Television

Adrian Hon

Last Thursday, Adrian Hon came in to talk about Six to Start, games design and story-telling.

We’re about storytelling and play.

Storytelling is a huge part of the world’s culture, and great stories have always had the ability to move and excite us, whatever the medium. 

Play means a lot to us, too. We draw inspiration from video games, boardgames, casual games and playful applications and services.

Play helps us learn, grow and deal with new experiences – and when play and storytelling are combined, they give us the opportunity to deeply engage with our audience and get them to do things – as a large single group, or individually. Great storytelling and great gameplay are at the heart of what we do.

Adrian began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the great role now played in our lives by online text. You can get a good sense of what Adrian said from his posting earlier this year, How we Tell Stories.

This brought us to We Tell Stories ('six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks'), pausing briefly to look at amillionpenguins.com. In particular, Adrian talked us through Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps and Mohsin Hamid's The (Former) General. The latter grew out of an idea for a CYOA with a difference, but emerged as something very different — a "still life": 'while it does have branching, it doesn't allow the reader to affect the outcome of [the] story — only their own experience of it'. You get an excellent sense of the excitement surrounding this project from Six to Start and Penguin Books launch We Tell Stories and, of course, We Tell Stories received great acclaim, winning both the Experimental and Best of Show award categories at this year’s SXSW Web Awards. More about We Tell Stories on the Six To Start site (and there's a screencast). I'm looking forward to using We Tell Stories with my Year 9 class this year.

A number of our students have been playing Smokescreen, Six to Start's new game, developed for C4.

there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game. — Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Adrian describes Smokescreen as ARGish. Unlike Perplex City (designed and produced by Adrian at Mind Candy), a massive treasure hunt lasting 18 months and playable just the once, Smokescreen is replayable and each mission can be played in 10–20 minutes. The game is also marked by a strong story — and you might argue whether it is more an interactive game or an interactive story.

At the time of the talk, just 6 of 13 missions were out. My murky slides (sans flash, in a darkened room) give a sense of the realism of the game — Gaggle, fakebook, tweetr — and two, short, Six To Start videos follow:

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I think we might use at least some of Smokescreen in this year's ICT course (also Year 9).

Questions followed — about platforms, episodic games, recommendations, the time he gives to games (books claim pride of place), his role at Six To Start … We're very grateful to Adrian for taking the time to come and talk at St Paul's. These words give some indication of how he set the bar higher for us:

I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. … I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. … Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves. …

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them. — How We Tell Stories


Last words on last year

A few words to add to what I wrote back in January about the first half of last academic year, 2008–9.

This was the second year we’d taught our Year 9 the new ICT course (online here). Now that this body of material is very familiar to us, we can move on with confidence, keeping the old cycle of lessons as a reference for us and for anyone else who wants this level of detail, but producing much cleaner, leaner lesson material for the pupils with more time, now, for hands-on experience both in lessons and beyond. Given the engagement we’re building with professionals based in London, and the inter-disciplinary collaboration now going on at school to make much more of all the considerable areas of overlap between art, ICT, technology, electronics, science, etc, I’m confident that there’s something underway which, properly nurtured and encouraged, could be very exciting and creative.

As part of our continuing exploration of computer games, we were fortunate to have two more visiting speakers of distinction. Ian Livingstone came in May. Eidos hosts a biography. One of the UK’s founding fathers of interactive games and fiction (he co-founded Games Workshop in 1975), at Eidos (the UK's leading developer and publisher of video games) he was instrumental in securing many of the company's major franchises, including Tomb Raider and Hitman. In 2000 he was awarded the BAFTA Special Award for his outstanding contribution to the interactive entertainment industry. In 2003 he was appointed Creative Industries advisor to the British Council and in 2005 he was appointed Chair of the Computer Games Skills Council. He was awarded an OBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to the Computer Games Industry. His talk, Life Is A Game, focused on his many years in games. He spoke about the acute skills shortage in the UK games industry and the urgent need for top quality UK maths/computer science graduates to consider it as a career.

I'm delighted that, again in May, Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor, Education, at Channel 4 and a renowned gamer, came to talk about her life in gaming (she played Quake for England), what she does now and why she thinks gaming matters. You can read about her work with C4 and what she's up to on her blog. You can also read what Matt Locke at C4 has to say about her (‘she’s one of the most inspiring women I know working in technology at the moment’) and you can read about some of her thinking to do with a game C4 is developing about privacy. (And the game, Smokescreen, is now out.)

In June, we squeezed in another excellent talk — by Graham Cooke, eCommerce Senior Project Manager, EMEA, Google. He spoke about cloud-computing (trends and changes in computing and how cloud-computing is changing the way we work), his own work at Google and website analytics (what it takes to make a website work).

