Discovering BBC 6 Music

Before the age of podcasts, I used to listen to the radio everyday without fail. It’s started with Capital FM in the nineties then grew. 102.2 Jazz FM with Jon Scragg, Choice FM, maybe a bit of Kiss FM now and again. But by mid-2006 something had happened: I’d discovered playlists and podcasts. With mainstay, Jazz FM, going through a complete transformation, I wasn’t too happy with the new personalities or music choices. But at last I didn’t need to bother. Digital music allowed me to rip my CD collection and play it in Windows Media Player, and my Creative Zen Sleek Photo MP3 player let me bring my entire music collection with me wherever I was.

And as for personalities, discovering internet podcasts, like GameSpot’s HotSpot (with Rich Gallup, Jeff Gerstmann, Ryan Davies, Alex Navarro, Brad Shoemaker and more), meant I suddenly had access to more hilarious and irreverent commentary than I could wish for on topics both mainstream and specialist.

But since January last year when I installed a DAB radio in my room, I’ve done a U-turn and begun tuning in to radio a whole lot more. Classic FM has always been a favourite of mine, helping me to ease my hectic mind and focus when working. And although, personally, I’m not too hot for their Radio 1-like daytime shows, I’m always logging on to Fly FM (my student radio station, which I’ve also appeared on a couple times) for a bit of light entertainment and relatable anecdotes from future presenters, Jaye Harrison, Hannah Lupton and Kieran Simpson. However, if anything has reinstated my faith in radio, it’s BBC 6 Music.

In February 2006, Mark Thompson, general director of the BBC, announced that they proposed to close the station as part of the corporation’s spending cuts. This led to a storm of media attention and campaigns to save the station. It was because of all this brouhaha, and blog posts from Alex Britton and Andy Trendell, that I got listening to 6 Music myself. Featuring presenters Lauren Laverne (Northern beauty and culture vulture), Steve Lamacq and Jarvis Cocker, I’m speechless as to why I didn’t start listening before now.

6 Music has introduced me to a whole range of new musicians and music that I just wouldn’t have heard if it wasn’t for them. Regular features like Lauren Laverne’s Memory Tapes (listeners’ music memory playlists), live sessions and Steve Lamcaq’s insightful band interviews are just some of the contagious waves that this unique digital station transmits. And then there are other things like Huey Morgan’s Sunday show, their music festival coverage and quirk events like beaming music into space during their recent Science Week.

Last month, 6 Music was saved when the BBC Trust rejected the BBC’s plans to close the station (though, sadly, the BBC Asian Network will not share 6 Music’s fate) and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Full of intelligence, full of fun, full of culture, 6 Music is a platform for new music like no other radio station in Britain and I’m exceedingly pleased to have discovered it. Tune in and hear it for yourself.


Digital Publishing for the New Tablet Age

OK, so I’m backpedalling once again. My initial impressions of the iPad weren’t that positive. I still think the thing costs too much, but having now touched the thing myself I found myself warming to the device far more. That screen… that beautiful 1024×768 LCD touchscreen and its vibrant colours make even the most mundane of tasks feel graceful on the iPad. Photos take on a new life, Google Maps replaces the paperback A-Z and a host of other multimedia applications mean business and entertainment on the go are becoming even more user friendly.

The iPad and its triumph screen have also got me thinking about digital publishing. Other e-readers and tablets, like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, have made more than waves in the publishing industry. Waterstone’s have been championing Sony’s line of e-readers since September 2008 and Amazon launched its Kindle bookstore in the UK last month. There’s still no guaranteed model to internet commerce, so some commentators are wary over just how digital publishing can be profitable for small and commercial outfits.

Now, though, Apple’s App Store is proving that people are hungry for media specially tailored to their new handheld device. BBC News recently launched their news app for the iPad and The Guardian have been offering their own app since late 2009, but big magazine publishers have been slow on the uptake. Beyond their websites, Future Publishing are yet to embrace the potential of digital magazines – ironic that the company, who made its name publishing technology and games magazines, hasn’t already embraced the technology in its infancy.

One forward thinking magazine that is testing the waters of this new plain however is Wired. Creative director of Wired’s US edition, Scott Dadich, has overseen the conversion of the magazine for the new tablet age. The $4.99 app, which launched in May 2010, was downloaded 80,421 times in its first 12 days on sale. With its interactive design and high-quality video and audio, the app outperformed the magazines newsstand sales and now Wired’s UK and Italian editions are poised to release their own apps. The benefits of having clickable links, the ability to share content directly with friends and a bespoke design for tablets makes me legitimately excited for digital publishing.

