A Phoenix and a Magic Carpet: rights and wrongs

TL;DR. Phoenix and ChildrenIn the 1970s the BBC produced a TV adaption of “The Phoenix and the Carpet” by E.Nesbit. The images stuck with me and it was probably my first introduction to the concept of a magic carpet – something that I’ve been intrigued by ever since.
On a whim, I decided to see if the Internet could provide me with a way to watch it again, but all I could find was a 15 minute clip on YouTube that served only to whet my appetite even further. So I kept searching. It transpires that the BBC remade the series in 1997, and I did manage to find a torrent of this, but it just didn’t suffice: I’ll explain why further down.
On further searching I discovered a tantalizing link to a BBC site with the title “The Phoenix and the Carpet | Watch Online | BBC Store” and a summary containing the magic date 1977. Of course, disappointment was only a click away and came in the form of the only-too familiar “BBC Store.com is not available in the US and Canada.” together with a page explaining why you may be seeing that page even if you’re not in the US or Canada.
Now, it’s not necessarily the BBC’s fault that they have to enforce this ludicrous restriction, but it still irritates me in the extreme when archaic legal restrictions based on national boundaries attempt to apply themselves on the Internet: apart from being illogical, it doesn’t work.
So after trivially bypassing the comical IP address restriction I am delighted to discover the BBC are selling the original 1977 series either per episode or for 12 quid all in! Now that’s more like it! I don’t want to end up watching this on my laptop though, I thought, so it better be downloadable. It is! Whoopee! A quick financial transaction later and I was able to start viewing the episodes right then and there, and under each episode was a button that said “Download”.
Now this is what it’s supposed to be like in 2016. This is what all the fuss was about. Technically there’s no reason why this wasn’t possible a decade ago but it has taken a while for the provders to realise they can open up their archives and even make money from it! Everyone wins!
I excitedly clicked the download link so that I can watch it on my TV and was interrupted by a bolt of misery that was a big modal pop-up informing me that I had to install a download app. Gaaaah! This is another menace that seems to proliferate on the modern web. There is absolutely no need to install some potentially insecure downloader/uploaded spyware solely for the purpose of getting stuff from, and putting stuff to the web. Seriously, browsers can do this stuff now!
This wasn’t the first time I’ve capitulated and sold my soul – Amazon, Google and now the BBC had got me beaten down. I reluctantly ran the package installer and instantly froze in fearful shock and terror when the dread phrase that no ordinary sinner should ever have to read, appeared on my screen:

You must install Silverlight.

I cried out in anguish as the terrible truth had begun to dawn on me: the BBC have turned to the dark side and by my foolish eagerness I had followed them along the fetid path to eternal misery and damnation. Silverlight? Why? WHY? DRM is bad enough but the added insult of a moribund, failed Microsoft exercise in power-mongery was too much to bear. My laptop has already been compromised enough by my greed and bad judgement in the past – I couldn’t do this to it. So I had a choice: give up on watching The Phoenix and the Carpet and demand my Monday back from Aunty Beeb, or…resort to…methods.

It’s been a while since I was motivated to dabble, and this was the perfect opportunity.

They allow streaming of the media to your web browser. This means there is a way to get the media from them to me and watch it. No matter how much clever encraption and obfuscation they shroud the process in, it’s possible. Not only that, but they support iPads which means there is almost certainly a high quality stream available that doesn’t rely on ropey old flash.

After a bit of probing with Firebug, and some judicious Googling I learned that they were streaming the video using Adobe’s HDS: sending it in 4 second chunks of MP4 video, each with a MIME type of “video/f4f”. Your browser does an HTTP request for each one and seamlessly stitches them together in realish time for your entertainment.
So, with this knowledge, and the observation that the download file names were predictable (identical except for an incrementing decimal number at the end of the file name), I could now get hold of entire episodes by writing a simple little shell script.

After about 20 minutes my script had pulled down all of the 500 or so chunks of video that form episode 1. But now what? How do I join these things together and tune them into something I can play on my telly? A quick google provided the answer: some lovely soul has written a little tool called AdobeHDS.php that does exactly what I want: it looks for downloaded chunks of f4f and combines them into a nice playable FLV file as easy as typing:
php AdobeHDS.php --fragments episode1
BOOM! I have my own copy of the episode that plays on my FMT and that I can keep forever to play at will – long after Silverlight is a piece of historical comedy. Which is fair enough considering I paid for it!

