Yet another move...?!
squiggleslash
Yep, I'm a jackass. I'm moving yet again.

Except this time it's not LJ's fault. I like Livejournal, I really do, but frankly there's no big group of people following one another here, and if there's no big circle then the obvious thing to ask is what am I trying to get out of my blog and why?

I've been using Blogger for other projects for a while, and I like the interface. What I'm going to do is set it up, and then see if I can combine all my existing blogs into a single entity. This will give me the following:
  • A single point in which all my posts can live
  • An open environment in which anyone can reply (who isn't screened!)
  • The ability to set up pages to cover certain topics I think need more than just blog entries
  • Great Android integration :)
  • Options allowing people to subscribe to the feed via email etc.
You can probably guess the URL, but it's not set up yet. I'll let you all know :)

A word about inflation
squiggleslash
I've had enough. Sensible people can disagree on a number of issues, but sometimes the dialog itself is distorted by people who really decide they don't agree with someone because they didn't understand what that person was saying to begin with. Inflation's a great one because of the number of myths associated with it. The reason I've decided to post this is because I've been reading financial blogs lately, and frankly there's a lot of deliberate scaremongering going on that relies upon ignorance of inflation and what it is.

So, at the risk of starting a political argument (which would be ironic because this is about avoiding unnecessary arguments) I'm going to explain a few things.

Here are some points that are, to the best of my knowledge, objectively correct.
  • The role of most Western central banks is to control inflation and unemployment.
  • Both problems have to be measured according to defined metrics.
  • No metric is perfect, but it's reasonable to suppose that if an organization is consistent in its use of a metric, using it to guide its decisions, it's not trying to pull a fast one.
Now, let's continue with this and talk about the situation in the US
  • So-called "Headline inflation" appears to be growing
  • Oil is going up in price
  • Gold is going up in price
  • Many foods are going up in price
  • Consumer electronics are going down in price
  • Wages are dropping
  • House prices are dropping
  • Cable TV services are going up, for some reason
  • Uh
  • OK, let's stop on this one, you get the general picture
So some things are going up, others are going down. Of what you might call the three most important metrics in terms of you paying for things, having a roof over your head, energy, and food, two are going up in price, the other is dropping. Your income, used to pay for all of this, is dropping. What gives? Why the disparity?

OK, what's our central bank, the Federal Reserve, doing about this? Wait, it says core inflation isn't going up and it needs to fight inflation! What does that mean?

Wait, they didn't say inflation, they said Core Inflation. Another set of bullet points:
  • Things rise in price for different reasons
  • Oil is up for a number of reasons, one is uncertainty over supplies due to continuing unrest in the Middle East, another is that quite simply demand is growing faster than supply.
  • "Unrest in the Middle East" is a temporary issue (well, this unrest is)
  • Food is up because of food shortages due to droughts and other weather related issues.
  • Weather and droughts are entirely transitory events. Next year food supplies will probably be normal
  • Gold is up in price because of financial uncertainty. Many people are "investing" in Gold because it is perceived as being a "safe haven" for storing wealth.
  • Gold's value looks set to drop once economic conditions stabilize.
And more:
  • The Federal Reserve has a limited number of tools available to it when trying to control inflation
  • Specifically, the Reserve can grow or shrink the "money supply" - that is, the total amount of "money" in the economy, and that's about it.
  • Most mainstream economists, be they Keynesian, Neo-Keynesian, Monetarist, or any other mainstream doctrine, agree that pumping money into an economy will increase growth, and thus employment, at the risk of increasing inflation, and reducing the amount of money will decrease inflation but at the risk of damaging growth, creating more unemployment.
  • The dominance of the above economic consensus means that the Federal Reserve (like all Western Central Banks) uses the money supply to control inflation.
The above may seem to break with my rule that the bullet points are all objective, but actually they are - the third and fourth points aren't that it's my view that mainstream economists are right, it's that the decisions the Fed makes are based upon those points of view. You can disagree with those same economists while acknowledging that Federal Reserve does follow the logic they've come up with. As  it happens, I tend to trust mainstream economists on this, it does make sense to me. But, anyway.

OK, so back to the points. To recap:
  • There are many metrics that define inflation
  • Different things change price (up or down) for different reasons.
  • The Federal Reserve tries to control inflation (and unemployment) by increasing or cutting the money supply
So, you're a central bank, and you want to control inflation. It would follow that you need to measure it in a way that's useful to you. Specifically:
  • The only tool available to you is control over the money supply
  • You believe that If you attack inflation, you also risk increasing unemployment.
  • Some things may rise in price in a way that isn't related to the money supply. For example, a war may destroy a supply of food or energy. You would assume that reducing the money supply would do nothing to reduce prices under such circumstances, but would reduce growth and cause more unemployment.
Note, again, to keep it objective I'm describing the principle that the banks run with, by using terms like "You believe", etc.