Last term saw us celebrate our 500th anniversary as a school and as part of that my colleague, Olly Rokison, showed off Centograph on our open day (more about our open day and ICT in an earlier post), a piece we’d commissioned from Tinker.it!. We’ve been talking with Alex and others at Tinker.it! for a while now (and Alex spoke at school last September), looking at ways in which we can make more use of Arduino in our teaching and at how we teach about “the internet of things”.

 

From the Tinker.it! post about Centograph:

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Students in St. Paul’s technology classes are studying the fundamentals and the latest advances in computation, networks, electronics, and physical design. These technologies are increasingly complex and interconnected; this has been reflected in the emergence of fields such as interaction design, human computer interaction, and physical computing.

Centograph, a physical representation of virtual information, uses today’s technologies to encourage viewers to reflect on the past.

When you enter a search term into the computer, Centograph queries the Google News Archive for a list of related news articles over the past 100 years. The archive returns a timeline of articles sorted according to date. The bars on the graph then change height to display a histogram of the relative number of news articles for each decade. This allows you to view the ‘shape’ of the past century in relation to different topics—from progression in computing technology to times of war and peace to changing sources of energy, to name a few possibilities.

Centograph provides viewers with a context for exploration and reflection, and it urges viewers to seek connections between different subjects and evaluate changes in public discourse over time. It also raises questions about how we use technology today. How do we acquire and interpret information, and how do we connect the web of virtual data to our physical lives? Users type a search term into the computer and press enter. The bar graph then changes to display the histogram for the term. You can also browse through words that other people have entered by clicking on a term to see the related graph.

We’re looking forward to doing more with both Arduino and Tinker.it!.

And so, the new school year begins … More about us and AMEE, YouTube/Vimeo, etc as we go.


Kayaking

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).

*****

Continue reading "Kayaking" »


Historic Quotes

An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning. — Max Planck

Found here — a great source of quotations, some just plain "historic", others forecasting the future, greeting new discoveries/ideas, etc, and getting things badly wrong:

"What use could this company make of an electrical toy?" — The President of Western Union responding to Alexander Graham Bell's offer to Western Union of the exclusive rights to the telephone for $100,000 in 1876.

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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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Rupert Murdoch: the end of an era

Emily Bell in today's Media Guardian (free registration required):

… what we once took from Murdoch, as an industry and as media journalists, was his ability to provide a shockingly radical lead: he was the disruptive technology which now is itself being disrupted. … the next wave of thinking will inevitably come from elsewhere. … these next thinkers will be unpopular already - their ideas may well have been laughed at or rejected within successful organisations. They may be social misfits who are not comfortable in organisations and societies which regard their thinking as unworkable and eccentric. In other words they will be classic entrepreneurs who can remake businesses far quicker than a Microsoft or a News Corp can.

Who are these people? Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google now have a more profound daily impact on how the world communicates and what it consumes than either Murdoch or Gates. Their search engine software is forcing the mainstream media to rethink what they do with their content and threatens revenue streams we once regarded as untouchable. Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, who was in Britain last Monday to talk at an Oxford seminar, received far fewer column inches than Murdoch; yet his scruffy startup, offering free classified listings, has brought the local newspaper market in North America to its knees and threatens to do the same - or at least inspire the same - here. Meanwhile Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who were behind the powerful Kazaa file-sharing site, are now threatening the world's big telecoms companies with Skype, the internet telephony service bought by eBay.

The rise of this new generation of accidental entrepreneurs has been breathtaking in its speed, and the world they created through programming code is astonishing. Where will these developments lead us? Hard to say, but it is certain that the fog of the future will lift on a changed landscape, and in many ways it is sad but exciting that the old certainties - such as the value of Murdoch's instincts to the wider industry - have become outdated.


The BBC, Backstage … and what then?

Ben Metcalfe launched Backstage at Open Tech. His presentation can be downloaded here (PowerPoint) and an audio file can be downloaded via the Open Tech 05 site (the talk was one of those given in the Main Theatre). There's a very useful posting on Backstage about the raft of BBC News RSS feeds, including theme-led feeds.

