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Last.FM Now Offers Full Media Streaming, and Unauthorised, Convenient Downloads

Last.FM (née AudioScrobbler), an early leader of social music consumption, was bought out a while back by CBS Broadcasting Inc, a huge US media conglomerate. One would expect this to be a Very Bad Thing, but in Last’s case this seemed to have provided it with access to funding and servers that didn’t crash out or hang up every few hours, so I was pleased. Last is basically collaborative filtering and I prefer it to services such as Pandora, which uses a top-down approach driven by “experts” (and whose website and inerface also sucks arse anyway). This hierarchical approach may work for mainstream or popular music, but for low-demand and obscure splinters of emusic these aren’t even on Pandora’s radar and so get missed. Also because of its European roots, Last.FM has always had particularly strong emusic clades (I was pointed to it in 2002 by people on SoulSeek).

Previously, Last offer 30-second “previews” of tracks on its pages. Within the last few days Last unveiled a new streaming deal where a significant portion of the tracks are now available as “full track” streaming plays. Unlike similar services in the past, Last says it has negotiated artist compensation deals for plays, the negotiations of which were doubtless facilitated by its parent CBS’s corporate guanxi and general heaviness. It’s probably also related to the unfolding attempt by the big media companies to reduce Apple’s dominance over the delivery of their product by enabling DRM-free sales through channels such as Amazon. Anyway, Last.FM now ironically replicates much of the functionality of the old AudioGalaxy in its illegal prime. So years after the media conglomerates destroyed the initial amazing burst of peer-to-peer music sharing, they have managed to lose most of their audience, cede control over their sales channels to Apple and claw their way back to the state of the art in 2001.

Anyway, people who make those streaming audio recorders are now salivating at this development driving sales of their products. At least some of them are afraid that should “home taping” of audio streams increase, this will force more media companies to lean on the OS makers such as Microsoft and Apple to enforce “secure path” technologies within their products, using Intel and AMD hardware to enforce a “no copying” hard limit in the OS so that, when set, their easy hooks into the OS to enable recording of the audio streaming will be blocked (basically, just hit “record” while the track is playing). If and when that happens, their only way to grab the audio feeds will be to decrypt the streamed and use weird hooks into the code that verge on unauthorised, contra-DMCA provisions that are illegal within the US.

One advantage of hooking directly into the packet stream, of course, is that you get better fidelity than simply recording the output of your sound card, which is basically just resampling the track and can lead to artifacts and blips where the stream is interrupted. This kind of software has a long history of appearing, then being eliminated, either through legal means or through the simple expedient of buying the offending software company. This samizdat software rarely dies, of course, but goes off into a kind of nebulous undead existence on dodgy websites in China and Russia.

Anyway, the amusing thing is that Last.FM has made its AudioGalaxy experience well-nigh perfect by delivering their “full tracks” as high-fidelity mp3s streamed through n Adobe Flash player. Google’s YouTube uses the same approach, and many, many services exist to “download” and save streamed Flash media to a directory of your choice for later, offline viewing. All these “services” are doing is going to your cache directory, which is an area of memory and hard disk that Internet browsers use to collect, store, and playback/display media and images. Basically, it’s a temporary holding site that gets emptied periodically, either when it’s reached some user-defined limit, or when you close your browser (if you are anxious about privacy).

The cache is trivial to explore. You can usually find it squirrelled away in some obscure directory on your machine (where exactly depends on your preferences). Or you can type about:cache into the address bar of anyway halfway decent browser such as Firefox or Opera. Firefox even provides a handy add-on, CacheViewer, that does exactly what it says, providing a simple UI enabling you to cut down on the clutter.

So on a hunch, after listening to one of the LastFM tracks, I checked my cache. Sure enough, there was the song I had just listened to, saved as the alarmingly URLd:

http://s7.last.fm/user/2252770/

4183d8c3db00b36d70ec1ca2d915b49f/
70/0003602492/
6fccddebe2ee4c59d83aadcf690ce58c/
1201373819/10.0.0.25/13442106.mp3

So much for security through URL obscurity (which has never worked well, really). With CacheViewer, it’s trivial to save this file as a name that isn’t so tedious and within a directory structure that isn’t insane. Upon analysis, the file proved to be a bog-standard MP3 44KHz 128Kbps, which is kind of lowest common denominator, but acceptable. Last’s server embeds some cache control commands (no-cache and no-store) into the HTTP headers, but it’s pretty easy to ignore these, or use a program that doesn’t obey them.

