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31 October 2005

I just finished watching a documentary about the rise and fall of the BBC’s Third Programme, an ambitious attempt to make an unashamedly ‘high culture’ music and speech programme on the radio after WWII. The documentary interestingly put it into a wider cultural context – it was part of a general feeling among politicians and cultural elites at the time that during and after the war the public needed access to the opportunity to ‘improve itself’ through appreciation and consumption of the best of what the arts could offer.

It’s a rather outmoded idea now but I can’t help admiring the idealism of those times. The programme argues that the Third Programme was killed off by both hostility towards elitism in the 50s and the general availability of more and more competing cultural products. This sounds to me reminiscent of what happened to high-minded dissident authors in Eastern Europe when their art was no longer suppressed and they found, ironically, their market and popular support collapsed.

The wheel seems to have come full circle here in the UK with the launch of BBC 4, a digital TV station with some of the same “no compromise” ethos. It has faced similar criticism because of its high budget per viewer but it has been generally agreed that in a massively multichannel world there is once again room for an island of highbrow-ness to exist.

P.S. I seem to be getting the Wikipedia habit – I found a halfway useful Wikipedia entry on the Third Programme (linked above) and couldn’t resist spending a half hour or so correcting it and adding the details I could…

P.P.S. In my search for web stuff relating to the Third Programme (there was disappointingly little) I came across this Third Programme magazine – an online site about broadcasting put out by the rather interesting Transdiffusion Broadcasting System, “a not-for-profit historical society dedicated to documenting and preserving broadcasting history” (which alas doesn’t seem to have an article dedicated to the Third Programme itself).

22 October 2005
Filed under:Arts Reviews at11:11 am

If like me you are turning into a Lost addict you may enjoy reading a transcript of an online chat with the producer of Lost. He reveals that Vincent the dog will get a flashback episode wherein we discover “before the crash he was a wanted fugitive paraplegic FEMALE hound but the island has CHANGED him.”

If you want to join fellow obsessives there’s a good unofficial fan site.

5 September 2005

Playlist magazine has a handy roundup of places to get free or cheap audiobooks, including an interesting organization called Tell Tale Weekly which sells the audiobooks it produces but for very small sums and gives the money to the people who read out the books, which has helped to produce a reasonably large list of available works. Then after five years (or 100,000 downloads) it releases the audiobooks that have been digitised under a Creative Commons license. Librivox is a similar effort but relies on volunteers to read the books and charges nothing for the result. There are a couple of books read by people available through Project Gutenberg as well – lots more if you are happy to listen to computer-generated dictation.

If you want to hear free contemporary SF instead, check out Escape Pod (which broadcasts short stories) and Podiobooks which hasn’t quite launched yet but you can subscribe to it through iTunes or whatever and wait…

Benjamen Walker’s Theory Of Everything is quite like one of my favourite radio programmes, This American Life, but… well… stranger (which is sometimes no bad thing). Ben is a professional radio producer and it shows.

If you are more interested in technology (and I am guessing most of you have some interest in it) the top-ranked podcast at the moment – This Week In Tech – is head and shoulders above much of the podcasting rabble. It features a large round table of tech luminaries and is a very convincing and enjoyable reproduction of the kind of tech-related banter, gossip and bluster that I used to enjoy myself when I was a tech journalist (though at over an hour each week it may be a little self-indulgent). For daily more ‘straight’ tech snippets, you could try Future Tense, and for recordings from the many technology-related conferences that seem to happen every other day across the US you should check out IT Conversations. And if you are a hardcore Macintosh user you should try listening to the MacCast (though frankly it could do with a little pruning as there is a lot of discussion of minutiae on it).

Update: If you want more audiobooks for no payment there are a number of streamed options. They are less easily downloadable (you need to use Total Recorder – PC – or WireTap Pro – Mac – to turn them into MP3s) but OneWord radio offers free audiobooks and book commentary 24 hours a day (streamed only) and the BBC – Radio 4 and BBC7 broadcast less but includes some originally commissioned work too and unlike OneWord the streams are archived (if only for a week) which makes capturing easier. A few BBC radio programmes are even being podcast (though not drama yet).

1 September 2005
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Personal,Travel at9:04 pm
A show we didn't see

A show we didn’t see
originally uploaded by David.

