families and communities to thrive” and “Providing world-class health and education services”. I imagine this was designed to make the manifesto more approachable, but it just comes across as a bit messy. And the same could be said for the policies in general. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s extremely strong on health, but it too often feels here like it’s hedging its bets — faffing about rail nationalisation, trying to convince people who might vote Conservative about Labour’s tough stance on immigration, and so on. Read the Labour and Conservative manifestos back to back and they are very clearly different beasts, but I too often felt Labour’s veered into being ‘Conservative Lite’ (while the Conservative one goes ‘Full Tory’ right from the get-go). Labour needs to be bold, whereas its manifesto practically admits it’s being unambitious. (Still, that beats caustic.)

Finally, the Green Party manifesto is a weighty tome in terms of word-count, and by far the most radical. The Greens aren’t so much ‘merely’ progressive as demanding an ambitious overhaul of society, from top to bottom. There are things within I took issue with (not least the party’s energy policy), but the majority of the ideas the party has are interesting and the arguments are mostly sound — and a long way from the ‘mad vegan’ label they get. Much like UKIP, the Greens have been branded as a kind of dangerous and extremist party; with UKIP, I just see the establishment in a different hue, but with the Greens, I see a threat to establishment thinking and dominance, which is presumably why newspapers and rival parties alike argue they are to be crushed.


Update. Here are the links to the manifestos: Conservative; Green Party; Labour; Liberal Democrat; Plaid Cymru; SNP; UKIP.

May 5, 2015. Read more in: Politics

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Warning: iOS 8.3 blocks sideloading of app and game save data

I wish I’d heard about this a lot earlier, but it turns out Apple’s essentially blocked access to app folders in iOS 8.3. This means that unless a developer has specifically enabled file sharing, utilities such as iExplorer, iMazing and Phone View can no longer access the Documents and Library folders of any app you’ve installed on your device. And that means no saving game data and/or sideloading it across devices.

Right now, the only advice is to stick with (or downgrade back to) iOS 8.2, use a jailbroken device, or cross your fingers and hope one of the devs manages to work around this issue. Oh, and if you’re a game dev, now would be a really good time to consider iCloud game saves and/or allowing file sharing access to game-save data.

April 21, 2015. Read more in: Apple

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Apple and balance/motion accessibility — yelling into the wind

As a writer, even in an age of social media, it’s hard to tell whether anything you pen affects people in any serious way. In truth, much of what I write is opinion-based: thought pieces and reviews that might briefly help and/or entertain a certain section of a site’s or magazine’s readership, but that relationship between words and results is typically fleeting.

One major exception in my writing career centres around accessibility. When Apple’s iOS 7 for iPad and iPhone arrived, it made a lot of people sick. Aggressive animations became motion-sickness triggers for a surprisingly large range of people. I was fortunate enough to write about the subject for Stuff and twice for The Guardian. Apple rumbled into gear. Changes were eventually to iOS made via the introduction of Reduce Motion, which switched slides and zooms for cross-fades. I have it on good authority that what I and others wrote did have an impact on Apple’s decision-making.

Although motion/balance accessibility remains poorly understood, and third-party developers remain largely ignorant of these issues, merrily peppering apps with animated interface components, I and others are now broadly safe when using iOS. The same is not true for OS X. It’s been three years since I first wrote about the subject on this blog, and I’ve penned articles elsewhere, including for major tech publications. It’s hard to believe that Apple’s listening. The company, despite making great strides in vision/hearing/motor accessibility, appears either ignorant of or uncaring about motion/balance problems.

That might seem like an extreme statement, but I think it’s entirely fair. Major triggers, such as full-screen slides/morphing transitions, and also slide transitions within Preview and Safari, arrived in OS X Lion, and we’ve since seen three major updates to OS X without a single setting for overriding these animations. There’s no Reduce Motion in OS X, despite Mac screens being larger than iOS ones, which means the transitions displayed are more — not less — likely to cause problems.

Today, I fired up the new OS X Photos app. Within five minutes, I felt ill. I shouldn’t have been surprised that a motion/balance trigger is built right into the interface, with the main pane zooming while it crossfades. Presumably, someone at Apple thought this looked pretty. There’s no way to turn it off. For anyone who finds this animation problematic, their choices are to avoid Photos entirely or remember to close their eyes every single time they click a tab.

This is just not good enough. Apple is a company that prides itself on making its technology accessible. Given that a somewhat throwaway setting in a third-party utility can override or entirely disable the majority of full-screen animations, it’s hard to believe Apple couldn’t fit a Reduce Motion system into OS X if it wanted to. If developers could hook into that, most motion/balance issues would disappear in an instant, without affecting the majority of users, who could happily continue watching interface components zoom about before their eyes.

As I wrote today in an email to accessibility@apple.com, I’m sick of the current situation, figuratively and — in a fortunately fairly mild way — literally. Highly animated interfaces may be the ‘in thing’ right now, and sometimes have potential benefits in providing a sense of place; but that doesn’t mean Apple should overlook people for which these often aesthetic additions cause major usability, accessibility and health problems. I’ve no confidence anything will change. Every email sent feels like yelling into the wind, but I’ll be delighted to see and experience a change in direction should that happen in OS X Yosemite’s successor.

April 9, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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