Archive — Culture

DivineSébastien Tellier

Sexuality album cover

I woke up this morning to BBC Radio 6 Music playing a remix of Kilometer by Sébastien Tellier. It is quite some way to be introduced to the day.

But with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend, it put me in mind of the fact that Sébastien Tellier is in fact responsible for my favourite Eurovision performance, Divine.

France’s 2008 entry was controversial, because Divine was sung in English, which France’s powers-that-be don’t like. So Sébastien Tellier had to re-write part of it in French.

As you can see, that was only the start of the weirdness. The bearded women, the golf cart, the weird locked-off camera angles. And who else would have the audacity to consume helium in the middle of what would probably be the biggest performance of their life?

There was no doubt where my vote was going in 2008. It came 19th. That result was at least better than their previous three entries.

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Scapegoating user experience designKhoi VinhSubtraction

Stylised photo of a Nest camera

An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft.

The article pinpoints Nest’s focus on reducing friction as the reason for their cameras’ weak security.

Khoi Vinh points out that…

…the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.

The point being that good security is fundamental to good user experience. As any good designer would know, they are not in conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It strikes me that Nest are using ‘reducing friction’ as a poor excuse for not implementing better security. I’m sure they’re not the only ones guilty of this.

On another point, this article got me thinking about journalism. Khoi Vinh refuses to blame the Washington Post’s perspective on “lazy journalism”, perhaps correctly.

But any time I read a mainstream/non-specialist journalist write about a topic I know a little about (motorsport, the web, whatever), I’m always astonished at how many basic errors are made. It’s a challenge if designers want the help of journalism when “explaining what it is that we do to the world at large.”

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Sybil´s DreamBeautify Junkyards

The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards cover

A recent slice of hauntology from the collectable Ghost Box Records. I have to admit this album, The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, has taken a while to grow on me. But my, has it grown.

As much as I love it, some Ghost Box material can get a bit samey. Perhaps it’s inevitable (or intentional?) given that it showcases a type of dark nostalgia; mal-remembered pasts. (Or, in the label’s own words, “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”)

Beautify Junkyards breathes new life into the ghostly universe of hauntology. They are Portuguese, but seemingly take cues from British acid folk music. Unashamedly inspired by an imagined past, but adding adding new dimensions to create something uncannily new. And with a songwriterly quality that isn’t always at the forefront of a Ghost Box project.

It almost takes us full circle to the early material of Broadcast, in many ways the genesis of Ghost Box.

If Sybil´s Dream didn’t do it for you, try Ghost Dance.

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Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymoreJoshua BentonNieman Journalism Lab

"The Guardian (actually makes money now)"

How the Guardian finally started making a profit, in three steps.

With a functionally infinite supply of free news available, the relationship your reader has to you has to be a lot more like the one public radio listeners have with their favorite station. They’re not buying access; they’re supporting a cause.

I’d also add that the Guardian has one major advantage over almost every other publisher in the world. They uniquely decided not to go down the rabbit hole of autoplaying videos, pop-up adverts, and other infuriating ways of getting in the way of what the readers actually came for.

This week I visited the Scotsman website, and one of the ads inserted a nasty redirect that my browser told me was taking me to an untrustworthy site. There are lots of news sites that I simply can’t trust for this reason. The Guardian is one I can still trust.

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RecallPlaid

Polymer cover

A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.

The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:

The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.

Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.

* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:

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The cave paintings of BrexitDavid Allen GreenThe Law and Policy Blog

Cave painting

David Allen Green explains how the usual sources of information on British politics have been useless at explaining Brexit.

A Brexit historian with access only to the front parts of UK newspapers and to government publications would be like the classical historian convinced that the Romans were pre-occupied with crockery.

He notes that Brussels correspondents have been more informative than their Westminster counterparts. His point about Irish journalism providing better insights resonates with me as well. They’ve seemed much more switched on about certain aspects of the Brexit shitshow.

British politics is in a huge a mess at the moment. Is part of that down to the fact that British journalism has got stuck in a rut?

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15 months of fresh hell inside FacebookNicholas Thompson and Fred VogelsteinWired

Mark Zuckerberg surrounded by Facebook icons

I enjoy Wired’s periodic long articles about Facebook. They avoid the shrillness that most media outlets exhibit when writing or talking about Facebook. This article is all the more powerful for it. And unlike many self-publicists who spend a lot of time writing basic stuff about Facebook and acting as though they’ve discovered the story of the decade, this contains genuine insights and new information.

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People in the CityAir

10 000 Hz Legend cover

A great song, really effectively set to footage from Koyaanisqatsi by someone on YouTube.

