Sunday, December 11, 2005

My Top 25 Albums of 2005

As integral to the festive season as carols and mince pies, the Best of Year list is a godsend for geeks like me, making an otherwise derisory activity (almost) socially acceptable for a few short weeks.

After much deliberation and a couple of near fist fights, I have arrived at my Top 25 Albums of 2005 (listed below). The only criteria is that they must have been released in the UK in 2005 and Greatest Hits and re-releases aren't eligible. I'm obviously banking on no gems coming out in the last few weeks of the year although, aside from Ryan Adams' third (and reportedly best) album of 2005, the release schedule is looking pretty uninspiring for the rest of December.

Of course, the beauty of blogging is that I can reorder my list next week when I realise that Girls Aloud's Chemistry is the true musical masterpiece of 2005...

My Top 25 Albums of 2005


Songs For Silverman

Ben Folds


Leaders Of The Free World



The Secret Migration

Mercury Rev



The Arcade Fire


Blinking Lights And Other Revelations




My Morning Jacket


Disappear Here

Silver Sun





The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers





Back To Bedlam

James Blunt








Kasier Chiefs



The Alternative To Love

Brendan Benson


(Come On Feel The) Illinoise

Sufjan Stevens


Silent Alarm

Bloc Party


The Back Room



Get Behind Me Satan

White Stripes


You Could Have It So Much Better

Franz Ferdinand


Eye To The Telescope

KT Tunstall


In Between Dreams

Jack Johnson


Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple


Horse Fabulous

The Stands


Want Two

Rufus Wainwright

Monday, November 28, 2005

Orb: taking the home out of home entertainment

Orb Networks homepage

Another recent discovery which promises to revolutionise my media consumption is Orb - a free web service that enables me to access all of the media stored on my home PC from any web-connected device with RealPlayer or Windows Media Player installed. So, from my work PC, laptop, PDA or mobile I can stream all of my music and videos and view any of my photos. Crucially, it automatically detects the device's available bandwidth and media player and optimizes the size and format accordingly. It even copes with the DRM'd Napster/iTunes content, validating the license locally before transcoding and streaming it. Plus, if your home PC has a TV tuner you can access that to watch live and recorded TV on your mobile device. It's obviously a fairly niche service at the moment, but as more people get Media Center PCs it could take off and just conceivably provide an alternative to DVB-H/DAB for TV on mobile devices. Oh, and they've got a cool strapline: "Orb takes the home out of home entertainment". Nice.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

How I learned to stop worrying and love the PSP

OK Sony, you've got me. After years of resisting the allure of the all-conquering PlayStation, I've fallen hook, line and sinker for the latest and dinkiest addition to the family, the PSP. Even then, it wasn't until a saw one in the plastic that my resolve crumbled and I had to concede that here was a product that looked like the future and put the modest ambitions of the new video iPod into perspective.

So, two days into our relationship, how are we getting on? Has love (ok, lust) turned sour...? Well, so far so good. The jaw-dropping quality of the screen still hits me every time I switch it on and sets the bar intimidatingly high for other players hoping to enter the mobile media space. The ease with which I was able to log onto the web via my home Wi-Fi network was a pleasant surprise, as was the rendering of the web pages on the built-in browser. The interface also feels pretty intuitive, bearing in mind the number of options it has to marshal (an increasing problem for Apple judging by labyrinthine menus on the latest iPod), and after a few wrong key presses I was soon whizzing my way through the menus.

My introduction to movies on PSP came sooner than expected as Sony sent me a free UMD of Spiderman 2 after I registered the device on, clearly hoping the magnanimity of the gesture and the quality and convenience of movies on UMD will prompt me to further purchases. Whilst I suspect they'll be disappointed on that front, it does highlight an interesting difference in the revenue models of Sony and Apple's portable media devices. Whilst Apple is famously selling media (songs on iTunes) for little or no profit in order make money on hardware (iPods), Sony is selling hardware (PSPs) for little or no profit in order to make money on media (UMDs).

Both companies have been working hard to offset the risks associated with these contrasting business models. For Apple, the possibility of market saturation is being countered by shortening the product life of each generation of iPod and the 'halo effect' on other Apple products (most notably it's computers). For Sony, the risk of virtual product overtaking physical product (the traditional revenue stream for games consoles) is being tentatively addressed via the downloads available from (currently free, but paid-for content can't be far off).

Whilst the PSP's support of physical media initially seems like something of an anachronism, one quickly realises it is just one half of a canny 'belt and braces' approach which is poised to take advantage of the final years of substantive physical media sales whilst simultaneously preparing for the preeminence of virtual media via the PSP's wireless capabilities.

The PSP's other obvious weakness (it's relative dearth of storage and reliance of removable media) may also turn out to be an advantage in the longer term, depending on the rate at which Memory Stick Duos increase in size and fall in price.

As for me, my biggest reservation is when I'll actually find the time to use the damn thing. Waiting for a bus seems to be the scenario invariably trotted out during discussions of mobile video/gaming content, but I'm pleased to say that waiting for busses accounts for a very small proportion of my time. What's more, it's a braver man that I who would get out a £180 bit of kit on Brixton High Street.

