Blimey. Look who’s on the fifth floor

UPDATE: you might have noticed that the tweets, pics and stories from Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit promised in this post have gone, deleted when live blogging company Storify went bust…

Here’s what’s left of the post:

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.

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).

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 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.

Steampunk radio on the Victorian Internet

A remarkable story about Victorian media innovation

Radio is changing. The first digital radio platform – DAB – is in danger of being eclipsed before most of us have even bought one. The second wave is evolving fast, but widespread Internet radio is years away so radio stations are investing in web sites and apps. Meanwhile, audiences for radio everywhere are steady but looking fragile and everyone’s waiting for a persuasive mixture of content and convenience to justify the switch to digital. And billions of cheap-to-own FM radios are a huge impediment to switching.

130 years ago, nearly thirty years before the first public radio broadcast, at an international electrical exhibition in Paris, entrepreneur Clément Ader prototyped a package of content delivered on a new platform, the telephone. He called his prototype a ‘telephonic opera’ service because opera performances were the main content (just as they had been in Zurich in 1878, when a performance of Don Pasquale was relayed via telephone only months after its invention). The prototype became a commercial product later in the decade under the name Théâtrophone.

Subscribers to the service, including, I kid you not, Marcel Proust (in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Hausmann), dialled in from their home telephones (a technology that was only a decade old itself) and asked to be put through to one of the participating theatres. They then listened to the evening’s performance live. In stereo. At the time of the original demonstration, Scientific American said:

The singers placed themselves in the mind of the listener, some to the right and others to the left. It’s easy to follow their movements and to indicate exactly, each time that they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be.

Two separate telephone lines delivered signals from two stage microphones: one right, one left (this Wikipedia entry suggests eighty microphones and, since they weren’t electronic microphones, just crude acoustic ones, that doesn’t sound unreasonable).

A subscriber to an equivalent service in London, Electrophone, described the process:

You lifted your ordinary telephone receiver and said ‘Electrophone please’ and in a moment you were asked which theatre you wanted and in another moment you were in your armchairs around the table listening to musical comedy at the Adelphi…

Theatres, music halls – and, later, places of worship, all over London were wired up to the Electrophone exchange at 34 – 35 Gerard Street in Soho and Electrophone attendants (we’d call them Studio Managers or OB engineers) were stationed in each to position mics and connect subscribers.

Electrophone listeners in 1901

If you’d lived in Budapest in the 1890s (and been a wealthy gadget freak) you’d have subscribed to a service called Telefon Hírmondó which, you’ve got to admit, was startlingly like a modern radio network, with content organised into ‘channels’, a daily schedule (including stock quotes, local press, finance, theatrical and sporting news) in addition to the usual operatic performances (what is it with the opera?). There were children’s concerts, acts of worship, folk music, recitals. Advertisements, inevitably, were inserted between juicy news items. The company employed 100 people, with job titles like ‘editor’ and ‘programme controller’ and, at its peak had 6,000 subscribers.

The Théâtrophone receiver
The Théâtrophone receiver

But what’s remarkable for me about these services (there were dozens worldwide) is how closely they resemble the ones we’re building now on The Internet. Clicking ‘play live’ for Radio 3’s nightly live concert is essentially the same as asking the Electrophone ‘attendant in charge’ to put you through to the Wigmore Hall – a personal, two-way circuit connecting you to a live event a long way from home. Nineteenth Century opera nuts were using two-way telepresence to enjoy remote performances that were significantly more immersive than what was to come from terrestrial radio decades later. The spatial separation and specially-designed in-home kit (the ‘Electrophone table’ and Théâtrophone’s special receiver) that came with these services must have made these experiences extraordinarily vivid. Vivid enough for Proust to listen to a performance of Pelléas and Mélisande all the way through in 1911.

They even had pretty sophisticated tiered business models – an extra £5 per season for Covent Garden, for instance (no freemium as far as I can tell, though). These pioneers built a highly immersive Victorian cyberspace on the first of the really big wired networks – and, let’s face it, mostly because they misunderstood what people would actually wind up using their telephones for. The implications for the services we’re designing and promoting now set the mind reeling.

  • Google ‘Théâtrophone‘, ‘Electrophone‘ or ‘Telefon Hírmondó‘: you’ll find plenty of web sites about these pre-radio experiments. Here’s a good technical overview of Electrophone, for instance. I owe the inspiration for this post to a terrific Sunday Feature from Radio 3 last year called The Pleasure Telephone, presented by Edward Seckerson. The programme is sadly unavailable. Hunt down a recording if you can find one.
  • The picture at the top shows a coin-operated Théâtrophone receiver of the kind that would have been installed in cafes and special listening rooms. All the pics are from the Wikimedia Commons.

