#geocom – ready to go…

22 09 2009

Lunchtime on the day before AGI Geocommunity kicks off… We’ve spent the morning setting up (mostly stuffing conference bags and working out how to populate the GeoCommmunity Live blog). Pics here. Meanwhile Pitney Bowes and Oracle have been running user group sessions, and this afternoon there’s the chance to try geocaching or OpenStreet Mapping. Things seem to be very well sorted, not least due to Claire Huppertz’ efforts at the AGI in pulling together the programme, sponsors, hotel & catering, oh, and everything else.


iTunes or Spotify, or, how much music do I really need to own?

18 09 2009

Growing up, there were two ways to buy music albums: on vinyl record or cassette. (Bear with me, we’ll get to Spotify eventually). Since cassettes degraded by being played or got eaten eventually by the tape player it was usually better to buy the record and then record it to tape. The advantage of tape was portability, to use in a car or a Walkman-like player. The only real choice here was what sort of tape you bought (ferric/chrome/etc.) and whether Dolby noise suppression was supported or worth it.

Then came CDs. Now there were two choices for the stable, archive format (that’s the way I was looking at it, even if not in those words). Initially CDs were more expensive than records so there was a period where I judged how much I valued the album and then decided to buy it on record (cheaper, and I perceived them to be of lower quality) or CD. For me, the loss of album art with CDs wasn’t such a big issue.

In the end of course CDs came down in price and I stopped buying vinyl. It was around 7 years ago that I stopped really playing my vinyl albums. This was mostly to do with moving in with my now wife and a change of lifestlye.

At a similar time I started to stop playing cassette tapes. First of all I switched to the technology I’d always (effectively) wished I’d had for personal stereos: MP3 players. I won’t bother with the list of players I’ve had but I’m currently on a fifth gen. iPod with video. It’s a separate post perhaps to discuss why I’m not onto a iPod Touch or iPhone yet.

Cassettes hung on for a while though as a convenient way to play music in the car, especially as I only had a tape/radio in my Elise. The death knell for tapes was really the purchase of one of those devices which look like a tape with a lead coming off to plug into the headphones port of, in my case, an iPod. Looking back, I’m glad I skipped the minidisc technology, etc.

Although I’d essentially stopped buying vinyl because CDs were easier and as cheap, the adoption of an MP3 player would I suspect have spelled the end anyway. At the time in particular (end of 2002 / early 2003), there was no good, quick way to rip music from vinyl – with CDs you just popped them in the computer and software took care of it for you (N2MP3 initially, then iTunes).

(Of course since then the record companies have tried messing around with the CD format to insert noise bursts to try to foil this. As far as I’m concerned this is just pushing me more towards digital music and is selling a broken medium since often these don’t play or don’t play properly as audio CDs in a computer CD-ROM drive. It’s a clumsy attempt to foil piracy which harms their normal users more than the pirates, I suspect. Blogging note to self: should I be going off and sourcing properly researched articles?..)

So, that was the brave new world: in my case, iTunes + iPod has served me very well for 5-6 years. Mostly this has been a pretty stable situation. A trend during this time though has been a slow shift from buying CDs to buying more, digitally, through iTunes. I actually still prefer to buy CDs – it’s a hard medium that survives most things except a house fire if at all looked after (i.e. the kids don’t chew them and you don’t leave them to slide around in the car). But I’ve had less time to go out and buy them; digital purchases gets you the music now rather than in 1-2 days from Play (or insert your favourite retailer here); and as I mentioned I’m pissed off at buying useless “CDs” that have been deliberately corrupted to stop me using them this way.

I perceive the impermanence of digital media to be a particular problem though and back up my music on a couple of hard drives (one via Time Machine and one via Backup – I’m a Mac user) and the cloud (MobileMe – at the moment, just purchased items and not ripped CDs).

I’ve found though that there’s been a subtle, emergent problem. I just don’t know my music and what I own any more. I think this comes from two sources. Firstly, in the CD age, there was the process of finding the/a CD case to get the CD to play the music. There was a physical reality to the music which my brain could catalogue. On the other hand, perhaps I have too much music now.

What’s too much music? Isn’t that as weird a concept as too many books?

This relates to my use of new music. There’s the “getting to know you” or “in love” period where I play the album or track a lot (and it floats to the top of my last.fm play counts). Then with time it gets played less and subsides to some background play frequency. Now, the more music I’ve acquired, the more an album has to ‘fight’ to get background play time. I also have to remember that it’s there, and this relates back to the previous point. I just don’t find the catalogue in iTunes enough to get a mental picture of all the music I have and could play. Maybe in part it’s because I don’t really use coverflow (to fiddly to flick through and I don’t recognise many of the covers now). And on the iPod I have there isn’t a coverflow option – it’s just lists.

I’m discounting age here.

This probably also connects back to those days of tapes and making compilations from albums; or simply having an evening in listening to tracks off different CDs. That bred more familiarity with the music and its album container. This lack of familiarity is compounded by the seductions of random play on an iPod – can’t decide what album or playlist to play? Just stick it on Shuffle.

