Kim picked out (in Google Reader) a piece on Joe Moran’s blog, and there at the end is this:

How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with the distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words. — Maurice Blanchot

The experience of hearing someone in the family turning on a radio somewhere in the house, and then to become aware that they are no longer attending to the radio, if they ever were, but the radio continues, is surely very common. Yet this is the first time I’ve ever read anyone remarking and reflecting on this.

‘There should nonetheless be speech … a[n] … undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words’.

Yes. That.

Founder’s myopia

Just before Christmas, John Lanchester had a good essay in the LRB, Let us Pay, ‘on the future of the newspaper industry’. It dealt very well with the crippling expense and economics of the physical product and all that that means (something Horace Dediu also tackled late last year — ‘one wit remarked that a newspaper is nothing more than an instrument that permits the depreciation of a printing plant’).

Here’s something from Lanchester’s piece that I’d not heard before (it’s probably very well known):

In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn’t looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved.

(He goes on: ‘It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I’d say that’s roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren’t going to go away.’ Both he and Dediu — ‘the medium needs its Orson Welles’ — look ahead to the Murdoch online-only paper, the Daily.)

And here’s Janet Abbate on email (Inventing the Internet, pp 106–111):

Email (initially called “net notes” or simply “mail”) made an inconspicuous entry onto the ARPANET scene. Since many time sharing systems provided ways for users to send messages to others on the same computer, personal electronic mail was already a familiar concept to many ARPANET users. By mid 1971 … several ARPANET sites had begun experimenting with ideas for simple programs that would transfer a message from one computer to another and place it in a designated “mailbox” file. … Email quickly became the network’s most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. … From ARPA email began to spread to the rest of the military, and by 1974 “hundreds” of military groups were using the ARPANET for email …

The popularity of email was not foreseen by the ARPANET’s planners. Roberts had not included electronic email in the original blueprint for the network. In fact, in 1967 he had called the ability to send messages between users “not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers” … Yet the idea of electronic mail was not new. MIT’s CTSS computer had had a message feature as early as 1965, and mail programs were common in the time sharing computers that followed …

Why then was the popularity of email such a surprise? … The rationale for building the network had focused on providing access to computers rather than to people. … The paradigm of resource sharing may have blinded the ARPANET community to other potential uses of the network. … Email and mailing lists were crucial to creating and maintaining a feeling of community among ARPANET users. … Even more important, mailing lists allowed a virtual community to take on an identity that was more than the sum of the individuals who made it up … [providing] a way for people to “meet” and interact on the basis of shared interests, rather than relying on physical proximity …

In the process of using the network, the ARPANET community developed a new conception of what networking meant. … the network planners … did not anticipate that people would turn out to be the network’s most valued resources. Network users challenged the initial assumptions, voting with their packets by sending a huge volume of electronic mail but making relatively little use of remote hardware and software. Through grassroots innovations and thousands of individual choices, the old idea of resource sharing that had propelled the ARPANET project forward was gradually replaced by the idea of the network as a means for bringing people together. Email laid the groundwork for creating virtual communities through the network. Increasingly, people within and outside the ARPA community would come to see the ARPANET not as a computing system but rather as a communications system. Succeeding generations of networks inspired by ARPANET would be designed from the start to act as communications media. By embracing email, ARPANET users gave the network a new purpose and initiated a significant change in the theory and practice of networking.

We teach about the unexpected rise of email in our first year ICT course — adding in, for good measure, John Vittal’s 1975 addition of Reply and Forward. We also point out that no-one foresaw the appeal of SMS, but it’s lovely to be able to include that story from Finland.

And here’s something else in the same vein (again centring on our love of communication) that makes a point about invention. I’m reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and early on there’s this about the early American rural telephone companies (chapter 3):

The Independents, rooted in the farms and small towns of the West, were innovators, but of a conceptual kind, not the technical kind à la Alexander Bell. They saw a different world, in which the telephone was made cheaper and more common, a tool of mass communications, and an aid in daily life. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce, but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, ‘With a telephone in the house, comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.’

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another. Obviously there was no privacy, but there were benefits to communal telephony other than secure person-to-person communications. Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances. …

And so, while the Bell Company may have invented the telephone, it clearly didn’t perceive the full spectrum of its uses. This is such a common affliction that we might name it “founder’s myopia”. Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others—not necessarily technical geniuses themsleves—who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical: the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose. … it was simple farmers in the early 1900s who pioneered the  use of the phone line for broadcasting long before the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.