Actually, AdobeHDS.php can even do the downloading of the file pieces and decrypting for you as it turns out. The author deserves a lot of love.

Of course I watched all eight episodes back to back and reveled in nostalgia and wonder at the magic of it all. I’m not sure whether the 1977 version was actually better or whether it was just because of my attachment to it but one thing I can say is that the 1977 Phoenix was far superior, and the crappy 1977 low budget SFX were no worse than the crappy 1997 low budget SFX. The other main difference between the two was the replacement of the 1970s mandatory white actors blacked-up and put in grass skirts, with black actors. I don’t know what was up with people back then that they didn’t consider this to be bizarre and ridiculous behavior but I’m grown up enough to write it off as stupidity from the past so it didn’t mar my enjoyment of the show too much. People did stupid things in the 70s such as enjoying Bernard Manning.

So what have we learned?

  • Copyright is broken and ruins everything. Surely it’s better that works of art are made available, even for money, than being hidden away for nebulous reasons of “rights”. Especially if the owners and creators of the work get paid!
  • Trying to impose national laws on the Internet is a foolish waste of money and is technically unenforceable.
  • DRM only serves to punish people who try to pay legitimately. If you are foolish enough to buy DRM encumbered media you are buying damaged goods. Something you “own” may cease to exist or be rendered unplayable over time.
  • Breaking DRM only needs to be done once. After that the genie is out of the bottle and the media is liberated. Spend money on trying to copy-protect media at your peril.
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Intel hardware backdoors

From https://libreboot.org/faq/#intel:

In summary, the Intel Management Engine and its applications are a backdoor with total access to and control over the rest of the PC. The ME is a threat to freedom, security, and privacy, and the libreboot project strongly recommends avoiding it entirely. Since recent versions of it can’t be removed, this means avoiding all recent generations of Intel hardware.

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webpageApparently the fear of leaving hair-straighteners turned on is a widespread phenomenon. My wife certainly suffers from it to a ludicrous degree: pretty much every time she uses them there will be a phone-call or a return home to ensure that the things are indeed off. To limit my frustration, and to mitigate the risk that she ever does leave them turned on I’ve created didmicheleleavethestraighteneron.com. Not only does it let her monitor the state of her straightener, but if she should ever leave it on, she can turn it off remotely. Thank you Z-Wave

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Finest American Wingnuttery

This morning I received some spam via a comments form on my website. Here it is with identifying information removed so as not to accidentally generate traffic for them:

The 2016 President of the United States is . . . Hillary Clinton!

Did I scare you?

We’re [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] and we’re committed to keeping Hillary Clinton out of office in 2016. Unfortunately, if voters do nothing this election cycle, Hillary stands poised to take the presidency.

But you can help! Join us in the fight against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sign up and be entered to win FREE CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.

Paid for by [A Bunch of Delusional Simpletons] Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Contributions from foreign nationals or entities are prohibited. Contributions are not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes.

In case you don’t know what “CCI Mini Mags 22 lr.” refers to, allow me to save you the effort of Googling: it’s ammunition for rifles.

So help us defeat Hillary, and we’ll send you some ammunition. Could there possibly be a more perfect example of deranged Tea-Party insanity?
So here’s a challenge: if you can formulate an offer of equal or greater batshit-craziness then please let me know. The best one will win a picture of an Eagle holding an M16 on a Harley Davidson, signed by Donald Trump’s hair.

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Bottles (1936)

Early Halloween fun – I’ve been trying to find this classic cartoon for years but I didn’t know what it was called. Turns out it’s called “Bottles” and from 1936 – set in a pharmacy after hours, the bottles come alive.

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How the US Reverse Engineered Soviet Typewriter Bugs

This is a fascinating and in-depth description of how the US uncovered and reverse engineered sophisticated bugs placed in the electric typewriters of embassy staff in Moscow in the late 70s/early 80s.
Bruce Schneier suggests these devices may the worlds first keyloggers and it’s easy to see why. These astounding devices buffered characters typed by the golf-ball and sent them to the soviets using RF burst transmitters. It took 8 years to discover they were there!


