Musical Meandering

August 30, 2009

I can’t decide if I am a Geek or a Luddite. Sometimes I ache for the latest tech-toys, and sometimes I shun them like the Amish avoiding buttons. Blogs and wikis ? Love ’em. Facebook and Twitter ? What IS the point ? Laptop computers ? Can’t live without them. Mobile phones ? Don’t even own one.

So I am pleased to report that my latest toy testing has been a success. I have dipped my finger into the honeypot of internet radio and it has come out tasting sweet. This was not a foregone conclusion. My normal listening pattern is  80% Radio Four, 15% Planet Rock, and 5% Radio Three. Yet all this time a larger world lay undiscovered…. Of course, being an astronomer, I found myself compelled to classify what I found on my voyages.

(1) Same old same old.  Some sites are just web faces of normal radio stations –  eg

The last one is for feeding my Californian nostalgia.

(2) Same but more so. Some internet radio stations are are pretty much like normal radio stations, but in classic internet style, the whole world is there for your pleasure. Some I found and liked :

  • Radio XRadio Indie and 3WK are Indie/Underground channels
  • Accuradio says its for grown ups. It has some classical stuff, but I just loved the Bluegrass channel.
  • SOMA FM is a San Francisco underground station . SOMA means “South of Market” , a bohemian area
  • Resonance104.4 has speech and arty stuff
  • Radio Paradise is from Paradise CA, and has no ads !!

(3) Pre-canned. Some internet radio stations are really podcasts : pre-recorded shows, chatty hosts etc. Some examples :

  • Scottish Internet Radio – blues and folk music.
  • Garage Punk – err… garage punk.
  • Magnatune – particularly good classical stuff. Magnatune is interesting for all sorts of other reasons. It may bring down the evil record labels.. More another time.

(4) Enquire Within Upon Everything. Some are web sites are aggregators. This is another internet tradition of course. As soon as something gets popular, suddenly there are hundreds of ’em and Joe Public gets confused and dismayed… but then The Portals come riding to the rescue. Fear ye not, its all here, and we have categorised it for you !  Some examples :

iTunes may seem out of place, but as well as all those 99p tracks, it gives you loads of free radio stations and podcasts. Somewhere in these tangled thickets you can find marvelous stuff – for example Anuraag, a station with 100% Indian classical music. Try finding that on your usual FM radio.

(4.1) The people shall be heard. Now for the Web 2.0 bit …the first three of those aggregators are also station hosters. Now any spotty teenager can make their own radio station. Sign up, download the software, prepare your playlist, cough up $10 a month … and you’re off.  This is like musical blogging and I am guessing its the same mixture of absolutely wonderful and toe curlingly awful. Haven’t really had time yet to do a sampling.

(5) Music on Demand
The new thing is internet jukeboxes. These sites have vast searchable collections of recorded music. You can type in “Madonna” or “New Riders of the Purple Sage”, and get a list of tracks to play. Unlike iTunes, where you pay per track, its free as long as you listen to the adverts; or you can pay a subscription to get rid of the ads. They also offer complete albums for sale, and a radio mode, where you can listen to a themed stream. There are now a lot of these. Here’s a few examples  :

  • Spotify Actually a downloadable application. You can make your own playlist. Very impressive but not complete list. They’ve got Terry Riley but not Led Zeppelin.
  • Last FM Probably my favourite, partly because there is a Firefox toolbar interface, called Fire FM. The streamed radio, rather than having fixed categories like Spotify, creates streams of your selected artist, and offers “similar artists” so you can meander pleasantly through musical space. I typed “Bartok”, started “Bartok Radio”, and was offered Schonberg, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Messiaen, and others. Not bad. It also has pretty good information on every featured artist. All this works better on the Fire FM version I think.
  • Jango Very similar to Last FM  – start an artist-centred stream, get some suggestions of related artist. Somehow I don’t quite like it as much as Last FM. Its all a bit too busy and confusing and I couldn’t make it work the way I expected. Or maybe thats me getting old.

