A telling ellipsis

The album isn’t dead, the popular is just less relavent.

In the last few day’s I’ve seen several articles about the death of pop music from The Guardian and Russia Today to name two. For me this is part of a wider trend which encompases all aspects of society from the constant growth expected from major companies to the need for sports teams to always be going a step further than they did before. In the world after the internet has become mainstream it is possible to find almost anything you can think of and, to carry on using music as a primary example, that means that the entire history of recorded music is now concurrant and available. If people ask the question ‘what is the best decade in the history of popular music?’ there is no question that from now on it will always be the present.

I need to clarify that point, I don’t necessarily mean that the chart singles of today are better than the chart singles of yesturday but the ones from yesturday are still available. The internet allows communities to become smaller and more specific. Metal has shown that if you really like a particular song by a favorite band, say The Beatle’s Helter Skelter, start your band and you can play with those concepts and drive music to a heavier place. To me the early Black Sabbath Records sound like an extrapolation of Helter Skelter in many ways and then again, for example., you also have the rise of the grunge sound in the early 90s as an example two friends, Kurt Cobain and Dylan Carlson took very similar concepts in very different directions with Carlson even borrowing Sabbath’s original name for his band Earth. You later see SunnO))) form as an Earth cover band which today sount nothing alike, comparing Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light releases with SunnO)))’s Monolith’s and Dimensions, although ostencibly the same genre, is basically pointless.

Music builds on the shoulders of the people before and it’s never been more the case. Pop music has gone from being the only music which was available, to the only music you hear regularly and finally on to being the music which people who don’t really like music listen to. If you have an even passing interest in listening to music you look past Mumford and Sons you’ll find an entire rabbit warren of (significantly better) indie rock and folk rock just waiting to be discovered and pretty soon you’ll be at Beautiful Days or an ATP and you’ll have left pop behind for an altogether more interesting experiance. If you hear a sound you like on an album today you can take that sound for your own band and extrapolate it as a musician or as a listener you can follow that sound back through the last century of musical output and uncover whole worlds. You can do all that by spending half an hour on wikipedia and youtube.

So I’m saying yeah, the pop album is dead, or if not dead obsolete for music fans. The mainstream can run with their 99p singles on iTunes, some songs are meant to be enjoyed for 2 minutes in isolation. Some songs are meant to pound away seeminly endlesly at night clubs, some songs only work in a field with a huge crowd but some songs are placed in a precise order for particular reasons. I’ll end with the example of Ayreon’s 2013 album The Theory of Everything; 42 sections over 4 tracks on 2 CDs designed specifically to ape the format of the LP and to enforce the album as a concept. It’s both a throwback to the 70s, even featuring Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Steve Hakett as guest musicians, but it’s also something new, a new sound distinct from Arjen’s older work. When I got the album I cleared a block of an hour and a half to listen to it on my good headphones and to read along with the booklet, to explore the story find meaning in the melodies. The Theory of Everything proves to me that the album is alive and well it just doesn’t care if it’s on Radio 1.

Emergent knowledge management from data capture

In the past I’ve gone on record as saying that I’m interested in metadata, probably slightly more than the next man. I thought that the statement could probably do with a little explanation.

To me metadata represents two incredibly important elements of any information system. Firstly it is key to the structure of the data/information/knowledge in the system and secondly it is key to getting access to that data. In an enterprise setting data is collected from a number of sources automatically and manually for a variety of reasons. In order to maximise the efficiency of the systems we run we make as much of that automatic as we possibly can. That means reducing the number of times it has to be manually entered by piping data around which means having robust and clear metadata to ensure the connections are consistent. By automating processes we also improve data quality.

The part that is particularly interesting is leveraging the data in one record and using it as descriptive metadata for another. For example in an ideal world if you wanted to record a meeting in a CRM system the ideal is to create the record using an already existing calendar entry. By doing that we capture metadata such as, meeting title, date, time, location and attendees which then forms the basis of the CRM record. We can also potentially automate that process to further reduce the burden on a user. Once that new record is populated we can take that data and use it to feed a timesheet as well. With those combined records it would be possible to populate a knowledge base to aid internal communication and so on.

The key part is that all sorts of data is gathered by users on behalf of organisations. I believe that it is the duty of the organisation to make that process as painless as possible by automating capture. In addition to that it vital that through intelligent linking of databases the data can be presented to the same user in a way that is more useful than it would have been if they had kept it to themselves. In that way the data is verified by the source, it is useful in a wider context and it uniformly reported allowing for better decisions to be made on the back of it.

The reason I’m passionate about the topic is because, as well as making sure that high quality data is available in the right formats, connecting data produces new information. As information is data with context providing new context for data is inherently useful for an organisation as it creates new information. If that information is also then codified, again hopefully automatically, new context can be provided to the information in turn providing even more information. I consider this to be, at its core a knowledge management process. Through repeated cycles of codification and contextualising knowledge management becomes an emergent phenomenon and allows a unit to gain a better understanding of how it works and how it can work better.

