Monthly Archives: October 2002

Another unicorn!

Yoz has done the donkey work on legendary software engineer Mitch Kapor’s latest product, a PIM code-named Chandler. A useful analysis, lots of links and even some retro executables. The man should get a medal. I’ve tried a lot of PIMs, brainstormers, outliners, contact managers – structured and freeform, integrated and standalone. They’re intellectually interesting – I’m always looking for the perfect organiser. I’m quite old now so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist – my pathology makes me unreformable, unorganisable. I suspect the whole category is doomed. Only restless, neurotic people and organisations with a pathological need for order will adopt the next hot organiser and the people who could make best use of them are productive without them. Is that a bit of a downer?

Distressed geeks

Some scratched and mangled black & white photos I took at Dave & Danny’s ‘Village Fete for the Twenty First Century’ back in the Summer showed up in the post months late. Some frames were lost all together – including all the ones of Dave & Danny themselves. The rest, including this one of Matt “Warchalking” Jones, are spooky. They should offer this as a service.
Blackbelt Jones
click here to see pics of Yoz, Matt, Paul, Adam, paper folders, my kids, Juliet… and Freeman Dyson!

Powerpoint in pedagogy

We’ve pressed the Powerbook and MS Powerpoint into half term service for our four year-old’s revision. In kiosk mode it’s easy to create a constrained sequence of words, letters, numbers that will only advance when he clicks in the right place and that provides an entertaining sound as a reward for getting the task right. We learn: too much entertainment along the way is a major distraction (no pictures!); sometimes Olly wants to motor through the presentation thumbnails instead of following the sequence; knowledge acquired elsewhere (while browsing the web, for instance) is readily applied – “Why can’t I go backwards?”; sometimes computers are rubbish and spreading everything out on the table for easy scribbling and rearranging is best. The whole thing makes me wonder: is there an app out there for this kind of DIY educational computing? Something that would allow us to roll our own exercises easily and react quickly to the child’s demands? Something that would allow us to save the result to the web so others could play or so that we could call up exercises from anywhere?

New ways of listening

As I said, it took me a long time to adjust to the new ways of listening implied by clever tools like iTunes. A concrete example: what I used to do was exactly analogous to listening to a CD: flick through the long list of playlists until one catches my eye, double click to play. No change there. Later I downloaded a ‘play random track’ applescript and, together with the ‘shuffle’ button, that became my standard way into the library. But sometimes, random can be a bit too random. So now I use iTunes’ search function, which is simple enough. I just free associate until I get an interesting-looking playlist. Then shuffle through the results. This is really orthogonal to the experience of ‘putting an album on’ – ‘artist’, ‘album’ and ‘genre’ are secondary to mood or ambience. Meanwhile, the whole MP3 universe is still organised into albums – MP3 players even try to locate album cover art when you play a track – but the new ways of interacting with music must imply at least a loss of emphasis on the album. Once we’re accustomed to ‘dialing up’ a mood or a feeling or an era, will we want to buy albums at all? Or will we buy (or rent) an hour of ‘contemplative’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘Renaissance’ or whatever? Click ‘MORE’ for an example playlist. iTunes search terms were ‘I’m’ and ‘You’re’.

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Fireworks

Today we bought fireworks. I mean we really bought fireworks. They’re having a toofer at Tesco’s so we wound up with a shopping trolley-full of fireworks for half price. Driving them home was like the Wages of Fear – I maintained a steady 5 mph as the sweat beaded on my forehead. We’re going to set them all off in the garden next weekend. I hereby prophesy that we’ll manage about three Roman Candles before one or all of the small children present goes bonkers and we have to call the whole thing off.

Sublime Audio

Here’s a piece I’ve just written for The Guardian about music.

For ordinary human beings, music is the closest we come to the sublime. The history of recorded music is the history of better and better access to the sublime.

We have the recording industry to thank for this. In little more than a hundred years, the stable musical universe of Church and hearth has been blown apart. Music is everywhere and anyone in any reasonably developed place can be exposed to hours of new and varied music daily.

Much of the music we listen to now would not even have been possible without the recording industry. Music and recording technologies have worked together.