(6) Weird shit. As usual with internetty things, its great for finding stuff far out on the long tail. Some musical websites are just very very weird indeed. In increasing order of weirdness :

  • Birdsong radio Very relaxin’.
  • Orange county anarchist radio Only on an hour a day. Presumably broadcast from a van parked somewhere different every week.
  • Sound Transit My favourite ! Design a journey around the world and get a sequence of recorded sound effects. Mesmeric. Try it.
  • Weirdsville Err …what it says on the tin. I love it. You’ll hate it.

Thats all folks. Happy Listening.


Pointless Babble

August 28, 2009

Only 40% ?? Amazing. Genuinely newsworthy.


Euroscope vote : last chance

August 27, 2009

Finished that input to the Large Facilities Review ? OK. Next. Insert your penny’s worth into the European Telescope Strategy Review. This is part of the whole Astronet Roadmap for European Astronomy thing. This particular exercise is about the future of our 2-4m class telescopes.  In the era of 8m telescopes, with ELT on the horizon, and money getting tighter, what should we do with these older telescopes ? Keep ’em going ? Bin them ? Re-purpose them ? Or a bit of all three ? (As PI of UKIDSS, you can probably guess my answer… keep UKIRT going !!)

This is one that every academic and postdoc can make a difference to I think. The panel really want to know what the community thinks, and the input requested is free-form comment rather than another one of those “do you think a, b, or c ?” type questionnaires.

But time is nearly up ! Deadline 31st August. Thats Monday ….

ps UKIDSS just passed the 100 papers mark…


Big Kit Vote Trap

August 18, 2009

Just in case you felt bored, here’s another consulation.

(I spotted this while catching up on Paul Crowther’s amazing comprehensive STFC Funding Crisis website. How does he keep it up ? Should we officially declare him a National Treasure ?)

Anyhoo. This one is about the RCUK Large Facilities Roadmap. On the list of “emerging facilities” i.e. “things we might give money to” are four astro things – Cherenkov Telescope Array, Einstein (3G grav waves), ELT, and SKA. Get your vote in. I see that ELT got a pretty good economic impact plug. Is this a good sign ?

However, as John Peacock reminded us recently, it ain’t clear that taking money from the LFCF is a good thing. These capital investments are a loan from the Treasury, which have to be paid back. Allocations to research councils include ear-marked amounts which allow them to pay their current debts back to Treasury spread over some years.  Err… I hear you say … so why give them this money at all, if it just whistles past invisibly ? Why, so Government can boast of what a fantastic large allocation they have been given ! It took us quite some time before we realised how crap STFC’s real allocation was. Well, when I say “we”, I expect Keef and Richard understood this all the time but were too embarassed to explain it.

John’s conclusion was that this is dodgy money and we should steer clear. I’m not sure thats right. Surely now we have learned about this trick we can watch the pea under the cup next time ?


Sex Lives of Famous Astronomers

August 18, 2009

Ha. That got your attention.

Well, my last post, a profound analysis of the links between Linux and anarcho-syndicalist communes, got the lowest readership for weeks. Right. Now I ‘ve got you, I need to explain my firm views on certain procedural subtleties in last year’s Research Assessment Exercise. It seems … where are you going ? Sit down. As I was saying, procedural subtleties. My analysis shows beyond any doubt, with only a slight adjustment of the prior, that the connection between … what are you doing now ? What do you mean, was that the door ?  Look, at least I don’t give you long essays about my cat’s diseases and how impressed I was when I met the Welsh President at Gary Linneker’s latest opera. Just show some patience. According to information on the DBIS website, you can see that … hang on whats that smell ? I think my dinner is burning.


Open the borders

August 11, 2009

Open source culture will destroy the nation state. Maybe.

I am reading Wikinomics, a book by Tapscott and Williams about how the open source approach is changing business culture and economics, not just in software but in many other areas. I just read a section which discussed the common complaint of critics that open source culture is a new kind of socialism, inimical to free enterprise and the profit motive. They interviewed Linus Torvalds, who said that the opposite was true. Linux, he says, is like the road system. Once it exists, it is much easier for people to form businesses and make money. It makes economic sense, even for competitors, to develop shared infrastructure.

