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May 2006



Having some fun today with the tiny Holux SiRF Star III chip-set receiver, the GPSlim 236. The size of a matchbox, it is breathtakingly smart. PocketGPSWorld has a glowing review (the photo comes from there):

'… if you are considering a GPS purchase then you should not consider any other chipset. The performance improvement is massive and makes a GPS system very much more usable as a result. The time to first fix (TTFF) and high sensitivity of this chipset makes use practical in areas such as inner cities, when worn around your neck on a lanyard with a smart phone solution and any other use where marginal reception conditions make it difficult for other lesser chipset's to function. … This has become my Bluetooth GPS of choice ever since I first began using it. I thought I could never again be amazed at the places a SiRFStarIII receiver would work in yet the GPSlim 236 once again sets new boundaries in terms of performance. It is a well designed unit, small and light and sits nicely on the dashboard thanks to its rubber feet although I have taken to throwing mine in the glove box or even leaving it in my briefcase where it works just as well! I've given it 99% because nothing can genuinely be 100% perfect and it would be nice to have the Mouse USB cable included but that really is nit picking in the extreme.'

Nav4All has an excellent offer on: you can buy the GPSlim 236 for €69.50 and enjoy free Nav4All until 15 August.

This post by Charlie Schick led me to Nav4All and the receiver. Nokia are about to produce a new GPS device, but can't we have them built into the phone?

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Calendaring & memory: a note

I wish Ed were coming to Reboot. It's your natural milieu, Ed.

Be that as it may, over a month ago Ed wrote:

Google have recently released their gmail-integrated calendar to a few of their favourite groupies, accompanied by the familiar cackle of gossip and hasty analysis around the web. To sum it up, they've gone for the square box, future-oriented, non-memorable, essentially organisational take on diaries, and dolled it with their signature ergonomic tact.

All of which is rather boring. The google calendar, and this it must be said seems to be typical of almost all efforts currently spluttering to life, doesn't aim to enhance the doing of life. It prefers to pat it, to make it a tad more efficient, to give it a gloss of homeliness.

But incompetent time management is the single snidest enemy to the coherence of a human life. Both the past and the future need to be managed. Goals need to be balanced, people remembered, golden moments preserved, repose bolstered. The fire of local effort needs to be extended so as not to go to waste, and the manifold strands of our different simultaneously enacted lives integrated. What we need is an online interface that has such intuitive mnemonic power that the psychological gap between going about one's daily life and actually being on a computer is dissolved. We don't require the computer to tell us that at 4.30pm tomorrow we're meeting Albert for a meeting, we require our pre-reflective cast-of-mind into what we are supposed to be doing today to be always already organized according to spatial schemas that can be constructed, nourished and elaborated through a computer. We want to be able to navigate our past and our future in the same breath …

We want to accumulate lives, we'd like our pasts to enter into the present, not standing aside like some kind of decorative but distant relic which we can call upon with effort, if at all, only to feel nostalgia or articulate a fact.

What we require, in sum, is a digital tool that goes parallel with the mind, not orthogonal to it. We don't want to jump out of the present to check what's doing in five minutes by recourse to a computer screen, we require the present to be already infused by the structure provided by what (could be) on the screen in such a way as to change that present. To give it flesh and options.

Diaries which merely prescribe are a green and flatulent shadow of the life-time tools that would merit the term 'notable'. A well-managed calendiary, structured according to the well-worn wayfulness of a virtual and extended network of memory palaces existing at once in mind and on screen, would allow the collection and projection of a life at once rich in detail and decisively select-ible. It would of course be fully integrated with text-message and movement records, as well as photogrpaphs, people-profiles from phone-cams and credit-card behaviour. (Downside: the fbi/ your mother getting hold of the password).

It would not only enable dynamic decision-making about what to do now, it would provide fascinating and mobilizable information about one's life; it would circumvent the loss of the useful past; it would clarify the present, sheltering it from the disruptions of urge-like 'i must do this-es' that can paralyze spontaneous action by crowding the moment unnecessarily; it would allow one to perceive structures normally too slow to be visible; it would change the feel of the world.

Which I linked with this from Chris Heathcote:

Google, like most others, is fixated on the grid. I don’t think the grid is completely wrong, but it forgets two things: lives don’t fit into 30 minute blocks, and humans are fine at dealing with small amounts of complexity. In fact, that’s the natural state.

Look at anyone’s paper diary and you’ll see a mosaic of signs and numbers, conflicts, and most of all, vagueness. Ishness. A day of a shopping list, two meetings, a few phone numbers, maybe one fixed appointment, an aide memoire, a doodle.

But still Outlook clones persist in the perfect rectangle. Start and end. No ishness. No possibilities. Anything remotely untimely is relegated to being a ‘day-long event’, and squished into a few lines at the top. This is the most important space, yet it’s treated as unfortunate clutter.