So that’s it. CBS has unwittingly opened a Pandora’s Box, and without using Pandora. Of course, Last will probably upgrade to a more secure version of Flash streaming that doesn’t just dump the entire mp3 onto your hard disk for later perusal. NBC’s Hulu uses this approach, for example, so its the chunk of its streamed TV shows seem to deleted from the cache right after they have been viewed. However, even in that case, because the media has to be downloaded and exist for a short but finite length of time in order to be presented to the viewer throgh the playback software, enterprising companies will emerge to offer software and services that will hook into the streams and divert them into some kind of collecting or recording bucket. It just won’t be as easy as rummaging through the messiness of your own, local, unencrypted computer cache.

President Urges Americans to “Spend Freely” To Avoid Recession

[The US President announced] a series of conferences to devise means of preventing the Stockmarket decline from affecting US business … The automobile makers, represented by Ford and General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan Jr., were satisfied that 1930 would be a normal year … The general note of the Ford economic analysis was similar to the Hoover position that: Past market breaks created caution; caution hurt buying power; lack of buying power caused business recessions. Therefore: let the US spend freely regardless of security levels … Rumors of curtailment were denied. Merchant Jesse Isidor Straus of RH Macy & Co. said it was not true he had laid off 1,200 employes but that he had discharged 28, taken on 200. Other executives spoke along the same lines. Alexander Legge. Chairman of the Federal Farm Board, drawled, “It looks as if industry would have to begin scraping around to get employes instead of laying off anybody.”

Less Reality to the Field!

Apple has lowered its projected shipments of iPhones from two million units to around 1-1.2 million units for the second fiscal quarter, which will end March 2008, the Chinese-language Economic Daily News (EDN) quoted sources at Apple’s handset component suppliers in Taiwan as indicating. Sales of iPhones in Europe have been lower than expected, pushing Apple to slash its shipment projection for the second quarter, the EDN quoted the sources as saying. Apple shipped more than 2.3 million iPhones in the first fiscal quarter, bringing total shipments of iPhones to close to four million units since its launch.

Good With Kids

Jerome Kerviel taught kids judo, held the door for his elderly neighbors in a posh Paris suburb — and appears to have committed one of the biggest bank frauds in history … In the Brittany town of Pont l’Abbe where Kerviel grew up, his former judo teacher remembered him as a serious, helpful teenager. “He came in to train two or three times a week, and he also helped out with classes for kids,” said Philippe Orhant … “I liked him a lot, and I had total confidence in him” … Kerviel’s mother traveled to the Paris area on Thursday, when the bank revealed the scandal, to see her son, “because he wasn’t doing well,” said another aunt, Sylviane Kerviel. “Jerome has done nothing wrong,” she said. “He was a reserved, serious child. He didn’t pocket a cent, I’m sure of it” … Kerviel took “massive fraudulent directional positions” in various futures contracts, the bank said, betting at the start of this year that markets would rise. The bank says his actions cost it €4.9 billion (US$7.18 billion).

[Bank] Executives called him in for questioning on Saturday … Mr. Kerviel had convinced himself that he had mastered a new way to trade stock-index futures … For a while, he went in circles while justifying the trading strategy, this person said, but finally on Saturday night he broke down and admitted the trades. [To avoid] tipping off rivals (which could take advantage of the mass selling), on Monday the bank began unwinding the positions in small trades. [They] dealing with a market selloff that had begun in Asia [and] some index traders suspect that Société Générale’s steady selling kept the European markets from shaking off the sharp downturn on Monday … The day after that turmoil, the U.S. Federal Reserve slashed short-term interest rates three-quarters of a point. According to people familiar with the matter, the Fed hadn’t been told of the selling by Société Générale that conceivably was helping cause the Monday market volatility.

So Near Yet So Far

I was reading Adam Cadre’s short essay, Trajectories of Fascism, which is all about the alternative histories where the Nazi regime in Germany was not destroyed in 1945.

Sadly WONDERFULLY, Cadre’s essay didn’t mention DOES MENTION Len Deighton’s SS-GB (the obvious prototype for Fatherland) or Katharine Burdekin‘s Swastika Night. SN predates (1937) Dorothy Thompson’s essay on who would go Nazi (1941), and is interesting in that it looks at Nazism from a 1930s female perspective, using an alternative future history in which Nazi Germany won the (obviously looming) World War and endured. We tend to remember the really bad things the Nazis did, and elide over the comprehensiveness of their program to restructure society along conservative, Romantic, and patriarchal lines. Something like Snyder‘s Encyclopedia of the Third Reich lays it all out in mind-numbing and extraordinary detail. Like, did you know that the Nazis funded themselves through sponsored cigarette sales? A big part of their early funding came from effectively MLM sales of Nazi-brand consumables and gadgets to party members and their families and friends. The Nazi regime was capable of dichotomies, arguing fiercely against abortion and contraception (in overmen, of course) while promoting it within captured territories. A similar pattern was seen with pornography, with the State actively constraining porn at home while using it as a social engineering weapon in Poland and elsewhere to create a “degeneration through promiscuity”.

