Monthly Archives: December 2003

Chasing rainbows

Soul Catcher. Ah, there are two words to conjure with. And when the press picked up on one of BT’s research ideas a few years ago, conjure they did. To be fair, Soul Catcher did give a lot of scope for banner headlines. After all, at the time the newspapers, radio, TV and even Thought for The Day would have had you believe that by 2025, we’d all have a bit of silicon implanted behind our retina. This would record not only everything we saw, but all the outputs of our brain too. A life in a chip, to be replayed and – literally – relived at will. Experiences that didn’t have to die when we did. Immortality, of a sort.

As with most futurological experiments though, it was no more than an idea. In this case, a Suffolk pub conversation along the lines of ‘well, y’know, if chips keep on getting smaller at the rate they’re doing nowadays, then in thirty years time we might just be able to…’ snowballed into blanket newspaper coverage. And, after a set of rather interesting boardroom conversations, BT were (reasonably) quick to admit that they weren’t actually investing millions of pounds of bill payers’ money in chasing that rainbow.

If the Soul Catcher experience taught us anything apart from how researchers shouldn’t speak to journalists, it’s that scientists find the idea of capturing and storing human existence utterly compelling. What else can explain Microsoft researchers’ fascination with a project called MyLifeBits, which aims to capture all your life’s vital information – the CDs you listen to, the letters you read and write, your memos, photos, phone calls – and store them all on a hard disc.

Technologically, it’s certainly possible. Hard discs are getting exponentially bigger and cheaper, and already a reasonably cheap model can contain far more information than I’d know what to do with. The barriers to anything like this ever taking off, though, are higher than technological. I can see the possible advantage of being able to perform a search on all the photos I’ve ever taken and find the one of Auntie Ethel on holiday in Cleethorpes in 1985 – you know, the one where she was wearing a red hat and it blew into the sea and then we all had ice cream and went home – but it would take a lot of persuading to make me scan in all the pictures I want to keep and then entrust their contents to a third party. Particularly if that third party is (yes, I know, paranoia) a multinational corporation.

And I can’t help thinking that initiatives like Soul Catcher, MyLifeBits, and even this, uh, ambitious project to synthesise every human thought miss the point in a big way. It’s true that a part of my life can be summarised by the things I see, the things to which I listen, the things that I read and the conversations that I have, but any attempt to capture my life by a third party – whether that’s a hard disc somewhere in California, a piece of silicon behind my retina or a statistical map of my neurons firing – seems doomed to failure simply because it’s nothing more than my life seen through another’s eyes.

C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that there is a fundamental difference between watching someone else experience something and experiencing it yourself. If you click on no other link here, try this extract from ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’ – it’s well worth a read.

Maybe the most useful thing that BT and Microsoft can teach us in their endeavours is that there is something special about being human. Something that transcends any attempt to reduce it into a sequence of brainwaves, a series of books read or a set of snapshots. We’re all unique beings, with unique experiences, and all created in the image of God.

And that, no computer can ever capture.

In an 8:08 state…

…as Simon Mayo used to say. Slightly fraudulent as I feel about coming back after ten days with what boils down to an advert, I thought some might be curious as to what our church might produce when given a 25-minute blank sheet for BBC Radio Wales. The answer is a service called ‘Looking Forward, Looking Back’, it’s on tomorrow (the 29th) at 8.05 am, and it contains – though I admit some possible bias in this – a fine drama written by my wife. 882 kHz AM/93-104 MHz FM if you’re within Wales, or if you’re very keen/bored, Sky channel 867 or streaming from here.

I’ll be the one in the cream jumper.

‘Course, the really exciting awards come later

A few hours to go till every blogger in the UK will seem to put fingers to keyboard and start fêting the five winners of this year’s Guardian British Blog Awards (to be revealed, I would think, here after about 01:00 GMT). That reminds me to pass on a request seen on the weblog of former European Blogger of the Year, Tom Coates. He asks ‘How many weblogs are there in the UK?’ It’s a good question, that raises all sorts of issues in itself: how much of a gap is there in weblogging population, proportionately, between the UK and the US? How do you categorise those who maintain that their regularly updated online diary is ‘not a sodding blog’? And how many UK weblogs were updated so long ago as to be now, effectively, dead?

