Wednesday, May 09, 2007


News that Curry's - an English chain store business - is to stop stocking cassette tapes has triggered off a global emotional reaction. For many of us tapes hold a particular fascination. Tapes allowed us to copy music, to record our own music, to carry music around. It was key bit of kit that has served musicians well. Cheap and small, it encouraged a DIY appoach to sound. Personally I'm hanging onto my Sharp beatbox and my shoeboxes of tapes. Remember the death of vinyl, widely proclaimed. Now new bands are realeasing on vinyl, old material is being released on heavy-duty top quality vinyl (you can't beat the sound). Analog or MP3. No contest. Sampling an analog wave and then compressing it will inevitably kill the spirit of the sound. Think about it.

The compact cassette

Not long left for cassette tapes
The cassette is facing erasure. Some 40 years after global cassette production began in earnest, sales are in terminal decline.From its creation in the 1960s through to its peak of popularity in the 1980s, the cassette has been a part of music culture for 40 years. But industry experts believe it does not have long left, at least in the West.

Downloads sound the end of cassettes by Joe Best

Why we should mourn the death of the music cassette by Ray Connolly

Currys to cease stocking cassettes:Mix-tape romance wiped out by MP3s and teledildonics by Lewis Page

Currys stops stocking another analogue product: End of the reel for the cassette tape by Amy-Mae Elliott

The end of the reel for cassette tapes by Harry Wallop, Consumer Affairs Correspondent

End of the reel for cassettes? by James Sturcke

Finally: How to transfer cassette tape to computer

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Almost 15 years seperate Peter Gabriel's launch of WE7 his new internet-based music download system from his first multimedia CD-Rom Xplora-1, the subject of an interview I did with him for The Independent (see below)

In 'How artists can earn in a won't pay world' for The Times, he writes eloquently and convincingly about what he sees as the future of music and the music industry, and the thinking that has gone into WE7. I have signed up as a musician (one of the categories). This is the e-mail I received:
The idea behind We7 is to create an opportunity for new bands to reach more potential fans and more importantly get paid for each download.The business model is simple; Fans Get Free Music - Artists Get Paid – Advertisers get Heard. As you have joined us at the very beginning the final commercial models are still being defined but in principle we expect to be able to get between 10-50p per download track from advertisers from which we pay 8% Mechanical fees to the PRS, 2% Bandwidth costs and then share the remainder 50/50 between us and you. However, your music will face the Tastemaker challenge and the We7 community will have the eventual decision on what bands/artists get generically published and hence make money.We have just gone live with our early demo site, ahead of creating our social network site to be launched in the early summer. By then we will have more automated mechanisms for you to download music and Meta data to be published.We will also have a community site widget that you will be able to add to Social Network sites, your own sites or your fans sites and every track downloaded will have a potential payment.

I'll be checking it out!
The revenge of the talking head

CD-Rom: one day all records will be made this way. And Peter Gabriel is already off the mark with Xplora 1. John May talks to him

[The Independent. 9 December 1993]

Peter Gabriel is at it again, transmuting himself into another medium, exploring yet another technical frontier. Fifteen year ago he began thinking of himself as an experience designer. Now it’s be­ginning to come into focus. The possible pretentiousness of that title is offset by his work in progress: the theme park ride, the multimedia CD-Rom disc and the Future Park in Barcelona.

We are drinking tea in a peaceful dining room in one of the creamy stone houses that make up his Real World complex in Box, set in the Wiltshire vales. Gabriel has grown a small moustache and beard around his month and chin. He wears an oversize patterned shirt and speaks softly.

"My dad came up with the first fibre-optic wired cable TV system in the world, with an Italian. It was for Rediffusion in this country, Had a prototype in Hastings. 1 grew up listening to him trying to cham­pion home shopping, pay-TV, electronic democracy. This was his battle, for this wondrous means of communication."

The main topic of our conversation is the new Real World product: one of the first interactive multime­dia CD-Rom discs issued by a major musician/artist. (Todd Rundgren is the other front-runner.)

In a year’s time that won't need explanation but right now this is what it is and what you get. CD-Rom discs look like compact discs, but they hold a vast amount of data, not just words but also video, stills and animation, all which are linked together in something that multimedia designers call, delightfully, an "entity model". You view them on your computer or on one of the new multiplayers linked to your television, like Phillips CD-I.