Of course, with no app available as yet, it’s almost been obligatory for Wired UK editor David Rowan to say he doesn’t “see [the print edition] becoming redundant any day soon.” But I agree, because even if tablets are pointing the way to the future of magazines, I’ll stick with print until the bitter end. There is no denying, though, that the raft of useful and time-saving applications are going to change how we consume media in the same way the internet has done. The iPad could be the start of a tsunami the publishing industry has feared since the internet’s digital revolution.


Productivity Tips from Click’s LJ Rich

Click the BBC’s long-running flagship technology show recently did a package on productivity. Like many people the world over, I find myself easily distracted by the wonders and limitless information on the web. So much so, that getting started on my essential tasks can be a major mental effort. LJ Rich investigated the ways to paralyse procrastination and finally sort out your dreaded untidy inboxes. This couldn’t have come at a better time.


Ion Cannon: Firing

Take a look at the image above. It’s from a menu screen, one of my very first gaming memories. The Ion Cannon, an orbital particle weapon constructed by the Global Defence Initiative (GDI) to combat the all too real threat of global terrorism, is one of those giant sci-fi gadgets that tech lovers can only dream of witnessing from space.

This superweapon, that was just on the fringe of believability (thanks to the US’s famous Star Wars programme and films like WarGames), was my entry point and one of my fondest memories of the original Command & Conquer. I’d played some RTS games before, but this is the game that truly unlocked what it meant to be an armchair commander.

A hyper cool display for the imaginative mind of my nine-year-old self. Ominous menu music set the mood perfectly, in my shuttered gaming war room, for several hours spent planning and executing complex battle strategies – mostly starving the enemy of resources, rushing them with tanks or bombing them to kingdom come.

Its dark, contemporary story of political instability, new world order and a sinister alien resource that threatened to irreversibly change Earth as we know it was ridiculously entertaining. It was like a documentary that had somehow fallen out of the future. Though crude in resolution, the full motion video (FMV) sequences featured real actors, which was a technical marvel for CD-ROMs at the time. It had its finger on the pulse of the high-tech media and military worlds it was trying to personify; with clever storytelling methods like on-location broadcasts and studio discussions with experts (ie Dr Mobius), and peer-to-peer terminals for mission briefing with lots of snazzy holographics and a fictional AI unit named EVA.

So while the curious part of my brain couldn’t wait to see what would happen if I fried a few enemy soldiers using a particle beam from space, led them into a Tiberium field to die of the green crystals’ radioactive sickness or crushed them with a twin-turret mammoth tank, C&C’s story actually made me think a whole lot more about the ethics of war and the perceptions of good and bad. Frank Klepacki’s metal tabs and subliminal-esque voice samples formed the basis for C&C’s soundtrack of electro synth wonder, which was very much a part of the game’s overall message.

Even if you weren’t invested in the story, as I was, its gameplay was sure to keep you glued to the screen long into the night (or evening as it were). Back then, there weren’t buttons for selecting all on-screen units or setting waypoints, defending a particular unit and so on. You had to do it all manually. The radar was an absolute necessity as you were keeping an eye on your troops on the frontline and your own base defences. And that’s where the discoverable fog of war came in, prompting you to use low-cost, light units in a scout capacity to map out the terrain. The tech tree slowly built over the campaign and your strategies grew with it. For instance, Orca fighters were vulnerable to SAMs, so sending in grenadiers could alleviate the problem, clearing the way for an aerial attack. The two factions, GDI and Nod, weren’t too dissimilar here, but there’s no other feeling in gaming like the satisfaction of formulating a strategy and using it to accomplish a challenging mission.

Strangely, I played both the original C&C and Red Alert on PS1 before moving on to the PC versions, and thanks to a long series of unfortunate system failures and lost saves, I’ve never actually completed any of the subsequent C&C games on PC. I was extremely fortunate however to meet and interview Louis Castle, one of the creators of the series and a man who’s responsible for eating hours of my early teens with his contagious video games. It goes without saying that it was a pleasure to meet him, and though I may not know the fate of Kane or Tiberium, I feel as though I’ve come full circle with the original C&C at last.


