You know who gets a ton of my money these days? Game publishers. Whilst they might not get the same amount per sale that they used to the amount I pump into the industry per year has rocketed up in direct correlation with my ability to pay. Nearly every game you see reviewed on here is purchased gladly with my own money and I would happily do the same with all forms of entertainment if they provided the same level of service that the games industry does. However my fellow Australian citizens will know the pain that we routinely endure here with delayed releases and high prices, so much so that our Parliament subpoenaed several major tech companies to have them explain themselves.
If I’m honest though I had thought the situation was getting a bit better, that was until I caught wind of this:
I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas sometime last year and the concept instantly intrigued me. As someone who’s nascent years were spent idolizing The Matrix I’ve always been a fan of the Wachowskis’ work and so of course their latest movie was of particular interest. Since I’m on the mailing list for my local preferred cinema (Dendy, in case you’re wondering) I simply waited for the email announcing it. For months and months I waited to see something come out until I started hearing friends talking about how they had seen it already. Curious I checked my favourite Usenet site and lo and behold it was available, which mean only one thing.
It was available on DVD elsewhere.
That email I was waiting for arrived a couple days ago, 4 months after the original theatrical release in markets overseas. Now I know it’s not that hard to get a film approved in Australia nor is it that difficult to get it shipped over here (even if it was shot on film) so what could be the reason for such a long delay? As far as I can tell it’s the distributors holding onto their out dated business models in a digital era where they have to create artificial scarcity in order to try and bilk more money out of the end consumers. I’ve deliberately not seen movies in cinemas in the past due to shenanigans like this and Cloud Atlas is likely going to be the latest entry on my civil disobedience list.
I seriously can’t understand why movie studios continue with behaviour like this which is what drives customers to seek out other, illegitimate means of getting at their content. I am more than happy to pay (and, in the case of things like Cloud Atlas, at a premium) for content like this but I do not want my money going to businesses that fail to adapt their practices to the modern world. Artificial scarcity is right up there with restrictive DRM schemes in my book as they provide absolutely no benefit for the end user and only serve to make the illegitimate product better. Really when we’re hit from all sides with crap like this is it any surprise that we’re a big ole nation o pirates?
A decade ago many of my generation simply lacked the required disposable income in order to support their habits and piracy was the norm. We’ve all grown up now though with many of us having incomes that we could only dream of back then, enough for us to begin paying for the things we want. Indeed many of us are doing that where we’re able to but far too many industries are simply ignoring our spending habits in favour of sticking to their traditional business models. This isn’t sustainable for them and it frustrates me endlessly that we still have to deal with shit like this when it’s been proven that this Internet thing isn’t going away any time soon. So stop this artificial scarcity bullshit, embrace our ideals and I think you’ll find a torrent of new money heading in your direction. Enough so that you’ll wonder why you held such draconian views for so long.
It was the year 2000, a time when Napster was still nascent and the Internet was still that esoteric play ground for nerds or those who dared to trudge through the horror that was GeoCities. By this time I was already fully set in my geek ways with my very own computer in my room that I’d while away countless hours on, usually on Dune 2 or Diablo. Of course the way of the geek isn’t exactly cheap, my new computer had set my parents back a rather pretty penny or two, and they had said in no uncertain terms that I was no longer allowed to spend their money any more. It was time for me to get a job.
I was apprehensive at first after the horror stories I had heard from friends working in various fast food restaurants and other entry level jobs but the motivation to be able to have my own capital, money that I couldn’t be told what do to with, was far too tantalizing to give up. As luck would have it I landed in what was then geek heaven of Dick Smith Electronics and whilst it wasn’t all roses from day 1 it certainly was the perfect place for me, allowing me to fiddle with gadgets endlessly without having to shell out the requisite dollars.
Then one day a particular gadget caught my eye, the Sony MZ-R55. For those who aren’t familiar with this magnificent little beast it was one of the first MiniDisc players from Sony that you could truly consider portable as most of the models prior to that were rather large and bulky, even if they were “portable” in the true sense of the word. It’s size didn’t come cheap however as whilst CD players had become a commodity item at that point, with even the most expensive and lavish units costing under $100, the MZ-R55 was retailing for $500+ even with my ludicrous cost price + 10% employee discount. The price didn’t phase young me however, that MiniDisc player would one day be mine and that day did eventually come.
It wasn’t just geek lust after the size that attracted me to MiniDiscs it was the audio quality coupled with the amazing ability to have tracks I could skip to that pushed me over the edge. My MP3 collection had just started to take shape and I wasn’t impressed with the quality I got when they translated to tape. Recording on MiniDisc however, which was done by a pure optical TOS-LINK connection from a SoundBlaster Audigy card, proved to be far superior in every respect. Plus having a remote and a rechargeable battery proved to be the ultimate of convenience features and my little MZ-R55 saw use every day.
