31 December 02004

Long bets

Reading Martin Rees's book Our Final Century — an analysis of a range of natural and man-made risks that may threaten our existence in the next hundred years — led me to discover the Long Bets web site.

The foundation that runs this site aims to use long bets to encourage long-term thinking (see this earlier posting on long-term thinking and this one). The idea is to encourage people to be accountable for making long-term predictions about our future, and ideally to put their money where their mouth is by making a bet that it will come true. If they win the bet, they don't get the money — it goes to a charity they nominate — but they get kudos. Here's a Wired News feature on long bets.

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30 December 02004

Why I'm boycotting Picturehouse Cinemas and the Brixton Ritzy

You can file this under 'disgruntled customers' and 'name & shame', though it's also a case of failure in responsiveness and the breach of trust this creates, as covered in my posting on e-commerce usability.

The story is a simple, one-sided tale that starts with an annoying but modest failure and ends up escalating to farce, as the organisation concerned advertises communication channels but does not respond to any messages sent via these channels.

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29 December 02004

Lists, lists of lists and meta-lists

The list industry goes into overdrive at this time of year, and Rex Sorgatz has compiled nearly 500 lists, covering everything from architecture to photographs, video games, wine, law and different categories of people. At least a third of the lists are of 'cultural product' — books, films, DVDs and music albums — that you can buy for between £5 and £20.

HMV has compiled a 'poll of polls', based on the end of year lists from the UK's major newspapers and magazines.

Warning: reading these lists can absorb an inordinate amount of time. Making notes will also lead to spending lots of money. Buy only the stuff that that makes such an impression that you remember. The rest will be available at discounted rates later.

24 December 02004

What's on my iPod

For my last posting before Christmas, here's my entry in the online parlour game of sharing what crops up if you shuffle the whole of your computer's music library:

  1. Release yourself — Graham Central Station
  2. Suikinkutsu Water Chime — nature recording by David Toop
  3. Free Culture, Chapter 11: Chimera — Lawrence Lessig, read by Dave Winer
  4. Can't seem to make you mine — The Seeds
  5. Pursuance — John Coltrane
  6. Little Moses — The Carter Family
  7. It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier — Tom Lehrer
  8. Get ready for love — Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  9. Heart of Gold — Neil Young
  10. Priznak Aluminium — Violet
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23 December 02004

Using social spaces to seed sales

Interesting to see how this Guardian report of a record label recruiting school-children to help promote its artists in schools (requires free registration) led almost immediately to the label, Universal, suspending its scheme. Clearly it crossed some taboos about commercial and possibly cynical 'exploitation' of children, even though the children were clearly happy participants.

This practice is common outside schools, where labels refer to their under-cover promoters as 'street teams'. The 'street' is also moving online, according to this report from CNET. Universal probably got caught out by the blatant physical presence of posters on school boards and children giving presentations in class. The children apparently had to prepare 'school reports' to evidence their activity. By comparison, the idea that children might discuss their favourite music in online forums and chats is likely to feel less sinister, less obtrusive, as well as being easier to evidence. It seems a fair bet that some labels are still doing that now.

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21 December 02004

A virtuous circle of free and paid-for material

A couple of months ago I wrote about how I was enjoying Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Since then I've heard two sets of radio documentaries on A Love Supreme — one 30-minute BBC Radio 4 feature by Jez Nelson, and a four-programme series by Courtney Pine on BBC Radio 2 — both featuring extensive contributions from Kahn, and relying on his narrative.

This looks like a fairly close synergy between two paid-for items — Kahn's book and the recently issued deluxe two-CD reissue of Coltrane's album — and the free-to-air broadcast medium. Everybody stands to win from this, and because the copyright owners have realised this, they've co-operated to make good, cost-effective radio and promote sales of back-catalogue recordings and a relatively new book.

