Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Tuesday 28 February 2012

SOPA - don't fear the streamer

Anyone who uses the internet - and since you're obviously reading this blog, that includes YOU - is by now aware of the ill-fated SOPA, the US's attempt to destroy the web. This rightly detested law would have given the US the power to shut down any website found to be violating copyright, which would have killed this blog just for the banner alone.

Why would anyone want to do such a thing ? Is it because the US government is deep in the thrall of those with money - i.e. the music and movie industry ? Yes. Is it because that industry is EVIL ? Well... partially. But mainly it seems to be that it's because that industry has had about 20 years to adapt to the reality of the interent and utterly failed.

Back in the Mesozic Era, cavemen would use cassette and VHS tapes to record all their favourite music and videos. This took a very long time, but that was OK because they had nothing else to do except hunt mammoths, which was even worse. It made sense to have a copyright law preventing cavemen from giving copies to their friends, because the level of copying was so low that no-one actually noticed.

With broadband internet, things are different. The ability to freely and instantly copy information with no errors is easily as big a game changer as the invention of recorded music, and should be treated as such. Naturally, people have become quite taken with this. You can't possibly expect people to carry on buying overpriced CDs or DVDs when the free alternative is much better.

Unfortunately the corporate thinking has completely missed the point, and is determined to stick with using copyright laws that haven't made sense for well over a decade. This is exemplified by the truly bizarre law that allows public domain works to have copyright reinstatedIt's not -quite- as mad as it sounds. If something is public domain in one country but not in another, then this crazy law might work if going between the countries required a crew of a dozen stout men and a long sea voyage. But when information is freely and instantly shareable, it's just plain ludicrous. As I've previously stated, restricting information based on where people live is verging on racism.

"Arrr ! We'll bring ye back files the like of which ye have never seen !"
The most frightening case is surely that of the UK student threatened with extradition to the US for creating a website that can find "pirated"* content. This is legal in the UK but not in the US. Now if he was planning to burn down the White House and mutilate Barack Obama's dog, or vice versa, one could see the case for extradition. But he's not. He's helping people watch TV, for goodness sake. What kind of country sends its citizens to foreign prisons for helping people watch television ?!

* It's not piracy at all, of course, it's copying. If real pirates did this then they would have sailed the seven seas stealing treasure but also leaving an identical amount of treasure behind. Somebody should write to the Somalians and tell them this.

All that's needed is for the music and video industry to do no more than accept reality, and no less than change their business model to adapt to it. They've already tried the reverse approach and found it doesn't work. The idea that "piracy" is cauing lost profits must be absolutely rejected. In an age of free information, it's simply untenable. It's not only movies and music that are failing to adapt : a recent article suggests that mobile phone companies have somehow "lost profits" because of free alternatives.

This is nonsense. You might as well claim that people who grow their own food are causing farmers to lose profits and should be fined for farming rights violations, or that people who talk to each other face-to-face are causing losses to phone and internet companies. Profit loss is entirely the wrong mentality. Rather, increasing profits can only come from developing better ways to deal with this new reality, not fighting "pirates" - it works spectacularly well for Google and Facebook, which are both free yet worth billions.

It isn't even as though cinema has become unprofitable. Avatar made $2.7 billion, which should be more than enough for even the fattest investment banker. Low-budget movies like Paranormal Activity are equally capable of enormous profits. "Piracy" is no longer the case of boarding a boat and stealing all the treasure. In fact it's preventing the treasure from getting on the boat at all, thus saving the public from having to pay the extortionate shipping fees.

So these people copy things from the rich and then give those copies to poorer people... wait a minute...

Ah yes. I thought so.

(except they don't even steal what the rich people have anyway, making them just plain nice)
Finally, the music industry, which started all this nonsense by shutting down Napster, needs to stop telling people to stop sharing things. That's just bad parenting. Not so very long ago, musicians got by without record companies or even earning royalties. I can't help but wonder that if the music companies invested their lawyer's fees into developing an innovative new business model, we might all be better off.