I’ve been boring anyone that would listen about this for well over a year now. I’m surprised none of the calendar start ups took the necessary risk and did something different with how events are stored and displayed.


Memory Palaces. I think I should record here that back in 2003 Ed came in the top 10 of the world memory championships. The USA Memory Championships are closed to non-Americans, but in 2005 Ed took these tests in NY alongside the US competitors and wiped the floor with them. The story was covered by the brother of Jonathan Safran Foer, Joshua Foer, and you can read about it here. Earlier this year (2006), Joshua Foer won the USA Memory Championships. Guess who showed him how?

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Reboot and microlearning

I'm readying myself for Reboot 8 and then microlearning 2006. The turn-around from a term dominated by intensive revision and exam practice is … tight. Ian and I are speaking at Reboot and I'm then doing a solo talk at microlearning.

I've a number of ghost-postings that may find an outlet at these conferences, and some other things to be posted here first.

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To the Hammersmith Palais last night to hear Matisyahu, Hasidic reggae artist. I'd heard both Live at Stubb's (Dance Music has a short review) and Youth: his voice is terrific, the rhythms (with the forward guitar sound) immediately engaging. Pitchfork produced a snotty review of the latter; the Guardian had a brief but appreciative mention of it.

Notoriously, last December Sam Endicott said:

Matisyahu - just your average Hasidic reggae rapper. Yeah, you heard me. This guy is a straight-up Hasidic Jew from New York who busts mad flow over dancehall and reggae beats. This is the future of music.

Last Sunday's Observer had a lengthy interview with Matisyahu, and ten days before that there was this interview in the Guardian. PopMatters reviewed an Iowa City gig (January 2005):

He was dressed in the conventional Hasidic style. He wore a black fedora, dark suit and a white shirt whose tail stuck out revealing his tzitzits (fringes of his prayer shawl) underneath.

Matisyahu's vocal style resembled chanting more than conventional singing. He began each song in Hebrew, and then repeated the words in English. He introduced many of the songs as "written as a song of praise by King David," but he rarely sang an entire psalm. Instead he would just sing the opening four or five lines, and frequently restate short phrases and sounds as if they were a holy mantra.

There was a great similarity between Matisyahu's utterances and typical reggae lyrics. For example, when the Hasid began singing "Chop 'em down, chop 'em down, chop 'em down" over and over again, one could not help but be reminded of Bob Marley's classic "Small Axe". Other songs repeated lines like "Raise me up from the ground / I've been down too long", and "I will fight with all of my soul / all of my heart / all of my might" both of which are reminiscent of common reggae tunes. This is not accidental, as reggae uses the same Old Testament sources as lyrical inspiration.

Perhaps the strangest resemblance, which seems somewhat coincidental, has to do with both the Jamaican and Yiddish patois' use of the exclamation "oy". Matisyahu would croon "oy, oy, oy" in three/four rhythm between the verses -- something reggae artists commonly do, but in a slightly different way, more like "oy, yo, oy, yo" (think of Marley's classic "Buffalo Soldiers").

Matisyahu also preached to the crowd. At one point he got down in a catcher's crouch and started to sermonize. "According to Hasidic philosophy, every person, every being, even every inanimate object has a soul, an inner rhythm, a life force," he said. "This is the part of Hashem (the Lord) that makes us all one, a unity, and brings us light. Our job is to illuminate the darkness with our light. It is our true mission."

The jury's still out: 'The Crown Heights pioneer of Hasidic reggae is certainly bringing something new to the table' (Ben Thompson); 'Matisyahu earns respect as more than just a novelty act' (Steve Yates); 'it's treacle jammy stuff; with all those natty drum fills, MOR progressions and lockstep dub grooves, the good will goes to shit' (Sean Fennessey); 'it comes honey-sweetened and easy to swallow' (Thomas H Green).

And then there's this:

Earlier this year, Madonna sent word that she'd like to invite him to her Seder dinner at Passover. However, Madonna, by virtue of being herself, goes against Matisyahu's beliefs: according to Hasidic Judaism, women are not allowed to sing in public. ('Um, yeah,' he confirms uncomfortably, 'it's something that we wouldn't really support.') He didn't go to the Seder, needless to say, and seems embarrassed when the subject is mentioned.

Last night was packed. Never before have I seen such a Jewish presence at a gig, and the floor in the main knew the songs word-perfect — this man already has a cult following. The evening rocked and the final number, 'King Without a Crown' (lyrics here), was a tour de force that roused the audience to new heights. The 2006 tour has its own Flickr road journal. My photos are here.

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Josh Ritter


John Burnside introduced me to Josh Ritter. Last Friday night at the Empire (Hammersmith) was good. Two songs really stand out: 'Girl in the War' (mp3) and 'Thin Blue Flame' (mp3). These both appear on his third and most recent album, The Animal Years.

