Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

The Pussy Riot case is an affront to humanity, a miserable, dispiriting state-sponsored kicking for three angry free spirits. It’s so depressingly like the kind of relentless, malevolent crucifiction handed out to non-compliant creative people across the decades of Soviet rule it’s as if the country has lost its memory (Hari Kunzru has a post about the absurdity of Pussy Riot’s persecution on his blog).

If they were poets instead of punks, a well-organised international boycott would by now be in place. PEN International would have organised a conference and a letter signed by hundreds – including a dozen Nobel laureates – would already have been delivered to the Kremlin (PEN has already taken up the case, of course).

International musicians should boycott Russia. They shouldn’t go there and they shouldn’t permit Russian releases of their work. They should do this for Pussy Riot and on behalf of their Russian peers who can only provide a cryptic, compromised, Sovietised response to this nastiness.

A letter from every major musician on the planet – from Barenboim to Gaga to Jagger – should already have been lodged with the Russian government. Advertisements in national newspapers should announce the action. There should be a hashtag. Record labels and promoters should join in. Individual musicians are angry about the persecution of Pussy Riot – speaking out, putting on protest gigs and benefits. But does the music business have the guts and imagination to act? Or are they too greedy and venal to take on Putin’s bullies?

Blimey. Look who’s on the fifth floor

It was properly spine-tingling. Aung San Suu Kyi visited New Broadcasting House. As the news spread around the building, people came out into the shared spaces and caught glimpses of her progress through the building – she visited the Burmese Service on the fifth floor and went on to meet Dave Lee Travis, John McCarthy and composer Jonathan Dove. Here are some tweets, pics and stories from her historic visit.


NTK: “exactly the same thing, 15 years late”

Fifteen years ago, when it was all fields round here, Danny O’Brien and Dave Green – who were well-known in underground gaming/comedy/tech/confectionery circles – began to publish an email newsletter for and about the British tech community. It was a joy from the beginning – authentic, funny, playful, insightful… Geek storytelling that is probably already consulted as a primary source for the arrival of this whole network/digital/computer thing… NTK is on the newsstands again, in a clever time-shifted form. Sign up here.

Boris Bike lessons

Note: I’m not a proper cyclist. I don’t own a bicycle pump or a puncture repair kit. The Mayor of London takes care of all that for me. I have a Boris Bikes fob and I swan around on one of his sponsored blue bikes for a total of about three hours per week. But here’s what I’ve learnt anyway:

Don’t wear anything special. This is my top tip. In nearly two years of Boris Biking in the West End I’ve never had any grief, never been cut up by a truck, shouted at by a cabbie or come off the bike. I may just be lucky but I reckon I’m beating the odds here (at least if what other cyclists tell me is true). And I have a strong feeling (no evidence at all, though) that this is because I don’t dress the part. Motorists steer clear of me because I look like a fat loon who’s borrowed a bike. So: no helmet, no lycra, no hi-viz and no special glasses (what are the special glasses for anyway?).

Take up a lot of room. To be precise, try to use a whole lane. Science bit: if you politely ride in the kerb, you’ll give overtaking motorists the strong impression that they can probably just squeeze past you without going into the next lane or onto the other side of the road – and your polite side will want to agree. But you mustn’t because, people being people, they will actually try to do it. Pain and aggravation will follow. So, if you take up a whole lane, not only will drivers have to slow down and think carefully about passing, they’ll have to politely indicate and move into the next lane, disturbing the flow of traffic and making everyone think. All of this boosts your odds.

Get out in front. This is about being visible (so it does slightly contradict my ‘no hi-viz’ rule). I always used to wonder why cheeky couriers and fixie herberts were always right out in front of the queued traffic at the lights but it’s obvious once you’ve tried it. You need every driver on the front row of the grid to know you’re there and to have to use their time at the red light to plan a way around you.

Jump lights. This is related to the previous point. Going through a red light when it’s safe to do so will get you out in front of the traffic and give you a chance to get organised before the rush begins. There are, of course, many circumstances when doing this would be stupid. Common sense applies (and they should probably change the rules to allow cyclists to do it legally. Getting the bikes through the lights first would be safer than requiring us all to go at the same time). The other thing is, I think drivers actually get this and appreciate you making yourself visible (although they might not show it and might phone in to James Whale later on to bitch about it).

Go round the outside (don’t try this on the North Circular). This is obvious but can be a bit scary. It’s basically the rule about not trying to squeeze down the left-hand side of trucks and buses where you will be squashed. But the larger point is: don’t be afraid to be in the right-hand lane. You are probably safer there than in the gutter. I think that the more confident and prominent cyclists are – the more ownership we take of the road – the safer we will all be.

Communicate. Wave, shout, raise your hand in a sort of taciturn, blokey way, point and smile. It’s like life: sullen silence will get you sullen silence. Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re planning and don’t assume they know inwardly that you’re grateful when they give way. I am quite sure that substantially increasing the sum total of communication done on the road will improve everyone’s mood, change behaviour and save lives. And another thing: when I started with this cycling thing, I think I assumed that cyclists would be chatting all the time, swapping anecdotes at the lights etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? Is it just me? (see ‘fat loon on a bike’ point above).