Thursday 23 February 2012

The Struggle For Liberty

In 480 B.C., the combined forces of Athens and Sparta defeated Xerxes's mighty Persian juggernaut. This ushered in the next 25 centuries of Western civilisation. In 1280 A.D., William Wallace fought bravely but ineffectively against the tyranny of the English. The result of which was rather less significant - all that Western civilisation has to show for it is a very unsubtle Mel Gibson flick and an irritating Jabba the Hut impersonator.

More recently, I face my own epic struggle AGAINST the forces of Liberty. I don't have to lead an army or endure horrible torture. Unlike other rebels I don't even have to call in NATO for assistance, although it's tempting. Instead, I struggle daily against the more devious and subtle forces of monstrous incompetence, a truly glacial yet Quixotic battle which only Liberty can ultimately win.

When I arrived back, I had no television, water, phone or internet. As I've mentioned, the first two were easily remedied. Not so the latter. Having tried every variation on the old "switch it off and then on again" routine to no avail, I called my ISP (Liberty - haha, see what I did there ? aren't I witty) from work. They promised to send a technician round a few days later.

All well and good. On day of said appointment, I skipped work and waited at home. Taking a day off work without the internet is at least as much fun as watching Steven Spielberg's A.I., but to get my 10Mbps connection back it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. But, having endured over an hour past the appointment time, I went into work and called Liberty again.

I have already related my shock on learning that the technician had tried to call my broken phone, failed and so decided not to come. I therefore carefully explained that next time the technician should phone my work number before he arrives, making the reasonable assumption that he might need directions to find the house, or even try to meet me somewhere less non-descript.

So, appointment day 2 arrived. Having waited patiently in my office all afternoon, I eventually decided to call them to check on things. They claimed that the technician had tried to call me hours earlier, which, if it was on the office line, was a straightforward lie. By now I'd determined that the fault lies with the modem (having borrowed my neighbour's and found that it worked first time). So I asked if they could simply send me a new modem, by post if possible. It was not to be.

This meant they had to book yet another appointment, now over two weeks since I'd first called them. This time the technician DID call me - at work no less ! The problem ? He only spoke Spanish. Not one word of English.

By now becoming physically sick of Liberty's 15 second repeating hold "music", I opted to book another appointment for the next day. By 11am I phoned to check what time the technician would arrive -  they told me it was actually scheduled for tomorrow. So, on that tomorrow, I waited patiently in my office - again - all afternoon. I missed an interesting seminar waiting for the call. I skipped the usual afternoon tea/Dominion session. I phoned them several times -

11am : "Between 12 and 5"
3:30pm : "In about another hour"
4:40pm : "Another 20 minutes"
5:50pm : "He called by the house but no-one was there. He tried to phone the house...."


Buh - ?



Then it gets worse. Now having enough pent-up frustration to actually complain, I make it quite clear to the operator that I've been waiting nearly 3 weeks and there have already been many delays. I tell him in simple terms that I shall spend the next day waiting at my house for the technician. Which I do. It's as tedious as tedious can be.

This time my landlord was around, so I borrowed his phone twice to check on when the technician should arrive. "Between 1 and 5" is the initial response. Fine. That's just my morning wasted, then. At 4pm I phone again. "Yes, he will come today, but we don't know when." Grr. Does he show up ? Like hell.

At about 6pm I borrow my neighbour's phone and make another call. This time they tell me that the technician - wait for it - called my work number didn't get an answer, so decided not to bother.

Frak me SIDEWAYS these people are stupid !

What do they do next, I hear you ask ? Book yet another appointment for the very next day. A Saturday, so marginally less inconvenient. This time the phone monkey assures me that the technician will not try to call any numbers, he will just attempt to find the house. Of course, the phone loses signal partway through the call and cuts out. So I try again, and apparently succeed in making the appointment.