BBC Multicast

I'd love to try the BBC Multicast Technical Trial:

The BBC & ITV intend to test the technical possibilities of streaming more of their TV channels via broadband. We intend to Multicast these. This should result in a higher quality viewer experience. We are running this technical trial to seek some feedback about the quality and availability of these TV channels.

For the channels available, go here.

My ISP, the excellent Zen, does a good job of explaining what Multicast is:

Multicast is way of streaming video over the Internet in an efficient way. For example all Zen Internet customers wanting to watch the BBC News stream can get the stream from Zen’s network rather than getting multiple copies from the BBC. This helps reduce the amount of bandwidth required by large organisations wanting to stream content to many users, and reduces costs to the ISP receiving that content too. This means that more streams of a high quality can be provided to many more people.

Both my routers are Draytek (2600G and 2800: great build quality) and neither yet supports the Multicast IGMP protocol, it seems. The 2600 series may never support it. Zen's forum entry on Multicast Routers calls both series incompatible, but Draytek's UK forum has this admin posting (login required):

Multicast is in development for the Vigor2800 series, although it is not yet part of the official specification. There are generally two parts to operation, IGMP Proxy (available as a 'beta' function already on Vigor2800) and IGMP Snooping which should be available in beta soon.

To enable IGMP Proxy, use telnet command "ip igmp_proxy".

Note : this applies to Vigor2800 series only. Older ADSL models do not have the capacity for this additional function.

So, I'll give Multicast a whirl at the weekend when I'm running off the 2800 router. Anyone else having fun trying to get Multicast working at home?

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The leaving of Liverpool

We had much less time in Liverpool yesterday than we'd hoped for: beware, traveller — the M5 and M6 have so many roadworks … I lost count, the journey up taking almost twice as long as it should have done.

So, a rushed job when it came to the Albert Docks and a bit of the centre, but enough to make me appreciate what a mighty city this has been … and how vibrant it is today, with all its possibilities and problems: European City of Culture, 2008, yet Liverpool University (where one of our sons is studying) lies cheek-by-jowl with some of the worst inner city areas I've seen in the UK.

Down in the Docks, the Tate is very fine. We had enough time to take in the New Realism room in the DLA Piper Series: International Modern Art. I liked the early Chapman brothers' piece, Disasters of War, which I'd heard a lot about and not seen before, the Grayson Perry pots, Germaine Richier's Storm Man and Hurricane Woman, the Giacometti portraits (of his brother, Diego) … I want to come back to Liverpool many more times, see much more of the city, get round all of the Tate and see the Walker and Lever galleries.

When we got back home, there was Tom Coates' posting to read: On the BBC Annotatable Audio project ... — 'a demonstration of a functional working interface for the annotation of audio that's designed to allow the collective creation of useful metadata and wikipedia-like content around radio programmes or speeches or podcasts or pieces of music'. Euan Semple comments: 'After 21 years working in broadcasting I reckon this is one of the coolest things to happen for a very, very long time. The ramifications of this will go very deep indeed'.

All the more fitting that our journey back took in some good to outstanding radio on Radio 4. I'd pick out here:

  • Antony Beevor and Gillian Slovo discussing the significance of novelist and war reporter Vasily Grossman with Francine Stock (Great Lives). A towering figure — to protect his second wife and her children, whom he'd adopted, he dared even to misquote Stalin in a letter to the head of the NKVD — his masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published after his death. I'm ashamed to say I've never read it, but it's now on my list for the Xmas break.

  • David Cannadine exploring the way the UK we know today differs so much from that of those whose lives were rooted primarily in the first half of the twentieth century (A Point of View): if you're in your mid-40s to mid-60s, you didn't know a world dominated by two World Wars and the greatest economic slump the modern world has ever experienced; instead, the social disruption of the Butler Education Act, plus the immense amount of money poured into education, created a country where, for all its faults, "those in charge" today do not have to be the product of inherited or privately financed privilege — he cited (as examples) grammar school boys Melvyn Bragg (In Our Time), Andrew Turnbull (former Cabinet Secretary) and Mervyn King (Governor of the Bank of England). These short programmes are his for the next 13 weeks and he seems to be setting out to look at the role Universities play in our society and how they are to be funded.