This uncertainly about how, where and when I will actually use this expensive piece of technology I've just bought reveals the masterstroke of Sony's PSP - they've managed to sell me a device without an obvious USP. Whilst other divisions within Sony seem to be lurching from one half-baked idea to the next (please stop with this ATRAC business, already), the PSP's success is assured and could just provide the necessary momentum to reverse the company's recent fortunes.

Anyway, I'm off to wait at a suburban bus stop...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Next from Apple: Airport Express Video?

After a quiet summer release schedule (sorry, Mighty Mouse), Apple have been showering us with product launches of late, with the iPod nano, the Motorola ROKR (ahem), the new G5s, and the 'video iPod' all announced within the last eight weeks.

Which inevitably got me thinking about what goodies they've got in store for us next. One of the most obvious additions, particularly in view of the introduction of video to the iPod/iTunes product lines and Apple's first serious foray into Media Center territory with Front Row, would be a new Airport Express capable of streaming video. It's already wirelessly sending my music, printing and broadband around the house so why not video?

Things certainly look to be in place from a software point of view, with the H.264 codec now supported by QuickTime (and by extension iTunes). In terms of formats, it's safe to assume it would handle all the video formats QuickTime currently supports (MPEG, AVI, Flash etc.) whilst continuing to leave Microsoft's WMV out in the cold.

Which output socket(s) to provide may prove more of a dilemma as video lacks a connector as universal as audio's 3.5mm stereo jack. In addition, the transition from analogue to digital is far from complete in the home media environment. As a result, failing to provide an analogue output (e.g. S-Video, Composite) would seriously limit the product's potential market, whilst omitting a digital output (e.g. DVI, HDMI) would risk frustrating early adopters and becoming more rapidly obsolete. I've plumped for a video-only Composite RCA socket in my above mockup, with the accompanying audio being delivered to the 3.5mm stereo socket.

Aesthetically, I would anticipate something smaller but not stylistically very different from the current Airport Express, as 'gradual evolution' seem to be the design watchwords at Apple at the moment if the new iPods are anything to go by.

As for timescales, I'd be inclined to think sooner rather than later, as Apple have another opportunity to steal a march on Microsoft, this time in providing an end-to-end video delivery chain which gets video content into people's living rooms without relying on the purchase of a dedicated Media Center PC. Game on...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

An intriguing evening's entertainment last Saturday. Went to see The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players do their thing at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington. In case you've missed the copious amounts of press coverage they've received off the back of their stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, their 'thing' is buying vintage slide collections at thrift stores and garage sales then turning them into pop-musical exposes of middle America. Jason (Dad) takes care of lead vocals whilst alternating between guitar and keyboard, Tina (Mum) looks after the slide projector and Rachel (their 11 year-old daughter) plays the drums.

The evening kicked off on an appropriately surreal note with Jason taking the audience through his extensive UK phone card collection, stopping to greet any latecomers and encouraging everyone to leave their mobiles on "because Oprah calls only once". He then handed over to the support act, Langhorne Slim, who preceded to blow the socks off the audience with a musical tour de force which defies easy categorisation (iTunes/CDDB reckon Country, but I don't think that does it justice).

After a brief interval Jason returned to the stage, this time avec famille, and the (slide) show began in earnest. Whilst there was undoubtedly much to like in the lo-fi presentation of assorted slices of Americana and myriad comic touches in the musical accompaniment I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a coherent political or social commentary. Following such an impassioned performance from Langhorne Slim, the Trachtenburgs began to feel like something of a one trick pony and when the lights went up I reflected that the starter has unexpectedly proved more filling than the main course.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Threadless tees

Have got a few t-shirt designs in the running at Threadless at the mo. For the uninitiated, the site allows any would-be designer to upload their t-shirt design and have it voted on by the Threadless community for the next 7 days. The most popular designs then get printed up as tees and sold via the Shop area of the site. If you're bold enough to submit a design you can expect some pretty forthright comments in return as Threadless users aren't backwards in coming forwards when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff. Designers of a sensitive disposition may be well advised stick to rating other people's submissions!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A lick of paint for Last FM


Am liking the look of the new Audioscrobbler/LastFM which relaunched yesterday with a shinier, more professional appearance and some nice interface tweaks. It's like your favourite scruffy nephew just bought himself his first suit. Interestingly, the Audioscrobbler brand appears to have got a demotion in favour of the less techie-sounding LastFM. Other than that, the lists are longer, the corners are more curvy and the icons highlight on hover. I like it.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Creative vision?

A couple of interesting new portable media players on the way from Creative (the nearest thing Apple had to a competitor in the MP3 player market until Sony belatedly got its act together with the NW-HD5).

First up, the Zen Vision, which aims to right the wrongs of the Zen Portable Media Center (PMC) and get a decent portable video player to market before Apple's announces a video iPod (although you could argue Sony has already beaten them both to it with the PSP).