The player also earned a special place in my heart when I journeyed to Japan in 2001. You see apart from myself and a close friend of mine there were no other MiniDisc users that I knew of and I certainly didn’t sell many of them at work. In Japan however they were far bigger than CDs and there were even terminals where you could choose a selection of tracks and then have them burnt to a MiniDisc while you were waiting. That wasn’t what won the MiniDisc a special place in my heart however, no it was something far more special than that.
The trip was part of a school excursion arranged my Japanese teacher and part of that was a home stay with a family. I was billeted with a family of 3 girls and their mother. My host sister’s name was Akiko and I spent 5 days in their house speaking horrific Japanese, enjoying their company and even putting on a “traditional” Australian barbecue at their house. At the end of it all, during a tear soaked farwell that had all of the home stay families gathered together to see us off, she handed me a single MiniDisc with all her favourite songs on it. I had been fairly stoic up until that point but it was then that I lost it and spent much of the rest of the trip listening to it. Maybe that’s why I love Utada Hikaru so much.
And then today news reached me that Sony was stopping production of all MiniDisc systems next month.
You’d think that I’d be upset about this but MiniDisc had been an also ran for some time now; I had already mourned its death a long time ago. Instead when I heard about that today all I remembered was that amazing piece of technology that found its niche in a couple places, one of them in my home. Sure it had its share of problems and no one in their right mind would spend as much as I did in order to use them but it was like the vinyl of my geek generation, it just felt all over better. Whilst other manufacturers might continue to make MiniDiscs and their associated systems Sony was the original and them shutting down production signals the end of its era, even if it had technically happened years ago.
For those of us who had MiniDisc players we loved them to bits, sometimes literally with later models that had a tendency to shake screws loose. They were a stop gap technology that was the first to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world without having to resort to analogue means and the format itself was something of a technical marvel to with the discs being almost archival levels of quality thanks to them being based on Magneto-Optical technology. I really could go on for hours about how good they were and all the fond memories I had with my MZ-R55 but I’m already emotional enough as it is.
Here’s to MiniDisc. You might not have been the raving success that the WalkMan was but you were everything that it was and more to me. You won’t be forgotten, that I can assure you.
On recommendation of a friend I recently watched a documentary called Side by Side which details the history of the primary technology behind the cinema: the cameras. It starts off by giving you an introduction into the traditional photographic methods that were used to create films in the past and then goes on to detail the rise of digital in the same space. Being something of a photographic buff myself as well as a technological geek who can’t get enough of technology the topic wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with but it was highly interesting to see what people in the industry were thinking about the biggest change to happen in their industry in almost a century.
Like much of my generation I grew up digitally with the vast majority of my life spent alongside computers and other non-analog style equipment. I was familiar with film as my father was something of a photographer (I believe his camera of choice was a Pentax K1000 which he still has, along with his Canon 60D) and my parents gave me my own little camera to experiment with. It wasn’t until a good decade and a half later that I’d find myself in possession of my first DSLR and still not another few years until after then that I’d find some actual passion for it. What I’m getting at here is that I’m inherently biased towards digital since it’s where I found my feet and it’s my preferred tool for capturing images.
One of the arguments that I’ve often heard levelled at digital formats, both in the form of images and your general everyday data, is that there’s no good way to archive it in order for future generations to be able to view it. Film and paper, the traditional means with which we’ve stored information for centuries, would appear to archive quite well due to the amount of knowledge contained in those formats that has stood the test of time. Ignoring for the moment that digital representations of data are still something of a nascent technology by comparison the question of how we archive it has come up time and time again and everyone seems to be under the impression that there’s no way to archive it.
This just isn’t the case.
Just before I was set to graduate from university I had been snooping around for a better job after my jump to a developer hadn’t worked out as I planned. As luck would have it I managed to land a job at the National Archives of Australia, a relatively small organisation tasked with the monumental effort of cataloguing all records of note that were produced in Australia. This encompassed all things from regular documents used in the course of government to things of cultural value like the air line tickets from when the Beatles visited Australia. Whilst they were primarily concerned with physical records (as shown by their tremendous halls filled with boxes) there was a small project within this organisation that was dedicated to the preservation of records that were born digital and were never to see the physical world.
I can’t take much credit for the work that they did there, I was merely a care taker of the infrastructure that was installed long before I arrived but I can tell you about the work they were doing there. The project team, consisting mostly of developers with just 2 IT admins (including myself), was dedicated to preserving digital files in the same way you would do with a paper record. At the time a lot of people were still printing them off and then archiving them in that way however it became clear that this process wasn’t going to be sustainable, especially considering that the NAA had only catalogued about 10% of their entire collection when I was there (that’s right, they didn’t know what 90% of the stuff they had contained). Thankfully many of the ideas used in the physical realm translated well to the digital one and thus XENA was born.