Behind the Maverick

Earlier this year I swooned over the first few episodes of Luther. And then I swooned over the entire series, and immediately ordered the DVD! No other TV drama has come close to affecting me as much as Luther has this year. Before the show was broadcast, the Radio Times (a weekly magazine published by the BBC that does TV and radio listings) ran a cover story in their 1-7 May 2010 issue. I forgot to salvage it from the recycling bin, so thankfully the cover story and its inspiring interview with Idris Elba can be found at the TV fanatics’ blog, Momentary Bursts of Enthusiasm.


Melancholy Cruise

The only thing to be melancholy about is the fact that record companies are releasing music as download-only singles. Gorillaz second true single (‘Superfast Jellyfish’ has been postponed) to promote Plastic Beach, ‘On Melancholy Hill’, was released on July 25. While Phase Three is turning out to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of B-sides and physical discs to add to my collection, Gorillaz latest multimedia foray has made indulging in their world all the easier. There’s been no shortage of website content, YouTube videos and they’ve even released a game for the web/iPhone/iPad (created by Matmi using Unity and Flash).

It’s back to Jamie Hewlett’s classic 2D characters for the ‘On Melancholy Hill’ promo video. Following the spectacular CG versions of the band in the ‘Stylo’ video that had me doing a double take, I hoped that Passion Pictures (the studio behind the digital tech for Gorillaz’ videos) would be doing the same for all of their coming promos. Mixing 2D drawings, 3D models and CG animation in one pot, this video has the distinct feel that it was a bit too ambitious and less costly methods had to be employed to finish it in time. Still, it’s the first reappearance of the real Noodle after ‘El Mañana’, so here’s to that. Cyborg Noodle is too creepy.

Something that’s neither creepy nor disappointing, in fact quite the opposite, is the band’s smuggler’s run of live dates. The Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour begins in North America this October. I’ve forked out once again to see them on the European leg of their tour, this time at the London O2 Arena. The date was originally set for September 15, but it was rescheduled to November 16 to coincide with the other tour dates. Lots to looked forward then as Gorillaz’ third phase continues.


Augmented Observations

Lying face up on a reclined surgical chair puts few people at ease. Things are made further uncomfortable with the overhead operation lamp peering down at you like an inquisitive serpent and beaming white light into your face. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the luxury of a comfortable chair with arm rests and real lower back support. If you’re not, all you can do is hope your consultation is brief.

It’s things such as this that have slowly cause me to loath dentist appointments. If the waiting room’s dismal attempt at feng shui (in steady of deathly silence and six-month old magazines, my local practice opts for Heart FM and a high turnover rate of reticent receptionists) doesn’t make you yearn to run for the hills, then the coming encounter soon will.

The simple fact is that whether you’re going for a costly filling or merely a check-up, people don’t really want to be at the dentist if they can avoid it. Its purpose automatically makes the environment uncomfortable, so quality practices, and dentists, will do everything they can to make the process as painless as possible.

My dentist isn’t a quality dentist. He takes long breaks, extending the already excruciating waiting times for patients. When he’s tinkering around in your month he doesn’t bother to ask whether he’s suffocating you by keeping your head at an irregular angle and using his suction tool. But, worst of all, he leaves patients feeling ill at ease with their dentist, because he’s so uncommunicative. Often I wonder whether he really sees patients as people or just sacks of flesh with enamel he gets to charge over the odds to replace.

Take yesterday, for example. My dentist is from another corner of the world, and so too have been the many female assistants I’ve seen at his side over the last three or four years. Yesterday it dawned on me that while I was in the chair, eyes blinded and breath shortening, not once would he let me know what he was up to. Instead he poked and prodded and chatted away to his female colleague – in a language that wasn’t English. In this situation, the two of them having a private conversation (that could well have been about me) right in front of me seemed totally unprofessional. Listening to them chuckle lightly, and knowing that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, made me feel extremely vulnerability and embarrassed.

Perhaps more than any other profession, the medical profession’s discourse is built on absolute trust. If you can’t trust your dentist, your optician or your doctor, why would let them give you advice, let alone put your body in their hands? He may think it’s nothing, but I can’t understand why my dentist doesn’t do more make his patients comfortable. I’ve never had much luck with dentists, mind (apart from the orthodontist I saw regularly when I wore braces). Well, at least my GP is a whole lot friendlier and more professional.