As a result, the contribution of the recording industry to the fund of human happiness cannot be underestimated. Which other business can claim ‘bliss’ as a day-to-day value? There can be few better examples of the role technology can play in social and cultural change. Music, and our lives, have been immeasurably improved by the efforts of the music business. So it’s doubly disappointing to watch the recording industry missing an epic opportunity, perhaps on the scale of the recorded music revolution itself.

The latest giant misstep involves a new CD format called ‘Super Audio’. To understand why Super Audio is a misstep you need to understand how the listening habits of music fans are changing. And for this purpose I’m going to invite you into my kitchen. On the counter by the breadbin is a two year-old Macintosh computer with a flat screen – our ‘Kitchen Cube’. On the Cube Apple’s excellent iTunes MP3 application cleverly catalogues over 35Gbytes of recorded music – 23 days of continuous music, it tells me. Almost all of this music has come from the big stack of CDs now gathering dust in our sitting room. To call this Macintosh our jukebox is to hugely understate its meaning to us. To this machine my wife and I have entrusted 8,000 tracks by hundreds of artists – a vivid summary of our lives as influenced by music.

The kitchen is the social hub of our home. We spend most of our time there and since we’ve added music to the room we listen to more of it, from a greater variety of artists and sources than ever before and we listen to it in very different ways.

It takes a while for old musical habits to fade. In the early days, choosing something to listen to would be much like choosing a CD. Think of an artist, flick through the library for an album. Double click to play. With time, though, new ways of selecting sounds emerge. How about dialling up a mood or an ambience? Type ‘happy’ (65 tracks by 47 artists) or ‘light’ (37 tracks) or something more abstract like ‘you’re’ (32) or ‘red’ (24) into iTunes and see what you get – a playlist linked across genres, periods and artists by a loose, often surpising, theme – creating unexpected connections. Tighten the theme for something more specific or just ‘shuffle’ the entire library for one surprise after another. Or play only the tunes you’ve listened to most in the last few weeks – or only the ones you’ve never listened to. This is a radically different way of encountering music and one that I don’t need to tell you is not possible in any other format.

So we, like millions of others, are busy inventing a new relationship to music, weaving it more tightly into our lives. Remarkably, though, all of this has been done despite the recording industry – it might even be illegal. And Super Audio, the latest development in the ongoing drama of ‘geeks vs. suits’ is a particularly insidious twist. You see, Super Audio CDs won’t play in a PC so I can’t add the apparently pristine sound from these discs to my library. So, as the ‘digital hub’ takes hold and early adopters reorganise their musical lives around MP3s, the industry is planning to take us down a new technological dead end. Instead of adapting to new habits – coming up with a way to charge for file sharing, for instance – they have devoted millions to a spurious enhancement to quality inaudible to ordinary music fans and left the next generation of eager consumers out in the cold. Far from bringing us closer to the sublime, the record business is ready to close it down.

Big brains stay home

Esther Dyson’s European Tech conference, High Tech Forum – the choice of big brains and moguls alike – has been cancelled for the second year running. Last year’s event was cancelled because of the post 9/11 chill but this year’s? Is the Euro tech recovery still on the back burner? Looks like it. This is particularly annoying for me since I was planning to join the big brains for this one (they have a special enclosure for the smaller brain). Meanwhile, Kevin Werbach, who used to edit Esther’s Release 1.0, the cerebral IT newsletter, has moved on and keeps sending me ‘personal’ invitations to a new event he’s calling Supernova. Many of the same big brains will be present. The theme for the first event is ‘decentralisation’. It can’t be a great time to be kicking off a new tech conference in Palo Alto, so I wish him luck.

ecommerce is rubbish

New data: 51.3% of ecommerce purchases are unnecessary, 16.9% rubbish, 13.9% embarrassing, 11.4% stupid, only 6.5% life enchancing. Poor Ellen Feiss was a celebrity for less than the regulation fifteen minutes. I got the mug anyway. Napster went bust ages ago. I got the t-shirt anyway (site seems to be finally down). Looking now for more faded or bust Internet phenomena to memorialise in trashy merch.