The disc divides into four sections: ‘US’, ‘Real World’, ‘Behind the Scenes’ and ‘Personal File’. Each of them are represented by an icon you can activate. Inside ‘US’ is all the artwork from the album, much of it animated, plus video clips and music. ‘Real World’ allows you to examine and listen to the entire Real World catalogue; to investigate and play some of the instruments used; to visit the Real World studios and see work in progress. You can remix one of Gabriel’s tracks by moving the levels on an on-screen mixer.

‘Behind the Scenes’ offers a map of the Womad concert site which you can explore. ‘Personal File’ is a suitcase full of Gabriel’s past, including his family photo album (click on the photos and they come alive as super-8 home movies and his Eternal Passport (open it by clicking on the cover and you bsee his animated passport photo endlessly cycle from baby to old man to skull and back). Gabrfiel is your guide on the side to all this, perched angelically as a little talking icon in the top corner of the screen.

Compared with a number of other multimedia discs, it’s fair to say that this one sets a very high standard. What is particularly pleasing is the design and colours. The use of natural textures for the background screen, like the sky and water, is extremely restful on the eye. There are lots of little tricks (a dinosaur wanders unexpectedly across the top of the screen) and care and attention to detail are obvious at every level. Only Apple users will be able to sample its delights at present but PC versions will follow.

The disc, called Xplora-1 (like a Martian space probe) contains, we are told, 100 minutes of video, more than 30 minutes of au­dio, over 100 full-colour photographic images and the equivalent of a book’s worth of text – 600 megabytes of data.

The project, which from conception to birth occupied 40 people for at least a year, originated with Steve Nelson of the appropriately named Brilliant Media, a San Francisco-based multimedia company. Gabriel, one of the life’s natural multimedia men, took to it instantly.

"I ended up, fortuitously, at an AT&T planning conference [in 1986]. I got onto this thing called Global Business Network who advise corporations on their future. They throw in odd people - like they had an anthropologist looking at the design for Nissan cars. They were talking about laying the in­formation highways using fibre optics. My opinion was that, if you put it down, the traffic will come.

His techno-frontier attitude goes down well in the US: "People believe its possible over there. They get excited, they support it, run with it and hope some of the magic will rub off on them. Here we sit back like a bunch of cynics.”

He recognises that his new project is just scratching the surface of a whole new medium and his Real World multimedia company is now aiming to have a dozen projects up and running within the next year.

"The role of the artist is changing in a sense that there's always been a linear route through a work of art before, and now we are providing an environment which may contain a linear route, but which is also a playground for people to go off and explore for themselves. So you can produce a finished piece of work and also collage kits. People may explore your forest or they may take your tree and put them in a dome.

“In the same way that we have a dictionary in our heads which provides with the tools for our communication though language, our kids or their kids will grow up with some kind of multimedia hieroglyphic capability.”

Interactive multimedia will, Gabriel believes, “fine a huge place in the markets the same as videos did”. And maybe he should know - he was in the forefront of that development too.
“What is possible is affected very much by what is believed to be possible," he says. Peter Gabriel, experience designer, is just warming up for the next Big Show.


According to Peter Gabriel's Wikipedia entry, Xplora-1 can no longer be played on modern PCs, due to changes to their operating systems.

The Barcelona Future Park, a collaboration with Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson never got off the ground.

Peter Gabriel's Home Page

Friday, May 04, 2007


Congrats to The Guardian for publishing an excellent G2 cover feature by Patrick Barkham raising serious alarm about the situation of urban trees. According to Barkham, an inquiry by the GLA will report next month on what it calls the "chainsaw massacre" of the capital's seven million trees.

Trees are battered by lorries, underminded by utility companies, threatened by new development and by health and safety legislation that make home owners and councils alike nervous about any mature tree that just might shed a limb at the wrong time. The insurance industry is blamed for making subsidence such a big peril in home owner's minds and both parties find it easiest to blame street trees.

This is a story that I know well enough, having spent five years editing Tree News magazine, during which time we must have had hundreds of desperate people calling on us to try and help them stop their favourite local tree (or trees) being cut down for no good reason. Such was the level of concern that we realised this was a national issue of great importance and covered the subject intensely. We also got directly involved in several major campaigns - winning some, losing others.