Bowblog is ten years old today

I adapted the name from Kevin Werbach’s Werblog, which seemed like a cool thing to do at the time. I’d been blogging for a few years before that (since the twentieth century) but only fragments survive. The archive suggests I used to update it a lot more too – back before Twitter. Anyway, I’ll tweet a few anniversary posts. Here’s the first one, from 21 May 2002, which includes a link to a column I used to have in The Guardian’s Online section (then under the legendary Vic Keegan’s editorship).

Best job in Britain

Last week I used one of the days of ‘community leave’ the BBC gives me to spend the day interviewing candidates for deputy head at the junior school in Hertfordshire where I’m chair of the governors. I was one of three governors on the panel, along with the school’s excellent head and our very brilliant and wise local authority advisor. In the end, we didn’t appoint anyone. Sometimes that happens, of course, and we’re going to have to do the whole thing again in a couple of weeks.

This is obviously one of the most important parts of a governor’s job. It’s exhausting, fascinating, sometimes quite emotional and always gripping stuff. I don’t think there’s any doubt that teaching is the most scrutinised profession in Britain. On interview day we required each of the candidates to write a paper about behaviour (against the clock); observe a class, write it up and tell the head what they thought; meet with a group of pupils; take lunch in the staffroom and then, to top it all, make a presentation to the panel before they got stuck into the interview proper (they had, of course, already been observed in their own classrooms by the head).

And, as a volunteer, it’s such an enormous privilege to be allowed to participate in this process: to interrogate the passionate and interesting and complicated people who came through the interview room that day, to unravel their life stories a bit and to test their fit for the equally complicated world that is a modern school. It’s the kind of experience you can’t pay for but it’s one that’s available to pretty much anyone. There are hundreds of thousands of vacancies for school governors in Britain. You should try it.

I cold-called the man who invented the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee

1984. I’m well into my fourth ‘gap year’ (in fact, I’m redefining the term ‘gap’). I’m working at a telesales place in Queen’s Park. This telesales place is different from the other dumps I worked at during the slack years, though – it’s run by a Californian cult whose working practices involve shouty ritual humiliation, enforced separation from family and the loud singing of Mustang Sally at 8am. One of my tasks during my few months in North West London – which included cleaning the cult toilets, walking the cult dogs and photocopying cult ‘training’ materials – involved cold-calling organisations of every kind and grilling them about their IT. Later in life computers became my thing – look, I’m using one now! – but I hadn’t encountered one then (isn’t that a crazy thought? 21 years old and never met a computer!). I might as well have been asking questions about, you know, particle accelerators.

Some other important things happened in that year: William Gibson invented Cyberspace. The Mac was introduced. ‘How Soon is Now?’ topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Everybody watched The Living Planet and Spitting Image. The miners’ strike tore up Britain.

I had a script. My goal was to acquire ‘qualified leads’ for my client to contact later. “Do you use computers in your business?” “What kind of computers do you own?” “How many?” “Do they run MS-DOS, CP-M, GEM, DR-DOS or [long list of defunct operating systems]…” One of the organisations I phoned was called CERN. Yes, CERN – essentially the coolest place on earth. Of course, in 1984 I knew even less about CERN than I did about computers.

My list said CERN was in Switzerland, though, which made it a more interesting call than the others I’d make that day so I was going to enjoy it. The cult had taught me that persistence was vital, so, after ten minutes bothering various receptionists, supervisors and under-managers, I was put through to ‘someone in IT’. He was impatient, seemed a bit absent-minded and spoke very quickly – but he spoke English and, at some point, he obviously resolved to help the clueless drone from London on the phone. He told me he was a developer, in information systems. He didn’t buy computers for CERN and and he didn’t know who did. He was obviously a million miles from being a lead, qualified or otherwise.

The cult I brushed with (they never bothered to try to recruit me) was called ‘Exegesis‘ and the telesales firm, which was called ‘Programmes’ emerged after Exegesis was investigated by police. They were a pretty scary bunch – intense, contemptuous of the unconverted, messianic.

But I had a form to complete and knew that a miserable stand-up humiliation awaited me if I didn’t finish it after spending so long on the phone, so I pushed on, obtaining a list of computer technology so exotic, so science fiction, as to render the whole call pointless. I don’t remember the detail but by the time I’d finished I’d used three extra sheets of paper and pretty much the whole of my new friend’s Geneva lunch hour. The cheer from the other telesales drones when I hung up raised the roof. I was ecstatic: on my entirely useless list there were PCs and workstations, minicomputers, embedded systems, mainframes and supercomputers… hundreds of them.

It was many years before it occurred to me that this harried developer with a rather posh voice might just have been the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how much influence I had on the final shape of the world-changing technology that was even then forming in that patient man’s head but it’s gratifying to know that I was there at the beginning. Something to tell my grandchildren.