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Doing your business

Ever since I first encountered the world of business, even from schoolboy dealings with coins and chocolate bars, it made me feel extremely uneasy. Through the passing years my discomfort has slowly transformed itself into a solid loathing for everything even vaguely associated with the term “business”.
To me, business is the art of squeezing money out of something by crushing it until any creativity, humanity and beauty within has been turned to dust. Frequently there is no money to be had in the first place and so the destruction is pointless, except to help power the unrelenting business machine. Despite being created by humans, businesses are inhuman creations that behave like sociopathic monsters. This simile is explored in detail by the film The Corporation. Actually, rather than read my pathetic attempts at spelling something out that to me seems self evident, spare six minutes and watch George Carlin’s masterful description of the ruthless nature of business which not only sums it up but somehow manages to make it funny.

So there’s that. But then there’s the problem that the only way to be taken seriously in this society is to play the business game. At my age, being a techie isn’t really on unless you can bring something really special to the table. I can’t, but I’m persistent and have enough experience to blag my way through technical quagmires by fixing things that can only be fixed by obscure tricks picked up through the years. As a result, I’m still bottom of the ladder but in demand and pretty happy about it. The only fear is that it can’t last: why would someone want an elderly developer, who requires a great deal of sleep and AFK time, rather than a fresh-faced college gobshite who will happily work themselves to death for the tech-glory?

By now I should be managing a team and spending my life in the bizarre rituals and ceremonies of business protocol whilst communicating exclusively with phrases taken from the latest edition of the newspeak business dictionary. But I can’t. Physically, I can’t do it. Every time I attempt to get involved I just feel an overwhelming nausea that disgusts me. Every minute spent talking about the work we should be doing, but aren’t, because we’re talking about it, hurts. I’m not talking about planning, or practical discussions about how to attack the work – it’s the stuff that goes on in the rest of the business side that I can’t abide.

From the outside, the business side of any company looks like a continuous round of closed doors, behind which are endless people-hours of worthless discussions that result in nothing but the occasional egress of weary-looking people who claim to have been put under pressure “from above”. Infrequently, but frequently enough to be a perpetual nuisance, a decision is made during one of these meetings that involves we outsiders performing a task that is apparently the most urgent, high-priority thing in our to-do lists, and we are asked to ignore everything else until this task is completed. Obviously, our to-do lists are comprised of the previous outputs from previous meetings which were, at the time, the most urgent, highest priority things. Additionally, the new tasks are invariably born from terrible ideas, that totally invalidate other tasks on which we have been working. This goes on forever until someone dies, or the company goes bankrupt or gets sold.

How any of this makes money is the biggest mystery of all, but somehow it does. It seems that as long as you perform these rituals, the money just appears. How does talking bollocks produce money? There’s nothing about that in Marx or Keynes is there? I just don’t understand any of it.

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Gypsy’s kiss

One of the wonderful things about traveling on public transport, that car drivers will never experience, is the joy of discovering you’re sitting in a pool of the previous occupant’s urine. For the whole journey home.
I convinced myself it was simply some spilled Dr Pepper but once I had reached home it became clear, on closer inspection, that it was actually 100% pure tramp’s piss.

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An open letter to SEPTA


Our relationship has been going on for over seven years now, ever since I moved to Philadelphia, and I‘m sure you’ll agree it’s as strong as ever. As a someone that doesn’t, and never has driven, I’ve been a user of public transport all my life and so I’ve got a lot to thank you for; without you I couldn’t possibly live in Philadelphia. You’ve looked after me and helped me live a comfortable and productive life here, and obviously I’m grateful. You know how strong my feelings are for you and I’m always ready to jump to your defence when people unjustly criticize you or make wrongful allegations. A transportation system is far more complex than most people realise and keeping it working is tough, yet you really do an awesome job and in many ways I’ve found you to be even better than my ex, London Transport. But as with all relationships it’s not perfect, and there are still a couple of things that we need to sort out.

Firstly, your fare and ticketing system. It’s ok for the most part – and I’m not even worried about the prices – must make a change eh? For everyday inner-city travel it works adequately. And if it was 1970, it could even be regarded as quite advanced. You have these tokens that are each valid for a single ride, no matter where you’re going, on the bus or the various types of subway-type systems and that’s great. I can pay cash exact-fare but you want to discourage that because it’s a whole load of aggravation you don’t need, so that will cost more. Yeah I understand that too and so the tokens work, even though I have to make an extra trip on a bus to find somewhere that actually sell the bloody things, since there is nowhere in my neighborhood.

Except for the times when they’re not valid and except on your “Regional Rail”, which is apparently different to the other types of rail, like the trollies.

I’ll overlook that these distinctions are far from obvious from your maps and literature and deal with the everyday experience of living in the Philly area which implies a knowledge of these distinctions.