The first thing Creative had to address was the brick-like weight and dimensions of the PMC. The Vision is not only smaller across every axis it is also 100 grams lighter. In terms of technical spec, the Vision offers double the screen resolution (640x480 pixels) and 10GB more hard disk space than the PMC. It's also extended its video format support beyond Microsoft to include MPEG and thrown in an FM radio for good measure. Unsurprisingly, the trade off for the sleeker dimensions and new functionality is a shorter battery life (4.5 hours of MPEG video playback versus the PMC's 7 hours). It's only available in the US at the moment so haven't been able to get my mitts on one yet.

Creative's other new player is aimed squarely at dethroning the daddy of them all: the iPod. Fractionally smaller, fractionally lighter and fractionally cheaper than its ubiquitous rival, the Zen Sleek boasts a 20GB hard disk, Windows Media playback and an FM radio and its looks, well, kinda sleek. Like the Creative Zen Micro only less cuddly. Inevitably it's no iPod killer but it certainly deserves a decent slice of the MP3 player market pie.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

This is NOT Spinal Tap

Just been to see DiG!, a glorious behemoth of a documentary charting the contrasting fortunes of two Portland-based bands, The Dandy Warhols and the lesser known Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Filmed over a seven year period, the story of the two bands is really the story of their two leads singers, Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe, who's divergent personalities ultimately determine the fate of their bands.

Beginning their journey as friends and collaborators, both relatively unknown and both promising to transform the musical landscape, Taylor and Newcombe end up estranged and equally embittered by their contrasting fates. In between we are treated to a genuine rollercoaster of rock excess, with Newcombe at the heart of it, continually threatening to derail the whole enterprise.

From the outset, Newcombe is like a planet (make that a supernova) around which the other band members (and the film itself) orbit. Marginalised and physically abused, they frequently quit but are invariably drawn back by the gravitational pull of Newcombe's flawed genius.

It is in its presentation of the two singers that DiG! ultimately shows its hand, painting Newcombe as 'the real deal', endlessly passionate about the music and apparently unconcerned with the superficial trappings of success and Taylor as a shallow sell-out. Newcombe's increasingly disheveled appearance is sharply contrasted with Taylor's histrionics over his make-up in a video shoot (which is taken by Newcombe as further evidence of the incompatibility of commercial success and artistic integrity).

Interestingly, Taylor (who also narrates) appears unaware, or at least unconcerned, with this portrayal, happily occupying the moral high ground when discussing Newcombe's drug use and exclaiming that "the drugs we're singing about, they're actually taking!"

Although it would be easy to criticise the filmmaker for conspiring with Newcombe's messianic delusions and presenting more myth than man, it would also be churlish. All contributors seem agreed that Newcombe is a musical genius and as Cobain and Doherty demonstrate, there's nothing like flawed genius to guarantee you a place in the rock 'n' roll pantheon.

Whilst DiG! undoubtedly revels in Newcombe's self-destructive drive and thereby risks deifying a narcissistic sadist ("He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"), it's also a rollicking good watch and provides further evidence that documentary film-making is in extremely rude health. Go watch!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Photo Friday

Thanks to Pikesville for pointing me in the direction of Photo Friday, a simple but rewarding site which revolves around a weekly photo challenge. Every Friday a new theme (normally just one word) is posted on the site which users are invited to interpret in a creative and original way. Entering a photo is as simple as uploading it to your own website (or a photo-sharing site such as Flickr) and submitting the link to Photo Friday. The following weekend, users can vote of which photos they deem most 'Noteworthy', with a list of the top six published on the Monday. This week's challenge is 'Nerdy' which inspired me to snap my new white adidas (above) - even the soles are clean...!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Live music bought to you by the letter B

Birthday and Christmas came at once last week with gigs from two of my favourite artists on consecutive nights. First up was Beck at the Hammersmith Apollo on Wednesday, which was as wonderfully eclectic as you might imagine (too eclectic for some, who sang along to Loser and then made a beeline for the bar - fools!)

The highlight of the set was a clutch of solo acoustic tracks, during which the rest of the band sat down to dinner and performed instrumental duties with the cutlery and glassware (captured at the Glasgow gig by James Grinter on Flickr).

Unfortunately I only got one rubbish, blurry photo thanks to a strictly enforced no photography policy. Not quite sure of the rationale behind trying to prevent punters from attempting to capture the moment - I can't imagine the resultant low quality snaps are likely to dent anyone's profit or reputation. Maybe its a measure of the improving quality of camera phones and the mobile operators' optimistic belief that people will soon be stumping up in their thousands for video streams of live events?