Campaigning to save a tree is a desperate and emotionally charged business; you wake up in the middle of the night, exhausted, wondering how much longer you can keep up the fight, and knowing that you are now responsible for whether the tree lives or dies.

You can still find the article I did on Network Rail, who were carrying out a nationwide cull
of mature trees near the tracks in order to deal with the 'leaves on the line' issue. Churchyards have had their trees demiated despite the guidance laid down by the Church of England which encourages their preservation of God's little acre. Everywhere it seems, our treescape is being damaged at the same time that we are all being encouraged to plant new trees. But its the older ones that we need to look after.

Successive governments have been very slow to recognise the problem and the existing tree campaigning groups are not set up to really tackle the problem either - because they don't have the resources or the inclination. The Ancient Tree Forum will help if they can to bolster a local campaign if the tree falls inside their remit and their site gives some useful background information.

But most tree issues are fought by lone and local campaigners for whom, at present, there is no proper advice and back-up to support their efforts. In my view it really needs a new web-based organisation who can both monitor the scale of the problem and provide the legal and media advice necessary for a successful outcome.

Sometimes trees do have to be removed because they genuinely do pose a danger but far too many are disappearing because of the percieved rather than real threat they pose. Councils would do well to check the legal precedents: as long as it can be demonstrated that a tree has been under active management, the council is legally protected if branch drop should crush a car or hurt a child.

In many councils, the care of trees is a minor issue. The Tree Officers are often trying to manage a huge area with limited resources and trees are a minor consideration when it comes to planning matters.

We urgently need to maintain our urban trees which add such value to urban life. All political parties should give this issue a much higher priority. By all means pour money into tree-planting schemes (and aftercare) but maintaining our mature trees is of equal if not greater importance.

'Urban Eden' lobby group fights to save CMK's trees (Milton Keynes Citizen 4 April 2007)
Planners blazing a trail for expansion are taking out city centre trees like a hurricane through a pine forest, according to critics. New lobby group Urban Eden is claiming something in the order of 4,000 trees in Central Milton Keynes alone are endangered through schemes to overhaul boulevards and make them more bus friendly. Many had already gone. Its mapping of the alleged devastation, supplied exclusively to the Citizen, makes a tally of more than 1,300 trees already axed, 750 with planning permission for felling, some 2,200 at "strong potential risk" and a further 280 in town squares at "serious risk".

'Those who walk under trees are at risk from these terrorising inspectors.' Simon Jenkins. (The Guardian November 17, 2006)

Farewell to the leafy suburb (The Telegraph. 23/10/2004). Insurance companies pay out millions every year to settle subsidence claims. What they want, increasingly, is to cut the prime offenders down to size. Bad news for trees, says Sarah Lonsdale

'Why Tianeman Square could go from red to green' (The Guardian).
[See architect's concept (right)]

'A plan takes root: City to plant more than 100,000 trees' (Boston Globe)


Have just been exploring the NASA photo archives. More delights to come.

'Even bubbles are more interesting in space. Here, a water bubble floats freely on the International Space Station, showing an image of Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao. Chiao's picture is upside down because light is refracted, or bent, as it passes from one medium to another -- in this case, air to water. The same effect produces rainbows when light passes through raindrops in the air.'

Credit: NASA

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Interesting benchmarks this week on the state of play of the greening of the IT industry.

According to ‘Industry must clean up its act’ by Sarah Arnott and Tom Young, Computing (03 May 2007), the IT industry contributes two per cent of all damaging carbon emissions putting the industry on a par with the aviation sector, according to the analyst Gartner. The two per cent figure includes both computer usage and the energy used to design, manufacture and distribute products and is considered a conservative estimate. But experts say IT also has more potential for speedy improvement than industries such as transport and manufacturing.

This week also Steve Jobs, stung by various criticisms about Apple’s environment policies, published a comprehensive rebuttal to criticisms of his company. See: ‘A Greener Apple.’ Jobs was responding to the Greenpeace's 'Green My Apple' campaign that had been lobbying the company to change their ways.

In September 2006, Greenpeace published a "Guide to Greener Electronics," rating fourteen consumer electronics vendors and issued a press release that specifically called attention to Apple and assigned the company a failing grade. Not everyone agreed with its findings.