So, I need to take a couple of buses to work. Easy right? I just need to make sure I buy a metric shed-load of tokens and it’ll cost me two tokens per journey. But what’s that you say? I can save money by getting a “transfer”? Cool! Is that another type of token? No. Cash only and exact fare. Hmm, ok well that’s irritating but you’re doing me a favour price-wise, so fine.
Oh yes, did I mention that one of the buses I need is the 124?

Oh dear. Suddenly, with that simple revelation, all of the harmonious simplicity goes out of the window. The 124 and 125 buses are “special” for some reason. They call them “express” buses but it’s not because they’re turbo-charged or anything – it’s because they go a long distance west on the expressway. Other buses that use the expressway (eg the 9 and the 27) are not “express” and so work normally. Hmm.

For the luxury of travelling to work on an “express” bus, a token must be accompanied by some more cash – there’s no way to do it with tokens. For me, the extra amount is currently around $1.25, which again must be in exact change. So pre-buying a load of tokens is no longer the only thing I have to do – I also have to ensure I have pockets of singles and quarters every day. The good news is I can use a Transfer so my total journey costs a token and $2.25 which is pretty reasonable, it’s just a pain in the arse.

Another bizarre thing about the 124 and the 125 is that the extra cash is required even if you travel within the city limits! From 30th street station to Wissahickon there are several buses available. They all cost a token per ride except the 124 and 125 which require the extra cash! Even though that part of the journey is identical and travels on the same roads and in the same types of buses, if you do it on the 124 and 125 you have to pay extra for the privilege. On being told this by a driver I was incredulous and checked it with several different SEPTA sources who all confirmed that this bizarre charge was correct. Not one could explain why, and not one disagreed when I asked them if they thought it was stupid and unfair.

The reason I need the 124 by the way is that at some point in one of my previous lives I must have done something terrible, and have been punished by the gods into repeatedly having to work in miserable King of Prussia, and the 124 and 125 are the only reasonable methods of getting to work. There’s no train. Yet. I know one is planned and because I’m in my early 40’s I may live long enough to see that line opened if, god forbid, I’m still working in King of bloody Prussia then.

Like all of my fellow passengers I completely rely on these services and therefore so do my employers. A huge number of tech companies are based in that area for some sodding reason and so a big chunk of the economy relies on these buses for those who don’t drive.

Up until now I haven’t mentioned the other method of paying for rides: passes. Obviously, I don’t faff about with tokens and change any more, I use a pass. But unlike just about every other public transportation system in the world, it’s actually more expensive for me to use a pass! Yes I pay for the privilege!

And it’s here where the bizarre fare structure starts to reveal itself.

The regular bus-pass is known as a “Transpass” and if you live and work in the city it does exactly what you’d expect. You can move around on any big bus-like thing with wheels without needing any cash. Except regional rail. You can’t use regional rail. Except on the weekends. I know.

Oh, and it doesn’t work on the 124 or the 125 either! You have to pay the bizarre extra cash like you would with a token. And as the passes are even harder to come by than the tokens it really doesn’t help me much. Again, even if you want to hop on a 124 for a few stops in Center city with a Transpass, you still need to pay the extra cash. That is mental.

King of Prussia is outside of the city limits and into the “zones”, which makes it sounds like some terrible post-apocalyptic nightmare. Which it is. After a great deal of consultation with a number of Septa representatives I’m of the opinion my workplace is in Zone 2. I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen an accurate map of the zones, and even though I believe such a thing exists there’s never been one to hand at any ticket office I’ve ever been present at. I have my faith though.

So I need to up my game if I want a pass, and the best option I have is known as the “Trail Pass”. It is the platinum card of passes and even allows you onto regional rail! But this works out way more than paying for my fares piecemeal. Arrrrgh.

There is, however another option that would appear to be a closely guarded secret: the Cross-County pass. So secret is this card that I’ve had staff at Suburban station swear blind to me that it doesn’t exist.

This pass is specifically designed for people who travel out into the hinterlands and I’ve used it in the past. Despite being much cheaper than the Trailpass, its magic is strong and it too allows travel on Regional Rail and buses, but like all magic it has dangers. The biggest danger being that you can use it with a 124 and 125 without paying an extra fare only if you don’t travel into the city! Which entirely buggers up my reasons for wanting to use it. As soon as the bus hits the expressway I owe an extra $1.25.