Now, it would follow from the above that you have to be very, very, careful about what metric to use to control inflation. So the Federal Reserve uses something called "Core Inflation".

What's "Core Inflation"? Well, it's the same basket of measures as regular, plain old, inflation, minus some items that have a history of being volatile and not terribly useful. The problem is that some of these are also the things that most people see rises for as extremely painful.
  • The price of oil is NOT included in Core Inflation. This is because oil goes up and down in price like a freakin' yo-yo. Its price history has much more to do with politics and supply and demand issues than it does the value of the dollar.
  • The price of food is NOT included in Core Inflation. This is because food prices go up and down like, well, a yo-yo. Its price history has much more to do with temporary issues, like weather patterns, than it does the value of the dollar (at least, in terms of year-on-year changes.)
  • Another big measure that's missing is gold: the price of gold is NOT included in Core Inflation. This is because gold prices also go up and down like... well, you get the idea. Worse still, gold's status as a "thing people think is valuable during hard times" means it tends to go up in value during recessions, which makes it a phenomenally bad measure of inflation.
Actually I think putting gold in an inflation metric is fairly stupid anyway, currencies aren't pegged to it any more, and it has limited utility. While gold is a component of a lot of modern electronics, it's fair to say there's more gold in my wife's jewelry cabinet than in all the electronics put together in the office in which I work. But, that's an aside, let's get back on topic.

OK, but if Core Inflation doesn't include those measures, then is it a useful metric? What if all three are actually going up in price because the underlying economy is inflationary, not because there's a war or two or something similar screwing up the figures?

Well, Core Inflation should still reflect that, it will just take a little longer.
  • People need food and energy
  • Businesses need food and energy
If there's a long term increase in the prices of both commodities, you should see price and wage rises elsewhere, affecting the prices of the other items in "the basket". We saw that explicitly with the rises in gas prices in the early 2000's, where "gas surcharges" started to be added to the prices of many goods and services.

So, while you may be seeing rises in gas and food prices, the Fed is holding steady and refusing to "raise interest rates" (the method by which it shrinks the money supply.)  Why? Because Core Inflation isn't going up. And if Core Inflation isn't going up, then it would be perfectly legitimate for the Fed to believe that it will damage the economy by shrinking the money supply, actually making it harder for us to afford these expensive commodities rather than reducing their prices.

It's not a conspiracy, it's not stupid, and arguing the Fed should use inflation statistics that include measures of prices like gold, food, and oil pretty much implies demanding the Fed should engage in acts it would see as economy destroying simply because there's been a drought in Nebraska, or a war in Saudi Arabia.

Any questions?

T-Mobile
squiggleslash
Assuming the AT&T takeover of T-Mobile's customers and assets will go through ("takeover of T-Mobile"  or "merger" is dubious, they've pretty much already announced they'll be shutting it down) I'll be forced to switch carrier. AT&T has announced they'll be ending 3G/4G for T-Mobile handsets, and obviously the T-Mobile plans will be grandfathered, becoming awkward to make changes to as time goes on.

So, who will I switch to?
  • AT&T is the most obvious but they're pretty much out of the question. They've already signaled they hate me as a T-Mobile customer, and frankly the feeling now is mutual. Have you looked at their Android phone selection? Look harder: they cripple them! They must be the only operator around that locks Android phones to apps bought from the Android market. Unbelievable. Even Verizon isn't as controlfreakish.
  • Which brings us to Verizon. "It's the network", say Verizon fans. "Sorry?" says me, "all I heard was "Vtzzanhhtwk". What's the point of getting reception everywhere if nobody understands what you're saying? Now, in fairness, Verizon has the following going for it. (1) It's rolling out LTE, which means 4G users should at least get GSM/UMTS voice quality, but more importantly means their network will be at least as open as AT&T's (AT&T couldn't make their's more closed except, maybe, by switching to cdma2000/cdmaOne), and (2) they've at least accepted that Android phones shouldn't be completely locked down. Downside? Verizon has a history of control freakery, and this openness thing is new to them. Plus LTE is still being rolled out.
  • Sprint PCS? Out of the question. They run three separate networks, an old-school crappy locked down (more than Verizon's) cdmaOne/cdma2000 network, a weird-ass GSM-derived thing called iDEN - infamous for poor call quality and loud ass phones, and a WiMAX network everyone is convinced they're going to shut down within the year. While iDEN theoretically allows you to choose your own, non Sprint, equipment, in practice Motorola only makes devices for Sprint anyway. The other two networks are locked down, you can't even buy a phone unlocked and ask Sprint to activate it. You can't even if it was built for Sprint's network, but was bought from, say, Virgin Mobile (Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's network.) On the other hand, a lot can happen in twelve months - like Sprint could switch to LTE. If they do, and they eschew stupid "Only Sprint branded handset" rules for it, I'll certainly consider them.
  • MetroPCS? Poor network, but they are at least rolling out LTE. I don't have any experience of them, I don't know anyone else who does either. They're cheap though. They have an Android phone out, which is LTE compatible, but there's no version of CyanogenMod that runs on it - yet.
There are also the MVNOs, like Virgin, whose phones run on the above networks, but none of them thus far support LTE, and the GSM-based ones are generally locked down.