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20 December 02004

Where broadcasting blurs into downloading

The coverage of this press release on the positive response to the BBC's podcasting experiment — see my November posting mentioning the experiment — shows that podcasting is still making the 'novelty' news, but some continue to confuse its implications.

This Digital-Lifestyles feature concludes, "The impact of this form of distribution will be significant. The barriers to anyone having their own radio station are removed. Of course, any form of enclosure can be catered for, including video. Beware broadcast TV, look out TiVo." I don't have a TiVo, but as I understand it podcasting offers few if any features not built into TiVos or other personal video recorders.

More significantly, podcasting does not remove the significant barriers to anyone having their own radio station, at least not if it includes music or other copyrighted material. Publishing podcasts that includes copyrighted music is equivalent to uploading it to a blog or peer-to-peer service, and subject to the same risks of legal action.

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16 December 02004

Seminar on 'Supporting e-learners', 20 Jan 02005

I'll be giving a presentation at this E.learning age seminar in Hammersmith, along with me old mucker (translation for non-UK readers) Seb Schmoller. We'll be giving a practical run-through of British Standard BS 8426 A code of practice for e-support in e-learning systems, which we drafted, and suggesting ways to implement it.

Other speakers include Howard Hills, author of Individual Preferences in E-learning, Mike Duckett, MD of Coaching for Success, and Clare Howard, MD of e-coaches. (Disclaimer: I'm not involved in organising the event; this is what I've been told, but don't blame me if it changes!)

Here are further details, including how to book.

15 December 02004

Latest on the BBC Creative Archive

Here are my notes from a talk given by Paul Gerhardt, Strategic Director of the BBC Creative Archive, at Tate Modern this afternoon.

The current BBC Charter (due to expire in 02006) apparently provides for public access to the BBC archive, but 'access' means going in person to BBC premises to view or listen there. The archive is a huge cultural asset — one that the BBC 'factory' is adding to daily. The original expectation in the Creative Archive team was that they would re-create the broadcast experience, but they quickly recognised that the web encourages sharing rather than just on-demand broadcast.

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14 December 02004

21st Century library services

Yesterday was a big day for announcements about online access to the resources and services you would normally get in a library. The one that has got most attention is Google's press release that they will be providing searchable access to the full text of library books old enough to be no longer under copyright (and possibly out of print) as well as short excerpts of copyrighted works. The agreement with Google is non-exclusive, so in theory Microsoft, Yahoo! etc could develop competing services. The best in-depth features I've found on this are those in the New York Times and John Battelle's Searchblog.

Perhaps less eye-catching, but also interesting, is the announcement that the People's Network Online Enquiry Service will deliver a real-time information service to the public by providing 'live' access to library and information professionals online 24/7. Which sounds a bit like the equivalent of National Health Service Direct to meet all UK citizens' information needs. Here are the details of the Enquiry Service that will operate from March 02005, and according to this information, "the purpose of this service is to provide you with fast and easy access to guidance from trained library staff in your pursuit of information online". [Update 27 May 02005: The service is now operational — see my review comments]

Put these two developments together and you've got a very powerful service, accessible — free at the point of use — to anyone with an Internet terminal. That's real progress in itself. As more music and films eventually fall out of copyright and are properly tagged with metadata, then with time (and a lot of work) it will get even better.

13 December 02004

Measuring learning: how, what, where and why

When introducing this event on Learning Metrics last week, Roger Broadie, Chief Executive of the European Education Partnership, suggested that academic researchers have been unwilling to draw together a common base of learning theory on which to build measures of learning. Meanwhile practitioners have a job to do and have to get stuck in and measure what's going on.

By the end of the event, the conclusion suggested by the examples presented was that there will probably never be a single unified theory of learning, and that a horses-for-courses approach that adapts learning metrics to circumstances will continue to be the most practical and useful. Moreover all the interesting measures depend on judgements that are subject to interpretation: there are no fixed references or quantifications that, on their own, tell you anything very interesting.

