Archive — Culture

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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The Visitation — White Noise

An Electric Storm cover

White Noise was formed by David Vorhaus, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The latter two were pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the facilities of which were covertly used for a couple of the tracks on their album An Electric Storm.

(For the uninitiated, Delia Derbyshire is best known for the original realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune, among many other revolutionary electronic compositions. Brian Hodgson made many sound effects for Doctor Who, including the sound of the Tardis.)

An Electric Storm was released in 1969. It somehow sounds both mind-bogglingly ahead of its time, while also being distinctly of its time.

White Noise didn’t have a studio, so they had to develop their own makeshift equipment by connecting tape machines together with basic electronics. An Electric Storm was made before Robert Moog developed his modular synthesiser.

Synthesisers were about to democratise the creation of electronic music. But they also made it less of a craft. Painstaking effort and skill were required for the tape manipulation techniques that created the otherworldly sounds pioneered by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and their peers. It became a lost art.

According to the liner notes on the 2007 CD reissue of An Electric Storm that I own, David Vorhaus was originally intent on releasing a single. The head of Island Records told him to make an album instead, giving him the £3,000 he said a hit single would be worth.

This track, The Visitation, took three months to complete alone. When Island Records enquired as to the whereabouts of the album they had paid for, White Noise were forced to complete it overnight by improvising drums over tape loops and other noises. Even that track sounds almost unbelievably ahead of its time.

But upon release, the album sold just 200 copies. The world wasn’t ready for electronic music. But An Electric Storm is the definition of a cult slow burner. And it was highly influential on the more commercially successful electronic musicians of the 1970s and onwards. Not that many of them pressed ahead with the tape manipulation techniques.

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The BBC Domesday Project

The BBC Domesday Project

A fascinating long article on the BBC Domesday Project from 1986. This huge project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, with an ambitious modern-day take on documenting all of Britain.

The technology was so unique that became obsolete almost immediately. It required a special LaserDisc player connected to a BBC Master computer with a special controller. The price tag put it out of reach of almost everyone, even schools and libraries.

It’s a prime example of the challenges of digital preservation.

Moreover, copyright issues — as well as the sheer volume of content — have raised questions over whether some the content could ever be used again. It is certainly difficult to replicate the original experience (although a few YouTube videos give a flavour).

This article goes into some of the thinking behind the technology decisions, and makes a valiant case that the Domesday Project is not a failure, as some like to think of it.

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The FAQ as advice column

The FAQ as advice column

FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.

This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.

The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.

What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.

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The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?

The Apple Podcasts Chart is screwed. How should we replace it?

This article by James Cridland lays bare just how widespread the gaming of Apple’s podcasts chart is.

I have heard presenters pleading with their listeners to unsubscribe, then resubscribe to help improve their position in the chart. Apparently it works.

What I don’t understand is why Apple let this happen? I’m sure it’s not an easy problem to fix. But it surely can’t be as hard as penalising dodgy SEO tactics or email spam filters. What’s in it for Apple?

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Will Gompertz on Banksy’s shredded Love is in the Bin

Will Gompertz on Banksy’s shredded Love is in the Bin

Will Gompertz explains what makes Banksy’s latest stunt a good work of art.

“At first I was shocked,” said the winning bidder and proud owner having decided to keep the work, “but I realised I would end up with my own piece of art history.”

All the more interesting considering the fact that it now transpires that the shredding didn’t exactly go to plan.

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Robert Peston: BBC not impartial during EU referendum campaign

Robert Peston: BBC not impartial during EU referendum campaign

I do think that they went through a period of just not being confident enough. Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.

It is often said (including by me) that if you are accusing the BBC of bias, it is probably because you are losing the argument.

But Robert Peston is not the first to make this point, that the BBC is giving equal platforms to viewpoints with very unequal merits.

It’s getting difficult to disagree that this is currently a major problem for the BBC. It is particularly acute on particular programmes, such as the Today programme, which is more interested in generating heat than light.

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How good is “good”?

How good is “good”?

YouGov asked people to rate how positive and negative certain expressions are.

Warning: Contains pretty charts.

As it turns out, “good” and “bad” are not exactly mirrors of one another on the scale. Bad has an average score of 2.60, meaning its mirror equivalent on the scale ought to score 7.40. “Good”, by contrast, scores a 6.92.