Hopefully things will improve in the next year, or else the FCC and DoJ will either reject the merger, or approve it only with conditions that prove to be extremely good to the industry. On the other hand, TmoNews was suggesting the other day that it might be approved if AT&T promises to give a few million of T-Mobile's customers to Sprint. I can't think of anything worse...

The "Tells you what you want to hear" media gone wild
squiggleslash
So, are you of the opinion that Nuclear Energy is the safest form of energy ever invented? Good news, the Japanese reactors have pumped out less radiation than a single lead-encased lump of coal embedded in an iceberg.

What?  You're not? You think it's the most dangerous form of Energy ever invented? Good news - uh, I mean bad news, the Japanese reactors have gone into total meltdown and are pumping out enough radiation to cross the Atlantic and make the whole of California lethally radioactive. Remember to take those Iodine pills!

It's getting absurd. From what I can tell the truth isn't really like either of these extremes.

Nuclear Energy suffers from having supporters and critics who have always gone overboard in their beliefs about it's relative safety. Insofar as I can see a truth that ought to be respected by both sides, it's that a difficult (impossible?) to plan for, rare but inevitable, event has caused a serious environmental issue that needs to be cleaned up or else will cause deaths for years to come.

Contrary to myth, Nuclear Power is not the safest form of energy ever invented - not if the amount of money spent on safety controls and clean-ups is taken into account, not to mention the pending questions about waste disposal. But at the same time, the low number of accidents and the fact that the Japanese situation, while bad, appears to have a finite damage profile that's appears to be possible to clean up, shows that Nuclear energy's safety concerns are largely containable. I just wish the topic could be dealt with in a sane way. Right now, the debate over Nuclear energy is tribal, and neither tribe seems to be rational.

United we fall
squiggleslash
Both of the major political parties, today, are comprised of coalitions of groups who generally agree with one another, but have agendas they consider the most important. The Republicans have a somewhat odd mix of the religious right, southern democrats, southern "libertarians", northern conservatives, and, well, and so on. The Democrats are a mix of civil libertarians, minorities and those who protect them, and labor. And on the Democratic side, this isn't a terribly bad mix. Civil libertarians are interested in preventing oppression, and minorities and labor generally suffer that, and minorities want their rights protected, and labor and unions are good at the whole protecting rights thing, so it all kind of works out.

Until it doesn't. And it didn't in November. The reason is because the coalition was broken. The person who broke it? President Obama. But to a certain extent, while I wouldn't say the blame also rests with those members of the coalition with enough power to make a difference, to force Obama to keep the coalition together, there's certainly work they could have done, that it would have been in their best interest to do.

That element was labor, the only one of the three that has any real power. And they didn't see it coming.

Here's the problem. Each group within the coalition has its own agenda, not in any conspiratol or evil way, merely in terms of the things that are important to them, that anyone else largely agrees with but doesn't see as the most important thing in the world. Unions, for example, want to make sure they're able to keep wages and working conditions reasonable, so they see things like, say, collective bargaining as important. How important? Well, let's pretend for a moment that Obama announced he was going to organize a complete removal of the right to collectively bargain: Unions would be very upset, and would withdraw from the coalition.

Likewise, if Obama organized constitutional changes to allow southern states to reintroduce apartheid, and force women to give up full time employment, well, it doesn't really matter that those concerned about minorities kind of like union representation and the right not to be tortured, they'd leave the coalition.

