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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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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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Wow and Flutter — Stereolab

I’ve recently been digging this old Stereolab song. By chance, this Peel session was recorded 25 years ago today.

Promo video

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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’

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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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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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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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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“Stay on this! Stay. On. This.” — The split second decisions behind Formula 1’s television direction

One for the geeks. Formula 1 have released a fascinating video of the moment Sebastian Vettel crashed out of the German Grand Prix, including talkback from the FOM production team responsible for the main TV world feed.

This is a brilliant insight into the amount of work and split-second decision making that goes behind telling the story of a complex race while dramatic events are unfolding live. I generally admire the high quality standard of the FOM world feed. But this video shows that there is a even more going on behind the scenes than I imagined.

It is particularly interesting to see how aware the team are of relatively minor incidents like Carlos Sainz changing to intermediate tyres, but they opt not to reflect this on the broadcast for fear of distracting from the bigger picture: “This is the story.”

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How a Google Maps update lead to the promotion of fringe views

Google Maps made a small tweak to its interface so that the fully zoomed-out view displayed as a globe, rather than the Mercator projection it use before.

Peter Gasston noticed that the angle many news publications found was to cover the reaction from flat Earthers.

This gave ad-funded publishers their opportunity to get some attention money: a simple product update isn’t a story, but a manufactured controversy is…

The result is that a manufactured controversy about a minor product update has given false equivalency to the fringe views of a small band of crackpots so everyone can get a few pennies in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy in action, and it’s rotten.

Remember that repeating a lie — even while you make clear that it’s a lie — makes people more likely to believe it’s true.

This is how the media works these days. And it explains a lot about what’s going on in the world right now.

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Consume less, create more

We first consume and then think if we really needed it… Have we not seen people who are constantly busy on their phones consuming stuff without moving a needle for anyone? We need to jump off the consumption treadmill.

The goal, then, is to consume mindfully…

This is part of the reason why I have committed to writing about a link each day. It gives me direction and focus for what I consume, and I find myself wasting less time on pointless content. (Goodbye Instagram, I miss you far less than I expected.)

As a result, I’m learning more, thinking more, and feeling sharper.

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Scotsman screenshot

It’s no wonder newspaper websites are in trouble. Their latest scheme is to “lock” content by turning it into squiggles unless you watch at least 6 seconds of an advert. Needless to say, this is a horrible experience, and only makes it all the more likely that I’ll turn away from certain websites.

I’m afraid to say that I know I’m going to have a dreadful time any time I try to read anything on the Scotsman or any other Johnston Press website. Every time, I am bombarded with a cacophony of offensive adverts, which grind my computer to a halt. And when they deign to show me the content I came for, more often than not it’s badly written, and clearly a rush-job by a stressed-out writer being made to churn out any old crap in the name of volume.

Why would I bother following a link to the Scotsman website again?

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Why is Radio 4’s Today programme losing so many listeners?

The Today programme has lost 800,000 listeners in the past year. That’s about a tenth of its audience, gone.

I listen to the Today programme, but I want to stop. It is unmistakably weak at the moment. Sometimes it’s for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. It just sounds uncomfortable and clumsy at the moment. Many recent features have felt contrived and uninteresting, almost like dad dancing. Certain presenters need to be put out to pasture (and Sarah Montague wasn’t one of them).

Then of course there are the manufactured polarised debates. These have always been a staple of the Today programme, and even the publicity shot in this Radio Times piece depicts the presenters having a debate at the breakfast table, complete with finger-pointing, as if that’s a selling point. In today’s highly charged political atmosphere, it is frankly the last thing we need more of.

All this means that I have found myself switching off the radio in disgust quite a lot recently.

I haven’t yet switched off completely — but only because I can’t think of what an alternative morning listen might be. Any suggestions?

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Five Telegrams on the Usher Hall

Five Telegrams, Edinburgh International Festival 2018 opening event, by Anna Meredith and 59 Productions.

One of Edinburgh’s busiest roads was closed last night for this musical and visual work projected onto the Usher Hall. The sort of event that makes me really proud to live in Edinburgh.

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From catfishing to unregistered religious marriages: finding news stories hidden In Plain Sight

This looks like a great initiative being driven by some journalists in the BBC.

It was in a conversation following the Grenfell Tower disaster, instigated by our former Director of News, James Harding, which brought about the In Plain Sight project.

In Plain Sight set out to get to those stories and tell them in a way that resonates with younger and more diverse audiences.

To do that, we’re not creating a new programme, platform or launching another BBC brand. We’re simply making sure sure that younger, more diverse members of staff are given a platform to pitch stories and then are producing and reporting those stories themselves across existing BBC outlets.

We have been running manager-free sessions, where we invite along staff from across the BBC to come and pitch ideas.

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