Anyway, Tom suggests that UK bloggers might like to register themselves with one or more weblog portals. Even if doing this may not directly answer his question, it’s still worthwhile to commit random acts of registration, even if only because you never know who might click on your link.

Oh, and as for the Guardian awards, I’d love to see diamondgeezer win. Hope he entered in the end.

“Be my lucky number seven: seven, seven, seven, seven…”

One of the current poster adverts for the BBC’s new radio stations reads “Make time for BBC digital radio. Fall ill.” Assuming that you’re reading it in the right way, there’s more truth in that than even the BBC might realise.

Laid up in bed in the aftermath of having my appendix removed at the age of eleven, with no television and advice against lifting a book, I discovered radio, and started consuming it in vast quantities. I discovered the wit (and record collection) of Martin Kelner on Radio 2, making me aware of Cat Stevens’ back catalogue at a frighteningly young age. I discovered the hidden recesses of Radio Cymru, with Gareth Glyn opening new musical doors before my very ears.

More than anything else though, I discovered radio comedy. A particularly good time to do so, with imperial-phase Radio Active and Son of Cliche both being broadcast, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue as funny as it’s ever been, but curiously without the audience whooping and hollering at every single joke regardless of the level of humour.

A love of radio comedy has stayed with me ever since. So when the BBC announced that their ‘Network Z’ for digital radio would be devoted, amongst other things, to archive comedy and drama, my excitement was tempered with more than a little trepidation. Would they take the easy option and just broadcast wall-to-wall Dead Ringers and Goon Shows, or would they make an effort to trawl the BBC archives for the neglected, half-remembered and ultimately more interesting programming?

As it turns out, BBC7, having thankfully jettisoned its rubbish working title of BBC 4Word, chose the road less travelled by, and for me, that really has made all the difference. In the year (to the day) since its launch, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my List Of Programmes I Wish They’d Repeat being slowly whittled down, through BBC7’s offerings of old Burkiss Ways, Radio Actives (by the truckload), Mary Whitehouses, On the Hours and even Lionel Nimrods. Only one programme remains still on my wish-list, in fact, and I guess I shouldn’t exactly hold my breath for a re-run of Elastic Planet.

And to my surprise, and relief in retrospect, it’s become my default radio station. John Shuttleworth was my companion during an arduous dissertation write-up earlier in the year, and Sean Lock has rather incongrously helped me put many a church magazine to bed. It remains my best excuse for buying a digital radio – even though (bizarrely, and through no direct fault of BBC7 themselves) the highest quality way of listening to it is through a television.

I love BBC7 to bits, and with it reaching nearly 300,000 people a week, I know I’m not the only one. I live in hope that it’ll flourish as digital radios become mainstream. The only possible cloud on the horizon is the BBC’s track record of completely ruining things that were liked by a significant minority (invariably including me). The first incarnation of BBC Choice beat BBC Three into a cocked hat, and I haven’t come across a radio station to which I could happily listen from morning till night since the original Radio Five closed down. BBC7 doesn’t count on the latter score, by the way – I can’t pick it up when I’m driving.

But all that aside, happy birthday BBC7. It’s far surpassed my expectations of it being nothing more than Dead Ringers 24, it’s opened my ears to half-forgotten and never-remembered comedy, and its message board shows that like no other radio station, it listens to its listeners.

Maybe I should email them about Elastic Planet after all.

Left a bit… right a bit…

As a coda to our church’s typically rewarding pilgrimage to Bethlehem (no, not that one: this one), Roddy introduces me and a group of others to geocaching.

As a vague description of it, try hi-tech orienteering. Armed with nothing more than a GPS unit (a satellite receiver which will detect your location to within about three metres) and a grid reference, you attempt to find a cache, previously placed at that spot by another geocacher. The cache can be as small as a film container or as large as a plastic bucket.

In our case, we’re in the grounds of Carreg Cennen castle (though not in the castle itself – that would cost money), and we’re looking for something about the size of a sandwich box. Under any normal circumstances, it might as well be a needle in a haystack, but Roddy’s GPS unit is here to guide us. So we walk around the grounds to the coordinates we’ve picked up from the website. We check any likely hiding places. And, well, we find what we’re looking for. We take an item out of the cache box. Roddy signs the cache’s log book to prove we’ve been there. We put a new item into the box. We go back to the car park. We have some coffee. It is good.