On Thursday, I trained it down to Brighton to catch the mighty Ben Folds at the Dome. Virtuoso pianist, consummate showman and, in my opinion, one of the best songwriters around, the man is quite simply a genius. From the heart-rending poignancy of 'Fred Jones Part 2' to an inspired cover of Dr. Dre's 'Bitches Ain'’t Shit', the audience was enraptured throughout the generous 2 hour set. Simply sublime.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The joy of Creative Commons

Delighted to have my first experience of the Creative Commons in action last week when I received an email via Flickr informing me that one of my photos had been used in an article on podcasting in the The Zimbabwean newspaper. Great to think that one of my amateur snaps can appear in a publication based thousands of miles away, that I've never even heard of, without the need for any legal shenanigans. Let's hope it's the shape of things to come.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The digital expectations of the younger generation

Nice anecdote from my mother who was finishing off a roll of film on her 35mm camera in the company of my almost 2 year old niece. After taking a few photos, my mother had to relinquish control of the camera to my niece who immediately turned it over and began inspecting the back with a look of puzzlement and mild irritation on her face. After a moment, the penny dropped and my mother realised that my niece was so used to digital cameras that she couldn't understand why she couldn't immediately review the photos on a built-in display. My mother tried explaining that the photos would come back in a few weeks time printed out on bits of paper but apparently it fell on deaf ears...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Convergence: not all it's cracked up to be

I inadvertently joined the growing legions of 3G mobile phone owners last week when I called up Vodafone to request my PAC number (to facilitate a move to Orange and their similarly hued Wednesdays) and was talked into staying put with a free handset upgrade and £10 off my monthly bill (sucker!). Interestingly, at no point during my protracted conversation with the sales rep about the handset's technical spec did he mention that it was 3G (perhaps its company policy to talk content not technology after the WAP fiasco...?)

So, what do I make of my new phone? (a Motorola v980). Well, it's certainly not love at first sight. The friendly sales rep was somewhat economical with the truth when it came to relaying the dimensions of the handset and I'm resigned to a few 'is that a 3G handset in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?' comments over the coming weeks.

Of course, it's what's inside that counts and I could easily overlook a chunky exterior if the features pushed my buttons. Unfortunately, it's decidedly underwhelming in almost all departments. The cameras, the integrated MP3 player and the interface all left me disappointed.

Maybe its because, in my mind, I'm comparing a multi-function device to successful single-function devices. Should I be surprised that the integrated MP3 player isn't a patch on my iPod mini or that the interface lacks the simplicity of the early Nokias or that the images produced by the VGA camera sent me running, weeping, back into the arms of my Pentax Optio S4? Probably not.

Industry pundits have been predicting the triumph of the converged device for as long as I can remember, but until the caliber of the individual components increases significantly I, for one, would much rather take 3 devices into the office...

Monday, May 16, 2005

Everything has a price (even this blog)

Intrigued to see whether Google's algorithms deemed this fledgling blog more link-worthy than the lyrics of a vintage Beck song (O Maria, from the criminally underrated Mutations album), I typed fabricoffolly into the search behemoth. In amongst the links to my LastFM and Audioscrobbler profiles, I was surprised to discover a link to the fantasy blog share market, BlogShares which values my musing at 1,000 blog dollars.

Eager to place my net worth in context I searched for, the award-winning blog of BBC colleague Tom Coates and was suitably humbled by the B$230,314 valuation. Time to pull my blogging socks up methinks...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Silver Sun @ The Garage

Silver Sun at The Garage

I went to see Silver Sun at The Garage last night which turned out to be a most happy reacquaintance. For the uninitiated, Silver Sun are purveyors of a rare breed of perfectly polished power pop who dipped briefly into the mainstream in the mid-late '90s with minor hits such as 'Lava', 'Julia' and 'Golden Skin', before disappearing into obscurity soon after the release of their second album, 'Neo Wave'. As is often the way of these things, the only track of theirs which troubled the top 20 was a cover version - a gloriously overblown reworking of the 1978 Johnny Mathis classic 'Too Much, Too Little, Too Late'.

Seven years later and the boys (now very much men) are back with a new album, Disappear Here and, according to singer James Broad, "there's loads more where that came from". Which is distinctly good news, as they appear to have lost none of their songwriting verve. 'Lies' is as headily harmonious as anything they've written, whilst 'You Can't Kill Rock & Roll' recalls The Beach Boys at their best.

Whilst the album is unlikely to win many new converts and sniffy musos will no doubt continue to sniff, Silver Sun have delighted their patient fanbase by delivering another great pop record. Surely this is how pop music is meant to be: melodic, infectious, disposable and most of all, fun.

Playing to a half-full 250-capacity venue on a grey Tuesday night in May is not the easiest gig in town and the boys (sorry, men) gave it their all. After a blistering hour of high-octane guitar riffs and faultless vocal harmonies they closed the set with 'I'll See You Around'. I certainly hope so. And next time, don't leave it so long...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What is radio in 2005?

Radio on TV on PC

A big question, admittedly, but one which 10 or 15 years ago wouldn't have been half as difficult to answer. First and foremost, radio was a communication technology, or, in dictionary speak: "the transmission and reception of electromagnetic waves having a frequency in the range 104 to 1011 or 1012 hertz, especially those carrying sound messages" ( However it also came to refer to both a physical device ("an apparatus for receiving radio programmes") and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the content broadcast to it (the OED lets me down here). Whilst the first two definitions may be more dictionary-friendly than the third, my strongest and most immediate associations with the word radio are almost all related to content.

