The community brought about by radio

Last night, my friend Paul was listening to WCPE, North Carolina’s classical music station. This was likely from suburban Surrey, thanks to the wonders of the internet.

It was, I’m sure you’ll be aware, “all request Friday”, so he put in a request for Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major, K. 201, via their website I expect. Whether the request was played, I’m not sure. But that’s not the point of this post.

Each weekday evening at 6pm, Radio 1’s Greg James opens up the airwaves for the ten-minute takeover, for which listeners can text in with their requests. Greg allegedly plays three random requests that are stored in Radio 1’s music system. Each evening, I text in my request. To date, these attempts have been futile.

Both of us, if we cared to, have access to Spotify or Napster, allowing us to choose whatever track we might want to listen to whenever we might want to listen to it. And streaming aside, the tracks we want to request are likely already in our respective music collections. We could choose to play them directly from our digital devices of choice.

But we don’t. There’s something collaborative about radio, internet-based or otherwise. In regular listening mode, there’s a lovely thought that other people are enjoying the same thing as we’re enjoying at exactly that moment. And with successful requests, that thought becomes ever more delightful, knowing that other people are enjoying the music that we’ve chosen. (My friend Kate today downloaded Now (That’s What I Call Music) 1982 (Disc 1) off the back of a Facebook comment I left on her husband’s wall detailing its track listing. That made me happy.)

No matter the extent to which on-demand content infiltrates our lives, and in spite of the benefit it brings to our lives, we will continue to reach out to broadcast entertainment media, both to enjoy their unpredictability (please don’t counter this argument with “iTunes Genius”) and to join a community of other listeners.

The single best thing about Twitter

For me, the single best thing about Twitter is this: Twisst.

The account uses your location to give you advance warning of the International Space Station passing overhead. It only alerts you of the passes between dusk and dawn, those that are visible to the naked eye.

Before I stumbled upon the account, I used to occasionally pop along to one of the many tracker pages that showed the path of the station, to see whether it was in the vicinity of London. On one such occasion, I was lucky. Sat in Starbucks with my daughter as dusk fell, I hit the bookmarked site and discovered that it was going to pass over Croydon in around 20 minutes’ time. We finished our drinks and my shoulders carried her to the middle of Clapham Common for the 5.20pm fly-by. Beforehand, I tweeted the passing to allow friends to enjoy it too.

From around 5.15pm, wind brought an abundance of cloud into what was a relatively clear sky, and our skyward gazing was fruitless. My friend Simon thanked me for treating his family to an awesome fly-by. Mixed feelings.

(On a previous occasion, we had about five minutes’ notice and my daughter and I ran/were dragged from the Windmill pub to the middle of the Common like crazed fools, and were treated to a fabulous sight.)

But the chances that it would be passing over at or around the time you checked were remote.

With the Twitter account, I know when it’s coming over. In advance. And that’s lovely.

Tonight, it was due to pass over at 2015. Before dinner, I looked out of the loft skylight and there it went, moving east-north-east, taking three or four minutes to journey from horizon to horizon. It glimmered in the dusk, its six occupants whizzing round the planet every 92 minutes and 24 seconds.

There is something simply magical about the ISS. And knowing in advance that it’s coming over is similarly magical. And if you’re reading this? Get outside: it’s coming over London again at 2152.

Readership drives readership flaw

Increasingly, we’re being pointed in our online worlds to things that other people read. BBC News lists its ten most-read articles. And more recently, Facebook flags to us the articles that our friends are reading on newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent.

But to me, reading an article signifies one or more of three things. You might have an allegiance with the newspaper publishing the thing that you’re reading; you might have an interest in the subject being written about; or the headline advertising the article (for that is what headlines do) might have grabbed you.

But reading an article does *not* necessarily signify that you agree with it, nor indeed that it’s worth reading. And this is what I have a problem with in such sharing.

The buttons that now adorn our articles and blogposts are useful. They invite us to make an active decision to share the content (or not) and how indeed to share it. But I find those technologies that automatically share with our networks the things that we are reading trouble me. Content with a catchy title will be read. Its being read will be shared. And this will cause it to be read yet more.

A new definition of pregnancy?

Few on Twitter will have missed the recent uproar at Arizona’s passing of a new bill pertaining to abortion. On such a divisive subject, it certainly brought out the feisty nature in people.

The key elements of the law change seem to be twofold: bringing forward to 20 weeks the “point of viability” that defines the time after which a woman cannot have an elective abortion; and bringing forward to seven weeks the point until which medication abortion pills can be prescribed.

I find that Twitter’s users, certainly those that I follow, lean further to the left than the average person. And so as you might imagine, reaction from some was fierce.

But rather interestingly, while some have debated the key elements of the change, some have picked up on what on first impressions might appear to be an odd definition of when pregnancy starts, in my view missing the point altogether.