And civil libertarians - well, if Obama announced he was going to imprison people without trial, continue to wage pointless, arguably illegal, wars, persecute whistleblowers, send death squads out to kill people who can't easily be held for trial, and generally throw civil rights out of the window, well, it doesn't matter that the civil libertarians like unions and want to protect the rights of minorities, they'd be out of the coalition, because they wouldn't be able to stomach voting to give power to such a person.

Which, funnily enough, is what happened in November.

So with liberals staying at home, the Republicans swarmed into power, which leads to...  well, in Wisconsin they've getting rid of collective bargaining rights.

No doubt Democrats will blame liberals for this, but they forget one thing:  a large number of liberals can no longer stomach being a part of the coalition, and it's because of the actions of that coalition.

What about the future? Republicans seem to be overreaching at the moment, and that may well damage them in the very short term, but unless the remaining Democrat coalition members are willing to eject the extremist anti-civil libertarians from power, the Democrats will simply never be that coalition again. Civil libertarians aren't going to joing the Republicans, they're just going to join that 50% of the American population who see the parties as too far away from their views to be worth even considering voting for.

The key to understanding how to fix it is to recognize that civil libertarians would never have tolerated apartheid and the stripping away of labor rights. If the remaining members of the coalition want to get  liberals back on board, people they generally agree with, they need to undo this. As long as they don't, they will not have the power to solve the issues dearest to them.

On whether politicians are serious about fiscal responsibility
squiggleslash
Let's talk about cutting taxes. Everyone in government's in favor of it, and generally a politician who wants to be popular these days tends to make some comment about "making hard choices", announcing they want to cut {some program they never liked anyway}, and claiming this will help the deficit. It's all bollocks, in reality, because the cut had nothing to do with the deficit - if the deficit was the real issue, the politicians involved would not be lowering taxes for those who can afford to pay them, and would be addressing the whole picture. But they won't, because it's not about fiscal responsibility at all.

Look at the current economic situation and you see a major problem. The government cannot realistically make cuts in spending without worsening the economy further, but insists on reducing its income using tax cuts anyway. Why does it insist on cutting taxes? Because politicians have learned that cutting taxes is popular. But why is it popular? It's popular because lowering taxes reduces a household's expenditures. It lowers their cost of living.

But here's the joke: there are proactive, unnecessary, and frankly anti-freedom activities that the governments, local, state, and federal, of the United States engage in that have a severe effect on the cost of living. I don't mean "Things they spend money on that if they didn't we'd be able to use the saved tax money to spend on ourselves", I mean policies and policy decisions that force people to make decisions that objectively cause greater spending. If the purpose of tax cuts is to lower the cost of living, then the question should be raised as to why the governments are still doing those things. These activities increase the cost of food, of travel, of employment, and indeed indirectly increase the cost of government (and thus taxes) - welfare, social security, and unemployment benefits, for example, are heavily dependent, politically, on the cost of living.  To cut them below the cost of living would be inhumane. And these same issues also increase government spending, to subsidize certain aspects of living expensively. We'll get to that in a moment

What am I talking about? Well, let's address planning policy.

Let's look at where I am. In order to go the supermarket, I get out of my house, I walk to the car, I drive the car for five to ten minutes, I get out, I walk across a parking lot, I buy what I need, walk back across the parking lot, drive the car home, and walk from the car to my door. I do a lot of walking, the walk between the house and the car obviously isn't a lot, but the walk across the parking lot is somewhat longer, depending on whether I can find a good parking spot. I do this because the nearest convenience store is a mile away. So I drive to the supermarket, regardless of whether I just need a gallon of milk or something more.

Now, people who live in the major North Eastern cities (New York, Boston, etc) don't have to do that. They generally walk out of their homes, walk a short distance - longer than the walks described above, maybe even two or three times as long, but not so long that it's somehow a massive hardship (and the timings involved mean the entire round trip is shorter) - go into a convenience store (or maybe a supermarket) - buy the gallon of milk, and walk back home. And people there rather like the fact, unsurprisingly enough, which is probably why a cramped two bedroom apartment on the outskirts of these types of city costs way more than the four bedroom two story home my wife and I just bought in Stuart, Florida. There's way more "Huge houses that require driving to get a gallon of milk" compared to the populous that wants them than homes of any quality in walkable communities.

Huh? Why? I mean, by rights, if you can get away with making people pay way more for a cramped apartment than a large house, and pay less in terms of building out essential infrastructure, then why wouldn't you? Well, because it's illegal, that's why. With the exception of that handful of large cities, and some small grandfathered downtowns in the middle of small cities that have long grown far beyond their original boundaries, planning laws makes walkable communities virtually impossible. Businesses are required to build well away from the communities they serve, and this leads to a number of unpleasant side effects. Customers must pay more to merely visit the businesses in question; the businesses need to factor in travel costs when deciding on wages for their employees, and the businesses also have to spend larger amounts of money on transportation of supplies, supplies that must travel a significant amount of distance by road.

