Archive for April, 2009


End of week exam


(I originally wrote this two years ago after a week of watching dreary arguments about copyright, digital rights management (DRM) and failing advertising models on the BBC Backstage mailing list. Sadly, it still seems fairly relevant. Here’s the original post in context.)

Cynical University

“Where all your ideas are derivative works of ours”

Attempt all questions.

Part A

(50 marks)


Mr A enjoys model railways so much, he wants to tell everyone about them, so he decides to publish a free newsletter for all called The Story of O-Gauge. Learning the lessons of the other free newsletters lying near telephone booths, he sets up an automated printer/dispenser in Old Compton Street, which prints and dispenses a copy of his newsletter each time its shiny red button is pressed by anyone at all.

Quickly, he discovers that his newsletter is popular, for many copies are dispensed to anyone that comes within arm’s length; but this popularity comes at a cost. So Mr A decides to defray his dispensing expenses by asking Mr B, the owner of a local trinket emporium, to pay him to give away their brochure, Astounding Trinkets!, with his newsletter. They agree, but only on the grounds that Mr B will pay one red cent for each brochure given away with a copy of Mr A’s newsletter.

Time passes, and Mr A is enraged to discover that he has been giving away many more copies of his newsletter than the Astounding Trinkets! brochure, which, in his mind, is an integral part of the whole newsletter experience, and not something the public is at liberty to ignore, throw away or clean their ears with.


1) On a scale of nowhere near long enough to way too long, how long has Mr A’s brain been cooking on the Wishful Thinking grill?

2) On a scale of not at all to exceedingly, how stitched up has Mr A been by Mr B’s transfer of business risk?

3) Using any international Laughing Policeman scale, how helpless with mirth will Police Constable C become when Mr A accuses members of the general public Messrs D through Z of stealing his newsletter that he chooses to dispense freely to all and sundry? Will Mr A’s case be strengthened if he also stamps his little foot indignantly during these accusations?

4) Mr A decides to use DRM to restore economic sanity to the surly public’s enjoyment of his total content experience, but he wants to keep them involved in the process for some reason. So he asks his newsletter’s readers which DRM model they prefer; the overwhelming answer is: “the one with the biggest tits“. List at least three dubious, yet profitable business opportunities that Mr A sadly overlooks at this point.

5) Assume that Mr A started his dispenser at midnight on Jan 1 2007, that he dispensed one hundred copies on that day, that his newsletter dispensing grows at 375% per month, and that his pent-up frustration grows exponentially with dispensing figures. At what time will Mr A die from an aneurysm if he never realizes that most potential advertising impressions generate no response, and you couldn’t make some people read them if you put a gun to their head?

6) How will the date of his demise change if, when he dispenses his 50,000th copy, he discovers that two thirds of his newsletters are being eaten by a local circus horse called Googlebot that loves the taste of toner in the morning?

Your exam continues after this important message

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And now, back to the exam.

Part B

(50 marks)

On a graph with Wastefulness along the X axis and Obnoxiousness up the Y axis, plot the size and position of all the advertising-supported business models you know of.

Keep the graph within the bounds of good taste by calibrating it in mega-Saatchis, and by using the colour scheme that you think will be most attractive to avocado-eating ABC1 18-34-year-olds.

Include a statistically significant sample of their names, phone numbers and tasteful photographs so that your answer can be verified by an independent panel of lonely experts.

The remainder of the exam is sponsored by
Sony Playstation 3

Exam Raider X – the Final Challenge

(2,000 marks)

Compare and contrast the relative speed, fidelity and legal vulnerability of the following copying machines:

  • the Gestetner Automatic Cyclostyle
  • the British Parliamentary rumour mill
  • EMI Records
  • Shawn Fanning’s original Napster

Explain, in sufficient detail to prevail at appeal, how these legal vulnerabilities can be avoided by any media player that Sony might bring to market in the future.

Exam Raider XX – the Ultimate Hurdle

(20,000 marks)

Show how a rigorous, yet fair, system of intellectual property governance, applied at the outset of rampant DNA copying by multicellular organisms, would have sped up the process of biological evolution to the point where we would all be walking on sunshine by now.

Exam Raider XXX – the Desperate Gambit

(200,000 marks)

Perform a market-impact assessment of a machine that could make perfect, free, unlimited copies of itself and Angelina Jolie, paying particular attention to the international trades in lip gloss, little brown babies and grainy photographs of Jennifer Aniston.

Using any system of logic that is legally permissable, show how hacking such a machine to make copies of Steve Ballmer would lead directly to the end of the world, as well as causing a widespread loss of confidence in Blu-Ray technology.