What's happened to the conservative Auntie we grew up with? Earlier this year, Wired News carried a story entitled, 'The Beeb Shall Inherit the Earth' — by Cory: 'America's entertainment industry is committing slow, spectacular suicide, while one of Europe's biggest broadcasters -- the BBC -- is rushing headlong to the future, embracing innovation rather than fighting it. … With Backstage, BBC's online department takes all the goop in its content-management system -- breaking news, editorials and conferences -- and exposes it as a set of standard programming interfaces. Anyone who can hack a little Perl or Python can mix these into any kind of service they can imagine'. (Cory also sums up the BBC's developing relationship with amateur content providers, 'The BBC's news website is the first mainstream news-gathering organization in the Western world to solicit and give prominence to photographs and reporting provided by its visitors', and the Creative Archive — 'an attempt to digitize all the programming the BBC has commissioned, clear the copyrights and post it online with a Creative Commons-like license. This will allow Britons to download the BBC's content, distribute it and noncommercially remix it into their own films, music, gags, projects and school reports'.)

At Open Tech, I found myself sitting just across the aisle from Stef Magdalinski, author of Wikiproxy — the cause-of-origin of which was explained here (4 October, 2004):

News Online doesn’t engage with its users, it doesn’t provide tools that allow me, the licence payer, to slice and dice their stories, and by refusing to link from its body text, it fails to understand how hypertext works. Also, with its conservative link policy … that only connects the BBC to established brands, it snubs the wider web, the great teeming mass of creativity. Patrician is not authoritative. Aloof is not respected. Conservative and fearful is not engaging. The gap between the BBC’s utterly laudable self image and ambitions and delivery could not be any clearer than at News Online. Finally, by not really allowing user interaction or commenting, News Online forces that debate and activity away from its site, and out onto the wild wild web. I’ve known many people at the organisation since its very earliest days. There’s some incredible talent and ideas, and from what I hear, an equal amount of frustration at how difficult it is to get these ideas to fruition.

Wikiproxy is described by Stef Magdalinski as 'a proxy for the site, that does the following things: retrieves a page from News Online, and regexes out “Capitalised Phrases” and acronyms. It then tests these against a database of wikipedia topic titles. If the phrase is a topic in wikipedia, then it’s turned into a hyperlink; uses the technorati API to add a sidebar of links to blogs referencing the story. Now you can see who’s talking about the story from the story itself …'. And instead of suing him, the BBC went away and came back with Backstage.

Two of three Backstage-unleashed projects that Ben whipped through caught my attention (many more here):

I had to leave before the session in the late afternoon when Lee spoke about Headshift's work for the BBC 'that looked at how social tagging might work on BBC News to drive both social bookmarking and user-driven related stories'. This project (which Lee spoke about at Reboot, last month) strikes me as really interesting; there's more on it here and here.

So there's Backstage, BBC Open Source, the Creative Archive Licence Group ('The BBC, the bfi, Channel 4 and the Open University set up the Creative Archive Licence Group to make their archive content available for download under the terms of the Creative Archive Licence - a single, shared user licence scheme for the downloading of moving images, audio and stills') and also Action Network: 'The BBC runs Action Network as an open forum for people to influence issues they care about. Most of the content is written by the public and reflects their views. Content provided by the BBC is clearly marked'. Other signs of movement and change at the Beeb keep popping up: Mildly Diverting posted last week that the BBC had authorised the opportunity 'to watch 'The Mighty Boosh' on broadband. A WEEK BEFORE IT GOES OUT ON THE TELLY', and Paul Mason (Newsnight) blogged Gleneagles and G8 from outside the BBC.

What does all this amount to? To stick with Backstage for a moment, it is clearly a GOOD THING:

This is such a good idea and will, I hope, cement the BBC's leading role in innovating for public good within the mainstream media. It is the latest in a long line of developments that illustrate how the BBC has become a safe harbour for some clever people who are committed to building public value through online media. It also proves, I think, how the internet has revitalised the BBC's public service remit, which was previously becoming a bit lost amidst the management debates, multi-skilling and the growing obsession with competing with lower forms of commercial media. (Lee)

But before we all get too excited, both Lee and Lloyd Shepherd, Head of Development at Guardian Unlimited, have some cautionary words. The BBC is moving boldly, but hasn't declared itself a liberty hall. Under Backstage's terms of service,

You can’t redistribute BBC content; only the BBC can do that. And Backstage is an ideal way to encourage distribution of BBC content around the world (a fundamental tenet of the BBC’s public service charter) but click on a link and you’re back on a BBC page to look at the full content. The simple fact is that the BBC is not distributing full-text content by RSS; only headlines and snippets (this is even true of Backstage’s own RSS feeds). As the BBC itself has said, it expects 10 per cent of its website traffic to be coming from RSS by the end of this year. In other words, RSS is just another effective way of building audience and traffic, and Backstage is a very good way of getting BBC RSS feeds out into wider communities. (Lloyd Shepherd)

Nevertheless, and in the spirit of that well-worn line from Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall', Something there is that doesn't love a wall, something stirs. Stef Magdalinski said how he was 'inspired by meeting Jimmy Wales of wikipedia.org', a venture and a vision that 'precisely illustrates how the collaborative, great unwashed web can create more value than ‘authoritative’ institutions', and it's great to see the BBC responding creatively, interpreting its remit in new ways for this new age. Definitely time not just to watch Auntie, then, but to join in.


