Friday, May 26th, 2017


Good night and good luck, Walt Mossberg #

Walt Mossberg’s final weekly column. He started out in 1991 with “computers are just too hard to use”, and ends with the dangers of ambient computing and its power resting in a few companies:

…if we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the U.S., it’s time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.

But, as tectonic shifts like this occur in technology, oligopolies get shaken up.
And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards. Nothing less will do. And health? The current medical device standards will have to be even tougher, while still allowing for innovation.

The tech industry, which has long styled itself as a disruptor, will need to work hand in hand with government to craft these policies. And that might be a bigger challenge than developing the technology in the first place.

Now it’s up to the rest of us to chart that journey.

Friday, May 19th, 2017


When storage becomes as cheap as chips #

If you’re looking for signs that there’s another revolution on the way, then the price of storage is an interesting figure. In the last twelve months the cost of one gigabyte of data has dropped from a dollar to fifteen cents, according to interviews conducted by Robert Scoble:

Another guy who is still stealth told me his company will build something like a shoebox with eight petabytes of solid state memory. When I worked at Microsoft it took a semi trailer stuffed with hard drives to get to six petabytes.

The times they are a changin’

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017


Planning A New Kind Of UK General Election Results Show – Can You Help? #

Tuesday’s announcement of a General Election in the UK for June 8th caught me a little by surprise and set off a riot of emotions. I tend not to talk about politics too much online, so many of the thoughts I had yesterday are mine, or for friends and family.

But I’ll happily tell you my very first thought, because it’s one you can all help with.

I need to get behind a microphone to do the results show from 10pm on June 8th.”

I’ve anchored a number of overnight election shows on community radio here in Edinburgh since 2010. These have been broadcast out to the capital but also syndicated to other radio stations and streamed online for those in the UK (and beyond) looking for something a bit more rock and roll in their election night coverage.

I am confident I’ll be running an election night show this year. Now I need to get to that point, get a team together, sort out logistics, and all the other little bits and pieces in the way. Time is tight.

Putting The Team Together

The Election Results Show will be a collaborative effort, so I’m looking for people to be involved in the broadcast. The rough plan is have a core hosting team of two or three people working through the night, an ‘experts and pundits panel’ to discuss the results and keep the sparks flying, someone to stay on top of the constituency results and trends, another to watch over social media for a more interactive show, and a tech or two to keep the video and audio streams running.

If one of those roles sounds like something you want to do, get in touch – ewanspence@gmail.com is probably the best way to do so.

Finding Our Temporary Studio

The first order of business – and one that really needs sorting out before the end of April – is the venue. Short of finding a radio studio suite, the show will need a decent sized space for up to 15 people, with tables and chairs, good lighting, and a rock solid internet connection (preferably with a mix of wi-fi and wired access).

My initial thought is that the show will be Edinburgh-based, but as the broadcast will be streamed online I’m open to other locations around the UK, including London.

Other Ways To Support The Show

Obviously there are some costs involved in the show, so I am very much open to partnerships. That could be co-working spaces, start-ups in a ‘broadcast’ space, publishers or other media organisations, sugary energy drink manufacturers, and so on. Again get in touch if this sounds like a contribution you can help with (ewanspence@gmail.com).

At the very least I would love to cover volunteer expenses and potentially the venue hire.

What About A Name?

The Election Results Show’ is functional but not incredibly descriptive. ‘Rock and Roll Results’ suggests musical content, and that’s unlikely to happen. There’ll be a good name that talks about the open nature of the show, the slightly rough at the edges feel, the move away from mainstream media coverage, and the online nature of the show. Right now I can’t think of it. Once more, suggestions welcome.

Over To You

I could do this alone, but it’s going to much more fun with a big group of people. Join me?

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Tuesday, March 28th, 2017


Microsoft Bob, the spiritual great-grandfather of Siri? #

The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas talks to the team inside Microsoft who developed Comic Sans, and while the big takeaway is that the font was inspired by ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ is this little gem to rewrite history:

My job was to match products to fonts, sort of like a marriage broker. Comic Sans was designed for Microsoft Bob, which in many ways was a precursor to Cortana or Siri – for people who had problems with computers.

Presumably the Office Paperclip heralded Alexa?

Monday, March 13th, 2017


The one lesson I learned that The Nightly Show needs to understand #

After the first year of hosting my daily chat show at the Edinburgh Fringe (which is still running thirteen years later), Brian Luff gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have had in my broadcast career. It went something like this:

“I listened to the Fringe podcasts, but now I’ve met you I have to ask… why is the ‘you’ that I see in front of me not in the podcast? I want to spend time with that person.”