Governments and utilities too must spend more to support such an environment. Governments become responsible for building roads to nowhere, long, expensive, two lane strips of tarmac that service tens of drivers a day. I drive on one myself - a fifteen mile stretch of highway built in the middle of nowhere that serves, at most, one hundred different drivers a day. Why does it exist? Because it's the only transportation option for a very small group of people, and it has to be built to standards intended to avoid discrimination against people who choose to live an extremely expensive to support lifestyle.

Various types of business are barely possible in this environment, from public transport companies (which, contrary to myth, can be profitable - Britain is full of profitable, commercial, bus companies that don't receive a penny in subsidies, for instance, and while I lived there, the part of British Rail dealing with the densely populated South East, was profitable. Likewise, Amtrak's North East corridor is profitable, and would have no problems surviving if Amtrak was privatized) to businesses built primarily around socialization such as a bars and cafes.

Now, look at what happens if you change planning laws. You create the following environment:

1. People suddenly have the option of walking to many local businesses, and many would. You reduce their cost of living, as even assuming they keep the car, they spend less on gasoline.
2. Pools of higher density services result in locations people want to visit, creating a market for public transport, again reducing the need for people to be dependent on motor vehicles, and thus cutting many of their costs.
3. Local governments can concentrate on ensuring a smaller, more concentrated, group of roads are built and are high quality. Governments struggling for cash could even privatize the intercity road system, with major arteries owned by toll operators, and smaller roads, like the one I mentioned above, owned by the communities that use them - both increasing accountability, and bringing the costs of operation closer to those who use them.
4. Businesses see a reduction in their costs - lower taxes (due to local government efficiencies), the ability to employ more employees for less (because those employees don't have to spend $4 a day on travel), and cheaper access to local commodities, resulting in lower prices.

In short, with lower local taxes, the ability to avoid spending money on gasoline, and lower prices, the results would be a much lower cost of living for the majority of people.

Why aren't we doing it? Well, I think some of it is kneejerk reactionaryism. Reducing dependencies on road transportation is a liberal cause both because it's a fixed cost that, by its nature, will affect the poor more than anyone else, and because of the environmental issues, and thus the same group that refuses to believe in Global Warming because liberals are concerned about it, automatically oppose abolishing bad planning laws. Part of it is because people are used to living a particular way, and they're convinced that such reforms would force them to live a different way (in practice, you'd only be "forced" to live in walkable neighborhoods if you're currently heavily reliant on the hidden subsidies  that go into non-walkable neighborhoods.) 

But if you talk a good game about "freedom' and "lower taxes" and "fiscal responsibility", you're full of crap if you don't deal with the elephant in the room. A single act that can increase freedom of choice, and reduce the cost of living, will have a major impact on taxes. You suddenly have:

1. Room to reduce social security, welfare, and unemployment benefits, without being cruel.
2. Room to reduce expenditure on expensive infrastructure (as shown above), without cutting jobs (because new businesses become viable.)
3. Room to increase taxes - yes, increase them - to pay off the deficits you claim to care about - while being comfortable that your reforms have left people better off because the increased taxes do not wipe out the cost of living benefits.
4. Increase tax revenue anyway, by bringing more people into the employment pool, by reducing the threshold needed to make a job worth doing, in turn also helping to cut expenditure on welfare and unemployment benefits.
5. Even reduce government spending because of the number of supplies and services supplied to government whose cost is related to... again, the cost of living.

I'm sure others can think of other ways in which the government pro-actively does something that's anti-freedom (not in an "Spending taxes I could be spending" way, but in a "Forbidding you from doing something reasonable") that increases the cost of living as a result. But this one seems to particularly an issue right now.

What makes me a far left liberal
squiggleslash
Some things I think are bad and wrong, that makes me totally non-mainstream and extremist.

1. War.
2. Torture.
3. Punishment without due process.

Also I think unemployment is bad, not because it depresses home prices or because it makes things awkward for politicians, but, well, because it's really unpleasant and difficult when you don't have a job and need one and can't get one. And "unpleasant and difficult" is an understatement.

For much the same reason, I think healthcare reforms should be based upon whether they're effective at giving people access to healthcare, rather than whether some politicians can claim a "win" according to some arbitrary criteria that has nothing to do with the former.

Also poverty is bad and actual problem.