Of 'Thin Blue Flame', Marc Hogan had this to say on Pitchfork last year:

"Thin Blue Flame" made me shiver when Ritter debuted it June 2 in Brooklyn-- still does. The Idaho native's mountain-twang logorrhea sprawls over ten minutes ("Singing about vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord"). His clean strums are similar in tone, harmony and scope to Sterling Morrison's on "Heroin", while Brian Deck's glasses-clinking production heightens the immediacy of an already-urgent composition. 10 minutes older and who-knows how-much wiser, the song ends in the lonely feedback of watchful, world-weary humanism: "I stopped looking for royal cities in the air/ Only a full house gonna have a prayer".

And the NYT:

The album's tour-de-force is the nine-and-a-half minute "Thin Blue Flame," which ponders destruction and rebirth with an inexorable crescendo and, for most of the song, just two chords. "In darkness he looks for the light that has died," he sings, "but you need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find."

From 'Girl in the War':

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire
But I got a girl in the war Paul her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain

Face Culture has an online video interview with Josh Ritter here.

Friday's gig concluded with a beautiful, unaccompanied, acoustic performance of 'Can't Leave This World Behind' from the Golden Age of Radio:

Lawrence, KS (Can't Leave This World Behind)

Dirt roads and dryland farming might be the death of me
But I can't leave this world behind
Debts are not like prison where there's hope of getting free
And I can't leave this world behind

I've been from here to Lawrence, Kansas
Trying to leave my state of mind
Trying to leave this awful sadness
But I can't leave this world behind

South of Delia there's a patch out back by the willow trees
And I can't leave this world behind
It's a fenced in piece of nothing where I hear voices on my knees
And I can't leave this world behind

Some prophecies are self-fulfilling
But I've had to work for all of mine
Better times will come to me, God willing
Cause I can't leave this world behind

This world must be frightening everybody's on the run
And I can't leave this world behind
And my house is a wooden one and its built on a wooden one
Seems I can't leave this world behind

Preacher says when the Master calls us
He's gonna give us wings to fly
But my wings are made of hay and corn husks
So I can't leave this world behind

Just 29, Josh Ritter seems to be on the cusp of a very interesting development as an artist. Another one to watch.

Josh Ritter

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Every so often, there comes a wave of alarm that rolls its way across the web proclaiming that has gone down — for good. TechCrunch ran with the story yesterday, and I picked it up via Alex. The story had the appearance of this-time-this-could-be-true because of the news about the new lawsuit, and other sites weighed in.

As of tonight, the site is up but not accepting orders. I continue to think that AllofMP3 is a disruptive challenge to the music industry of great creative potential:

AllofMP3 is surely now so well-known and celebrated that it must represent a challenge to the RIAA, the BPI, the IFPI et al that can no longer be met just by drawn out legal actions across different countries. That's the dull reaction of retreating, defeated and dying armies. The more meaningful challenge is to the business model of the music industry and the blue ocean opportunity here is striking: 'We argue that beating the competition within the confines of the existing industry is not the way to create profitable growth' (with thanks to Tom Peters).

I was interested to read in the Register last Friday that:

According to XTN, Apple's iTunes Music Store accounted for 44 per cent of music download purchases in the UK last month. came in second, with a 14 per cent market share. That puts it ahead of Napster (eight per cent), Wippit (six per cent) and MSN (six per cent) among the nation's top-five digital music suppliers.

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Radiohead on tour

Caught up with them yesterday at the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton. Outstanding evening. A list of 50 songs for the tour, about 25 of which are played on any one night. The new numbers evidently surprise, stretch, please and move the audience.

The Telegraph reviewed the first of their UK tour stops, Blackpool, here, the Times here and the Guardian here. From the Times:

Enthused by the prospect of unseating our expectations, it was with relish that they delivered the UK premiere of Bangers And Mash — a collision of dystopian Motown beats and Colin Greenwood’s sinuous Roxy Music-style bassline, which saw frontman Thom Yorke singing from behind a small drumkit.

Radiohead have long been mining pop gold from places other bands wouldn’t think of looking and a brace of other new tunes suggested that they’re not about to stop now. Nude was a scratchy, esoteric nocturne that saw Yorke turn in a superb, soulful semi-falsetto. For a minute the hitherto unheard 15 Steps sounded like a mess of sluggish beats and clapping, until Jonny Greenwood chipped in with the sort of mellifluous guitar melody one might more commonly find on old Nigerian pop records.

And from the Telegraph:

Over their two decades, they've amassed such an arsenal of awesome songs that they can alter their setlist radically each night. Indeed, Radiohead's greatness can be judged by the songs they don't play, as much as by the songs they do. No Surprises, Fake Plastic Trees, Karma Police, Street Spirit, Just - these are some of the past 20 years' most extraordinary tracks. All are left out.

