Facebook just became relevant again

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Facebook has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, first with it’s mammoth WhatsApp purchase (really they payed all that money for an audience of ‘feature phone’ users in the developing world), and then it’s shocking entry into VR with the Oculus takeover. Today Facebook announced something that, at least in the short term, could have more impact than either of those investments. The service is called ‘Nearby Friends‘. Nearby friends lets you turn on an ‘I’m here beacon’, (with all the ordinary Facebook group and list privacy features) that says ‘I’m around’ (to anyone you’d trust enough to tell).

To understand why this is important, you have to go back in time. Location aware or geosocial networks are nothing new. Almost a decade ago, a few early social networks gave a preview of the potential of this technology. Services like Jaiku (bought and abandoned by Google) allowed users to indicate their location, in a way friends could see without actively checking in. Dodgeball, another service bought and extinguished by google, offered a more sophisticated version of the same thing (it’s frustrated founder left Google to create Foursquare). Essentially (with your consent) you could share your location with others following you. This way, you could easily see when real world friends were near. Since converting this into advertising venue was too complex (local advertising, beyond ‘which Starbucks is close’ requires a massive sales infrastructure); and since user numbers made the feature ineffectual, it quickly disappeared.

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But the promise of location awareness was obvious even then. Before Bebo had been superseded on campuses by the all consuming network effect of Facebook, I wrote about it’s potential (and potential dangers). In the years since, passive location awareness has been used primarily for dating – most notably the gay hookup app ‘Grindr’ lets users arrange casual assignations with nearby strangers. Last year Foursquare launched a passive location service. Relative to Facebook, nobody uses Foursquare – and the usefulness of location awareness is all about network effects.

The potential of the technology is enormous. If Facebook can navigate users likely fear of the downsides of location awareness – stalking, association based inference of infidelity etc – this technology could have a profound impact on how people associate in the real world.

You may have had the experience of running into a friend or acquaintance in a strange city, or even a foreign country. Instantly your previous connection is magnified by familiarity – proximity is a large part of why we enjoy the company of others. Moreover similarity (the other reason we choose friends) is relative – in a strange place we suddenly have much more in common with those from home.

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Now imagine your phone letting you know automatically when an old friend is in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps you and a neighbour from home are visiting a distant country at the same time. Beep! Your favourite cult musician / writer / storyteller / artist, is having a show down the street. Coincidences are common, but most often invisible. When they appear our perception of the size of the social world contracts. We’re all seen speculative visions of ‘google glass’ style augmented reality displays that will tell us the names of people at a party, show how we’re invisibly connected. The ability to inform others passively of ones location is potentially even more powerful. It will allow us to better connect with the people we already know. The worth of that – given Facebook’s ubiquity, is incalculable.

In the same way that the mobile phone freed us from the necessity of carefully coordinating social events like military exercises, and email shattered forever the disconnect between home and office; location awareness could change the way we relate in the real world. Will I bother going to the pub? John’s there, great. Should I pay into the gig, ah Killian’s here, it’s worth it. Damn, I’m having lunch and I didn’t think ahead, oh great Emily’s around the corner in the Deli…

Online social networks are frequently derided for promoting lots of shallow meaningless connections. It’s hard to believe now, but Facebook’s initial selling point was that it (unlike MySpace and previous social networks) better connected us with people we actually knew. Moving these increasingly tenuous connections into the real world could serve to strengthen them. Social networks – well really ‘the’ social network, since it seems impossible any company could replicate Facebook’s popularity, could finally become sociable.

Addendum: There is reason to fear however, as Facebook’s core business is no longer connecting people (if it ever way), but rather artificially keeping them apart.

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‘Mad Scientists of Music’ – April Update

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It’s April and I’m closing in on a final shape for the show. It’s been almost a year since I started preliminary research and interviews for ‘Mad Scientists‘, an enormously self indulgent amount of time to work on a radio documentary series. And yet, I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the Irish experimental music scene. Creativity is a process of continuous curation, in fiction and especially in documentary, where research and footage accretes into a melange of gooey information that threatens to overwhelm you. Several years ago I embarked on an ill fated project to document the experience of Irish refugees at the hands of immigration services. Ultimately I had to abandon the project. I was simply unprepared to deal with the responsibility of capturing the experiences of people who’d been so cruelly treated, made so invisible by our state, by our indifference.

Maybe that’s why I switched to writing comedy. While the stakes are the same – failing or succeeding on the public stage, the consequences are purely personal. I’ve grown up a lot in the years since the documentary film flatlined. I find one of the positive aspects of getting older is an increase in organisational capacity – the ability to plan, to anticipate how long a task will take, to reassess a project as it develops. I’m still a disorganised shambles, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but these days I get the things I start done.

With that in mind, here’s where I’m at with the doc. I’ve got four thirty minute episodes almost finished, with two further episodes about half done. I’ve also pulled together a bunch of bonus content – four additional web only episodes, that will flesh out the musicians featured in the show, and focus on topics (like musical influences, nerd culture and so on), that the series doesn’t have time to fit in.