Using the road system as an analogy sparked a thought in me.  Road systems are normally built by the government. We live in nation states where public goods are provided by the state, and free enterprise thrives on the back of this free infrastructure.  When we talk of “socialism” we normally think of what is really state socialism, where the number and degree of such state-provided public goods is maximised, and the state control of behaviour is also maximised. In our more typical modern mixed economies, state-provided goods are less extensive and we have partial freedom. Production of public goods is resourced by financial taxation, in which the citizen has no choice, and implemented by a professional civil service.

In open source culture however, parties with common interests come together by choice and develop shared goods. Note that these days “open source” does not mean thousands of amateurs in their bedrooms doing stuff for fun. It means staff at  IBM and Sun spending a percentage of their time working for Linux or Apache or Python as an approved activity. So production of public goods is again produced by taxation, but its taxation of effort, and the corporations taxed have a free choice about how much to put in.

Possibly more importantly, the communities formed, and the public goods constructed, do not follow national boundaries. They are horizontally global and vertically shallow. Like multi-national corporations, they begin to make nation states seem irrelevant; but the structures they can form are much more fluid than those rigid corporations.

You can drive for days across the USA without border controls or changing money. The same is now true in Europe. A short while back I went to a meeting in France. I flew to Frankfurt and caught a train to Strasbourg. It was only on the way home I realised I had been in two different “countries”. Actually Alsace is pretty much its own place, not quite France and not quite Germany. You can have sauerkraut and citron presse for lunch. Every day at home I roam the world on my broadband connection.

The nation state is quite a new thing in the history of mankind, but we have gotten in the habit of seeing it as somehow inevitable. How long before it seems a distant memory of savage times ?

Time to brush off your copies of Kropotkin and Proudhon.


Obama Bicycle Sneakers

August 8, 2009

Sometimes its worth having kids. Even when they steal your laptop, when you get it back you find they have left behind bookmarks that brighten your day. My favourite recent easter egg is Barack Obama is your new bicycle. I  cracked up.

The man is some kind of superhero / pop star / saint. Of course a few right wing nutters hate him just as much as they hated Clinton, but they don’t seem to dampen the sales of Obama sneakers. I really shoulda got some.

Can this last ? Keep him away from Dallas.

Oh and I quite liked this too.


Phil’s University Challenge

August 3, 2009

I am back at the University treadmill, only to find crisis brewing. Pardon gharssly mixed metaphors. Nobody should cook things on a treadmill.  There are probably Health and Safety Regulations which prevent this.

Anyhoo. I was awoken by Phil Willis on my radio, explaining how University degree classifications are a farce. There are more firsts every year, and nobody can prove that a 2:1 from University X is the same as University Y, or that it means the same in Physics as it is does in Sports Science. Yes folks, this is the same Phil Willis, chair of the IUSS Select Committee, that we love so much for roasting STFC.

This a very interesting but scary debate. Where it seems to be heading is that Universities cannot be allowed to regulate themselves and set their own exams. How can the Government pay us £15bn per year and not want to take charge ?   Its hard to deny the central point, that degree standards are not uniform in space or time. But this situation has been created by Government policy, not by the Universities, over many years.

(1) Distinction between Universities and Polys removed. Their degrees must therefore be the same.

(2) Percentage of population going through University must go up, from 5-10% to 30-50%. We will pretend that all these people are equally capable of high level achievement, so all degrees awarded must be the same value. Oh and standards must be maintained.

(3) Students must pay for their education. Therefore they are customers. Therefore they must get what they belive they have paid for. A piece of paper with an unambiguous meaning.

I believe, as the Government has done for many years, that it is a good thing for a large fraction of the population to undergo tertiary education. I also agree that such a mass education system should be of uniform and reliable quality and calibration. But we still need something like the old University system to produce the 5% of specialists as well.

Going back to step (1), I find myself suprised at the way history has unfolded. When the “binary dividing line” was removed between Polys and Unis, many folks secretly assumed that the real point was to allow it to float upwards…