At about 11am the next day I see one of the most disheartening sights I think I've ever seen. A Liberty van drives straight passed. It's a bit like watching Littlefoot's mother die all over again.

Naturally I call Liberty again, borrowing my neighbour's mobile. After some time struggling with poor signal and operators who misdirect me to Spanish-speaking menu systems, I eventually get through. Now I'm told that a) the van that drove past wasn't the technician dispatched (err, yeah, right, because there are ever so many Liberty vans in the area) and b) the technician needs a contact number.



Ahem. I didn't say that. What I did say, after momentarily pausing out of sheer exasperation, was that no, I explained this yesterday, it isn't possible. Mobile phones only work outside here. All of my neighbours have gone out for the day. He then states the directions they have on file - the previous phone monkey already confirmed these with me - which I'm only half-surprised to find are now somehow completely wrong. And then, with the tragic comic timing so perfect it smacks of a Gypsy curse, the phone cuts out.

I then try something new. It's obvious that the problems of short, phone-based conversations are just too overwhelming. Therefore, using my neighbour's wi-fi (which only works in my kitchen, and not terribly well) I send them an online service request :

Dear Liberty,
I have a technical appointment scheduled today to repair or replace my modem. Since this is broken it will not be possible to phone the house [it's a voice modem, my phone is connected to it]. Unfortunately, cell phone coverage in this area is very poor, so I cannot provide an alternative contact phone number. I attempted to phone you earlier, but the call was disconnected due to poor signal. I am sending this service request using my neighbour's internet.
I understand that it may be difficult to find the house, as your customer service department appeared to have incorrect directions. Here are the precise latitude and longitude you may use with a GPS system, or Google maps, in order to locate the property.
Alternative directions :
Heading south along route X, you will see a Texaco gas station. Turn left and proceed along route X. Continue along this route. Proceed until you see a junction with a sign for the Arecibo Observatory - follow this sign (to the right) to continue south along route X. After approximately 10 minutes you will reach the house. It is X, the front part is painted orange. To the left is a large pink house, and my next-door neighbour's house is pale green. Ahead a sign is visible with a large yellow arrow pointing to the left. If you reach La Esperanza with its white cemetery, you are on the correct road but have gone too far south.
[I'm not blanking directions out of paranoia, oh no. It's a competition to see who can find my house on Google Maps.]
If you could send me (via email) even a very approximate time the technician will call, I will happily wait outside in order to ensure he can find the property.
Please help, as I have been waiting for 3 weeks to have my internet restored, and on 4 separate occasions the technician has failed to arrive.
Thank you,
Rhys Taylor

What happens ? Well, about an hour later the status of the service request is changed to "closed". That's. It.

At this point it seemed that my only options were to either cry at the operator or try and flirt with them like a mad thing. I'm no good at either. I'm even worse at getting angry at people who work in call centres. So I make one more effort at booking an appointment, which again fails to transpire.

Finally, based on me neighbour's suggestion (who had a similar though less epic battle with Liberty) I write an email to the managing director of Liberty. It's very polite, in the tone of the above service request. There was no direct response to this, so after a few days I again rang and booked yet another appointment (number 6, I believe). Once more I told them to phone my work number. This time they tell me the technician should phone at around 8-9am.

Although having as much confidence in this as I do in David Cameron's economic genius, I nonetheless duly went into work at 8am. Of course, they didn't call. This time I decided to go to the seminar, then lunch, and then phone them. They rang the technician, who promised to call me around 3, and I again gave my work number just to make sure.

What happened next ?


Extraordinarily, the technician rang my work number (at 2pm), spoke good English, and arranged to meet me in a convenient location. 10 minutes later we were at my house. 20 minutes after that... everything was done. Exactly as I knew would happen, all he had to do was to replace the modem. There is, of course, one and only one possible response to this.

And that's it. I may not have overthrown a tyrant or secured Scottish independence, but I damn well got Liberty and justice for me.