Also I tend to distinguish between a government and the people of a country, and also I tend to think that just because a group of people are a member of a religion, it does not follow that everyone who is a member of that religion is like the people in that group. In fact, as a general rule I don't side with or against something on the basis of whether it has a label that I'm supposed to be associated with or not.

So there.

Other subscription services
squiggleslash
Just to make sure I've done my due-diligence, I've looked at a few other "subscription" services to see what they offer.

The name Napster has been bought by a pay service, currently owned by Best  Buy. They're cheaper, at as little as $8 per month for a service supporting mobile devices, but from what I can determine they have no reliable off-line service - the system will cache some of your music, but you can't say "I want to download this playlist or this album", and the only supported portable devices are smartphones and tablet/PDAs - ie devices you can upload apps to that have permanent internet access. On the other hand, if all you want to do is streaming, they seem like a fairly good option, as streaming-only to any web browser costs around $5 per month. I can't comment on the quality, but this seems like a pretty decent deal.

Another option is iMesh. Unlike Napster, iMesh really is a P2P service that negotiated with the record labels to find a way to go legal while remaining P2P and continuing to have a complete music library, and in some ways it's as close as you'll get to the "Pay a subscription every month to download as much music as you want" model advocated during the RIAA lawsuits. iMesh is free for freely distributable content, or $15 per month for content that has been identified, using audio signatures, as music controlled by the major labels. In that case, there's some DRM involved.

iMesh's major issue, for me, is that it goes back to the proprietary software chain that makes DRM unusable to me. There's no GNU/Linux client, and you have to use the official client to transfer DRM-ridden audio to the finite range of supported MP3 players. On top of this, you also have the major problem associated with user uploaded content - finding what you want, and making sure it really is what you want. iMesh also put my back up by having a website that's almost entirely content free. Finding pricing, for example, involved me googling (using Bing, of course) , until I found a recent forum post with the information.

(For much the same reason, eMusic also pissed me off by having no information on actual real world costs. eMusic uses some kind of hybrid pricing model that's not all-you-can-eat and thus isn't a Rhapsody alternative, but I'm somewhat amazed these companies are going out of their way to hide the prices. Why would I sign up to something when I don't know anything about it beyond "It sells music"?)

For now, with all the mobile phone companies placing very hard limits on the amount of data you can transfer (even T-Mobile cuts your connection to 56kbps if you download more than 5G per month) that are somewhat low, I'm inclined to prefer Rhapsody over Napster - but if I worked at home, I might have a different view of that. The major issue I have with Rhapsody is the price, it's not a bad deal, but it's not trivial either.

On Rhapsody (or how I stopped worrying and learned to love DRM)
squiggleslash
I've been using Rhapsody for a few days now and I'm leaning towards subscribing at the end of the free trial period. Here's why, and why I think the system - which previously had suffered from limited usefulness thanks to its reliance on heavy DRM - may now be viable and useful thanks to a sea-change in the rest of the world. To put it another way, I think Android could save Rhapsody, and that might even be a good thing. Here's why.

The concept

As soon as the lawsuits started, a large number of people suggested that the right way to deal with rampant music piracy on the 'net was to somehow make everyone pay a little more for their Internet connections, with that money going to musicians, in return for everyone being allowed to copy as much music as they want. This idea suffers from some major practical and moral issues: everyone has to pay this? Who divvies up the money? How does it get apportioned amongst the artists? Is anyone of any importance actually going to go along with this?

One solution to some of these issues is to just start doing it, but on a voluntary basis. Create a system that, in some ways, is a mirror of the music sharing system, but implement some walls so that those who don't pay the monthly toll don't get to benefit from it. And that's what Rhapsody is. It's a DRM infested music library that allows users to listen to as much music as they want, copy it to supported devices, and share playlists and information with one another. Unlike Napster and its ilk, the music encoding and information about the music available is moderated and high quality.

But... there's DRM. It's some proprietary thing specific only to Rhapsody (but it would be, wouldn't it?) which means if you own an unsupported device, you're out of luck - you can only copy music to it by plugging it into the headphone slot and hitting the record button on your device, assuming your device can even record music, which it probably can't.

So it's better than Napster (you don't get sued, you get that warm cosy feeling that you're contributing to the cost of creating the wonderful music you listen to, and you get a proper search system with decent quality music at the end of it.) It's also worse than Napster (you don't get MP3s, well, you can, if you want, but you have to pay extra for those, we'll get to that in a moment.)