Replacing Google Reader

Now that there is less than a month until Google Reeder goes away for good it’s time for people to decide what to do with their RSS subscriptions. Considering that Reader has been the standard for so long and was free there has been a real decline in the area. Once apps like NetNewsWire were popular and even the RSS viewers built into Mail and Outlook were OK. Once the behemoth that it Google shut down all competition though there sector more or less shut down. Now that Google are leaving the game innovation can once again flourish and staggering number of new alternatives have emerged. At the time of writing this I haven’t done a huge amount of research into what the alternatives are so this isn’t going to be a post going into details about them.

As I see it the two main contenders at the moment are Feedly and _David Smith’s FeedWrangler. The first is a free service which is looking to put out an API and seems to be positioning itself to replace Reader wholesale. At the moment it doesn’t look like the company behind Feedly have a way of making money, they have said that they are looking at providing a freemium model similar to Evernote’s with premium subscribers getting extra features and subsidising the free users. FeedWrangler is taking more of an ADN approach where you get access to the service for around $20 a year. Based on _David Smith’s popularity I would imagine that it won’t take long for that to become sustainable if it isn’t already. There are others out there like Feedbin and The Old Reader which are getting their names out there as well.

I’m not too sure which one I’m going to choose to go with yet so there are a couple of features that I’m really interested in hearing more about before I decide. The most important ones are third party app support, sustainability, cross platform use and IFTTT integration. At the moment it isn’t entirely clear how things are going to shake down on any of those fronts. At least not in terms of which service is going to do each best, both Feedly and FeedWrangler support have been announced for Reeder, my RSS app of choice on iOS and the Mac. Feedbin support is already included in Reeder though so I have to keep that on the table as well.

With that in mind I’ve decided that as Feedly is free it makes sense to set up an account now to make sure that my RSS data isn’t locked into Reader come the big switch off. I’ll also be exporting my data using the Google exporter tools nearer the time (just in case I find new and interesting feeds in the mean time). In the longer term it’s going to be a case of seeing how things pan out and where the features fall. Personally I’m trying to move away from “free” services where I can so that the relationships I have with service providers is clearer. Google reader closing is going to be good for me in that regard because it will open the doors to people who are less creepy and hopefully more innovative. At the moment it’s really to hard to tell what each of these new services offers though so using a free alternative in the short term seems prudent.

Putting some paper back

I’ve been completly paperless in the way I work for a while now. Considering the ammount of my free time I spend thinking about workflows and productivity you’d have thought that I’ve have written more about that and how I do it but there are enough people doing that already. If you want to know more Jamie Todd Rubin’s blog is a great place to start. If you’re interested in productivity type topics and for some reason don’t listen to Back to Work it’s well worth your time. My goal is to make the process of doing the things that I need to do as invisible as possible and to that end I’ve seperated doing things from ingesting productivity tip and tools. As I have a day job that’s pretty simple. If I’m at work I’m using my systems and tools and when I’m not at work I can fiddle.

I recently noticed that there is a gap in my workflow which at the moment isn’t causing me any problems but in the future could turn into a bigger deal. I primarily manage my work (personal and professional) using three tools. A place to write down things I have to do, a place to keep information and a place to keep lists. I don’t use lists for things I have to do because I don’t find them helpful in that regard, lists for me a normally temporary: numbers I have to remember for a task at work or a shopping list for example. I think of the other two elements as linked the things I have to do I think of a questions and the information is the answers.

The tools that I use a pretty irrelevant to be honest but I’ll run over them quickly anyway and cover a bit of my reasoning. Lists must be digital for me, I have to be able to reorganise them and hide completed items, I use Clearhttp://www.realmacsoftware.com/clear/) unless I need to share a list for some reason in which case I just use Reminders on iOS. Things I have to do all go in Omnifocus at the moment. I haven’t taken the plunge and got the full suite so I’m using it on the iOS only and I’m sure I’m missing out but that is partly to reduce the cost and partly because I have to use windows at work anyway. For storing information I’m using Evernote I’ve been a premium subscriber, primarily for offline notes on iOS, for several years now and have a lot of IFTTT feeds to make getting things into it easier.

The part that I think is missing is an easy way to capture commentary on the process. Things to do go straight into Omnifocus, information (including meeting notes, instructions on how to complete tasks and so on) goes straight into Evernote. I have decided that I’m going to introduce a paper process back into my workflow so that I can capture that commentary. It might mean some duplication (depending on how well Evernote parses my handwriting) but it will ensure that the things I keep have more long term value.