You can have the latest names, the greatest guests, and the biggest world-changing ideas, but these will only get people to engage with a show once. If they are going to engage a second time, or become regular viewers, they will only come back if there is something consistent that they want to spend time with. I took Brian’s advice, and came up with a rule that I have relied on ever since…

People come once for a guest, but they stay for the host.

Tonight, ITV will launch the third version of ’The Nightly Show’. The first version launched two weeks ago with David Walliams hosting. The second version launched next week with John Bishop. Tonight’s version belongs to Davina McCall. Next week will be the fourth version with Dermot O’Leary.

There is nothing consistent week to week. The second a viewer starts to get comfortable with a host’s style and decides that they’re happy to spend time with them late at night, the host changes. You can’t start building up a reputation for guests, for games, or for viral videos until the foundation is in place. Choose a host and give them a long run to build a relationship with the audience.

That’s why the US late-night shows are as powerful as they are. Every host has been given the time to settle in to find their own footing and their own audience. Stephen Colbert has taken close to a year to understand ’The Late Show’, Trevor Noah is slowly moving out from under the shadow of Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’, James Cordon’s routine has evolved over time on ‘Late-Late‘…

I don’t buy the argument that ITV can’t do a daily chat show, but it needs to understand the unique demands of the format does not always line up with the ‘celebrity guest’ culture that has developed in the UK scene over the last two decades. Find a host, find a team, and let them work through the problems for at least a six-month run.

And if you need proof that a long-term commitment will slowly grow into a daily success story… look at ‘The One Show’.

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Wednesday, March 8th, 2017


SXSW Breakfast, Anyone? #

I’ve been a regular at Austin’s SXSW for far longer than I care to remember. It’s a heady mix of music, film, and ‘interactive’ stuff and I’ve always met many old friends, made new ones, and had my creative batteries refilled from spending a week or two in Texas.

This year is no different, and I’m flying out today.

The other thing that happens every year at SXSW is Saturday morning breakfast at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress. As usual I’ll be there a little bit ahead of 8am to grab a table and see who else turns up. A few of you have already asked and got the date in your diary, for everyone else reading let me know if you plan on turning up.

And if you want to meet at SXSW for any reason, I’m there for the full duration through to Sunday 19th March.

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Monday, February 27th, 2017


A familiar podcasting voice from MWC #

For those following MWC remotely (or need something to listen to on the hike to the Barcelona gatherings), Rafe Blandford is part of the DigitasLBi UK team who are bringing (hopefully) daily shows now MWC is under way. Start of with the preview that aired over the weekend – listen on Soundcloud – and check there tomorrow for more! 

Friday, February 24th, 2017


I thought M*A*S*H answered the laughter-track question in the Eighties? #

Apart from the curious fact that Lucille Ball’s mother is the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ of chuckles on US TV’s canned laughter track, it still surprises me that the debate about whether a laughter track is a good idea continues to this day in America. Anthony Crupi on AdAge is the latest voice:

There’s actually very little research to justify the practice. The last comprehensive study to suggest that a laugh track could precipitate genuine peals of merriment was published in 1974, or a good three years before DeDe Ball chortled her last. A far more recent inquiry into the matter arrived at a different conclusion; a 2011 study of British and Norwegian subjects found that contemporary viewers have all but built up an immunity to laugh tracks, characterizing them as “cheesy” and “manipulative.”

I think there’s much less debate about this in the United Kingdom, and that’s down to BBC 2 airing M*A*S*H in the eighties. As far as I can remember, it was a fixture at 9pm every Wednesday. Someone was smart enough to decide that the audience didn’t need to be told when to laugh and the BBC leaned on Fox to strike new prints with clean audio for the UK audience.

Except one week. One week there was a technical hiccup and it aired in the laughter-fuelled American format. With no Twitter to channel the anger, the only outlet was the weekly ‘Points of View’ show that aired at 8.50pm every Wednesday on BBC 1. That week there was nothing but indignation…

The BBC never aired M*A*S*H with a laughter track again.

Monday, February 20th, 2017


Tracking Your Phone’s Tube Journey #

During November and December last year, Transport For London used the London Underground’s Wi-fi network to track the hashes of MAC numbers as they moved through the system. Although tracking the start and end points of a journey is relatively easy, how a large volume of people move between stations has been harder to understand.

Perhaps the number one reason to do the trial was to better understand the journeys that people actually make on the Tube. At the moment, TfL can tell what station you started and ended your journey at based on your Oyster card – but it can’t tell how you got between two locations. [In the example] you can see how popular different routes between Liverpool Street and Victoria are.