We had a great time – we managed to cram 12 shows into three days plus a day of sight-seeing and only one of the shows was a write off. I thought about blogging to recommend some but realised 1) we wouldn’t have time to and 2) since we were there the last few days of the fringe festival it would be too late for anyone to book anything anyway.
For what it’s worth my wife liked Omid Djalili and I think Tim Minchin would be worth seeking out if you get the chance – as much for his musical talent as for his comedic gifts. Turns out he won an award so my judgement was vindicated!
We stayed at an absolutely delightful B & B we found through Festival Beds but since our hosts only let during the festival and may not be doing it in future years I can’t really recommend them either.
We both agreed that we will try to get to the festival more often in future – I always enjoy my visits.
P.S. There are several more Edinburgh (and other) pictures up on Flickr.

13 August 2005
Visiting the Edinburgh Festival

Visiting the Edinburgh Festival,
originally uploaded by D & D.

This packed schedule gives you an idea of the richness of this amazing event. Of course we won’t be able to see even a fraction of the tens of thousands of performances at this the world’s biggest arts festival. The advent of the Internet has been a godsend in helping to arrange our upcoming visit. Not only can we listen to interviews with the artists and read several blogs by performers and critics but we can access the invaluable reviews by the Scotsman and others mixed in with the comprehensive listings for all five of the currently-running festivals, and read comments by fringe festival-goers as well on the Fringe Festival’s own site. The latter even offers SMS voting for shows. The Stage also has a pretty comprehensive Edinburgh review festival and fringe reviews and listings site. This way we can get some idea of the ‘buzz’ around shows before we take the sleeper up and book what we are interested in – which is just as well since I’m sure a lot of the best stuff will already be sold out for the rest of its run…

8 August 2005

As a quick glance at the links on the right hand side of this weblog clearly shows I like listening to speech online (or rather I like using Total Recorder to transform realaudio streams into MP3s which I then listen to on my MP3 player). So the increasing prominence of podcasting should be a godsend for me you’d think. Indeed, a few interesting programs I already know like Go Digital have embraced podcasting. But I’m still finding it hard to find anything much out there I want to listen to – I haven’t found a good trusted source to guide me through the profusion of sources out there.

There are 437 “audio blogs” registered with the iTunes podcast directory (which you need iTunes to visit), and hundreds of “technology-related” podcasts, plus 191 “politics” podcasts and 134 movie and television podcasts but seemingly no way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Apple provides a Top 100 podcast list but without reviews, and there is seemingly no way to get to their list of “top n” by category (plus there is some suggestion the ‘top lists’ can be manipulated). Random sampling of ‘top’ podcasts recommended by sites like Podcast Alley was at first disappointing.

Fortunately, I have started to find the odd interesting podcast at last. Resonance FM an experimental station in London featured quite a funny mock-lecture by Kevin Eldon, This is England by a pair of Brits features interviews with random people doing interesting jobs in the English countryside, “Escape Pod” – a podcast of SF authors reading their short stories (excellent idea – I want to find more free short story feeds – preferably of classic and/or out of print authors) and best of all Ewan Spence and a gang of colleagues are doing a daily podcast from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which will be very useful for keeping up with what’s hot and not over the coming weeks.

I would be interested in anyone else’s recommendations either for individual podcasters or for sites that help you find the best ones. It will be interesting to see whether podcasting gets to be as big a phenomenon as blogging. Speaking seems to be a more ‘natural’ way of communicating with people than typing does but it turns out that making something that people will actually want to listen to is even more difficult than writing something because editing audio is a lot harder to do…

23 July 2005

I’ve just finished watching the whole series of Boys from the Blackstuff (a pivotal drama set in recession-hit Liverpool in the early 1980s) which I couldn’t help but find moving even though it was in many places transparently manipulative and though I don’t subscribe entirely to the politics on offer in it.

Characteristically, it made me wonder about the statistics behind these stories of men on the dole only able to support their families through working in the black economy. Of course the main way in which the unemployed have benefited since 1982 is that there are a lot more (low paid) jobs available for them and more help and training available to get then those jobs – that is where the emphasis of government policy has gone – but nonetheless I wondered to what extent the lot of the remaining unemployed has improved since that time.