10 000 Hz Legend is not as well-regarded as Air’s first album, Moon Safari. But I personally prefer it. Moon Safari opened the floodgates to a host of cliched chillout albums by sub-par artists. 10 000 Hz Legend shook it all off, and carved a new path. I think it stands the test of time better as a result.

This one appears to be the official video, but for some reason using a rather weak live version of the song.

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Close to the EdgeYes

Close to the Edge cover

Prog rock has a bad name. Prog rock by Yes perhaps has a particularly bad name. But sometimes, a 19 minute long wig out is what you need. It accompanied a lunchtime for me last week, and my afternoon felt better than my morning. What a song.

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Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

An impressively thoughtful piece from the former Radio 4 controller, on why the BBC is struggling to remain unbiased amid Brexit.

One senior presenter put it like this: “We should encourage debate… while being more militant about our core approach—that we are fact-based, and question and test all sides of the debate. We should not be doing vanilla ‘on the one hand’ versus ‘on the other hand’ journalism. I am sympathetic to the arguments about the danger of ‘false equivalence,’ and think we should be clear about the weight of arguments. But if a substantial number of people believe, so to speak, that bananas are blue we have to treat that seriously. Seriously, but robustly.”

This article also briefly covers some of the limitations of TV news bulletins, and explains why in some aspects radio performs better. I do find it difficult to watch a bulletin like the 10 O’Clock News (I think I even watched the piece he mentions from Mansfield, with my head in my hands). In that format, it is impossible to cover anything in real depth — and that seems to be the true problem at the moment.

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Note — 2019-03-06

I hate to be that guy, but the latest update to the Pocket Casts Android app has completely destroyed it.

Overnight, the player widget was erased. But worse still, all the playlists I have created have disappeared and there appears to be no way of recreating them. The playlists feature has vanished. There is a mysterious new ‘Filters’ option that I can’t make head nor tail of. Whenever I try to create a new filter, it crashes.

I’d move to Google Podcasts, but that doesn’t support playlists either… Ugh.

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Halogen — Kelly Moran

Ultraviolet cover

I was introduced to Kelly Moran by her first album on Warp Records, Ultraviolet, released a few months ago. For some reason (OK, maybe the Warp thing) I had assumed it was electronic music. So I was astonished to learn from this video that it’s actually a live prepared piano. Stunning stuff.

From that, I moved on to watch a performance of an older track, Limonium. Although short, it is perhaps even better than anything on Ultraviolet. One to watch no doubt, and I’ll certainly be investigating her back catalogue.

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Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

Autechre

Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

I totally have 19 spare hours to listen to all this right now.

thisisfine.jpg

These 19 newly released files are from the same tour as the 9 that were unveiled a few years ago, so it’s not new new. But I’m listening to the Orlando one right now and there’s enough new stuff going on to justify the £1 per MP3.

This makes me a bit more hopeful that something from their 2016 tour will one day emerge as well. The poster hangs on our living room wall.

Autechre 2016 tour poster in our living room

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rightclick — Mira Calix

utopia cover

It’s more than ten years since Mira Calix last released music, with her career having taken her in a more multidisciplinary artistic direction. I’ve found her music in the past to be a bit hit-and-miss. But when I heard rightclick I ended up being quite excited for the release of her new EP, utopia.

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Samaritans — Idles

I’ve become obsessed with this song. It contains an important message that is beginning to be heard, but still needs to be heard more widely. This is a song for now.

Discovering Idles has felt a bit like discovering Pulp when they released Common People. Although 9-year-old me didn’t really understand what appealed to me about Pulp, now I think I do. Distinctive-sounding music, yes. But also lyrics that are interesting (a rarity in and of itself), and important, and for right now.

The first time I knowingly heard Idles it was when another song was played on the radio in the morning, Great. I remember sitting up in my bed, astonished at the lyrics. You don’t often hear songs that are so political, especially ones that actually hit the nail on the head — and say what I would want to say, but so much better.

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A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Image from last year's girl

A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Another perspective on the troubles faced by HMV. Lis Ferla echoes my thoughts on why bricks-and-mortar record stores of all sorts are a vital part of the music ecosystem.

But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix.

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Windowlicker — Aphex Twin

Windowlicker cover

The other day we heard Windowlicker by Aphex Twin being played on BBC Radio 6 Music in the morning. On the one hand, this is very excellent. On the other, it has made it less likely that Alex will let me set the radio alarm to wake us up with 6 Music in the new year.

Needless to say, Windowlicker is a masterpiece. At the time it was mind-bendingly futuristic-sounding. 20 years on it still sounds pretty fresh and exciting.

It was also the last thing Aphex Twin released before Drukqs, which might explain why the album got mixed reviews.

When the video for Windowlicker was featured on one of those Channel 4 top 100 programmes, it resulted in this fantastic TV moment, featuring Frank Sidebottom.