Igor Stravinsky, Tupac Shakur and the uncanny

The Player Piano was the Tupac Hologram of its day.

The most thrilling of our inventions are the ones that return to us a person we’ve lost or that recall a scene from the past that we couldn’t have experienced or a place we couldn’t have known. There’s a rush, a kind of zipwire effect. WOOSH. BANG. You’re there. And sometimes these experiences are so vivid they cross over into the uncanny and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A list of these moments would be a long one, but try this ultra-vivid portrait of the Carusos in 1920. The rush here is a compound effect of a fabulous technology, as-yet unmatched in the digital era – a large, glass negative – plus the amazing light on that New York terrace and those eyes. Blimey. Or this: the first view of the earth from the moon. Tell me you didn’t shiver (and note, also, that in order to qualify as ‘uncanny’ it doesn’t need to be a hyper-real simulation of a human).

The player piano is another piece of nineteenth century tech that’s highly productive of the uncanny. The knowledge that the sound you’re hearing, when the paper roll begins to turn, reproduces in detail the actual playing of a long-dead musician – not the acoustic effect but an actual mechanical trace, recorded as holes punched in paper – changes the effect startlingly. The fact that sometimes that musician was the composer – Gershwin or Rachmaninov or Stravinsky – makes it more uncanny still. I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of these player pianos – a kind of half mechanical-half human steampunk cyborg – ten days ago in a Broadcasting House studio, as its owner Rex Lawson brought to life one of Stravinsky’s amazing piano rolls. It was a remarkable experience: Stravinsky was very much in the room. Here’s a video I made of that strange encounter of machine, memory and music:

And a few days later, Tupac ‘appeared’ at Coachella, turning the uncanny dial up a few notches but instantly reminding me of that Stravinsky experience. I wish I’d been there. Everyone who was says that it was amazing – and some were so freaked out by Tupac’s ‘appearance’ they declared that they disapproved, that it was somehow disrespectful. And the Tupac hologram, which was a synthesis of historic appearances and some mindblowing 3D simulation, is from the same family of technologies as the player piano. Spooky.

Noisy beds

John Humphrys in Liberia

I love a bed. I should leave it to a radio production expert to explain what I mean by a bed, but since I don’t have one to hand, a ‘bed’ is the radio term for sound (usually music) played under the presenter’s voice during a link. In music radio it stops things going dead, keeps the pace up and provides a bridge between tracks. Sometimes it’s specially-recorded – and then it’s usually the kind of super-bland library music that’s designed to be unobtrusive, secondary to the presenter’s message.

But that’s old hat. Current practice (at least in pop radio) is to use a real track (an intro or outro) and to play it pretty loud. I think Zane Lowe‘s beds are the loudest in the business (go on, contradict me). He plays his bed so loud he has to shout to be heard over it. And that’s the point.

He sets up a competition with the music. It’s as if he’s challenging the music to a fight. It’s exciting. An adrenaline rush. Check your pulse after a really noisy Zane Lowe link – your heart will be racing.

You need to be confident to do this, though – a rookie DJ couldn’t set up that fight for fear they’d actually lose. So as Zane gains experience and stature I think his beds are actually getting louder. Pretty soon you won’t be able to hear him at all:

6 Music‘s new boy, Gilles Peterson, likes a fairly loud bed and in his new show I’m pretty sure they’re louder than they were when he was on Radio 1 (although I’ve only got one week’s output to go on, so don’t quote me). Is he trying to tell us something? Is he starting as he means to go on? Kicking things up a gear to make an impression in his new job?

I’m going to be listening. If his beds get quieter from now on it might be because he misjudged and overshot to begin with. If they get louder or stay the same it’ll be because the show is a hit and he can take more chances, push things a bit – especially in his more forgiving new home on the digital station:

This week’s best bed wasn’t really a bed at all. It was the lush and frankly rather disorienting background noise during John Humphrys’ links from Liberia on Wednesday’s Today Programme on Radio 4. It’s a marvellous idea: Humphrys is going to present the programme from Liberia several times over the next year.

The programme is exploring the idea that Africa is on the verge of a boom, that things are about to change for the better – and quickly. And they’ve chosen Liberia because, although the country’s struggling in all sorts of ways, it’s not a hot-spot. There’s no war, no famine. It’s ‘Middle Africa’.

So, unless someone in Liberia builds a sound-proofed studio soon, we’re going to get used to the lovely bed of crickets, birdsong and passing traffic that brightened Wednesday’s programme substantially.

And in radio terms, it’s a hard-working bed. It’s providing information about the context (“hey, we’re in Africa”) and a useful contrast with the programme’s acoustically-sterile home-base back in London. And it provides authenticity – the kind of auditory cues that prove the programme’s on location and make the output more vivid. I’m really looking forward to the evolution of Today’s Liberia bed. Will it be eliminated? Or will it evolve to represent the programme’s location in interesting ways? Will the sound vary? Will it remain the same across the whole year?