I have found a table from the government with the weekly rates of the main social security benefits but they only go back to 1993 and there must have been a hundred different kinds of benefit listed which made it difficult to figure out what a typical unemployed household might have received. The very useful UK Poverty site also only goes back to 1996 – it at least shows both pensioners and couples with young children on benefits appear to be nearly 40% better off now – after inflation – than they would have been in 1998. But for a couple without children who are on benefits their income would not have changed at all adjusted for inflation over that period, leaving them 20% poorer relative to average earnings. But where should I look if I want to get a longer historical perspective on UK poverty? All I found about the 1980s was this depressing fact from the ‘key facts‘ at the poverty site: “The numbers of people on relative low incomes [60% of median income] remained broadly unchanged during the 1990s after having doubled in the 1980s”.

25 January 2005
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Personal,Search Engines at7:44 am

You should try listening to Federico Mompou. I saw a CD of music of his by chance in the home of a musical friend over Christmas and noticed that it had won the editor’s choice from Gramophone so I made a note to find some Mompou when I got back. The music turns out to be delightful (if a little lacking in variety after a while).

I found myself asking, characteristically, whether there is any way I could have found out about his work through some kind of automated Internet tool (rather than just participating in a “classical music related forum”:http://www.good-music-guide.com/forum/). Doing a Google Set search with the names of the two composers he’s closest to just gave me a “list of other famous composers”:http://labs.google.com/sets?hl=en&q1=debussy&q2=satie&q3=&q4=&q5=&btn=Large+Set, not of others who were similar. The excellent “All Music Database”:http://www.allmusic.com does provide “see also” information for Debussy and Satie but neither entry mentions Mompou (even though he’s in their database).

If you want to find some Mompou to listen to without resorting to peer to peer piracy, “here”:http://search.singingfish.com/sfw/search?last_query=mompou&query=mompou&x=62&y=14&adult_results=&a_submit=1&aw=1&sfor=a&dur=1&fmp3=1&freal=1&fwin=1&fqt=1&cmus=1&rpp=20&persist=1&a_eml_search=1&email_type=2 are 67 entries of at least a minute’s length from the SingingFish audio and video search engine. Altavista “only finds 14”:http://www.altavista.com/audio/results?q=mompou&maf=mp3&maf=wav&maf=msmedia&maf=realmedia&maf=aiff&maf=other&mad=long (and only lets you specify more or less than 1minute length) and “Lycos finds 63”:http://search.lycos.com/default.asp?tab=multi&adf=&query=mompou&submit.x=21&submit.y=9&submit=Search&cat=audio&loc=searchbox&agree=1 but doesn’t let you specify a minimum length.

P.S. Can anyone help with a query about anti-Chomsky media scholarship over at the Media@LSE blog?

15 December 2004

Human: The Definitive Guide to Our Species

…is a 512 page, lavishly illustrated coffee table encyclopedia from Dorling Kindersley which attempts nothing less than a comprehensive overview of all aspects of being human:

  • Our origins
  • The body
  • The mind
  • The life cycle from birth to death
  • Society
  • Culture
  • Nations … and some speculation about
  • The Future

As you might expect with a book taking on a subject this large you can inevitably pick holes in any of the entries if you really know the subject but you can use the introductory text as a taster, and the pictures are often interesting. And it weighs about 2.5 kg so if you don’t like it you can keep it under the bed to throw at burglars…

Best of all, right in the middle of the “Culture” section (pp. 316-17) you’ll find a particularly insightful spread on the mass media. Which I wrote 😉 I don’t get a penny from any sales however.

As a side note, I am impressed that the economics of publishing have changed to the point that DK can print a hardcover book with more than 500 large pages with spot colour, photos and illustrations on every page, sell it for £18 (Amazon’s price which is admittedly 40% off retail) and still make a profit.

P.S. It’s $57.33 list price in the US but Amazon US which sells it for $36.12 can’t now ship in time for Xmas.

9 October 2004
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Personal at1:21 pm

I noticed the arrival in London of “Bright Leaves”:http://www.brightleaves.com/ – a new film by an oddball American independent film-maker Ross McElwee – and on a whim I went with my wife to see it. While the premise of the film was promising (a grassroots view of the tobacco industry mixed with McElwee’s characteristic personal reminiscences) I found it more than usually self-indulgent so it was a bit of a disappointment.

However, I discovered to my surprise that McElwee himself was there as this was a premiere. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to thank him for producing his most memorable work, “Sherman’s March”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091943/. It’s a pity that there doesn’t seem to be a European standard copy of that film available on DVD or tape…

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