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The hurricane web

Screenshot of the text only version of the NPR website

The hurricane web

This post really underlines how media companies have taken the web in totally the wrong direction.

It shows how media organisations like CNN and NPR brought out lightweight “text only” versions of their websites to help hurricane-stricken areas with low bandwidth.

…in some aspects, they are actually better than the original.

Most importantly, it’s user friendly. People get what they came for (the news) and are able to accomplish their tasks.

It reminds me of the GDPR compliant version of the USA Today website, which many noted was actually a far better experience than the standard version that was filled with trackers and ads.

Think how brilliant the web could be again, if people removed all the crap from their pages and focused on what users actually need.

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Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style

Writing ball

Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style

How technology affects the way we write — but not necessarily in the ways we expect. I was particularly struck by the idea that one of the biggest changes has been how the “distinction between revision and composition began to erode entirely” with the advent of computers.

See also: The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

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TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Iain Lee

TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Radio host Iain Lee kept a suicidal caller to his show on the line for half an hour while emergency services tracked him down after he revealed he had taken an overdose.

I didn’t hear this particular call. It sounds like it must have been an extraordinary piece of radio, handled brilliantly by Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle.

This is another example of why Iain Lee’s Late Night Alternative is one of the most important programmes on radio.

Mental health has been a running theme of the programme almost since day one. I have probably learnt more about mental health from the Late Night Alternative than anywhere else.

But above all, it’s a programme about life.

Last week, one highly amusing caller talked about how her family had accidentally walked in on her father masturbating. The next caller apologised for making a clunky gear change, before talking about how his wife had died that day.

How extraordinary to think that people in this sort of position would turn to a radio show. Iain Lee sets out to provide an alternative to endless Brexit phone-ins. Continually, this programme demonstrates why we need that alternative.

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Why makers write

Why makers write

This is a bit of a sales pitch, but it is a good piece on the importance of writing regularly.

Deep understanding is necessary for makers. Understanding develops the perspective and conviction needed for bringing products to market. This is why blog-first startups are viable. Writing forces a maker to deeply understand the value they intend to bring into the world.

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Aus – Ein — Jon Brooks

Music for Dieter Rams cover

Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Rams, about the designer Dieter Rams, is released digitally today. It’s bound to be good — not least because it features original music by Brian Eno.

But perhaps it would have been more apt to include music from the Jon Brooks album Music for Dieter Rams.

Every sound on this record, from the melodic sounds to the percussion, the atmospheric effects to the bass lines originates from the Braun AB-30 alarm clock.

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Note — 2018-12-11

This week I found out I won’t make the cut of that Scottish independence referendum documentary I was filmed for a few months ago. Due to a change in editorial focus, apparently.

It’s actually a bit of a relief because, as you’ll see from the original post, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how it panned out. I could actually do without any hassle resulting from being on TV.

When I texted Alex about it, her reply was: “Oh good!!!!” You know it’s serious when four exclamation marks come out.

When I asked why, she said, “I was worried about your political views being on the BBC.” (To be honest, I think we should worry about all sorts of other people’s political views that are allowed on the BBC these days, but there we go…)

Still, it was interesting to be part of the process, and good to know my blog could still get noticed in this sort of way.

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Open Again — Thom Yorke

Suspiria cover

I was very surprised by how good Thom Yorke’s Suspiria soundtrack is. Thom Yorke says he was pushed out of his comfort zone making this album. It worked. It’s a joy to hear him exploring genuinely new territory instead of just making bad dubstep like his last solo album.

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Magnus Carlsen’s tense victory sends interest in chess soaring

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen’s tense victory sends interest in chess soaring

The recent World Chess Championship, which saw an unprecedented 12 consecutive draws before moving onto a rapid chess tie-breaker, is apparently causing “a mini-boom” in interest in chess.

I remember the World Chess Championship being televised by Channel 4 in the mid-1990s when I first started playing chess as a child. That may have spurred my interest a little.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest in school chess. A lot more people phoning up for lessons. A lot more inquiries online,” said Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of the charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), which has seen increased web traffic…

CSC is doing its part to bring the game to a wider audience, encouraging pupils at mainly inner-city state schools to take it up. “Every private school has a chess club, but only a very small minority of state schools do,” said Pein.

I was lucky that my state school had a chess club. It was quite well attended, although that was mainly because chess club members were entitled to skip the lunch queue. The practice was eventually clamped down on, so only the geeks were left again…

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Are pop lyrics getting more repetitive?

Graph of the repetitiveness of pop music

Are pop lyrics getting more repetitive?

A fun article with lots of data on the repetitiveness of pop lyrics, how they have evolved over time, and how they vary by genre. What strikes me is that it isn’t obviously clear that a repetitive song is necessarily a bad song — just different.