Monday 6 February 2012

Back To Reality

I've at last returned to Puerto Rico, after an all-too-brief 6 week stint in the UK. Having searched fruitlessly for several days trying to find a decent flight, I finally found that the only direct flight here - which was the one I wanted to begin with - is actually perfect.

Why does this come as a surprise ? Mainly because I initially searched, naturally enough, for a one-way trip. The price : £1390, rather on the steep side, but perhaps not all that astonishing given that it's B.A. This is considerably more than I'm willing to pay, having already lost one flight back and half-cancelling my flight to Austin for the AAS*.

*I can use the money again, but only on another flight with American Airlines from San Juan.

However, out of morbid curiosity I decided to search for a return flight. Now the direct BA flight is a highly competitive £550. That's right : for taking me twice the distance, they're prepared to charge less than half as much. My conclusion from this ?


Further proof of this is rendered by the fact that getting a premium economy return costs the same as a regular economy one-way.


I arrive back to discover that everything else is broken too. No water, phone, internet, or television. Electricity does work, by some miracle, although without internet or television it has limited uses. And for some reason the electricity company are trying to charge me $72 despite the fact I've been away for 6 weeks and turned everything off before I left. Then the fanbelt in my car decided to pack it in, along with the air conditioning (in my car that is, not in my house or I'd be dead from grief by now).

Some things are easily fixed. The water was off because my landlord turned it off, as the hot water tank keeps leaking. And because he's perhaps the nicest landlord in the world, he took me to buy a new fanbelt and got his brother-in-law to fit it for me. No-one knows why the television was off, but a phone call in work soon fixed that.

So I have the essentials - I can make tea, shower, make tea, watch Jon Stewart, make tea, drive back and forth to work, make tea... but not make any phone calls or use the internet. But I can make tea. I can't play with my shiny new tablet though, but mostly that's because I stupidly forgot to pack the charging plug. Good job I can make some tea. I like tea.

Liberty were supposed to send a technician around to investigate the internet/phone problem yesterday, but they never showed up. A phone call (from work) revealed that the guy had tried to call me to find my house so he could come and fix my phone.





Aaaaaargh !

Rhys brain melt now !

Saturday 4 February 2012

The Curse of Christmas

About half of all missions launched to the planet Mars have failed. The most recent is the tragic, much-delayed Phobos Grunt, which crashed... on Earth. Currently the only plausible explanation is the Great Galactic Ghoul, a great big space monster which eats approaching Mars probes.

A similar fate has befallen my Christmas's of late. Two years ago my nephew was born on Christmas Eve. Hurrah ! if you love nephews, that is. I've already articulated my thoughts on the superabundance of Peppa Pig, though this ghastly creature is but a trival distraction compared to the sheer Kubrick-esque mentality that is Baby TV. This is to say nothing of the horrors of changing a nappy or, worst of all, the total inability to check my emails for A WHOLE HOUR AT A TIME !!!

But I digress. Last year, my mum decided it would be jolly good fun to trip in the snow and break her ankle. Oh, joy. That was about a week after my dad got out of hospital having had a very sudden onset of septicaemia, just to make things that bit more fun.

This year we dodged a hospital visit at Christmas but instead got to enjoy New Years in the delightful surroundings of the cardiac ward, with my dad having exhausted the possibilities of septicaemia (having had a second bout earlier in the year) and instead gone in for nothing less than a quadruple heart bypass. Well, may as well take things to the extreme, I suppose. On the plus side, I got to enjoy this temperate island paradise a while longer, because going to the Austin for the AAS and giving a talk while that was happening was just not going to happen.

Oh well. Perhaps next year we'll get to stay home. You never know. Or, as has been suggested, we could hold a surprise Christmas in, say, June, just to catch the Carnivorous Christmas Cactus - for that is the most logical explanation for all the Christmas disasters - off-guard.