The advent of digital distribution technologies clearly challenges the first of these three definitions. Radio is no longer an exclusively analogue technology, reliant on the transmission and reception of electromagnetic waves. It can now be broadcast in binary via a plethora of broadcast/communication technologies (e.g. DAB, IP, satellite, cable). The radio programme I am listening to as I write this (Radio 4's excellent Reith Lectures) is being delivered to me not 'over the airwaves', but via the internet, as a string of 1s and 0s.

This expansion in delivery methods is mirrored in the range of ways in which it is now possible to receive radio, which brings into question our second definition. Is my computer/television/mobile phone/MP3 player a radio because it is capable of receiving radio programmes? As multi-function devices become more and more commonplace, the notion of radio as physical apparatus becomes increasingly problematic.

So, if radio can no longer be comfortably defined as a delivery mechanism or as a physical device, that leaves us with content. Is there something intrinsic about radio content that marks it as 'radio'? The diversity of output disseminated under the banner of radio suggests not. In which case, does the producer/broadcaster get to decide what is and isn't radio? Inevitably, the digital revolution is blurring the lines here too. The nascent podcasting industry is promising a democratisation of the radio production process, wresting control of what is and isn't radio from the hands of established broadcasters.

Maybe we should look instead to the audience to try to understand what defines radio in 2005. Is it the perceived communality of the listening experience? Or the concept of 'liveness'? Is genuine interactivity between listener and broadcaster the new hallmark of radio?

One thing is clear; our current definitions of radio are inadequate. Perhaps the time has come to redefine radio for the digital age? Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps attempting to define radio is to miss the point, failing to acknowledge its ultimately ethereal nature. Maybe we should put the semantics to one side and be content to enjoy the manifold pleasures of a medium assured of a bright digital future.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Real life radio in a virtual world

Second Life Fever

The concept of radio in virtual environments is far from new. Console games have been flirting with the idea of radio as soundtrack for a few years now, most extensively in the driving genre, from the fictitious radio stations of RoadKill and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to the real life radio brands (Capital, XFM, Virgin) which feature in Project Gotham Racing.

However, all of these representations of radio lack one it's most compelling ingredients: liveness. Whilst station idents and barracking DJs may give the veneer of broadcast radio, most users are aware that the 'radio' in SSX 3 is just tracks being played off the CD/DVD in their console.

That all looks set to change. Listening to live radio in a virtual environment is now a reality thanks to the 'Second Life Fever' nightclub, which streams Virgin Radio Groove 24/7 in online digital world, Second Life. Any user can drop in on the nightclub and listen to the music live, with the Second Life application acting as a media player client.

If it hasn't already, it's surely only a matter of time before streamed radio starts appearing in games developed for the burgeoning generation of connected consoles (e.g. Xbox Live).

A hardware solution to bringing real life radio into virtual realms is also on the cards. Last month the chairman of XM Satellite Radio announced that the company was "investing in ways of building its pay radio service into gadgets ranging from MP3 players to video game consoles" (Reuters).

It's intriguing that in this increasingly 'on demand' era there is a concomitant demand for 'liveness'. Fortunately, technology is evolving to facilitate both...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 DVD rental

Mail DVD
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

I'd been put off signing up to the plethora of online DVD rental services up till now because of the commitment of a monthly fee (on top of mobile phone, broadband, Napster to Go, Empire subscription, etc.). Then along came everyone's favourite Greek entrepreneur and set up online DVD rentals (money clearly wouldn't stretch to a new TLD). Unsurprisingly, it's a no-frills service with a flat fee of £1.99 per rental, although it's not strictly speaking pay-as-you-go in that you have to buy a batch of credits (4, 7 or 10) which determines how many DVDs you can rent at a time (1, 2 and 3 respectively).

I received my first batch of 3 this week and so far so good. They arrived in natty orange (natch) envelopes which you have to open carefully as they double as the return packaging. The 25,000-strong catalogue seems to cover most mainstream titles and the selection process works well (you can rank titles according to how soon you'd like to receive them). On the down side, the recommendation algorithms clearly needs some fine tuning (I've told it 20 films I want to see and it recommends me bloody Ladies In Lavender!) and there's no A-Z, for when the Search engine lets you down.

Not sure whether I'll be still using it six months down the track but for the moment, anything which keeps me out of the soulless Blockbuster gets my vote...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Flickr: A Day In The Life

Eat breakfast
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

Partook of my first Flickr group posting yesterday under the heading 'a day in the life' whereby members were invited to post 5 photos from their day. Unfortunately 5 photos only got me as far as my train journey into work but it was good fun nevertheless. You can read more about it (and Flickr being bought by Yahoo!) on the Flickr blog.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Tortilla Curtain

Have just finished reading The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, which was recommended by a friend who's just putting the finishing touches to her own first novel. First published in 1995, Boyle's narrative charts the parallel lives of a liberal humanist nature writer living in a gated community in the Santa Monica Mountains and an impoverished Mexican immigrant sleeping rough in a nearby canyon. That the novel feels so fresh is not only a credit to Boyle's writing but also a sobering reminder that the chasm between the rich and poor hasn't narrowed any in the last decade as a recent Guardian article on the Dainfern estate in South Africa attests. Both novel and article come highly recommended, as does J.G. Ballard's Super-Canes, which takes the possible consequences of gated communities to their frightening conclusion.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

FOR SALE: Pair of almost new frog slippers

Ariel, November 1960
Originally uploaded by dan taylor.