This situation remains the case for the other examples where “good” and “bad” are used: “pretty good”, “really good” and “very good” are seen less positively than they should be to truly mirror “pretty bad”, “really bad” and “very bad”.

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Any Questions?

Any Questions?

The radio institution celebrates its 70th birthday today. I enjoyed this history of the programme from Andy Walmsley.

I had no idea that Any Questions? was originally developed as a stop-gap to fill a hole in a regional schedule. From its beginnings on the West of England Home Service, within two years it was being regularly broadcast nationwide — first on the Home Service, but quickly also on the Light Programme.

Within quite a short time, sixteen million people were regularly listening to the programme. Frank Gillard had got his mass audience.

(Despite its appeal to the masses, it’s difficult to imagine a programme like this on the modern-day Radio 2.)

It seems that the programme has changed little in its 70 years, which is an extraordinary feat of longevity. Not only that, its carbon copy TV version, Question Time, appears as popular as ever. I can’t really stand to listen to or watch either of them.

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The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness — Cornelius

New Cornelius albums are few and far between. In fact, he has released just four albums in the past 21 years. But when one comes, it is always one of the highlights of the year. He is one of the most distinctive and innovative artists going.

I have just listened to his latest album, Mellow Waves. This song isn’t the most sonically interesting on the album — but it is probably the best. It’s the only song on the album to feature mainly English lyrics, written and sung by Miki Berenyi, who was the singer in Lush.

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Note — 2018-09-27

These classic BBC Two idents designed by Lambie-Nairn have now been retired — but not for the first time.

They were first replaced in 2001 by the Personality idents, which (despite the name) were actually rather insipid by comparison. Then came the downright dull Window on the World idents.

Lambie-Nairn’s idents returned in 2014. But they were originally developed in 1991. At the time, they were credited with transforming wider perceptions of the channel. It had been seen as dull and worthy, but became arty and exciting.

27 years is a hell of a long time for these idents to last, especially considering the subsequent shift to widescreen, then HD broadcasting. They have pretty much stood the test of time.

Later idents in the set became more complex and less focused. But I am especially fond of the very original idents from 1991, which were particularly pure and striking. The use of the Gill Sans 2, coloured with viridian, and backed with ethereal music, is such a simple idea, yet it was employed with remarkable versatility.

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Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien: ‘Cricket was my refuge’

Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien: ‘Cricket was my refuge’

On the associations between playing cricket and playing music.

I’ve had the odd gig where I’ve been able to slow down my breathing and my heart-rate. I remember playing this show where I could divide the bar up, a four-beat bar into 32 or 64s, and play anywhere on that beat. It was the most intoxicating feeling. A batsman must have it. The great batsmen, they have all the time in the world. They’re able to stretch time with their breathing. All the chaos that might be in your own life is alleviated, it’s about being in the moment, being in the flow.

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Photo — 2018-09-16

Louise, Alex, me and Jamie with our breads

Louise, Alex, me and Jamie with our breads

Alex and I took our friends Louise and Jamie to a bread making workshop as part of a wedding present.

Thank you to Colin at Bread in Fife, who led the class and was great fun to work with. Formerly based in Freuchie in Fife, he has since moved to Edinburgh — but remains called Bread in Fife.

We had fantastic fun making bread that we baked in a Dutch oven. We each had our own recipe to follow. I made a wholemeal loaf, Alex made a walnut boule, Louise made a white cob, and Jamie made a harvest loaf.

While waiting for the dough to prove, we made digestive biscuits. We also made a Russian bridie-like pie called a pirozhki, which contained an onion and egg filling.

Lunch for this week is sorted!

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Dundee’s renaissance — a personal, alternative view

Dundee’s renaissance — a personal, alternative view

Brian Taylor reflects on Dundee’s resurgence.

But mostly this renaissance is driven by the collective will of the people.

It is marvellous to behold.

Together, they have decided to stop apologising for their city. They have decided to revisit her ancient history and, hopefully, pursue her proud future.

See also: The city with grand designs

A fantastic piece on the history of Dundee’s creative renaissance, which has been decades in the making.

Congratulations and good luck to everyone involved in the V&A Dundee, which opens this weekend. I will be visiting later this month.

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After Chris Evans — Why women are leading the race for the breakfast slot

After Chris Evans — Why women are leading the race for the breakfast slot

In a sense, it’s no surprise to see women as front-runners to replace Chris Evans as BBC Radio 2 breakfast show presenter. It is a scandal that, until recently, no women had a regular slot during the day on Radio 2 since the 1990s.