To get a sense of who was thinking about “Going Nazi” in the 1920s and 1930s, English readers would probably find Henry Ford’s The International Jew enlightening. Possibly most interesting of all would be any collection of George Orwell’s journalism essays from the 1930s where he was writing for a local audience. He spends quite a lot of time dissing whichever local politician, patrician, or celebrity had “come out” for Hitlerism, which seems to have happened in the 1930s with alarmingly regularity. What’s cool is that it ties these into a British context, and by virtue of when it was written, it “de-evils” Nazism, stripping it of its historical yuck factor and presenting it as just another odious, totalising ideology. Wells, Hitler and the World State contrasts nicely with Well’s own A Modern Utopia. Orwell also tackles the popularity of fascism among the Romantic intellectuals in W.B. Yeats and In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse, sado-fascism among comic book readers (Boys’ Weeklies), Hitlerism among colonialists (Rudyard Kipling), fascism among Conservatives (The English Revolution), Antisemitism in Britain, and so on.

Cadre also omits Norman Spinrad’s amazing The Iron Dream, a really quite extraordinary book, being mainly about a fantasy/future history novel called Lord of the Swastika, written by the embittered and only marginally sane scifi writer Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the United States in 1919. It’s a send up of science fiction, My Struggle, and nationalistic conservatism.

From the other end of the political spectrum, there’s also Turtledove’s Joe Steele, which is an amusing short story depicting the gradual takeover of the US political system by “Joe Steele”, a immigrant to the US from Russia who eventually becomes a Democratic congressman from Fresno. His rise to power is abetted by the adaptable J Edgar Hoover, who proves to be a man for all seasons.

Lincoln’s Lemon Party

There are two Republican candidates in this election— [Huckabee and] the absurd and sinister Ron Paul being the other—who choose this crucial moment in our time to exalt those who attempted to destroy the Union by force, and those who solicited the help of foreign powers in order to do so, and whose treason led to the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Should their patriotism be questioned? I would say most definitely yes, and questioned repeatedly, at that, perhaps especially if they are seeking the nomination of the party of Lincoln.

Also a delicious beverage!

Failing Grade

But it’s probably a mistake to expect the current housing market to behave like the stock market of the late 1990s. “There is no bubble!” says Raphael Bostic, professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. Bostic’s reasoning—shared by [Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University] and senior economist Christopher Thornberg of the UCLA Anderson Forecast—is that there are rational explanations for the price increases, outsized though they may be. “It’s Economics 101,” Bostic says. “A simple formula: Supply and demand.”

Low Stakes

Finally a source for the idea that academic politics are so cruel/brutal/intense/vicious because the stakes are so low:

Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Well before Kissinger got credit for that thought in the mid-1970s, however, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt told a reporter, “Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it’s because the stakes are so small.” Others believe this quip originated with political scientist Wallace Sayre, Neustadt’s onetime colleague at Columbia University. A 1973 book gave as “Sayre’s Law,” “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.” Sayre’s colleague and coauthor Herbert Kaufman said his usual wording was “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” In his 1979 book Peter’s People, Laurence Peter wrote, “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” He called this “Peter’s Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education.” Variations on that thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C. P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh (among others). According to the onetime editor of Woodrow Wilson’s papers, however, long before any of them strode the academic-political scene, Wilson observed often that the intensity of academic squabbles he witnessed while president of Princeton University was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.

How Would Jesus Season?

Shearer’s boyfriend, Christopher Lee McCuin, 25, was charged with capital murder after police said they found her body, an ear boiling in a pot on a stovetop, and a hunk of flesh with a fork in it on a plate at the crime scene.

[McCuin] is now saying he was instructed by God to kill 21-year-old Jana Shearer over the weekend and then mutilate her body and cook parts of her flesh. “When he said God told him to do it, one of the investigators just looked at him and said, ‘What did you say?’” Wiginton said. “He said God told me to do it.”

Shell Game

Microsoft gets about 75 percent of its 40 billion dollars in revenue from licensing fees. A few years ago, it set up an Irish subsidiary called Round Island One Ltd. to own its 16 billion dollars worth of copyrights on software developed in the U.S. In 2004, it shifted nine billion dollars in profits to Ireland and thereby avoided paying some 500 million dollars in U.S. taxes. Using the Irish company, Microsoft also avoids taxes elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The maneuver helped Microsoft drop its worldwide tax rate from 33 percent to 26 percent.Google similarly set up an Irish subsidiary, Google Ireland Holdings Ltd, which in 2004, its first year, helped the company avoid paying about 131 million dollars in U.S. taxes. Google noted in its annual report that year that it expected its effective tax rate to drop even more significantly. It explained, “This is primarily because proportionately more of earnings in 2005 compared to 2004 are expected to be recognised by our Irish subsidiary, and such earnings are taxed at a lower statutory tax rate (12.5 percent) than in the U.S. (35 percent).”