I picked up a copy of the BBC's staff magazine, Ariel, from November 1960 off eBay recently which was on my doormat when I got home today. A thoroughly absorbing read I have to admit. Scary how little things have changed really with the Director of Television Broadcasting reiterating "the BBC's function to make good things popular and popular things good".

The adverts were inevitably good value. Personal favourites include a quarter page ad for 'Bond', who "suggest hosiery for Xmas, and would be pleased to show you their selection of Men's Wear, including shorts, ties, knitwear, underwear, socks (which include Viennese pure lisle), and a variety of other accessories" and 'Stella hair fashions' who announce their new SPECIAL service which includes a Shampoo and Set, Coffee or Tea and a Sandwich, all for just 11/6.

The 'Mutual Aid' section (a feature "designed for the use of members of staff who have anything they wish to buy or sell") also proved a winner. A selection of the best:

"FOR SALE: Pair of almost new frog slippers, size 6-7. 15s. BH 2766"

"FOR SALE: beautiful mink marmot coat. Full swing back, generous collar and cuffs. Average size. Worn three times. Owner going overseas. £65 o.n.o. Also lady's ice skates, white, size 6, £2. Box 5/5/11."

"I am disposing of my small but choice collection of Georgian drinking glasses at reasonable prices. Seen London. Details from Box 13/5/11."

"Christmas presents? Give gaily coloured love-birds, budgerigars, parakeets, mostly bred outdoors. Phone PABX 2983"

However the real piece de resistance is to be found in the Letters to the Editor. Over to S.W. Budd...


My bathroom scales tell me that my weight is 9 st. 12lb. This worries me a lot because, screwed to the wall outside my office at the new Television Centre there is a small black plaque with white lettering. It reads:

The imposed load on this floor is
not to exceed 85 lb. per sq. ft.
Penalty for contravention £50.

My reading of this notice leaves me in no doubt at all that unless I am careful to distribute my 138 lb. on both feet splayed more than twelve inches apart I run the risk of prosecution under these 1952 bye-laws. This artificial stance I find difficult. Indeed, as the act of walking necessitates the whole of my 138 lb. being imposed alternatively on one foot and then the other (unless I shuffle along with an oscillating gait and thus make myself somewhat conspicuous), I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for me at all times to comply with the regulations covering this fragile edifice.

So where, Mr Editor, do I stand - figuratively as well as literally? I have no choice in the matter of accommodation. I would gladly return even to Woodstock Grove to avoid conflict with the law in this matter. But I am directed to work at the Television Centre, where, as I see it, I must contravene the provisions of the London Bye-laws 1952 every working day from the very moment that I enter the building.

Unless I misunderstand the implication of the notice it seems to me that advertisements for vacancies for jobs at the Television Centre ought, in all fairness, to be prefaced by the phrase 'Applicants of British nationality and weighing (clothed) not more than 6 st. 1 lb. are invited etc. etc.' In the meantime, and for those of us, including Richard Dimbleby, who may be unable to achieve by dieting or other means this necessary qualification, I hope that All.O. can be persuaded to accept as entirely reasonable claims for the reimbursement of any fines (not exceeding £50) imposed upon as under this particular by law.

Yours sincerely,

S. W. Budd"

Pure genius...

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Creative Zen Portable Media Center

I'm borrowing a Creative Zen Portable Media Center at the moment and thought I'd scribble down a few thoughts. The PMC is essentially a hybrid music/video player powered by Microsoft's operating system of the same name which aims to give you easy access to all your videos, music and photos whilst on the move. Kind of like a Zen Micro on steroids, which turns out to be a rather apt simile when you open the box and try to lift the device out. At a whopping 340g, the PMC is three times heavier than the Micro and will only fit into the most capacious of pockets. Although this is perhaps unsurprising when you bear in mind it's housing a 3.8 inch colour screen and a removable Li-Ion battery with a claimed playback time of 22 hours, it still feels slightly at odds with the 'portable' moniker.

Switching the device on, Windows users will feel immediately at home with the XP colour palette and a Start menu, mercifully consisting of just five options: 'my tv', 'my music', 'my pictures', 'my videos' and settings. Navigating through the sub menus proves fairly straightforward and a after a couple of minutes playing around you've exhausted most of the operating system's options. Unusually for Microsoft, the emphasis seems have been placed on a simple user interface rather than bells and whistles.

