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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

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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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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Ultraviolet cover

Halogen — Kelly Moran

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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Zandoli cover

High Lights — Charlotte Adigéry

A fun and weird new song being released on Soulwax’s record label, Deewee.

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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.

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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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utopia cover

rightclick — Mira Calix

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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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 cover

Windowlicker — Aphex Twin

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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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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Anno: Four Seasons cover

Solstice – Light Out — Anna Meredith ft. Scottish Ensemble

I’m really taken with Anno: Four Seasons. It weaves new compositions by Anna Meredith into Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed by the Scottish Ensemble.

This track is the final on the album, finishing Winter — and apt for this moment.

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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

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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Music for Dieter Rams cover

Aus – Ein — Jon Brooks

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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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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Suspiria cover

Open Again — Thom Yorke

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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Woolworths ten years on

Diamond Geezer looks at what became of London’s Woolworths stores, ten years on from their closure, documenting their distinctive architecture in the process.

I was hoping the results would be more varied…

There will be more from me on Woolworths in due course…

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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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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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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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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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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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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

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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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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An Electric Storm cover

The Visitation — White Noise

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

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

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?

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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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”?

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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