TV

A summary of a summary:

… One day this January I sat in a Greenwich Village workroom with Bob Luff, the chief technology officer at Nielsen, as he pulled out gadget after gadget to show me what he's up against. Luff seemed to view the modern American home as a digital zoo where the lion is about to lie down with the lamb: radio is going on the Web, TV is going on cellphones, the Web is going on TV and everything, it seems, is moving to video-on-demand (V.O.D.) and (quite possibly) the iPod and the PlayStation Portable. ''Television and media,'' Luff said over the noise of five sets tuned to five different channels, ''will change more in the next 3 or 5 years than it's changed in the past 50. … Every age group, every cultural group and every demographic group, Morris added, is in the process of getting media packaged expressly for its members. In the next few years, this ''personalization'' will become only more and more pronounced. … Turow said he now sees little difference between television and the Internet. Nor do his students at Penn. They watch ''The O.C.'' wherever and whenever -- on their laptops, at home on TiVo and by swapping the show (perhaps illegally) through a Web-based file-sharing program called BitTorrent. The coming generation is accustomed to the idea of watching or listening to anything on any device that's nearby, Turow said. In the meantime, his generation (he's in his 50's) ''still thinks of media in these compartmentalized ways".

From The Long Tail, summarising 'Today's very, very long NYT Magazine cover story on Neilsen and the new people meter'.


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 del.ico.us 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 last.fm 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 reemer.com 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.


The future for BitTorrent

A great piece by Marc Pesce on BitTorrent — what it is and what happens to, and with it, now:

This morning I woke up to find that the torrent had died. Someone - no one knows who - had put enough pressure onto the operators of Suprnova.org and TorrentBits.com to shut them down. SuprNova.org was amazing, the Wal-Mart of torrents, a great big marketplace of piracy, all neatly dished up and aiming to please. You want this new Hollywood release? Here's a recording from someone who smuggled a camcorder into a screening. - How about the latest episode of that hit HBO series? There you go, and no subscription fees to pay. Just fire up your favorite BitTorrent client - BitTornado, Azureus, Tomato, or that good old-fashioned Bram Cohen code. Click on the torrent, and you're up and downloading, sharing what you're getting with hundreds of others. Share and share alike. What could be more friendly? …

If you're just one person with one recording of one show, and it's a popular show, your computer's internet connection is going to get swamped with requests for the show; eventually your computer will crash or you'll take the show off the Internet, just so you can read your email. And in the early days of peer-to-peer, that's how it was. Someone would find a computer with a copy of the song they wanted to listen to, connect to that computer, and download the data. It worked, but anything that got very popular was likely to disappear almost immediately. Popularity was a problem in first-generation peer-to-peer networks.

In November 2002, an unemployed programmer named Bram Cohen decided there had to be a better way, so he spent a few weeks writing an improved version of the protocols used to create peer-to-peer networks, and came up with BitTorrent. BitTorrent is a radical advance over the peer-to-peer systems which preceded it. Cohen realized that popularity is a good thing, and designed BitTorrent to take advantage of it. When a file (movie, music, computer program, it's all just bits) is published on BitTorrent, everyone who wants the file is required to share what they have with everyone else. As you're downloading the file, those parts you've already downloaded are available to other people looking to download the file. This means that you're not just "leeching" the file, taking without giving back; you're also sharing the file with anyone else who wants it. As more people download the file, they offer up what they've downloaded, and so on. As this process rolls on, there are always more and more computers to download the file from. If a file gets very popular, you might be getting bits of it from hundreds of different computers, all over the Internet - simultaneously. This is a very important point, because it means that as BitTorrent files grow in popularity, they become progressively faster to download. Popularity isn't a scourge in BitTorrent - it's a blessing.

It's such a blessing that, as of November, 35% of all traffic on the Internet was BitTorrent-related. Unfortunately, that blessing looks more like a curse if you're the head of a Hollywood studio, trying to fill seats in megaplexes or move millions of units of your latest DVDs releases. And, although BitTorrent is efficient, it isn't designed to make data piracy easy; BitTorrent relies on a lot of information which can be used to trace the location of every single user downloading a file, and, more significantly, it also relies on a centralized "tracker" - a computer program which registers the requests for the file, and tells a requester how to hook up to the tens or hundreds of other computers offering pieces of the file for download.

