Monthly Archives: February 2007

Radio twittering

twitter.com/lwb

Be my Twitter friend if you want to know what I’m listening to on the radio.

I know I’m always going on about BBC Radio 4 here: ‘jewel in the crown’, ‘best speech radio in the world’, ‘liberal education in a box’ and all that. Forgive me but here I go again. The network is 40 years old this year but really much older. Radio 4 replaced The Home Service which itself replaced a bunch of earlier national and regional stations, one of which was 2LO, the first proper British radio station, launched by the fledgling BBC in 1922. So, when you tune into Radio 4 you’re really listening to 80-odd years of continuous British radio history – there are even several shows on the network that have been running for longer than 50 years.

Radio 4 and the BBC in general are funded from a licence fee, a gloriously anachronistic compulsory levy on every household with a TV that really annoys libertarians and free market ultras but seems, somehow, to make perfect sense to the British public. So we – those of us with TVs anyway – pay directly for the corporation’s output and that gives us certain rights over it. It’s ours. This is why I quite often rip a Real Media stream from bbc.co.uk and stick it up on my server without worrying about the tap on the door in the dawn. Although I probably shouldn’t, nobody’s going to stop me.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do, though, is find a way of reviewing and linking to radio progs in a slightly more spontaneous way than blogging them, which is a bit of a pain at the best of times. So now I’ve found it. I’m going to use Twitter – the brilliant hybrid of messaging and publishing that’s got the geeks’ thumbs twitching. I’ve been enjoying Twitter for a couple of weeks already – one of those genuinely fertile consumer tech innovations whose various parts have existed here and there for years but which really makes sense now that they’re all joined together.

I’ve created a Twitter account called LWB (Listen With Bowbrick) which I’m going to use exclusively for micro-reviews and, where available, links to Real Streams or web sites for radio shows I really enjoy. If you want to know what I’m listening to on the radio you just need to add me as a friend. Click here to do so (you’ll obviously need a free Twitter account).

The reason I like Twitter for this job is because, like I said, it’s spontaneous and you can do it from your mobile but also because it’s ephemeral. If I tell you that I’m listening to The World Tonight (which I am) then I can provide a link to the stream without worrying about the fact that it will overwritten by the next one in seven days (which is why I hoovered up all those Real streams in the first place).

I’m going to try, where I provide links, to make sure they go to stable pages in the BBC’s nifty programme directory – they look like this one and have a unique ID at the end of the URL. From there you should be able to learn about the show while getting to a Real Stream if it still exists. I’m kind of assuming that the go-ahead geeks at the Beeb will want to offer some kind of slightly more formal Beeb/Twitter mashup soon enough – like something, for instance, that will allow you to embed a short URL automatically or something that would work from a mobile (wouldn’t it be entirely cool if you could receive a tweet referencing a Radio 4 show on your mobile and then click to listen to it?).

Playing in the road

Road sign, Park Road, Radlett
Yesterday the suburban street outside our house was closed all day. It’s a busy road so the contrast with an ordinary day was pronounced – the silence lovely. We all rushed out into the street to enjoy the calm. Olly brought his scooter and raced down the hill (achieving some kind of scary, wobbly land speed record in the process), we tight-roped along the white line, played chicken with the absent trucks and 4x4s (we’ve done this before, actually) A holiday atmosphere arose.

After a while, as people realised what was going on, others sent their kids out with bikes and skates and footballs (and Heelys, natch). I crossed the road for no reason. And then back again. I chatted with neighbours I hardly ever talk to. Children I’ve never even seen emerged from houses only a few doors down. Gorblimey guv, it was like the 1950s.

I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again anyway: the dominion of the car has made our streets and communities miserable, inward-looking places. Take the cars away, even if only for a day, and life returns. Yesterday, when the cars came back, all in a disappointing rush at about 5 O’Clock, the kids disappeared into their houses like mice into the skirting – in a blink they were gone, exiled from the street again. It was genuinely sad.