London’s stabbing epidemic

The stabbing epidemic in London is puzzling. Not the grief and suffering of victims and families: that’s not puzzling (I get that part). It’s the behaviour of the perpetrators. It’s as if they’re all stupid. In fact it’s a stupidity epidemic. Correct me here if I’ve got this wrong, but as far as I know every single stabbing this year has been quickly followed by an arrest or arrests. There have already been convictions and there will surely be more—and there was no need to call in CSI here. In fact, typically, the arrest seems to involve no detective work at—just a cursory look round the corner for the wide-eyed teen with the blood-stained blade.

I really don’t want to be flippant about this. It’s hardly funny. But these kids seem to be displaying the most basic self-destructive behaviour. In the moment he draws his kitchen knife or his switchblade, the killer is throwing away the life of his victim and, along with it, his own. And don’t argue with me on this, I’ll allow no contradiction here: no murderer, no matter how lenient his sentence, is returning to normal life any time soon: that’s a life ruined, a life flushed away, whatever the actual penalty.

So we’re dealing with an outbreak of ghastly, aimless nihilism. Kids stabbing kids, kids trashing lives, kids robbing families of loved-ones. And, while they’re at it, consigning themselves to punishment, marginalisation, poverty and self-hate—to the animal existence of the outcast—for decades hence. It’s a small social disaster and we seem to have no tools to deal with it. We’re lost. The only guidance on offer is coming from talk radio and the tabloids and it has nothing to commend it: it’s just more of the same.

If kids are ready to slash and stab and destroy lives on a whim, in return for precisely nothing (no pecuniary gain, no honour, no respect—at least nothing that lasts longer than the terror of the moment) how is a stiffer sentence going to influence them? Does anyone seriously think that even a life-means-life sentence in a labour camp could alter behaviour in those fevered seconds? Does anyone have the faintest clue what motivates a child (or a near child) to the hormonal frenzy of a street corner stabbing? No. I thought not.

Five reasons it might not be so bad to have Boris as Mayor after all

UPDATE April 2022. I’m leaving this up, although it’s obviously a bit embarrassing (and wrong – Johnson ultimately served two terms as Mayor).

1. The Mayor doesn’t have much to do anyway. He may have an £11B budget but it’s really only half a job. New Labour deliberately hobbled the Mayor’s office from the beginning by retaining control of everything important at the centre and providing no direct tax raising powers. The remarkable thing about Ken’s tenure has been how much impact he’s been able to have with control of public transport and bugger-all else.

2. He’s funny. He is funny isn’t he?

3. He’ll be a one-term Mayor. Nothing he’s proposed is achievable within budget. He’s backing away from the Routemaster idea (which has been authoritatively rubbished). Central Office cagily supported Boris but not his policies. With all the big reforms already firmly entrenched Boris will struggle to make an impact. As budgets rocket and policies evaporate disillusionment will set in.

4. Cameron will cut him loose. He may be better behaved now but you can’t innoculate a boob like Boris against gaffes. Can it be long before he alienates bus drivers or pensioners or people who live in Penge?

5. He’ll get bored. Boris evidently has the attention span of a nine year-old boy. As his concentration lapses he’ll drift off. Pretty soon he’ll forget where he works and after a year or two Londoners will be able to pick someone else.

Building Magazine on why construction needs migrant workers

Gordon Brown’s announcement of a larger quota for desperately needed overseas construction workers is cue for a good piece from Building magazine about migrant workers on UK sites. The article focuses on the experience of workers on the huge Paternoster Square development, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral in The City – from Italy, Hungary, Zimbabwe and Germany. This is the kind of access only a prestige trade title like Building could get but it’s crying out for a longer treatment – five workers from four nations on one well-run site is hardly an in-depth survey.

The magazine’s coverline sums up the UK building trade’s attitude to migrant workers: “The indispensibles: why construction needs migrant workers”.

And watch out for those pea-soupers…

Strange ‘insider tips’ from The Economist’s London City Guide that came through my letterbox the other day, apparently cut and pasted from a 1950s travel guide:

Table manners are keenly observed as a sign of good breeding. Never talk with your mouth full; never reach across the table; do not wave cutlery around or yell “I’m done” to the waiter. The British are less politically correct than their American counterparts. Wittiness often means an agility with sexual innuendo, with a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The woes of public transport are a sure-fire way of reviving a flagging conversation.

Ironic? Out of touch? You decide.