Maybe there’s an issue too with having an increasing library of music and hence some form of musical experience that means that new music has to be more different and appealing to be remembered. I’m undecided about this – there’s lots of good new music out there still.

So, recently, I’ve been wondering whether to buy as much and probably have slowed down in buying music. This is where I hope to use Spotify. My plan is to play-test music through Spotify. This currently means listening from my laptop or desktop machine (Spotify don’t support Nokia/Symbian (yet?) and my iPod’s too old to have a network connection, etc.). Then if I think an album has actually been worth it, I’ll buy a copy in/to import into iTunes to keep and have on the iPod. Music I’m less keen to own I can always go back to in Spotify.

Is this the start of another shift, to subscribing to a cloud database of music and not owning it myself? I’m not sure. Spotify could help drag me across if their client could scan my iTunes library, both to pre-populate Spotify with a list of my favourite music for easy access, and to import my current playlists. (A moving target for Spotify given Apple’s attempts to keep its platform private, e.g. modifying the iTunes database structure between iTunes versions).

There’s one side issue of effectively re-purchasing a licence to the music I’ve already bought but Spotify’s monthly subscription is currently about the same as one new album a month so maybe that’s not too bad.

A big downside though is that you can only play the network music in Spotify’s database. What about podcasts / iPlayer /etc.? What about online radio (iTunes aggregates real radio station sources; Spotify’s “radio” is really a guided random playlist)? What about video (I watch TV programmes on my iPod when travelling)?

Overall then I think Spotify will remain a music pre-purchase solution for me for now and another source of random playlist radio. But these shifts are gradual and based on utility for me – and my listening opportunities are different now I don’t have 2 hours a day commuting by train.

If I’m still blogging in a year or two, maybe I’ll come back to this.

Back from London

16 09 2009

I’ve been back down to UCL this afternoon for the final poster presentations of the Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering MSc students (not just the geomatics students but these were the ones I was concerned with). Why go down for this? Well, I was almost in the area (OK, Northampton) for a meeting anyway. And more importantly having supervised 6 or 7 projects it seemed important for the students concerned that there would be someone there who was really interested in their work.

The posters replaced the previous practice in the former Geomatic Engineering of final presentations. Was this better? Well it certainly allowed the process to be quicker and it’s a different form of presentation for the students to practise (assuming they get presentation practice elsewhere in the MSc). Whether they each get the same level of attention from the academic staff I’m not convinced – it’s much more dependent on the academics concerned (whereas with presentations the keener academics effectively covered for those who didn’t make it to student presentations).

Never go back, they say and there was some of that here. It was strange to parachute in (I made it down relatively late in proceedings). I guess I felt I was doing a form of good deed <<never goes unpunished>> but of course so soon after leaving one gets pulled back into the relationships with the people there. The process of moving to Nottingham is still on-going.

And the posters? Mostly professional attempts and a wide and interesting range of topics. It was certainly worth going for the stated purpose – catching the students and their work at the end of their year at UCL.

It was a great trip back from Northampton too – clear roads, loud music… (See jmorley @ last.fm for some idea of what I was listening to – I’m making the leap here to assume you might actually be interested).

Preparing for AGI Geocommunity 09

15 09 2009

One of my tasks for the week, brought with me from UCL, is to review the papers that have been submitted for next week’s AGI Geocommunity conference as part of the Best Paper Award judging. We have an excellent range of papers for the conference this year, from bedrock, traditional GIS business to new geoweb business models and examinations of the return on investment of GIS in business. And this year many more of the speakers have delivered written papers so we have the pleasant difficulty of more papers than expected to read through!

My particular job next week (in addition to chairing a session) will be to run the Soapbox. This is a series of quickfire talks in the bar after the end of the regular conference on Wednesday and before the party. 10 speakers, 15 slides each on a fixed 20 second timer each. We (the conference team) are hoping that it’ll be relatively light-hearted and snappy while people get ready for the party. You’ll be able to follow reactions to the soapbox talks on Twitter – as indeed we will in the bar with a twitterfall display on another screen of real-time reactions to the talks

More later. I plan to blog during the conference, and we’ll have a live blog from the conference organisers during the conference itself. The general Twitter tag for the conference is #geocom. You can find the conference programme here. You can still get day tickets for this increasingly popular conference.

Hello world!

8 09 2009

So here’s my start in the world of blogging. And co-incidentally it’s also the start of a new job, as Deputy Director of the Centre for Geospatial Science at the University of Nottingham. After around 12 years as a lecturer at UCL it’s felt like a big step to move jobs. On the other hand, I think I (and my family) already feel pretty settled in Nottingham. But it’ll take a while just to find my way around Nottingham, its systems, etc.

This is a different role from that at UCL – much less teaching or responsibility for teaching, more research focus, and of course working with Mike Jackson to keep money flowing into the Centre to enable its world-class research.

My aim is that this blog will come round to thoughts on aspects of  geospatial research and not so much a commentary on what I’m doing day to day but we’ll see. Maybe there’ll be some other non-work thoughts and news too. Like, were Muse deliberately trying to sound like Queen on some of the tracks on their new album?