XENA is an open source project headed by the team at NAA that can take everyday files and convert them into an archival format. This format contains not only the content but also the “essence” of the document, I.E. it’s presentation, layout and any quirks that make that document, that document. The viewer included is then able to reconstruct the original document using the data contained within the file and since the project is open source should the NAA cease development on the project the data will still be available for all of those who used the XENA program. The released version does not currently support video but I can tell you that they were working on it while I was there but the needs of archiving digital documents was the more pressing requirement at the time.
Ah ha, I’ll hear some film advocates say, but what about the medium you store them on? Surely there’s no platform that can guarantee that the data will still be readable in 20 years, heck even 10 I’ll bet! You might think this, and should you have bought any of the first generation of CD-Rs I wouldn’t fault you for it, but we have many ways of storing data for long term archival purposes. Tapes are by far the most popular (and stand the test of time quite well) but for truly archival quality data storage that exists today nothing beats magneto-optical discs which can have lives measured in centuries. Of course we could always dive into the world of cutting edge science for likes like a sapphire etched platinum disc that might be capable of storing data for up to 10 million years but I think I’ve already hammered home the point enough.
There’s no denying that there are challenges to be overcome with the archival of digital data as the methods we developed for traditional means only serve as a pointer in the right direction. Indeed attempting to apply them to digital the world has often had disastrous results like the first reel of magnetic tape brought to the NAA which was inadvertenly baked in an oven (done with paper to kill microbes before archival), destroying the data forever. This isn’t to say we don’t have anything nor are we not working on it however and as technology improves so will the methods available for archiving digital data. It’s simply a matter of time until digital becomes as durable as its analogue counterpart and, dare I say it, not long before it surpasses it.
When I worked at Dick Smith Electronics I had one of the greatest staff benefits around: all items in the store could be had for cost price plus 10%. This meant for heavily marked up items (the most common things being add-ons or bulk items) I could get them for a steal, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than what the sticker price was. One particular area where this came in handy was audio/video cables as they were routinely 10x~20x their cost price. Being the budding audiophile that I was these cheap cables were a godsend, allowing me to hook up my various bits of AV equipment for a fraction of the cost. One thing started to become apparent though, the shelf price difference between the premium cables (them fancy gold plated, oxygen free copper deals) was no where near the gap in their cost price, leading me to wonder what the difference really was.
Once I began my studies at university however the differences, or more aptly the lack thereof, became quite apparent. Indeed there was little difference between those cables, especially when used in real world circumstances. Further I was confounded by the idea that digital signals, ones carried by optical TOSLINK connectors, could be somehow influenced by the transmitting cable. In my own tests with some of the cables from the store and the same cable that came with my MiniDisc player (yes, I spent way too much on one) I couldn’t find any differences in the resulting recordings, despite the store cables being noticeably thicker.
The reason for this is, whilst there’s a little bit of room to argue that a better quality cable will produce a better quality signal for analog, a digital signal either makes it through completely or not at all. The cable quality then, whilst needing to be above a certain threshold for it to work, makes no difference whatsoever once its past said threshold. This hasn’t stopped the premium cable manufacturers from claiming otherwise however charging rather ludicrous for products that amount to, let’s be honest here, nothing more than a $5 cable. I’d also go as far to say that premium cables for pure analog signals aren’t worth it either, especially at the price point that some of them command.
Of course I don’t believe you should just take my word for it (however compelling you might find it to be) nor do I advocate running out and spending wads of cash on cables to see if there’s a difference. Instead just have a look at posts like this one on Audioholics where self proclaimed audiophiles could not reliably distinguish between a premium speaker cable and ordinary speaker wire (and even coat hanger wire). Indeed anyone who’s attempting to sell you cable based on the idea that it will somehow improve the quality of the picture or sound on the other end is either deluded, misinformed or simply ignorant of the underlying science that governs modern audio visual equipment.
There will be those who will say that I don’t understand the differences and that there’s tangible benefit in getting these ludicrously over priced cables. In all seriousness those expensive cables might actually sound better for them, through some wild psychoacoustic placebo effect where they’re actually willing themselves into believing that its better. It’s an unfortunate situation for them as the cheaper cables (as long as they’re aware of them) will in fact sound worse. It’s from these people that the premium cable manufacturers will continue to extract value and unfortunately I don’t believe there’s a whole lot that can be done about it.
So if you’re on the fence about getting those expensive cables or if you don’t know if you should then the answer is pretty clear: don’t. Your cash is much better spent on a higher quality TV set or speakers than it ever will be spent on cables to connect those devices together. Should a salesman tell you otherwise ask for a demo of them side by side and see if you can spot the difference yourself. If you do then I won’t stop you from buying them, but know that in reality the difference is all contained within your head.