The BBC rages against the machine

During the last couple of weeks, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has featured reports by Dominic Arkwright on the success and failure of computers during the last 40 years:

Forty years ago, computers were about to revolutionise our lives. They would steal our jobs, said the pessimists. They would give us more leisure time, said the optimists. But what has actually happened?

These interesting programmes are currently on the BBC’s web site, and can be found via the following links (NB: you will need Real Audio’s RealPlayer software):

Time for another genius?

Earlier this month Martin Kettle questioned the current state of the piano recital in the pages of The Guardian (Why are today’s concert pianists so boring?), and Susan Tomes responded in kind by suggesting that the modern music business is the cause of the pianists’ demise (The visonary thing).

It seems however, that this complaint is not new. Arts & Letters Daily has compiled a number of links to celebrate the work of Glenn Gould, who would have turned 70 today had he lived. Among them is an essay written in 1983 by Denis Dutton (The Ecstasy of Glenn Gould):

Though the world of music and art has always been thought to thrive on novelty, history teaches us that it often rejects the imaginatively new simply because it is too new. Examples are limitless, but I have in mind something that interested me back in the late 1950s. It was then common to complain that virtually all of the younger generation of pianists (and not only pianists) were musically indistinguishable from one another. All very fine technically, so the story went, but what of spirit? They all played "like machines," devoid of temperament, of individual personality.

It looks like we could do with another Glenn Gould.

A Date For Your Diary

On September 30th visit here. MIT is putting its courses online for free, which is an amazing reversal of the fee-for-use mania now rampaging across the Internet. I wonder what specific courses will be offerred next week?

Caveat Emptor

Dorothea Salo struck a nerve a few days ago with this post to her weblog (it’s been quoted several times) Caveat Lector: Speaking the Self:

I am touched by the Cluetrainers' belief that real people always speak in real voices. It isn't so, though I wish it were and I envy the Cluetrainers their belief. Some people speak about themselves and their families in clichés and polite fictions for many of the same reasons corporations speak in empty, sonorous PR, not least among them desperate fear of the truth. Some people, submerged in the family fictions, lose their real voices in part or wholly. (I never lost quite all of mine, but I have been searching for some departed pieces a long time. I may never find them.)

Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error.

Although DS was responding to the risks associated with personal expression, her comments about businesses and the truth are relevant to a new essay I have written and fortuitously entitled Caveat Emptor, Art Collector. Her sentiments serve as an eloquent introduction.

An Anagram of Colour has published an interesting article on Pantone’s phenomenal business (see Living Color). For those who don’t know the company, Pantone Inc. “is the world-renowned authority on color and provider of color systems and leading technology for the selection and accurate communication of color”.

The article describes how influential Pantone has become by setting the standards for reproducing colours in the commercial world.

We don’t tend to think of paint chips as information infrastructure. Yet when everyone in the world is using the same ones, they become a communications protocol. The effect is equivalent to that of any network standard - it amplifies the scale and interconnectedness of how things get made. It greases the wheels of big, fast global culture.

Though Pantone doesn’t sell inks, dyes, or paints, it has come to hold a monopoly on color. Of course, frequencies of light, like naturally occurring sounds, are free for anyone to use. But Pantone owns their names - or, more specifically, their designated numbers and spectro-photometric descriptions. Ultimately, printers and manufacturers have to translate those numbers into atoms - pigment, dye, or varnish. In order to check that the final product matches the design spec, there needs to be an agreed-upon point of reference. And that’s what Pantone sells, to designers of every kind and a thousand ink licensees in 65 countries - a standard reference, in the form of $3,600 cotton-swatch binders, $150 fan decks, and $300 chip books. The Pantone system is embedded in 3-D modeling software and applications like Photoshop and Quark, as well as monitors and inkjet printers.

Having exploited the network effect produced by the need for colour standards, Pantone decided to capitalise on the demand for colour trends.

For years, officials at Pantone fielded calls from designers and color forecasters. What’s the haute new hue? Why has purple been increasing in popularity? What will be the color of the new millennium? After answering more than a few of these calls, Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, the company’s research and information arm, decided that Pantone should stop giving out free advice.