The concept, in specifics

Here's what Rhapsody actually delivers:

1. A library of music comparable to Amazon's or iTunes.
2. Anyone can listen to (using streaming) 25 tracks every month for free, regardless of whether they're a subscriber. So if you're a subscriber, and you hear something awesome, you can actually send your friends a link, even those not on Rhapsody, and they can listen to it.
3. For $10 per month, you can stream as much music as you want in any Flash-supporting web browser. You can also stream to a supported audio device like some brands of home audio receiver. You can also stream to one portable device that supports it, and can copy music to one portable device that supports it. You can also, I believe, copy music to one Windows machine running the Rhapsody client software. You have a choice of AAC+ (64kbps) or MP3 (256kbps) as the underlying compression format for both streaming and copying, but the files are wrapped in DRM.
4. For $15 per month, you get the same as what you get for $10 per month, but can copy music to up to three devices.
5. While the technical measures to prevent it are limited, you generally can only stream to one thing at once, regardless of what you pay. This caused some consternation recently when the system to control this was "improved" and people used to streaming different things in different parts of their homes suddenly found themselves restricted.
6. There's a two week free trial for all of the above.
7. If you absolutely must have an unencumbered copy, then subscribers and non-subscribers alike can buy regular 256kbps MP3s individually for around a dollar each. As with Amazon and iTunes, whole albums are also available, usually for less than $1 x # MP3s  and some tracks are unavailable except as part of albums. Again, it bears repeating these are normal MP3s, they'll play on that crappy 256M MP3 player you got in the 1990s.
8. You can share playlists, and email/tweet/etc links to music (that are available to non-members, thanks to the 25 track per month feature above)

For devices, devices running Android and iOS are supported through an official Rhapsody client, and require no external software to update them - you can create playlists and download the music in those playlists directly to the devices over Wifi or cellular, and even stream music. Blackberrys are also supported, but I can't tell you what functionality they have. In addition, some brands of regular portable player, such as the Sansa Fuze, have in-built Rhapsody support though need the Windows Rhapsody client to update them.


Quality

There are a lot of things to evaluate on the quality scale. There's audio quality, there's the software they supply, and there's also the website.

I've been using Rhapsody with two "clients", the website and my Android phone. Both allow you to search, stream, and create and manage playlists. These are associated with your account, so updating the playlist on your phone will update it on the website and vice versa. Searching is a little clunky on the Android client, which in general I found clunky anyway - the app had a habit of locking up for long enough that Android kept asking if I wanted to kill the process, despite the fact the app was clearly just waiting for network data. Trying to play a track midway through also often caused problems, as did the transition between one track and another, where jarring rattling noises were common. More problematic was the fact that frequently the app would completely lock up the entire system - I have no idea how that is even possible, but it is, and I had to reboot my phone several times by taking out the battery.

On Android you MUST use the Rhapsody app - no other music players will work - but integration with Android seems pretty decent. The music controls appear on the lock screen, for example, and work (on another music app I tried with Android, they'd appear when you were using that app, but they'd control the actual regular Music app!)

The website is fairly clean and efficient. If you want to listen to music, a window containing a flash-based player pops up, and for the most part I had no issues with it, although the system they're using does seem susceptible to pop-up blockers. The website only supports streaming and purchases, for obvious reasons. Search options are good, the system displays a lot of useful information.

Rhapsody streams and downloads music in two formats. The default is AAC+, and is sent at just 64kbps. You can also choose to stream MP3s at 256kbps. If you're on cellular data, AAC+ is pretty much the only sane option.

AAC+ is also known as HE AAC, and a lot of other names. It's a system where audio is split into a low frequency part, which is compressed using "regular" AAC, and a high frequency part, which is compressed using a somewhat less exact system, based upon the human ear's tendency to hear large amounts of high frequency tones as white noise.  Now, I'm not an audiophile so take it with a grain of salt, but I certainly didn't notice anything unpleasant about the streaming in AAC+, I'd be quite happy to listen to all of my music in that format. On the other hand, I think FM radio is good too, so, like I said, take that as it is.


Streaming and downloads

As above, you can choose between streaming music, downloading it, or buying it outright and downloading MP3s. The Android client, from what I can figure out, supports all three.

Streaming is the default - selecting any piece of music you haven't downloaded causes it to be streamed instead. If you're concerned about possibly accidentally streaming music you can put the app into "Offline mode", in which it pretends there is no Internet connection at all.

Once you've set up playlists, you can download music, whole playlists at a time. There's no option to download music track by track or album by album, but it's relatively easy to copy an album to a new playlist, so this, in practice, is not a big issue. The downloaded music seems to act like a cache - whenever you select a track to listen to, the client looks to see if it's downloaded and if it is, it plays the downloaded version, otherwise streaming it.