As any good network engineer knows (and I was a network engineer for over a decade), a single point of failure (a single computer offering a single torrent tracker) is a Bad Thing to have in a network. It's the one shortcoming in Cohen's design for BitTorrent: kill the tracker and you've killed the torrent. But network engineers know better than to design systems with single points of failure: that's one of the reasons the Internet is still around, despite the best efforts of hackers around the world to kill it. Failure in any one part of the Internet is expected and dealt with in short order. Various parts of the Internet fail all the time and you only very rarely notice.

Back to today, when the hammer came down. SuprNova.org and TorrentBits.com each played host to thousands of BitTorrent trackers. When these sites went down the torrents went Poof!, as if they'd never existed. This evening the members of the MPAA must be feeling quite satisfied with themselves - they see this danger as passed; never again will BitTorrent threaten the revenues of the Hollywood studios.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Hollywood is so fond of sequels, it seems perfectly fitting that today's suppression of the leading BitTorrent sites bears an uncanny resemblance to an event which took place in July of 2000. Facing a rising sea of lawsuits and numerous court orders demanding an immediate shutdown, the archetypal peer-to-peer service, Napster, pulled the plug on its own servers, silencing the millions of users who used the service as a central exchange to locate songs to download. That should have been the end of that. But it wasn't. Instead, the number of songs traded on the Internet today dwarfs the number traded in Napster's heyday. The suppression of Napster led to a profusion of alternatives - Gnutella, Kazaa, and BitTorrent.

Gnutella is a particularly telling example of how the suppression of a seductive technology (and peer-to-peer file trading is very seductive - ask anyone who's done it) only results in an improved technology taking its place. Instead of relying on a centralized server - a fault that both Napster and BitTorrent share - Gnutella uses a process of discovery to let peers share information with each other about what's available where. The peers in a Gnutella peer-to-peer network self-organize into an occasionally unreliable but undeniably expansive network of content. Because of its distributed nature, shutting down any one Gnutella peer has only a very limited effect on the overall network. One individual's collection of music might evaporate, but there are still tens of thousands of others to pick from. This network of Gnutella peers (and its offspring, such as Kazaa, BearShare, and Acquisition) has been growing since its introduction in 2001, mostly invisibly, but ever more pervasively.

If Napster hadn't been run out of business by the RIAA, it's unlikely that any need for Gnutella would have arisen; if the RIAA hadn't attacked that single point of failure, there'd have been no need to develop a solution which, by design, has no single point to failure. It's as though both sides in the war over piracy and file sharing are engaged in an evolutionary struggle: every time one side comes up with a new strategy, the other side evolves a response to it. This isn't just a cat-and-mouse game; each attack by the RIAA, generates a response of increasing sophistication. And, today, the MPAA has blundered into this arms race. This was, as will soon be seen, a Very Bad Idea.

Pointing up the single greatest weakness of BitTorrent take down the tracker and the torrent dies - has only served to energize, inspire and mobilize the resources of an entire global ecology of software developers, network engineers and hackers-at-large who want nothing so much, at this moment, as to make the MPAA pay for their insolence. Imagine a parent reaching into a child's room and ripping a TV set out of the wall while the child is watching it. That child would feel anger and begin plotting his revenge. And that scene has been multiplied at least hundred thousand times today, all around the world. It is quite likely that, as I type these words, somewhere in the world a roomful of college CS students, fueled by coke and pizza and righteous indignation, are banging out some code which will fix the inherent weakness of BitTorrent - removing the need for a single tracker. If they're smart enough, they'll work out a system of dynamic trackers, which could quickly pass control back and forth among a cloud of peers, so that no one peer holds the hot potato long enough to be noticed. They'll take the best of Gnutella and cross-breed it with the best of BitTorrent. And that will be the MPAA's worst nightmare.

Hey, Hollywood! Can you feel the future slipping through your fingers? Do you understand how badly you've screwed up? You took a perfectly serviceable situation - a nice, centralized system for the distribution of media, and, through your own greed and shortsightedness, are giving birth to a system of digital distribution that you'll never, ever be able to defeat. In your avarice and arrogance you ignored the obvious: you should have cut a deal with SuprNova.org. In partnership you could have found a way to manage the disruptive change that's already well underway. Instead, you have repeated the mistakes made by the recording industry, chapter and verse. And thus you have spelled your own doom.

It's said that the best sequels are just like the original, only bigger and louder. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for one hell of a crash. This baby is now fully out of control.

This from Susan Mernit, via Boing Boing