Populating the device with content using Windows Media Player 10 also proves a relatively painless process, although I'd recommend the manual transfer option if you have large amount of media on your PC as the automatic transfer will fill up the PMC's hard drive with content as fast as your USB cable can shift it. Which brings me to one of the PMC's most obvious shortcomings - its 20GB hard drive just doesn't go very far when it comes to storing digital media (and video in particular). The "up to 85 hours of movies" mentioned in the press release sounds like plenty, but assumes no audio or photos are also stored on the device. With a RRP of £399.99 the PMC is only likely to appeal to those who are serious about their digital media who are also likely to find 20GB of storage lacking.

Of course, the Zen PMC is only a first generation device and no doubt future generations will feature larger hard drives and improved compression. Likewise, the lack of a radio and the impossibility of recording direct from TV will no doubt be addressed in future iterations. A more fundamental issue for Creative and other manufacturers pushing PMC devices is the strength of the basic proposition and its here that I remain unconvinced. Whilst its iconic design and intuitive interface undoubtedly helped Apple's iPod secure its market dominance, it couldn't have shipped millions of units worldwide without a rock-solid underlying proposition (that people want to listen to their music collections on the move). Likewise, the BBC Radio Player has proved such a success because of the strength of the core offering (being able to listen to any BBC radio programme when you want for up to a week after broadcast). The $64,000 question for PMC manufacturers is whether enough people want to watch video on the go.

Whilst music and radio work so well as secondary media, video does not. A healthy fear of death by automobile means I'm not going to watch video whilst walking or driving (which is when most of my iPod listening takes place) and I wasn't remotely tempted to get the PMC out of my bag on the tube (I'm also scared of death by mugging). On first seeing the Zen PMC a colleague remarked that it bought to mind the mobile televisions so hyped in the '80s. Will the Portable Media Center go the same way? Only time will tell.

Sunday, February 27, 2005


Behind the curve as ever, I've just started using Audioscrobbler, a service which aims to build a detailed profile of your music listening habits, which my early-adopter colleagues have been using since it launched a few years back. Setting yourself up is as easy as registering on their website and downloading the plug-in for your preferred media player(s). I've got it setup to track my listening in both iTunes and Windows Media Player, but not Napster as there's currently no plug-in available.

Once you're set up, the plug-in automatically reports the details of every track you play to the Audioscrobbler server which then begins to build a Musical Profile which you can access via the website (here's my profile). On its simplest level it provides a visual representation (bar chart) of what tracks and artists you listen to the most. Whilst briefly diverting, this doesn't add much to the Play Count information displayed in iTunes and just quantifies what you already have a pretty good sense of (although the presence of some artists near the top of my list left me demanding a recount and vowing never to leave my iTunes unattended in shuffle mode again...)

Looking for similar musical howlers amongst your friends' Top Artists list also proves temporarily diverting (right up until you remember they're most likely doing the same to you but laughing longer and harder). Where it gets significantly more interesting, however, is with the introduction of 'Musical Neighbours' (presumably so-called because of their musical proximity to you, not a likelihood that you'll hardly ever speak to them and resent their muffled sex noises coming through your ceiling at 2am). Your Neighbours are updated by Audioscrobbler "several times a week" and offer the promise of introducing you to gems rated by musically like-minded souls, which are then packaged up into your very own personalised online radio station , courtesy of Audioscrobbler's sister site,

I've only been using the service for a few days but can see that it's likely to be set as one of my homepage tabs in Firefox before long. I just wish it could somehow take account of my offline listening so when I docked my iPod it would upload the tracks I listened to whilst on the move. Moon on a stick, I tell you...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Creative Zen Micro vs. iPod Mini

The recent launch of Napster To Go (a £14.95 a month music subscription service, which enables you to download an unlimited number of tracks from the 1 million strong Napster catalogue to a compatible portable device and listen to them for as long as you maintain your subscription) persuaded me to splash out on a Creative Zen Micro (one of the few compatible devices available). I already own an iPod mini but was frustrated by the difficultly of sampling new music (beyond iTunes Music Store's unsatisfying 30 second clips) without forking out £7.99 for an album I might not like or resorting to less legal means of acquiring music (heaven forefend). Napster To Go promised a veritable smorgasboard of new music for the cost of less than two albums a month so I decided to take the plunge.

Out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the size of the Zen Micro - the same width as the iPod mini and a fraction shorter, the only trade off was an extra half centimetre in depth, making it about the same thickness as the 4th generation 40GB iPod. The automatic backlight and the way in which the controls and the perimeter of the player glow a cool blue when touched was also a pleasant surprise.

Less pleasant was getting used to life without a Click Wheel. Whilst the creatives at Creative deserve marks for effort for their vertical variation on Apple's legendary touch sensitive scroller, its far too easy to accidentally depress the button whilst trying to scroll up or down resulting in all kinds of menu mayhem. The addition of a right-click context menu complicates matters further and makes you yearn for the simplicity of the iPod interface. It also serves to remind you that this is essentially a Windows product - an impression reinforced by the Micro's frequent delays and lock-ups, reminiscent of Windows at its most obstinate.