Long pressing on a track gives you options, including one to purchase a track, so you can then buy and download an unencumbered MP3.  I tried it, and got a system error. Logging into the website showed the MP3 was still waiting for me to download, but there was no apparent option on the phone itself to resume the download. When you download MP3s on the website, it bundles them into a .zip so you can do everything in a single download.


Why I think Android makes this work

From the above, you can probably figure out I think it's a nice system albeit with significant limitations. The major limitation, to me, is that downloaded music can only work on supported hardware. Now, in the past,  "supported hardware" meant an entirely supported system. The iPod/iTunes combination, for example, originally pretty much required a PC or Mac, and it wasn't until companies like Amazon started selling unencumbered MP3s via their website that this linkage was broken.

Things start to get better when you break those links. Android fixes the situation in two ways: first, Android allows the music supplier to put their own application onto a music player to manage the music collection, and second Android is capable enough - in terms of features and hardware demands - to ensure the application can manage the entire process, getting, storing, and playing the music. And so there's no longer a requirement for a long chain of proprietary applications running on proprietary systems, only one proprietary system is needed - the application itself. And all hinges on whether that single app works or doesn't.

And this is where portable devices are moving. Recently MP3 player makers have been flocking to Android and producing players that are essentially similar in concept to the iPod Touch. The result is a system that is open, albeit one whose openness gives it the ability to better support proprietary systems. In the long run, I suspect virtually every MP3 player that isn't made by Apple will run Android, have Wifi, and be capable of using any online music store with an available app.

I have to say I rather like the system Rhapsody have put together. The website is a nice way to manage playlists, and while the Android app has a few glitches, it's certainly usable. And while, like everyone, I'd prefer open MP3s, the DRM is generally not getting in the way of what I want to do.


In use

I've been listening to a variety of pieces since I started evaluating the system. What's really nice, and maybe it's just nice to me because I "missed out" on the whole Napster thing, is being able to find virtually anything and give it a try. Prior to this I'd occasionally search for things on YouTube, but the quality is variable on YouTube and obviously, while there are ways to download YouTube videos and extract the audio, the process is a pain and not something you want to do if you can avoid it.

As mentioned above, while the audio quality is good, the app needs some work in the quality department. Streaming seems to work well, even over cellular.


Moral issues

Like virtually everyone, I have issues with DRM, and would rather the technology not exist. Still, in terms of services that DRM seems to be appropriate for, this is one of them: I'm not buying music, I'm using a service that lets me listen to music. And if I buy music from this service, there's no DRM.  So I'm in two minds about it, but I do feel that at least there's a "reasonable expectations" thing going on here that there isn't for, say, a DVD. If I "buy a movie", I expect to have the right to watch it on my own terms. So being told, for example, I can face 4 years in prison for what's involved in watching it on a computer running Ubuntu, for example, is a shock and promoting an injustice. If I "rent a movie", well, that's different. And if I buy a ticket to watch a movie at a cinema, well, my expectations in terms of what I can do with it are close to non-existent. I'd put Rhapsody somewhere between the last two.

On the other side, the existence of the service is another way to ensure money goes towards the production of music. I like that part, a lot.

And it's music. If you really, really, really must break the DRM, you can always attach a recording device to the headphone jack.


Ultimate conclusion

Like I said, I'm leaning towards subscribing. I'll see over the next few weeks how much I use the service, but it's pretty decent, and the multiple device subscription is actually around the same as a Sirius subscription for a single device. I would like to see the Android app made less clunky however.


Some definitions
squiggleslash
I know many of you have dictionaries that are out of date, so here's some updates based upon current usage.

Terrorism:

1. An act of usually politically motivated violence used at a surface level to attempt to intimidate in order to affect political change.
2. Any political act that could be, legitimately or illegtimately, described as being of questionable legality.
3. Anything I disagree with.

Rape

1. A violent sex act perpetrated upon an unwilling victim.
2. Any 16 year old celebrating their birthday by receiving a sexual birthday present from their one-day-younger partner
3. Anything I don't like.

Violence

1. An attempt to inflict pain or injury upon an unwilling victim
2. Willful destruction or damage to another's property
3. Being annoying or obstructive
4. Anything bad that happens to me.

Treason

1. An attempt to undermine the offender's own country, usually through the illegal assistance of an enemy country.
2. Criticizing the offender's own government, or corporations, or anything really that has anything to do with one's country.
3. Any attack I disagree with on an American entity by anyone in any nation.

Anyone have any others?

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