To that end I’ve started listening to The Pen Addict podcast to try to get motivated about writing and the tools of writing. I’ve always thought that if I have something beautiful and well made I’m more likely to use it and also there is a better chance of me using it well. Hence my tea sets and my Apple products. There was already a half used Moleskine on my desk so I’m going to try adding some paper back into my life. The first thing I’ve noticed is that after all this time my handwriting isn’t much good.

Fresh questions for Amazon over pittance it pays in tax

MPs are ready to haul Amazon back to parliament to answer new questions about its tax status in Britain after a Guardian investigation’s findings suggest the online retailer is pushing the tax rulebook to its limits to minimise its tax bill.

The reason we have our stupid governmental structure is partly to ensure that immoral companies like amazon are required by law to pull their weight. Amazon exist exclusively to make money and they can do that best by pretending to be based in Luxembourg, it isn’t right but it’s probably correct for them.

The government needs to make sure that taxes are collected from them, all the outrage sounds, to me, like fear that someone realised they haven’t been doing their jobs. Our lawmakers have left loopholes which allow organisations that exist solely for the accumulation of wealth to do that more efficiently. I don’t think people should be surprised that they explain them.

British children’s unauthorised app spending may be £30.9m a month

28% of parents surveyed said that their children had made app and in-app purchases without their permission, and of those parents, 83% said they had suffered from “bill shock” – noticing an increase in their “monthly bill statement” – as a result.

I don’t get it, I can’t imagine allowing kids to make purchases at all. The features are there to prevent them and you don’t just let kids have your credit card details. Or do you I don’t know!

Chat heads

Facebook very very rarely does anything I think is cool but I have to admit they’ve done it with chat heads. It’s a great idea. Especially on Android where is can be over the top of any app and has SMS integration. Truthfully if I saw something like that in iOS 7 I’d be happy that they’d copied it.

http://mobile.theverge.com/2013/4/16/4230274/facebook-6-0-for-ipad-and-iphone-hands-on-with-chat-heads-stickers

All excited about the dawn of consumer VR

When I was growing up there was a particular brand of technological determinism which focused on the potential evils of virtual realities. A reputation largely stemming from games like Doom and their perceived, though I think largely unfounded, connections with real world violence. I was 13 in 1999 when violent games were one of the scapegoats chosen in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre and it seems logical that the way that was reported at the time has stayed with me. With that background in mind it lets fast forward almost exactly 14 years to March 2013 and the imminent release of the developer kits for the Oculus Rift VR system. Although the nightmares of a decade ago are not forgotten VR is a step closer to being a reality. Various high profile game developers are on board with the system Epic Games will be updating the Unreal Engine 3 with the kit to developers and Valve’s Team Fortress 2 will be available to play at launch. Far from the fear that I remember from my childhood there is a palpable excitement in the gaming press and the tech press at the moment about the launch. While the Oculus Rift is a long way from the full VR experiences set out in works such as Ready Player One or even the one built for the The Gadget Show the $300 3D enabled visor is clearly the first step along the path to a more immersive VR experience.

There is a preoccupation at the moment with using the technology to support first person shooters which is concerning to some commentators, evidenced by the list of games which have announced an intention to support for the product. As was noted in the Oculus Rift Panel at SXSW though, the technology is almost entirely unexplored. The dev kit that is shipping this month will be the first time people get to use it at all and they are unsure how to even render objects convincingly let alone how to design a completely new gaming experience. For now first person games are a logical fit because they are the games in which the player inhabits their character most completely. That doesn’t mean that shooters are the future of the technology, just that they are the most logical first step given gamings past. I’m sure that does nothing to placate the, not insignificant number, of people who believe gaming is an evil which needs to be stopped though.

As a gamer I have to say that I am not particularly interested in actively partaking in VR at this stage in it’s development, after all the dev kits are only just getting into the hands of developers this week. I play almost no first person games and prefer styalised indy titles to immersive, realistic AAA games. The reason that I am interested in the Oculus Rift is not because I can see myself owning one in the near future but rather because it represents the first step towards a new paradigm of human computer interface design far beyond merely the confines of gaming. When I think of VR I’m less interested in the Ready Player One scenario than I am in the Zion control room from the Matrix movies (for those who have blanked the second and third films from their minds those were the people in the pure white room who didn’t live in the Matrix, they jacked into similar system to control the city’s computers) or the forums from Ghost in the Shell: SAC where Major Kusanagi appears as an avatar in a virtual room. My conjecture has always been that computer technology is at its best when it is invisible. I said that in my first impressions post regarding the iPad mini and I still believe it to be true. One of the great strengths that iOS has as an operating system is the fluidity of its animations and the logical way they play out. Many people have said that the little touches like that are why they perceive apple products to be no more than toys and deride OSX and iOS users on the back of them. I would argue that it is those little touches and small factors like the lack of physical buttons on the devices and the introduction of reverse scrolling in Lion are what make the devises so easy to use and understand. Imagine then a virtual world where technology could be truly invisible and there were no usability tradeoffs which Apple and others make NYC hiding or removing all the buttons.