Radio 2 always explained that the male presenters were hugely popular. And I can think of several people who would likely switch off the Radio 2 breakfast show if Sara Cox were to get the gig. But as Miranda Sawyer notes:

[Sara] Cox and [Zoë] Ball are considered the women most likely to break Radio 2’s all-male daytime club because many men still think of them as “one of the lads”.

I am a relatively reluctant listener to the Radio 2 breakfast show. I’m not averse to Sara Cox per se.

But regardless of who takes over, Alex and I have already decided we will listen instead to Lauren Laverne when she takes the helm of the BBC Radio 6 Music breakfast show in January. I have avoided its current host Shaun Keaveny because… I find it too blokey.

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5 thoughts on self-help

5 thoughts on self-help

I have never read what I would think of as a self-help book. I’m sceptical of them. But at the same time I am interested in self-improvement. Or at least, keeping check on yourself and learning generally, which I guess is a form of self-help.

In this article, Austin Kleon points out that:

…the problem with self-help today is that it has returned to the very quick-fix pseudoscientific snake-oil cures that [the first self-help book, written by Samuel] Smiles (what a perfect name) was reacting to…

I would argue that this isn’t necessarily just a problem for the self-help genre either. I am inherently wary of anything that claims to provide a one-size-fits-all silver bullet solution. Because it’s bound to be more complicated than that.

One of the worst things that self-help can do is convince you that you as an individual are to blame for all of your problems, and that if you’re struggling it’s just because you aren’t making the right moves.

Worst of all, some self-help books imply that if the book fails to help you, it’s not the book’s fault, it’s yours.

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A lesson from Germany on how to cover far-right leaders

A lesson from Germany on how to cover far-right leaders

It’s a radical idea — interviewing extremists without pandering to their extremist ideas. It turns out that by asking them about their policy positions instead of just letting them bang on about their racist ideas, you can quickly show them up.

German television viewers found out Sunday night when the broadcaster ZDF ran a major interview with Alexander Gauland, a co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which capitalized on anti-refugee sentiment to earn its first-ever seats in the German Parliament last fall. Ahead of the interview, ZDF’s Twitter feed teased the interview as dealing with “climate change, retirement, digitalization—and without refugees.”

The resulting 19-minute interview, in which Gauland struggles to answer basic questions about his party’s positions on such issues, has been lauded by opponents of the AfD as masterful.

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The six main stories, as identified by a computer

The six main stories, as identified by a computer

We have all heard the idea that there are only a handful of different stories. Now we can feed stories into computers to see the six different story arcs that exist — the extrapolation of an idea first expressed by Kurt Vonnegut.

This may not seem like anything special, Vonnegut says—his actual words are, “it certainly looks like trash”—until he notices another well known story that shares this shape. “Those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament.” Cinderella’s curfew was, if you look at it on Vonnegut’s chart, a mirror-image downfall to Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden. “And then I saw the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. The tales were identical.”

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Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?

Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?

An analysis of content about design — why people write it, how they look for it, and why it needs to be better.

Last year, we published and shared 4,302 articles and links with the community …

That’s a lot of links.

Most of them 5-minute Medium articles.

Not as thorough as we would like them to be.

Not deep at all.

Not as honest as our industry deserves.

This makes me wonder if my own approach — blogging daily with a link to and short remark about a 5 minute read — is wrong.

We definitely need to find more ways to write and think more deeply about design, and spend less time with superficial, self-promotional clickbait.

More on this from Khoi Vinh: Why designers don’t want to think when they read.

See also: Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves — on why we need to see more stories about failure.

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Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music

A good interview with Autechre in which they reveal a little more about their techniques. It explains a fair bit about why their sound is so unique, and why other people can’t (or shouldn’t) emulate it.

It gets a bit hazy in terms of what’s a musical idea and what’s a piece of technology. If you make a sequencer that only makes one type of sequence, and you’ve used it twice, then I guess you’ve used the same musical idea twice…

Our system is great for making Autechre tracks, but I’m not sure if everybody else wants to do that. And if they do, I’m not sure I want them to.

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Photo — 2018-08-27

Epic drive-through beer shop near Spa!

It’s called Drive-In Andrien, and it’s one of the most surreal places I’ve been to. You drive in through a garage door, and you’re basically in the Costco of Belgian beer. Many beers were purchased, and our wallets are not that much lighter…

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