The bill defines pregnancy as starting at the date of the last menstrual cycle. On average, this is two weeks before conception. What? pregnancy starts before the woman has been impregnated? How can this be so?

The trouble with this argument is that this definition is consistent with that used by every doctor in the land: Stateside and in the UK, across the entirety of the developed world, and, I expect, worldwide. Because while a human’s gestation averages 38 weeks, we add two weeks to this when referring to the length of the pregnancy. This effectively measures the journey of the egg, rather than that of the embryo, conception generally happening two weeks after the egg leaves basecamp.

So effectively, a woman could conceivably (ha!) be a virgin for the first two weeks of her naturally-conceived pregnancy, such is the measure we use.

If nothing else, the headline that pregnancy starts before intercourse has brought additional publicity to the bill, claiming that the bill is not only introducing new measures, but also changing the very definition of pregnancy.

While you may have issues with the bill, it’s probably best to focus on the fundamental changes it brings about, rather than the headline-writer’s rather idiotic interpretation.

Technology: the two most important developments

My daughter, five, is growing up surrounded by technology. From TVs to smartphones, from Kindles to iPads. Spotify, Sonos, Bluetooth. They’re all commonplace.

But there are two technological advancements in particular that weren’t there during my childhood that to her are simply part of life. In fact, the absence of either one causes befuddlement on her behalf. They are: touchscreens, and rewindable TV.

If she needs the loo while watching TV, she will always ask, “Can you pause it?” And when we went to see my parents at Christmas, she was confused by their Freeview TVs not being pausable.

And similarly, my Kindle is an anathema to her. My wife’s iPad and our respective phones have conditioned her into thinking that all handheld devices react to touching the screen. When the Kindle doesn’t do anything, she’s bemused.

To me, as to many, there have been so many advancements in technology that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where the most important leaps have been made. But instead of looking at what’s outstanding, maybe the key is to look at what seems like a no-brainer to the youth of today.

Facebook, Google, Apple. Finding the line

Facebook is there to connect you with your friends, old and new. Its purpose is to allow you to share moments of your life, and enjoy moments in other people’s lives, generally to bring people closer together.

Meanwhile, Google is trying to make your online experience more simple and rich, providing applications such as email, maps, calendars, documents to make things easier; the likes of YouTube and Picasa to make things richer; and a kick-ass search engine to allow you to find exactly what you’re looking for.

And Apple is intent on providing a beautiful and simplistic experience when connecting with technology, both in the devices themselves and the interfaces that they support.

That’s the gloss. Here’s the cynic’s view.

Facebook is intent on ensuring that when people connect with other people or organisations online, they do it in the confines of Facebook. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Google is intent on ensuring that when people want to do anything online, they do it through Google. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Apple is intent on ensuring that when people want to enjoy media online, they do it through Apple. And in so doing, they will take a large cut of the profits involved.

There is a fine line between being perceived to do stuff that your users will love and being perceived to do stuff that will abuse the trust of those users. Ask Microsoft. And maybe treading that line most carefully will decide who wins the battle of the user technologists.

The war continues between the major players in the personal IT services market. To most of Joe Public, they will mostly see the veneer. They’ll see the shiny iPad, the beautiful way in which Google Maps helps them get to grandma’s house, the way in which they can now connect so easily with people who might otherwise be strangers. But behind the gloss, evil is going on.

In the 1990s, Microsoft became huge. And along the way it became hated. It tried to use its position in certain markets to push into others, often forcibly. Internet Explorer being packaged with Windows was one such foray. Maybe this hatred goes with the territory of being big.

Now we have, among others, Facebook, Google and Apple.

Each of them wants to own certain aspects of our online experience. Apple is doing so through hardware: the iPad and the iPhone. Facebook is doing so through software: its website. And Google is doing both: its swathe of applications now being complemented by hardware in the form of the Google Samsung Nexus, although this latter facet is being done through partnerships rather than directly.

But these companies, particularly Google and Facebook, are no longer inspired by making their offering lovely for the customer. (I genuinely believe they once were.) The companies have shareholders and these shareholders demand inordinate returns on their investments. And to do this, each company must milk its offering for all it’s worth.

In doing so, they will be perceived as being evil. They will open up your data to advertisers and use every opportunity to increase the value associated with your using their offering.

Arguably, the current king of the three is less into this business. Apple is about building beautiful hardware and operating systems. It’s less about building apps that can maximise the value of your interactions while using them. My betting is that with time they will move more and more towards this area over the coming years.

To use a mathematical analogy, there is, I expect, a maximum that the companies need to find. If they don’t push enough to maximise the value of our interactions with their services, then they will lose out to those players that do. And likewise, if they go too far in using that data, customers will become tired and go elsewhere. Finding that maximum will be the big challenge.

It’s going to be an interesting race to watch.