I can see a future in which VR I used in gaming convincingly, though in the short term it is more likely to be in the same way that 3D is used in films today. As long as hardware becomes cheaper, or at least more commonplace, I think that it will catch on with a certain section of the audience. It doesn’t seem to me that every Wii owner is going to be jumping on the bandwagon, but I can see it gaining more traction than something like Ifinity in spite of the obvious parallels in what they are trying to achieve. Where I see VR being of real interest is in the other areas that I’ve mentioned, maybe combined with a technology like the Leap Motion. There it falls into a similar bracket in my view to Augmented Reality or Wearable computing. As those mobile devices Google Glass the rumoured iWatch, even just smartphones and tablets, get more powerful the home computer is becoming increasingly obsolete for many users. I can easily see some sort of VR system fitting into that space. There are possibilities for telepresence and home working as well as the ability to completely rethink how data is displayed that I think a world of Big Data and an increasingly mobile workforce may need. Again I’m thinking of the terminals the non-cyborg members of Section 9 use in Ghost in the Shell, simply adding a VR view as the display device for a modern computer to allow different interactions with data.

In the short term first person games are an obvious fit for a VR technology. In the future though I think that there are possibilities for data visualisation and manipulation that are far more interesting prospects than a new way to play Myst. To go full circle though if I can watch films in a virtual cinema, get together to play board games with friends in other parts of the world in a virtual room or even have a virtual couch-multiplayer experience then there’s a gaming element to the technology beyond simple immersion that I think has very exciting possibilities. Right now the Oculus Rift is opening the door to entire worlds of possibility which have never been possible before in human computer interaction. I’m not going to rush out and buy one for the next Battlefield or Call of Duty game but I’m going to be watching the space with a very keen eye.

Forecast.io

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the beta of Forecast.io the new global weather service from the minds behind Dark Sky for iPhone. Weather apps have been a bugbear of mine since I first got my iPhone because their goals are never aligned with mine and their data is always so patchy. That is until Dark Sky came on the scene via Kickstarter last year. At that point I just became intensely jealous of people who lived in America and could try out the amazing sounding new app. Now that Forecast has been launched the rest of the world can give it a shot.

I’m being a bit disingenuous by generalising that much because Forecast is more than just a broadening of the coverage of Dark Sky. The app is a fully featured weather service complete with 7 day forecasting, current conditions and summaries as well as Dark Sky’s killer app (for me at least) the next hour section. As well as all of that there are detailed radar views at local, regional and global scales, the Time Machine feature for historical trends and even a developer API.

I’ve been using Forecast since the end of January and I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the data. It has lately compared favourably in forecasting to the Met Office and BBC weather forecasts I usually use. It is in comparison to the apps available that it really shines though. No matter how pretty the apps are the data in them always seems to include the UK as an afterthought and is often completely inaccurate, the Yahoo! weather service Apple use is no exception. With its official launch Forecast now runs on mobile devices as well as the desktop and I’m looking forward to using it on my phone.

For me as I mentioned the Next Hour section is the real killer app here. Forecast claims to be able to tell you when it’s going to rain to within minutes and how long the showers/flurries will last. I had heard accusations of witchcraft when Dark Sky came out in the US because it was so accurate and I’m hoping for similar things from Forecast over here. That said the feature was only added to the beta very recently and I haven’t really tested it. Now it’s on the phone though it will be easier to monitor.

Forecast is available as a web app on all devices right now. Just point your favourite browser to forecast.io and have a play with it. At the moment it is free with (very unobtrusive) ad support. Currently it’s running an ad for Instapaper, a favourite app of mine, which I think bodes well.

On top of that the Dark Sky Company have announced that it doesn’t mean the end of the app that started it all, far from it. An update is due in the next few weeks bringing UK support as well as other improvements. Hopefully this all means I can finally stop trying new weather apps and have one that suits my use case, only time will tell.

The Apple iWatch

The patent describes a device with a flexible, multitouch display that can display things like text messages or other notifications. This largely matches the basic functionality described in recent iWatch rumors, though the patent goes a step further to describe a possible solar panel underneath the display for power, as well as a "kinetic energy gathering component, wherein the battery can be trickle charged."

Personally I haven’t worn a watch for over a decade and I’m not sure that Apple releasing one will change that. Despite the mocking tone of this article I think the idea has some merit.

With this thing floating around and Google Glass out there, wearable computing could turn out to be pretty cool. Definitely something that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Link via Ars Tehnica