So what is the color of the new millennium? As it happens, I found out last year (a bit late I admit, but I thought it would be good for at least a thousand years). According to a story published in April 1999 by, Pantone decided it should be Cerulean Blue:

The official color of the millennium is Cerulean Blue PANTONE 15-4020 TC, the color of the sky on a serene, crystal clear day, says Pantone, Inc., the world’s leading authority on color and color trends.

Lifestyle movements suggest that consumers will be seeking inner peace and spiritual fulfillment in the new millennium. This is a paradoxical time in which we are heading toward an uncertain, yet exciting, future, and also looking back, trying to hold onto the security of the past. In this stressful, high-tech era, we will be searching for solace and Cerulean Blue produces the perfect calming effect.

Despite Pantone’s attempt at setting definitive standards, I found several different interpretations of the colour Cerulean Blue:

  • first, there was the hexadecimal value cited in the article, which I assume came from Pantone, – #9BC4E2;
  • second came #0B2BD7 from a Japanese web site, the name of which I cannot read;
  • Cerulean Blue squarethen I found the tile on the right from Pigments Through the Ages;
  • and finally I found using #6699FF on an article about Pantone’s colours for 2000.

I don’t know what those colours look like on your screen, but they are all different on mine. Clearly, there is still a need for a standard.

The last example is web safe (only 216 colours are web safe, i.e. those that display accurately on all computers) and probably the closest web safe match to Pantone’s official tone, so I think we can discount it straight away, despite the fact that it matches the clothes pictured on the web site quite closely. I don’t know the source of the Japanese colour, but it’s darker than most of the skies I see so I’m inclined to eliminate it too. The first example, which bears Pantone’s stamp of approval, is significantly lighter than a clear blue sky, so I prefer the colour tile provided by Pigments Through the Ages, which seems quite realistic to me.

Unfortunately, cerulean may become that lighter, washed out blue in future given Pantone’s influence, but I’m not too concerned. It just so happens that cerulean is the only word in English that can be derived from all the letters in my surname, and I’m quite happy with the idea that from my name you can get to a clear blue sky, even if we can’t agree on the shade.

Introducing the Bathmatique

Easy-Do Bathmatique (click to see the reverse 131 Kb)Just when I thought the UK might be losing ground in the washing gadget wars, my wife spotted the Easy-Do Bathmatique in our local hardware store (could the Sudsy Studs Calendar have been her motivation?).

Unfortunately, I can’t supply a photograph at this point but I have scanned the packaging. As you can see, it’s described as a “Fillable Bathroom Cleaner” (note the ambition here – not just the bath, but the whole bathroom!), so I think it qualifies for Jonathon’s definition of a true “matique”.

I can also report that it comes in at least two colours: white and grey; and you can switch it on and off by rotating the sponge head by 45 degrees. It seems some serious thought has gone into its design, clearly making it the next step in the evolution of the original dishmatique. I think this just might put the UK back in the lead!

Believe it or not!

Today the mainstream media appeared as bizarre as some weblogs:

  • first there was the report on the midday news about obesity changing the course of human evolution (BBC News | Health | Obesity is changing human shape);
  • Octopushthen I happened to read a story in the weekend’s Financial Times about the game of underwater hockey, known as Octopush;
  • and finally I just caught the end of a programme on BBC Radio 4 (Finger Prints) about how text messaging via mobile phones is changing the way people use their thumbs (The thumb: is it what makes us human?).

Strange stuff. However, it looks like too much Octopush might have an evolutionary effect on your thumb as well.

Ocado OK?

Today I received a promotional email from Ocado, the new on-line grocery business that I wrote about a few weeks ago (see Shop Till They Drop), and since I abandoned my initial attempt to use their service, I wondered how they are doing.

Before they came up with the brand name Ocado they were called Last Mile Solutions, which is a much more meaningful name given the major logistical problem facing a grocery delivery business. However, L.M.S. is clearly not so good if you want to be remembered for providing food, and this new business, which appears to have been founded by a gang of guys from Goldman Sachs and Marks & Spencer, has lofty ambitions indeed! The following text comes from its website:

Our Mission

  • Our mission is to make grocery shopping the highlight of the week for our customers.
  • Our vision is to create an exciting new grocery experience in which our actions speak louder than our words. Our people are encouraged and trusted to exceed their own and customers’ expectations. Together we will deliver an unrivalled personal service that surprises and delights our customers every time.

The highlight of the week? Good luck, mate!