See: 'Top Secret: Greenpeace Report Misleading and Incompetent' on the blog Roughly Drafted. See also 'More Secrets: The Scandal of Green Computing' and Myth 2: Greenpeace Toxic Apple Panic

Greenpeace had earlier published a report "Cutting Edge Contamination — A Study of Environmental Pollution During the Manufacture of Electronic Products" (8 February 2007), which highlights environmental contamination resulting from the manufacture of electronic equipment such as computers.

According to an analysis by Gartner, ‘Greenpeace Report a Wake-Up Call for the IT Industry’ by Simon Mingay (13 February 2007): ‘The IT industry will increasingly face investigations from environmental pressure groups, specifically related to chemical contamination, greenhouse gas emissions (mostly related to power consumption throughout a product's life cycle, including manufacture and distribution) and "profligate" use of nonrenewable resources. Investors will also want proof of the industry's environmental credentials.’

He concludes: ‘We believe there will be dramatic changes in 2007 and 2008 in enterprises' attitudes toward the environmental impact of IT (especially outside the U.S.), which will be reflected in buying criteria. The catalyst for these changes will be concerns about climate change.’

2 Jan 2007: The EC Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) came into force in the UK. It aims to minimise the impact of electrical and electronic goods on the environment, by increasing re-use and recycling and reducing the amount of WEEE going to landfill. It seeks to achieve this by making producers responsible for financing the collection, treatment, and recovery of waste electrical equipment, and by obliging distributors to allow consumers to return their waste equipment free of charge.

24 August 2006, Computing launched a Green Computing Charter to help to reduce IT operating costs and benefit the environment


A lot of people are confused by Vanity Fair - as in where on earth is it coming from? As a long-time regular reader I would say it is celebrity-drenched and focused - sometimes sickeningly so - but this is combined with some of the best investigative journalism around, funded to the max. Its an odd mixture but it works for me, although generally the magazine is not quite as sharp as it used to be. It does have an exemplary record for challenging George Bush and has consistently exposed major issues to do with Iraq and the War on Terror. It makes virtually all UK magazines look rather paltry and underfed, rather limited and timid, by comparison.

This second annual Green Issue is, by any standards, a winner. Get up to date with some key global issues - there are hours of important reading here and all are backed up with lots of links and further research on their excellent website. A thorough and important job. I thought it was worth examining in detail.

Right from the off: the cover is a photomontage. Leo was photographed by Annie Liebovitz on a glacier in Iceland; the bear (named Knut and born in captivity) in Berlin Zoo.

[Worth checking out the latest Canadian controversy, documented in this story in the Christian Science Monitor, which challenges whether polar bears are as endangered as is being made out by WWF, who claim that because of global warming, the bears could be extinct by the turn of the century]

(This 240pp-glossy mag obviously generates its own carbon footprint. They explain inside that they worked with The CarbonNeutral Company to 'offset' that. Of course, the whole concept of 'offsetting' is a thorny one).

Leonardo Dicaprio is following Al Gore's lead and has directed and produced a documentary 'The Eleventh Hour' that that will have its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

James Wolcott weighs into Rush Limbaugh - one of the world's foremost global warming scoffers. Wolcott is a style king with a sting like a viper, a pair of teeth like a wolverine and a knack for incendiary phrase-making. He wades into Limbaugh, shreds any credibility he might have, and paws over the entrails. Rush, he says: 'has injected millions of semi-vacant American skulls with a cream filling of complacency that has helped thrust this country into the forefront of backward leadership.'

In 'A Convenient Untruth', Michael Shnayerson does the same effective job - in a more restrained and forensic manner - on Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organisation that was given more than $2m by ExxonMobil (1998-2005); during this same period, ExxonMobil spent a reported $16m in total, funding climate change studies at some three dozen institutes. VF trailer the story: ' For the obligatory "opposing" view on climate change, the media often turn to Myron Ebell, policy analyst, sound-bite artist and oil-industry mouthpiece. While mainstream experts see global warming as a major crisis, the hotter it gets, the better Ebell likes it.' This piece effectively shreds and exposes Ebell's tarnished position.