There is another method method of getting to work. It would involve getting a train to Norristown, then a bus to King of Prussia Mall, from where I can pick up the 124 for the rest of the journey to my office. All of this without costing me any extra money! But of course it does carry the hidden cost of my will to live.

What’s strange about this journey being valid is that if I paid for it in cash, it would be way more expensive than getting the bus all of the way there! It also allows me to travel right down to the end of my road…because the pass is valid further into Center City on the train than it is on the bus! Again, this sounds absolutely insane, but I have validated that it is indeed the case.

So I can travel from King of Prussia to my house on this pass only if I use the, normally far more expensive, train option. If I want to use the cheaper and more direct bus, I have to pay extra!

So clearly I need to buy a zone 2 Trail pass. This works properly and despite being out of pocket I settle for this option because it removes a massive amount of mental stress caused by my brain trying to work out why the fare system is so arcane. Despite the awesome power of the Trail pass I can no longer use the backup option afforded to me by the Cross-County pass: getting the train via Norristown. Why not? It’s valid on the regional rail after all! Well, it’s because somehow, Norristown is in zone 3. What shape are these bloody zones? But as that’s a last resort route anyway, I’m not too upset.

So SEPTA, that’s the fare structure dealt with. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’re not offended when I refer to your fare system as being “insane” and “mental”. It’s for your own good. But there is another source of concern I feel it’s only fair to address: your parochial attitude! Sometimes it feels as if you’re less of a 21st century transport system in a 1st world city, and more of a peak hours mini-bus service in the backwaters of the Northern Territories of Australia!
It’s 2015 and your phantom “key” service still hasn’t launched and so we’re still having to deal with all this stupid cash and paper nonsense. Tokens in the 21st century? What’s wrong with you? I have to physically travel to a place to buy a pass – have you not heard of the Internet?

And I hate to keep banging on about the 124 and 125 but there is another seriously backwards problem with them: on the journey from King of Prussia to Center City, the bus doesn’t always stop at Wissahickon, a major transfer center. According to your documentation, we have to ask the driver to stop there if that’s where we want to go. “G’day mate, can you drop me off at Dingo Creek as you’re going near there?”
Now, most of your excellent drivers realise that this is ridiculous requirement and always go via Wissahickon because a huge number of people rely on it as an interchange point. Now and again a driver will yell out to the bus as a whole and ask if anyone needs to go there. That’s still backwards, but fair enough – at least we’re given the option.
But occasionally a driver will decide that because nobody has specifically asked them to stop there, obviously no-one is interested and so they go straight to 30th street with a bus-load of pissed off commuters – content in the knowledge that according to the rules, they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, should anyone express dissatisfaction with this state of affairs they will quote the SEPTA regulations at them. Which calms everyone down perfectly as you’d imagine.
How about we drop the “request” service and just stick to the schedules, as if we were living in a civilised 21st century society.

And why are there so few services on the weekends? You do realise that people won’t start to consider public transport as an option if the option is crap don’t you?

So there you have it SEPTA. After all of this negativity it’s important to know that I still love you and will stick with you come what may. But we both know you can be better and if you still want to become one of the world’s flagship Public Transport networks you’re going to have to encourage more people to ride. We can work through this.

I’ll see you Monday morning.

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Little Boxes

dog kennelNon-Americans: look at this fake house, built out of chipboard and plastic bags. What’s it for, you may be wondering? Is this for a movie set? Perhaps it’s some subterfuge to fool an enemy into bombing a fake encampment; much like the allies did to the Nazis in North Africa, and Sheriff Bart together with “the good folks” of Rock Ridge did in Blazing Saddles?
Well it’s neither of those things.
Do you give up? In fact this is actually how they build houses here in the USA! Really! And these are real houses for people, not dogs or anything like that. Not only that, but when they’ve finished building it they’re going to sell it for half a million dollars! That actual house, there! Not a real house based on that cheap mock-up, that is the actual house!
I don’t blame you for being incredulous, I didn’t believe it at first either but it’s absolutely true.
OK in fairness, the house isn’t finished yet and obviously the finished product won’t look like that. Firstly there will be more of those plastic bags stapled to it. They’re not your normal plastic bags either – over here they call it Tyvek and it’s a bit tougher than than the supermarket jobs obviously. Secondly they’ll cover it in other material like stucco or cheap Aluminium siding to hide the fact the whole thing is made of offcuts from the local lumber yard.
Half a million bucks – amazing isn’t it? It’s only a matter of time before this sketch becomes a reality:

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