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Photo — 2018-11-27

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports playing on my record player, with the record sleeve in front of it

The newly issued half-speed remastered edition of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is very welcome.

The CD version I bought about 15 years ago sounded rather poor quality, with a distracting tape hiss running throughout. A bit frustrating when it’s one of the greatest and most important pieces of music of the 20th century.

It was a bit of a mystery to me why some other Brian Eno albums got this lavish remaster treatment first. The new version is spread across 2 LPs of heavyweight vinyl, played at 45rpm. This means each track luxuriously has its own side.

I don’t know much about the science of remastering techniques. But there’s no doubt to me that this sounds fantastic.

I’ve never been so pleased to hear a remastered album. The tape hiss is all but obliterated, and there are lots of details I hadn’t heard before.

40 years on from its original release, one of the most pleasing pieces of music now sounds almost perfect.

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F1 season ends and building of the broadcasting paywall begins

David Coulthard interviewing Pierre Gasly

F1 season ends and building of the broadcasting paywall begins

Channel 4’s Formula 1 commentator Ben Edwards began his broadcast yesterday saying, “For many of us, it’s an end of an era.” He talked about it being Fernando Alonso’s final race, and Kimi Räikkönen’s swansong at Ferrari. Not directly mentioned, but telegraphed, was the fact that this was also the last F1 race to be shown on free-to-air TV in the UK, with the exception of next year’s British Grand Prix.

Channel 4 have done an exceptional job of covering the sport over the past three years. I share Richard Williams’s weary assessment of the Sky coverage we must pay through the nose for:

There are aspects that stretch the patience, like the rushed and inane encounters of the grid walk and the plethora of pensioned-off drivers saying nothing very much.

When Sky first shared the rights with the BBC in 2012, the big names went to Sky — but the good names stayed with the BBC. Channel 4 have continued in that vein, if anything improving on the BBC. Their diverse range of pundits are sharper, wittier, more perceptive, more insightful, with more recent race experience.

From now, British viewers are left worse off — and so is F1 itself.

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Live well for less

Sainsbury's own brand packaging for trifle sponge cakes

Live well for less

Present&Correct has noticed that the Sainsbury’s own brand packaging archive is now available online.

I did snap up a copy of Jonny Trunk’s Own Label book when it came out. It features a wealth of Sainsbury’s own brand packaging from the 1960s and 1970s. The period marks a shift towards a more experimental, modernist approach to packaging design, “completely different from what had gone before,” according to Jonny Trunk’s foreword.

I find this sort of thing fascinating, because it’s almost telling a social history by stealth. It’s an insight into everyday life in mid-century Britain. When you turn the page and see packaging for broken eggs, you’re not just seeing a history of graphic design.

It’s one of the reasons why I also really enjoy visiting the Museum of Brands.

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Photo — 2018-11-23

Me wearing a Boards of Canada t-shirt

I may not be at work today, but that’s not stopping me wearing an old band t-shirt for #TShirtDay. I’ve chosen a slightly worse-for-wear Boards of Canada t-shirt that hasn’t seen the light of day for a while.

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Photo — 2018-11-21

Oblique Strategy card: "Tidy up"; Blockbox card: "Write it on a train."

I’ve been writing an article that I’ve been thinking about for well over a year. Upon writing it, it’s turned out to be surprisingly short. So I turned to my two favourite block-busters — and they both told me to do things I was thinking about doing anyway.

Oblique Strategies told me to tidy up.

Blockbox said write it on a train.

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The Professor — Hanne Hukkelberg

I’m a big fan of Hanne Hukkelberg’s music, particularly her earlier albums. Her distinctive voice, engaging songwriting, quirky instrumentations and use of found sounds are a uniquely enchanting combination.

This 2007 performance (which appears to have been filmed on a windy balcony in Hamburg) is a bit more stripped back than her typical album track — but no less enchanting.

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“Brian Eno’s ideas have resonance for architecture” says Finn Williams

“Brian Eno’s ideas have resonance for architecture” says Finn Williams

Where is here? And what is now? The answers are more complicated than you might think.

Eno’s realisation that “people live in different sizes of here” led him to the idea of The Big Here and Long Now – a way of thinking that asks fundamental questions of who we design for, the scale we design at, and the timescales we design in…

According to Danny Hillis, the inventor of the Clock of the Long Now, “the more we divide time, the less far we look into the future.” So what impact is this having on the design of our cities? And how can we create real and lasting public value in the context of an increasingly narrow and short-sighted here and now?

How architects, designers and urban planners can learn from Brian Eno’s generative music.

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Photo — 2018-11-09

It’s a dream come true — I’ve finally won HQ Trivia.

…But it was a true team effort thanks to the help of Rebecca, Alex, Louise and Jamie. The drinks are on me… Which leaves me about a tenner out of pocket.

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