Disappointing? No - because they still offer a sublime Paranoid Android, a majestic Planet Telex, a towering There There, a crushing My Iron Lung. They've simply written more good songs than they've got time to fit in - and this is a two-hour show. There are few, if any, bands today about whom the same could be said. It's doubtful that, say, Red Hot Chili Peppers could satisfy a stadium if they discarded Under the Bridge, Give It Away and By the Way.

Six songs are new. A return to the driving emotional rock of The Bends? Or a Kid A-style plunge into the unknown? Both, but more of the former. For example, Bangers 'N' Mash, which is fast and tetchy, with frontman Thom Yorke hammering at a drum kit while singing. (Yorke has always liked prog-rock, but few can have foreseen the day he'd turn into Phil Collins.) Then there's Bodysnatchers, which suggests a livelier Joy Division, with Yorke twisting and jerking in the demented puppet-on-strings manner of that band's singer Ian Curtis. Nude is the kind of ballad Radiohead practically patented, building - like Exit Music and How to Disappear Completely - from a subdued start to a climactic wail. Arpeggi is pacier, with a shrill guitar line of the sort U2 pioneered on their Joshua Tree album. By contrast, 15 Step is computerised experimentation, and at the end sounds a bit like the similarly avant-garde Idioteque from Kid A being sucked down a plughole. House of Cards is odder still - if only because it's so uncharacteristically pleasant and light.

All very promising.

It's about time I thought of improving my camera (and my technique), but such as they are my photos from the evening are on Flickr. Concerning Thom Yorke's album, The Eraser, see this Guardian piece.

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On Music

Armando Iannuci, speaking at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards last Tuesday, as reported in yesterday's Observer:

We need to wake up to the fact that people are now asking basic questions. Why are we musical? Why did people write symphonies? Why do we have the string quartet? They seem child-like, these questions, but they're there to provide us with the opportunity to enthuse and explain and demonstrate the answers we first stumbled upon in our musical journey and which encouraged us to make that journey in the first place. …

I think we should at all times keep trying to ask and to answer the most basic of questions about music, about the arts. What are they there for?

For me they're not there for any other reason than to remind us that, no matter where we are, whether we're learned, in prison, poor, successful, alone or average, our material circumstances are not all that we have, that we can see beyond ourselves, that we're human and are therefore dignified. That's my answer. I'm sure each of you has a different one. I just wish we all had more opportunities to express them.

Forgetting the elephant

Actually, I failed completely to see it coming. Sigh … I love street theatre and I'd have loved this (London, last weekend) — as covered in today's Observer:

This fantastic spectacle, by the French company, Royal de Luxe, was covered by Lyn Gardner over a week ago in the Guardian:

By rights it shouldn't work because, at first sight, it really isn't very much if you think a vast mechanical elephant the size of a three-storey building trundling around the streets of central London and bringing the traffic to a standstill isn't very much. The elephant is a time-travelling beast that belongs to the sultan who - accompanied by his exotic retinue - has come to our world in search of a little girl. The little girl is a puppet the size of a house. She walks, she bats her eyelashes, she pisses in the street. About the only thing she doesn't do is talk. The elephant makes up for this reticence by trumpeting so noisily that on Friday afternoon sunbathers in St James' Park, oblivious to what was going on, enquired whether there might be a circus in town.

And that, folks, is about it. What narrative there is really doesn't matter a jot. But this is much more than some grand carnival-esque procession, although it has elements of carnival. This is about the giddy pleasure of interaction as girl and elephant communicate with each other and the audience, and the audience communicates with each other. What the Sultan's Elephant represents is nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people.

And in today's Observer, Susannah Clapp:

It was the sightings that counted: the massive tusks jutting out round the corner of Trafalgar Square; the animal sinking to his knees for a snooze in front of the Wolseley; the close-up view of his amiable wrinkled face; and the Lilliputian crew - in frockcoats and knickerbockers - who hung on cables and pulled on levers.

Flickr comes up trumps again: Royal de Luxe, Sultan's Elephant (both links are for Flickr's 'most interesting').

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UK copyright law and the right to copy

National Consumer Council:

Over half of British consumers are infringing copyright law by copying their CDs onto other players they own, according to a new survey for the National Consumer Council (NCC). The YouGov poll reveals that the practice is common across all ages and social classes, highlighting the absurdity of current copyright law. Three in five (59%) thought copying was perfectly legal, despite the fact that current UK law does not provide a right to reproduce copyrighted material for private use - including CDs, DVDs and downloads. The findings back up NCC’s recent submission to the Government’s Gowers Review that the law is out of step with modern life and discriminates unfairly against consumers -putting unrealistic limits on their private listening and viewing habits.

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