End of the exam.

or is it?

Exam Raider Anniversary Edition
coming for Christmas 2010


One small step


Remember when caucasians blacked-up in movies, because possessing actual dark skin interfered with the film-making process, mainly in the highly technical area of “hiring”?

Well, “The Wizard of Oz” notwithstanding, it seems that too many dwarves can also look bad on film.

Hence, the need to have non-dwarf Gary Oldman humped-up and sized-down to portray a small person in the recently discovered 2003 movie, Tip Toes.

At least, I’m assuming there is a technical reason for this, otherwise surely this kind of crass fakery would be offensive to actual small people. Such as, say, nearly all the other actors in the movie.

[Thanks to Graham Linehan for this.]


Air Farce One


I imagine that the planning meetings for this impromptu buzzing of lower Manhattan must have been surreal.

“Hey, I have an idea. Let’s fly some aircraft around at low altitude near the World Trade Center, for publicity or something.”

You think we ought to warn people on the ground?”

“Nah. In fact, I think we should specifically not tell people about it. Because of, oh, I don’t know, national security.”

“You know, if we use one of the Air Force One fleet, we can make it look like it was Obama’s idea.”

“I like how you think, son. You’ll go a long way in this organization.”

“Thank you, Mr Cheney.”


When Scabby calls


I’ve had several calls recently on my mobile from 0845 412 2750, which is a number I didn’t recognize, and that looked to me like a business number.

I didn’t answer them, because my policy on phone calls is that, if I don’t know the number of the caller, or I’m not expecting a call from an unknown number, I let it go to voice mail, pick up the message, and call them back.

Part of the reason for this policy is to avoid ever having to deal with those automated call systems that relentlessly dial numbers.¬† Some just play recorded messages, and are therefore unsatisfying to hang up on. However, the really annoying ones waste your time by connecting to a call centre once you’ve made the mistake of sounding human.

Of course, such systems are designed to spot voice mail systems, faxes and other non-humans, and in such cases they drop the call without leaving a message, on the assumption that, eventually, they’ll interrupt you at a more inconvenient time.

Send calls directly to voicemail

Anyway, after a few voice-mail-free calls from yonder strange number, I looked them up and found that, indeed, they were from some obnoxious sales operation, trying to sell broader dongles for my band.

Now, a fellow annoyee on that site has had the interesting idea of adding the number to his phone’s contact list under the name “Do Not Answer”, so that he knows not to answer when they call again. Which they will.

But, with my fancy-schmancy Android G1 phone, I realized I could do better. The G1’s contacts application has a feature, hitherto unused by me, which lets you permanently divert all calls from a particular number to voice mail.

So, I’ve now added that number to my contacts, and checked the always divert checkbox. I’ve used the name “Scabby the Salesman”, for that is who I imagine to be calling (a strangely prescient choice of name by his parents, don’t you think?).

Oddly enough, since doing this, I haven’t heard from Scabby again.


Few wrongs make a write


The author of a useful “How-to” article tends to require two things: a practical knowledge of how to achieve something, and an ability to bang words together without breaking them. When a “How-to” article purports to explain how to write “How-to” articles, the opportunities for irony are especially meta.

With this in mind, I propose the blitheringly unpunctuated¬† “How to Wright a How to Article” as today’s Dunning-Kruger Effect example, mainly because of the author’s unstinting confidence in their own ability to instruct anyone about anything. I do hope that they have followed their own randomly abstract list of eight steps, and are presently at ‘then wait’.

While they’re waiting, perhaps they can study the inspirational flowchart in “How to write for the American Theater”. Thanks to that, I’m already thinking of a musical based on my Uncle Jemima’s struggle to become the first gay zombie to run a Wall Street bank; I’m thinking of calling it “Night of the Lending Dead”.

I just hope that, when he reads it, zombie Mark Twain is able to tell all the corpses apart, something he was delightfully unable to do with Fenimore Cooper’s work.


Money for epsilon


Here is an interesting article, in two parts, on trying to use programming to gain an advantage when throwing money at Swoopo, the “Entertainment shopping” site, in the hope of not losing all of it.

Having myself developed a system where data is flying around the net on short deadlines, I’m not really surprised this attempt at gaming Swoopo doesn’t work well, since this kind of real-time packetry will always be flakey compared with a process running on the server itself.

Plus, there’s really no incentive for Swoopo to do the technical work to allow inbound bids the chance to compete fairly with internal bids, notwithstanding that it’s actually a hard problem anyway, since it would tend to tilt the balance in favour of such gaming attempts.

Which I’m sure there will be many more of, particularly as Swoopo clones start to appear.