Yeah, I know you were expecting a more exciting description than that, but I really can’t say more. After all, you never know when you’d find yourself surrounding a Carmarthenshire castle with a satellite tracker in your hand. And if you do, then here’s what we had to go on. Good luck.

Geocaching will never be a truly mainstream activity, just as GPS units will never be mainstream themselves, but it’s entertaining, perfectly harmless, and in its own way, quite exciting. It gets gadget freaks out into the open air – well, it did me – and that’s never a bad thing. More than that, in the two years since its inception it seems to have developed its own close-knit community. A community that’s based on trust (you have no way of knowing a newly-laid cache is there until someone finds it), honesty (until someone else comes along, no-one knows whether you’ve actually found the cache), and, of course, a spirit of adventure.

And I have to approve of that.

Digital dust

“Be very careful about what you write on paper”, my primary school teacher warned us. “What you write will last. You’ll still be able to read what you’ve written in fifty years if you use a pencil. A century if you use a pen.”

A couple of decades on from his attempt to knock some writing style into a bunch of unruly ten year-olds, who’d rather throw ink cartridges at each other than ponder the Mabinogion, I realise two things. One, that whatever planet he was on when he got those timespans was an interesting one. Two, that he might have some very different things to say today.

Take these words that you’re reading now. Not that you’ll care about them past the end of the last paragraph (and even that’s a bit egotistically optimistic of me), but do you expect to be able to read them, if you wanted, on this server tomorrow? What about next week? Next month? Next year?

The children that contributed to the BBC’s Domesday project, a mere sixteen years ago, probably expected their work to last as long as their lifetimes. After all, this was an ambitious project. Not a patch on the original of course, but after gathering the help of thousands of schools across Britain to build a huge scrapbook of British life in the 1980s, you’d have thought that the writings, pressed onto two Laservision disc, would at least see out the millennium. As would the archive videos, images and maps also on the disc.

And the project was certainly impressive. It was genuinely interactive, and this a while before the advent of the web or the red button. You could click on maps and zoom into your village, then read what the local schoolchildren had to say about it, watch some videos of some news events, and maybe take a tour round somewhere like, say, Brecon. For 1986, this was almost revolutionary.

But despite its high profile (including a strange game show based around the disc: search in this page for Domesday), the project wasn’t actually that accessible, even at the time. Universities might have bought the disc – it probably contained enough census data to make it worth spending the £4000 on the system – and your local library might have had one too. If your school was lucky enough, they might have had the disc. But face it, chances are that they didn’t.

And in any case, by 1992 – the time most of the project’s contributors would have been doing their GCSEs – Domesday machines were already gathering dust.

A few years later, the Domesday machines might as well have been dust. The heavily mechanised hardware was dying, the programming language used to read the data was about as popular as Sigue Sigue Sputnik – for about the same length of time – and the effort of thousands of now twenty-somethings looked like being lost forever.

Not quite though. The Camileon project is coming to the rescue, little by little. The information will be reconstructed, in a matter of time.

But there is a lesson here for everyone using a computer to keep anything as a permanent record. The original eleventh-century Domesday book, provided you can decipher Old English, is readable almost a millennium later. If you’re prepared to go to Kew, you can have a look at it. if you want. But as for the 1986 Domesday disc, the uphill struggle continues. There is still a language problem (sprechen sie BCPL?), but this time it’s compounded by a technological one.

The battle will be won, of course. But it’s a salutary lesson, and one that we’re in danger of forgetting already. The majority of British schools these days have websites. How much invaluable information on everyday British life in 2002 will we have lost by this time next year, or even next month, as these sites are updated, overwritten or deleted?

Most of what we write is ephemeral, and for good reason. I’d probably cringe to read this in five years time. But there’ll always be stuff that we want to keep. And as our CD-ROMs degrade, and our hard discs develop their bad sectors, we should probably all remember who our masters are in this. Namely computers, the obsolescent, unreliable technology of today.

Let’s hope, then, that the silicon writings we care about today can be given some degree of permanency. If they aren’t, we might as well be writing them in the sand.

And I know my teacher would have something to say about that.