'The Rise of Big Water' by Charles C. Mann is a genuinely disturbing piece on the state of the world's freshwater and how a small number of companies are taking over the ownership of municipal water systems around the globe. The world's top three water companies are all European -Veolia, Suez and Thames Water (now owned by a consortium headed by Macquarie, Australia's biggest investment). According to the UN, by 2000, governments in 93 nations had begun to privatise their drinking-water and wastewater service. Mann reports first-hand from China where the situation is already looking desperate. This issue is going to hit us a long time before global warming; as it is, one person out of every three on the planet lacks reliable access to fresh water.

'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Throne' by Michael Shnayerson claims that Prince Charles is now an environmental hero. This obviously plays in America but not over here. Nuff said.

'An Eco-System of One's Own' by Alex Shyoumatoff 'explores the global impact of the average American routine. Sidebars highlight four seminal climate-change reports and looks at Food Labelling.

'Jungle Law' by William Langewiesche: 'In a forsaken little town in the Ecuadorian Amazon, an overgrown oil camp called Lago Agrio, the giant Chevron Corporation has been maneuvered into a makeshift courtroom and is being sued to answer for conditions in 1,700 miles of rain forest said by environmentalists to be one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites.' [The piece runs over 17 pages !! Can you imagine a British magazine doing that!]

In a complementary piece - 'The Gasping Forest' - Alex Shoumatoff spends four weeks travelling across the Amazon, from the Andes to the Atlantic coast, and discovers that a combination of global warming and deforestation are dehydrating the Amazon basin. There always have been drought periods in the past but there used to be time for the forest to recover. Now the droughts are coming hard and fast. Noone is sure exactly where the tipping point is but one computer model has the Amazon completing the transformation to savanna by 2080.

Finally 'Quiet Thunder', by Michael Shnayerson profiles Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal, the man with a NASA contract for the next space shuttle, who is now funding the first new major car company for America for decades, in Silicon Valley. They are building the world's first high-performance electric sports car - the $92,000 Tesla - which can go from 0 to 60 in four seconds. It runs on lithium ion batteries and takes 3.5 hours for a complete recharge. The company is aiming to scale up its operations and be a producing a$30,000 mass-market car by 2010. Musk believes this is the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine.

See: VF: The Green Issue

"Mitigation of Climate Change", the third volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, will be launched in Bangkok tomorrow. It will claim that there is now 90% certainty (up from 66% from the last 2001 report) that it is "very likely" that human are the cause of climate change.

'What the report's authors (some 600 scientists) are absolutely certain of is that the world's climate is changing in a very significant way and will continue to do so in the forseaable future.' [Adam Spangler/Vanity Fair]

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


KURT VONNEGUT (1922-2007)

A Roy Knipe illustration, first published in 'An Index of Possibilities' (Wildwood House. 1974)
to accompany an extract from an interview he did with Playboy magazine, in which he talks about going to see the last moon shot. He said: 'It's a tremendous space fuck, and there's some kind of conspiracy to suppress that fact.' The original of the illustration was bought by his wife Jill Krementz as a present for Vonnegut. [Thanks to Roy for giving us permission to use it]

Last Friday, Mark Vonnegut, a paedatrician named by his father after Mark Twain, delivered the speech his father had planned to give at Butler University in Indianapolis as part of The Year of Vonnegut celebrations, consisting of a wide range of events including readings and forums intended to encourage people to visit libraries. The last sentence olf the speech was: "I thank you for your attention, and I‘m outta here." Mayor Bart Peterson presented Vonnegut‘s widow, Jill Krementz, a proclamation designating April 27th as Kurt Vonnegut Day in Indianapolis. Vonnegut's affluent German-American ancestors played a key role in the city‘s early development, and his paternal grandfather was a prominent architect who designed several Indianapolis landmarks.

Obituary: New York Times

Works by Kurt Vonnegut:Player Piano (1951), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Canary in a Cat House (1961), Mother Night (1961), Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965), Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Happy Birthday, Wanda June [play] (1971), Between Time and Timbuktu [TV script] (1972), Breakfast of Champions (1973), Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974), Slapstick (1976), Jailbird (1979), Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage [essays] (1981), Deadeye Dick (1982), Galapagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), Hocus Pocus (1990), Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s [essays] (1991), Timequake (1997), A Man Without a Country [essays] (2005).

See: Wikipedia and The Vonnegut Web

Audio interviews: Wired for Books and Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society

You Tube videos

Kurt Vonnegut: Me, Myself and I: An edited version of the interview he gave to 'The Paris Review'.