Sitting here, thinking about our so-seemingly-long-gone election and the French referendum on the proposed EU constitution (with the Dutch voting today), I enjoyed John Naughton's post about Neil Kinnock's Today programme interview (live yesterday, Tuesday):

Talking about the French referendum result, he outlined a cogent case for regarding it as a wholly French-made shambles. He blamed Jacques Chirac for mismanaging the disastrous Nice summit which launched the thing on the world, and pointed out that instead of a simple document setting out the rules needed to make workable an EU of 25 countries, it had ballooned (under the tutelage of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a former French President) into a bloated half-assed attempt to do for Europe what the Founding Fathers once did for the United States. As for the interpretation that the Non vote was an expression of dissatisfaction with Chirac, Kinnock pointed out that it was the French Left who had put Chirac where he is today. Their failure to agree on, and support, a viable left-wing candidate in the last Presidential election led them in a panic to vote for Chirac in order to keep the fascist Jean Marie le Pen from winning. But on Sunday, those same leftists allied with fascists, racists, Europhobes and sundry discontents to ‘rebuke’ the guy they had installed in power. It was a truly great rant. If only Kinnock had been that sharp when he was Leader of the labour Party.

On Tuesday, the interview could be heard again here on the Today site.


What interested me about this is what Tom Coates and Dan Hill have drawn attention to in posting about the new BCC Download and Podcast trial: it is 'one of those areas where the BBC's traditional mission to explain, demystify and advocate new technology is entirely in line with the need to create useful, usable user experiences' (Dan Hill); 'the move towards "three ways of listening" really excited me and I love the fact that the XML button is clickable and you have a form input box where you can select and copy the URL without accidentally clicking on the XML link and getting a page full of mark-up' (Tom Coates).

A future for Radio

Interesting reports from ETech 2005 about the BBC team's presentation on Reinventing Radio. Robert Kaye no longer listens to radio in the US, but 'I am pleased to report that radio is not dead and that radio may still have a chance -- at least in the UK':

I'm pleased to see that the BBC is thinking about approaches to reinvigorating radio. The team laid out their principles as follows:

  • An individual should be rewarded for participating
  • Contributions should provide value to others
  • The BBC should get value from the service and expose that value back to the contributors

When comparing these principles to the principles in use by US broadcasters (read: increase shareholder value, regardless of what our customers think) they are simply revolutionary. I do hope that these principles are not a fluke at the BBC and that the results that came from them will be broadly applied at the BBC.

The remainder of the presentation covered two other projects at the BBC: Phonetags, which applies the principles from above using a tagging folksonomy to provide music bookmarking, tagging, organizing and sharing. The presentation also covered group listening which aims to apply the above principles to collaborative listening to gather more relevant data about people listening to music. In a lot of ways it sound similar to what is doing with their Audioscrobbler and personal music channel projects.

Tom Coates reflects on his part in ETech here. I can well imagine that not everyone, even at ETech, would "get it". Programme Information Pages is surely also a very exciting development — and was switched on by it:

I attended a fantastic presentation by a bunch of folks from the BBC. They created a system for assigning unique identifiers, and adding metadata, to every BBC television and radio program. This data can then be used to generate a web page for a given show based on the unique identifier, which would serve as sort of a "permalink" for a given BBC TV show. This type of system could be very useful to any major media organization, and the BBC folks have developed the SMEF, or Standard Media Exchange Framework for providing a method for media orgs to start developing such a system. Once this kind of system is in place, and there are relatable relationships between content entities, there are many applications that could live on top of such a data repository. …

You can check out this page on the BBC Radio 3 site as an example of how the BBC is innovating through the development of a system architecture that is more suited to an atomic interweb world.

David Weinberger has a summary of both presentations, here (Reinventing Radio)and here (Programme Information Pages).

Update (20.3.2005): two interesting postings at The Long Tail — Exploding Radio and Exploding Radio II.

Chris Morris

Anyone interested in Chris Morris, satirist par excellence (The Day Today, Brasseye, etc), will find Cook'd and Bomb'd of great interest (link via Metafilter). It's a fan site with many downloads: the On The Hour page gives links to downloads of both the Series 1 and Series 2 broadcasts.

When Armando Iannucci, the producer of Radio 1's cutting edge comedy series The Mary Whitehouse Experience, heard Chris Morris reading out some of his ridiculous but also faintly plausible mock news stories on GLR, he contacted Morris to suggest that they should collaborate on a series. The result was On The Hour, a slick parody of current affairs broadcasting, that shoehorned Morris' surreal stories and interviews into an alarmingly convincing pastiche news presentation style, attacking everything from war reporting to the BBC's time signal along the way. Morris presented the show, in addition to writing it in conjunction with Iannucci, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, David Quantick, Steven Wells and Andrew Glover, and acting as associate producer. On The Hour was without question a groundbreaking landmark in radio comedy, and went on to win several awards including the 1992 Writer's Guild award for Best Comedy. Twelve episodes were made between 1991 and 1992, as well as a short special for Radio 1. All episodes exist in the BBC's archives, and a compilation of two hours of material is available on a BBC Radio Collection cassette.