Fortunately, things improve immeasurably once the audio actually starts playing. The sound quality of the 128-bit WMA files downloaded from Napster was impressive, even when listening through the bundled headphones (they're noticeably superior to the iPod's 'earbuds'). Which brings me to the real selling point of the Micro for me: its compatibility with Napster To Go. Whilst setting up the Micro to work with NTG was no picnic (requiring an upgrade to the player's firmware which proved to be a long-winded process involving numerous reboots) I wasn't disappointed with the reality of an 'all you can eat' music proposition. Within the hour I had loaded up my Zen with a dozen new albums and was congratulating myself on the £100 I'd just 'saved'. Predictably, my jubilation was shortlived as I was brought crashing back down to earth with some classic error messages (mercifully all surmountable).

There's very little to choose between the iPod Mini and the Zen Micro on price, size or weight (Creative has clearly learnt from past experience how importance a pocketable device is to consumers). What separates the two is their interfaces and compatibility. Were Creative able to more successfully emulate the iPod's intuitive and reliable interface (without getting sued by Apple, of course) they'd be on to a winner. Likewise, if Apple were to open the iPod mini up to work with WMA and the plethora of associated download services they'd have a world beater. As it is, neither device is able to offer everything I want from a portable music player and I suspect I'll continue using the two in tandem until a player is released which combines the interface of the iPod with a music consumption model similar to Napster To Go. The smart money's on Apple...

Sunday, February 20, 2005

My top 20 films of 2004

Sure enough, 2 posts in and I'm already making lists...

Below are my top 20 films of 2004 (10 seemed a little meager for what, all said and done, wasn't a bad year in film). I only considered films released in UK cinemas in 2004 as eligible (hence no Sideways, which I saw last week and is likely to be taking on all-comers at the top of my 2005 list).

Looking for some sort of trend, 2004 was undoubtedly a good year for the documentary, with the entertaining polemics of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me preparing the way for the genius of Capturing The Friedmans (which also contributed the most compelling case to date for the value of DVD extras).

Ken Loach and Paul Pavlikovsky did the UK film industry proud, turning in pictures that were both subtle and sublime (and which deserved bigger audiences) whilst Bad Education, Look At Me and The Dreamers proved that European cinema remains in encouragingly rude health.

Across the pond, Hollywood mined a rich seam of quirkiness, with a string of heroic (and not so heroic) misfits (American Splendor, The Station Agent, Lost in Translation, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine, Monster, Elephant) and managed to produce a heart-on-sleeve romance (Before Sunset) which didn't have me hurling in to my popcorn.

The biggest cinematic disappointments of the year came from Hollywood heavyweights Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, who both seem intent on 'doing a Coppola'. I can just about forgive the bloated and vacuous indulgence that was The Aviator purely on the basis that it looked so damn fine. However the unapologetic cliche-fest that was Collateral was put way beyond redemption the moment the stylist to Mr Cruise decided that dunking him head-first in a vat of talcum powder would somehow help make him a credible villain. This from the man who directed The Insider - how the mighty have fallen...

1. The Motorcycle Diaries (dir. Walter Salles)
2. Capturing The Friedmans (dir. Andrew Jarecki)
3. My Summer of Love (dir. Paul Pavlikovsky)
4. Ae Fond Kiss... (dir. Ken Loach)
5. The Station Agent (dir. Thomas McCarthy)
6. Lost in Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola)
7. Bad Education (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
8. Look At Me / Comme Une Image (dir. Agnès Jaoui)
9. American Splendor (dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore)
11. Zatôichi (dir. Takeshi Kitano)
12. Before Sunset (dir. Richard Linklater)
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
14. The Dreamers (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
15. 21 Grams (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
16. Enduring Love (dir. Roger Michell)
17. Garden State (dir. Zach Braff)
18. Super Size Me (dir. Morgan Spurlock)
19. Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)
20. Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Losing my blogging virginity

Thought it was high time I bit the bullet and joined the world of blogging. Every man and his dog seems to have a blog these days and I could see the symptoms of blog-envy beginning to manifest themselves in my behaviour (twitching, swearing, lunging at strangers). Moreover, it's only a matter of time before my father starts blogging and I pride myself on being fractionally ahead of him in the technology-adoption curve.

So, a bit about me. I work as a Project Manager for BBC Radio & Music Interactive, a department set up to take the BBC's radio and music brands and content onto digital platforms (e.g. the web, digital TV, mobile phones). I've recently overseen the relaunch of the BBC Radio Player (accessible from which, for the uninitiated, allows you to listen 'on demand' to BBC radio programmes for up to a week after broadcast. I may well write some more about the Radio Player in the future but till then you can read about the relaunch on Guardian Unlimited or Dan Hill's blog (a colleague, seasoned blogger and all round good bloke).

So, what will I be writing about? Well, radio, music and the web are all likely topics (the words holiday and busman's spring to mind) as are cinema and photography. I also think it unlikely I'll be able to keep my obsessive list-making in check for long so look out for extracts from my unpublished (and indeed, unwritten) magnum opus 'Alphabetised Confessions of an Obsessive Compulsive'.

Now, what happens it I click publish...