Jane Jacobs, humane urbanist, recorded variations in the rates of interaction amongst neighbours on opposite sides of the same street. Simplifying: the faster the traffic in your street, the less likely you are to cross the road to talk to the people who live there. Above a certain speed you’ll never bother. Slowing traffic, logically, increases interaction and, below a certain speed, you’ll be as friendly with opposite neighbours as you are with the ones on either side (your sociability may vary).

Here’s an article about shared streets, a successful Dutch way of making streets more friendly by, paradoxically, mixing up the cars and the people. Here are some more pics from our quiet day.

What I have learnt about Iran lately

  • Iran is not monolothic. The country is (weakly) democratic, has a (partially) independent press and a (moderately) autonomous judiciary. Dissent and criticism exist.
  • Iran is not entirely Shia. Nor even entirely Muslim. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and tens of millions of secularists live there.
  • Iran is the largest exporter of pistachios in the world.
  • Iran is a theocratic state but not a very good one. An imperfect separation of church and state persists – inconveniently for the Ayatollahs.
  • Iran is huge. Well over 70M people (a larger population than every European country except Germany).
  • Iran is nose job capital of the world. Per capita, cosmetic surgery is bigger than in the US.
  • Iran is not Arab. OK, you already knew this, but it’s worth remembering when looking for likely alliances in the region.
  • Iran is an ancient nation. The Persian civilisation is 6000 years old and hasn’t attacked another nation for hundreds. Its borders are among the most stable on the planet. Its people are very proud of all this.
  • Iran’s economy is not centrally-run. It’s an Islamic Republic, not a People’s Republic. Wealthy kids in Iran drive to the mall in their Lamborghinis and take cocaine. Working people struggle. Poor people die young.
  • Iran’s infrastructure is shot – nearly three decades of US sanctions mean they don’t have the expertise (or the materials) to build oil refineries. Iran is the largest exporter of natural gas and one of the largest exporters of crude oil in the region but imports nearly half of its petrol from refining states. Iranians hate this dependency.
  • Iran’s basic industries are decades out of date. Ordinary people drive around in cars based on a 1960s Hillman Hunter.
  • Iranians are big bloggers. Probably the biggest bloggers on earth, if measured by blogs-per-thousand-population.

Better than reading the menu

Front cover from issue 4 of The Drawbridge, London
You mean your club doesn’t have a dirty great, broadsheet- sized, full-colour intellectual quarterly? Really? Mine does. Clever Giuseppe Mascoli, who’s been sprucing up Blacks in Dean Street a bit lately, has a hand in The Drawbridge, a really quite amazing pinkish newspaper full of the kind of tousled sociopaths you used to see only in The New Left Review.

A roster that includes cheeky Slavoj Zi┼żek, cuddly John Berger, prickly Noam Chomsky and bloody Gerry Adams (plus loads of other lefties, situationists and topers you’ve heard of). Fair takes the breath away.

All, I’m reliably assured, were chivvied into producing copy (this issue’s theme is ‘Failure’) because they are members and no money changed hands. This I don’t believe. If Gerry Adams is a member of Blacks it’s definitely news to me: I’ve seen various former Pythons, a few think-tankers and billions of media types at Blacks, but definitely not Noam Chomsky. I wonder if they’re doling out honorary memberships in return for contributions…

Think before you sign that petition

Stationary traffic on Britain's main M1 motorway. Photo: Steve Bowbrick
I like road pricing but it’s a big, important policy and – inevitably – it’s a proper curate’s egg. To start with we need to understand what’s good and what’s bad about it.

The good parts:

It’s subtle. Much subtler, for instance, than the sledgehammer of general taxation.

It’s direct. Tweak the price for this evening’s rush hour and you’ll see the effect tomorrow (politics notwithstanding). Achieving the policy’s goals (reducing congestion) should be possible.

It’s green. It’s about reassignment of capacity and reduction of load and it requires a better understanding of demand. All of this is good.

It explains itself. Nothing like a forty-foot illuminated road-sign with a price on it to communicate public policy.

The bad parts:

It’s not progressive. Worse, making it progressive would require huge violations of privacy (connecting government computers to provide discounts for pensioners, for instance).