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11 December 02004

Christian Marclay at Tate Modern

Christian Marclay at Tate Modern 02004.12.10Here are a couple of grainy longshots taken with my so-last-year's-model camera phone at last night's Christian Marclay gig at the Tate Modern. The gig was tied into Marclay's Sounds of Christmas project, which is showing at the Tate until Christmas.

Marclay is another example of an artist who presents his collections as art: in this case, his collection of over 1,200 Christmas records, gleaned from charity shops over the years (though I spotted at least one Christmas record missing from the collection — perhaps beyond the pale of kitsch?).

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9 December 02004

The limitations of search for supporting learning

Search engines have a high profile on the web, and understandably so. The web changes faster than any human attempt to catalogue it. For most people's purposes in answering specific questions, Google works most of the time — which is a recipe for success.

But the kind of success Google has enjoyed, and the way it has become a part of every web user's vocabulary as well as habits, can create a kind of tunnel vision (the kind where the only tool you have is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail). Search facilities are necessary and important tools for rich learning resources, and particularly archives, but they have weaknesses, and are by no means sufficient without complementary ways of discovering new material.

As a complement to search, any service that aims to support learning should have some mechanisms for guiding learners (though this doesn't mean constraining them) to explore particular routes.

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7 December 02004

Jim Griffin on paying for music

At this Playlouder/Music Ally event last night, Jim Griffin from Cherry Lane Digital presented a very concise and simple argument for change in the way music is paid for. This is how it went, based on my notes, with editorial comments in [square brackets].

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6 December 02004

Content vanishes from BBC web sites

At the end of last week the redesigned BBC 6 Music web site was launched. In the process of its revamp, the site has lost much of the specialist content that made it unique. For example, the Kings of the Wild Frontier pages that I wrote about here have gone, as have all the interviews from Andrew Collins' page. The audio (and occasional video) of Hub sessions that I referred to here are no longer available and neither are any of the artist profiles.

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2 December 02004

UK Lifelong Learner Profile (UKLeaP): draft for comment

The draft of this British Standard (BS 8788) is now available from BSI for public comment. I'm not sure of the deadline for comments, but it is usually two or three months from publication. Depending on the comments received, the final standard (which includes guidance, a code of practice and a specification) will be published later next year.

I helped produce the three parts of UKLeaP/BS 8788 as a member of team including the Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards, Knowledge Integration, Seb Schmoller, and Futurate.

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1 December 02004

Back-of-a-fag-packet prescription for the music industry

In preparation for this afternoon's event, here are my notes of the main points I'm planning to make. I reserve my right to change my mind in the light of how the discussion evolves!

  • The good news for the music industry from recent experience is that people's demand for music is showing no signs of being sated once they have a few hundred, or even a few thousand, albums' worth of material.
  • There's an opportunity to support this increased consumption with more information and critical features, as magazines like Word and 'free-to-air' services like the BBC's have realised (I like to compliment my fellow panelists, but this is not merely cynical: see my appreciation of the BBC's Sold on Song site).
  • What the industry needs to help it target its promotion of more 'consumption' is more information about the emerging habits of listeners as the distribution landscape changes. Not just buying habits, but 'sampling' or previewing habits, letting friends access collections, radio listening, web site viewing, magazine reading and gig going.
  • One option would be to mount promotions that encourage listeners to access and discuss music with their friends, possibly even trying to 'harness' peer-to-peer distribution, in return for collecting data about these habits.
  • Privacy is an important consumer concern, however. Would it be possible enable listeners to collect data about their own habits (using technologies like Audioscrobbler), and then provide some of this at their discretion to retailers or labels to facilitate permission-based marketing?
  • Another opportunity is to enable consumers' to enrich their experience of their own collections by building detailed learning resources about — the socially-mediated equivalent of sleeve notes and fanzines for the Internet age — as described in the outline I wrote a few weeks ago.