So if you travel via Oxford Circus, you do the same as 44% of other people. If you lazily sit on the circle line you do the same as 26% of people making the same journey. And if you change twice – once at Holborn, then again at Green Park, then congratulations, you’re a psychopath.

Big data wins again, and no doubt ‘better adverts’ is the trade off for being anonymously tracked.

Friday, February 3rd, 2017


What if The Doctor had always been black? #

A delightful counter-historical for the entertainment world, as Peter Judge’s post has been brought back to the wold. What if the BBC had cast a black actor in Doctor Who in 1963, through all the regenerations, and into the new series?

One thing’s clear. The fourth Doctor would still be everyone’s favourite:

4: Derek Griffiths
The most outlandish and best-loved Doctor, Derek Griffiths was the first to be born in Britain, His previous TV work included Play School and Please Sir! but Doctor Who gave him somewhere to express himself. He made the character something of a hippy, with flamboyant clothes, and an anarchic manner. Fans still copy Griffiths’ large sideburns and wide collars, and of course his scarf.

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017


The New Yorker’s differnt approach to print and online #

The only constant in publishing today is change. While many print empires have passed away, others are working through the transition towards digital. The New Yorker has been smart and adapted for the new environment while preserving its identity. Benjamin Mullin for Poynter looks at how it’s working out:

In those days, the print schedule reigned supreme, which meant that the magazine’s famously rigorous system of copy editing and fact-checking held sway over The New Yorker’s metabolism.

In the years since, The New Yorker has undergone a massive digital remaking. It’s established a separate web operation that’s unchained writers and editors from the time-intensive print edition. It’s colonized platforms like podcasts, YouTube, mobile applications, Instagram and Snapchat. And it’s built a digital staff of about 40 people, hiring several full-time journalists tasked with writing primarily for the website.

How The New Yorker brought the soul of the magazine to the web.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017


Is this not the end of the Voicemail? #

Podcasts should, like people making a Terminator TV series, plan for a final episode. Even if it’s ‘go on hiatus’ think about what you leave if it is the last one. As it is with genre TV, as it is with The Voicemail:

This isn’t the last episode of The Voicemail, but it’ll be the last one you’ll hear for a while. In it, James and Stefan discuss what’s been happening in their respective lives since the last time they recorded, what news items caught there eyes during the show’s brief hiatus, and what they’re looking forward to in 2017.

Goodnight, guys, it’s been fun. Sleep well, you’ll most like kill The The Voicemail in the morning…

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017


Landing a rocket in front of a camera #

Basically you try, try, try again. Keep trying until you get everything lined up. And in the process you’ll also be working on a reusable first-stage rocket. The Verge’s Sean O’Kane on that picture:

It appears that there was some post-processing done on this photo, which adds to its dramatic nature. But even without the added contrast and vignetting, the photo is still a rather lucky sum of a number of fast-moving parts. The rocket is in the middle of using its engines to remove itself from its free fall from space. The drone ship had been positioning and steadying itself against the ocean’s waves while it waited for the rocket to descend. And all this obviously happened while the Sun slowly “moved” through the sky thanks to the Earth’s rotation.

That said, Elon Musk proves that you can be a Bond Vilian in real life…

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017


Why It Is Important That China Has Perfected The Ball Point Pen #

Not your low-cost ten-a-pen pen, but the more high-end pens with well fitting barrels and balls for smoother writing experiences.

Ballpoint pens aren’t actually new to China. Its 3,000 pen manufacturers make around 40 billion of them a year and fulfill 80 percent of the world’s demand. There’s just one problem: China doesn’t possess the advanced alloys and machines necessary to make a high-quality pen ball and socket. As a result, 90 percent of China’s pen tips are imported. Pens made from Chinese components are widely acknowledged to be inferior — a point made by Premier Li Keqiang in a 2015 television appearance. “That’s the real situation facing us,” he said. “We cannot make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.”

And while it’s a curious story, Tim Worstall spins it out to illustrate a point about national wages and productivity in China compared to the west.

Monday, January 16th, 2017


Gene Cernan RIP: Speaking To The Last Man On The Moon #

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Gene Cernan died today.

He was the last man to walk on the moon, an astronaut from a time of heroes, a pilot from a time where best friends didn’t come home. He also drew his daughter’s initials in the moon dust. They’re still there…
 
I was very lucky to speak to him in 2014 as he promoted Mark Craig’s documentary/biography ‘Last Man On The Moon.’ 

I’ve posted it above, and I’m going to listen to it again.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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