It’s a potential privacy nightmare. The instinct of officials and legislators is always threefold: capture everything, link it with everything else and keep it forever. That erodes liberty and damages public trust.

It’s also a potential public IT money pit (we’re good at those).

It’s politically difficult. No one likes new taxes, everyone assumes it will duplicate existing taxes (difficult to argue with, that one) – and then there’s ‘the motoring lobby’.

It’s indiscriminate. It will punish people who work in low-skill, labour-rich businesses – employers won’t have much incentive to provide flexible working hours so these workers will just have to fork out for rush-hour charges.

It doesn’t address the underlying problem. In a modern, growth-oriented society (i.e. all of them except North Korea) demand must continue to grow. Providing alternatives to congested roads will become even more important once incentives to stop using them are in place.

It ought to be:

Accountable. Prices should be set by a body you can vote for – a local authority or central government – not by the Highways Agency or a new Quango.

Not Big Brother. Everyone knows that you can make even big real world systems like this one ‘blind’, with a parsimonious data policy: recording only the data needed, connecting it with other data only in an emergency and dumping records as soon as they’ve been used, for instance. It’s just that the instinct of Governments and officials is always to go further. A project like this could be an opportunity to show that public IT doesn’t need to be elephantine, intrusive, broken. How about a system designed from scratch as an exemplar of Big Brother-Free data policy? Fat chance, I suppose.

Simple: designed by a couple of geeks in a room, not by KPMG or Accenture. Design goals like: small, elegant and simple should come ahead of mega-contractor priorities like: redundant, integrated, comprehensive. The totalising instincts of the big boys have got us into enough of a mess over the years. We could take this opportunity to reverse a malignant trend.

I wonder if the big petition might provide the kind of opportunity for a debate about road pricing that Big Brother provided last month about racism and bullying. If it does, I’d say that’s a small victory for Number 10′s openness and readiness to host dissenting voices.

Message to whingeing motorists: shut up!

Jeremy Clarkson driving too fast
Did you notice the unsavoury emergence of so-called ‘motoring advocates’ into the pop media after last week’s letter bombs? Their disreputable message: “what did you expect? You pushed us around for long enough. Sooner or later one of us was going to crack…” makes me feel slightly sick. I’m a motorist. I drive my kids around in a an over-sized people mover. I even laugh like a drain at Clarkson and his exploits from time to time. Maybe I should identify with these ‘advocates’ and their hermetic worldview. Don’t feel like it, though.

Driving a tonne or more of steel around too fast is a bad thing. Can’t really find it in my heart to object when police forces and local authorities skewer speeding drivers. Can’t really think of a good reason for painting speed cameras yellow and putting them on maps either. I’d like to see them concealed in trees and switched on randomly. As to avoiding the fines and keeping your license, I’ve got an idea: slow down you jerk!

BBC Radio 4′s Broadcasting House picked up on the motoring advocates’ intervention and ran a heartbreaking interview with a driver who blames his own speeding for the death of his five year-old boy. Click to listen to the show. For balance I feel I should link to the nutty Association of British Drivers which is a sort of catch-all protest group for old blokes in car coats.

Adaptation in action

A nifty coin tray adaptation at Tesco's in Radlett
You’re looking at the kind of spontaneous local adaptation that new technology often undergoes after it’s arrived in its intended home. It’s the coin tray of one of those self-service supermarket check-outs.

The machine spits your change into the tray and – a few weeks after the thing was first installed – everybody now knows that, about half the time, your change bounces out of the hard, metal tray and onto the sticky floor. It’s become a popular comedy moment. Regulars stand around waiting for the next show (not much going on round my way). Your in-the-know punter puts his hand over the thing just in case, of course. Your newbie loses his change.

So the clever staff have ‘installed’ a little piece of J-Cloth in the tray and, of course, it bloody works. Your change now lands softly in the tray so you can pick it up and leave sharpish – as planned by the machine’s ace designer. This is the kind of teeny-tiny unplanned variation that really cheers me up (the kind of thing I’d like to see web sites allow, by the way).