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Episode 1 ‘Learning How to Listen‘, will take you on a tour of educational music projects. Starting at a circuit bending workshop in the Northside Shopping Centre, we stop by Roger Gregg’s eclectic home studio, before calling in on an instrument building workshop led by Ed Devane. We finish up with a visit to noise duo Deathness Injection’s incredible Culture Night mass collaboration, where hundreds of visitors to Exchange Dublin experienced the thrill of performing together.

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Episode 2, ‘Growing Up Digital‘ will examine the impact of videogames on contemporary electronic music through the childhood anecdotes of a variety of performers. We’ll introduce you to chiptune – music made with retro consoles and home brew software, and take a tutorial in gameboy synthesiser ‘Little Sound DJ‘ in the capable hands of chiptune diva Chipzel (Niamh Houston).

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Episode 3, ‘Taking Toys Apart‘, starts off in Germany, in the home ‘laboratory’ of author and musician Julian Gough (Toasted Heretic). Then we’ll hear about the impact of the geography of consumerism on toy hacking, from Gamepak Collective founder Andrew Edgar. Andrew, MarQu VR, and John Leach will explain the genesis of Dublin’s first chiptune collective. Finally, John demonstrates the dark art of cartridge ripping.

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Episode 4, ‘The Hacker In the Gallery‘, is still a work in progress. This episode will example the relationship between hackers, musicians and the world of fine art audio.

Episode 5, ‘The Instrument of the Law‘, tackles copyright, sampling, and illegal art, introducing two fantastic unauthorised albums from Kieran Dold (Karakara), and John Leech (Siam Collective); and featuring the legal wit and wisdom of Trinity College’s Dr Eoin O’Dell.

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Episode 6, ‘Postcards from the Edge‘, is still to be finalised. This episode will bring listeners some of the latest developments in electronic music, including a geocaching tour of Brighton and the South downs from Ewan Hennelly (HERV, ZPG), and an astonishing new software synthesiser under development from Dublin musician / programmer Bitwise Operator (Simon Kenny).

That’s it for the radio series. For web listeners, four additional interview based episodes will be released during and just after broadcast of the radio series. ‘Beginnings‘ covers the early musical influences and development of musicians like Meljoann, Oswald Green, Kieran Dold and Niamh De Barra. ‘Copyrights & Copywrongs‘ delves deeper into Creative Commons and the much needed reform of Irish copyright law, and touches on the patenting of music technology. ‘Irish Electronic Scenes‘, examines a variety of recent underground music scenes, through the eyes of Colm Olwill (DJ PCP), the Gamepak Collective, and Ewan Hennelly. Finally, ‘Nerds vs Chicks‘, collects two fascinating conversations, around the role of nerd culture and gender respectively, in electronic music. These bonus episodes are pretty rough at the moment, and will likely consist simply of voices, without music or on location recordings, but they include some of the best anecdotes and most fascinating characters of the series.

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I can’t wait to get the show out there, and introduce new listeners to the incredible artists featured. I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the show so far – Ewan Hennelly, Andrew Edgar, John Leech, MarQu VR, Niamh DeBarra, Niamh Houston, Meljoann, Colm Olwill, Simon Kenny, Kieran Dold, Seb & Emma of Deathness Injection, Roger Gregg, Ben Gaulon, Stephen Mcloughlin, Ed Devane an Eoin O’Dell.

Mad Scientists of Music will be out June 2014, on Near FM, and online at this site.

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The Gareth Stack Show Live: Episode 3 – Bathos


Download: Episode 3

Subscribe: We’re on iTunes.

This weeks show featured interviews with horror writer Graham Tugwell, and esoteric religious expert, writer and publisher Andrew Philip Smith. We also have two fantastic short stories from Irish writer Patrick O’Flaherty.

The show was produced by superproducer Ronan Misteil, and presented by Andrew Booth. Special guest was Gareth Stack. The show is produced live at the studios of Radiomade.ie. All jingles produced by Roger Gregg and the Crazy Dog Audio Theatre.

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Building a studio for podcasts & radio drama

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I’ve been very gradually building up a home studio setup over the past four years, as Dead Medium Productions came together. Although my setup is very modest and modular, it’s capable of recording ‘broadcast quality’ radio either indoors out out, capturing four performers simultaneously, and editing the whole shebang in multichannel stereo.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the tech I use, as a guide for radio producers starting out. There’s lot of great advice out there about mics and speakers and so on, but it tends to focus on equipment which is way out of the price range of folks working on podcasts or public radio productions. For example This American Life have some great mic recommendations, but these tend to be very expensive, or not generally available in Europe.

To my mind, if you’re buying a 600 euro / 800 dollar microphone, you probably already work for This American Life. Mere mortals are more likely to be looking for better bargains. You really don’t have to spend crazy money to get good equipment. To start with, all you need to record audio is a WAV recorder. If you need to get a bit more professional, you can add in a computer, microphone, and an audio interface (to get the microphone to talk to the computer).

WAV RECORDER

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This is the most basic item of kit anyone capturing sound needs to have. Wav recorders cost anything from less than 100 euro, to thousands, and come in a bewildering variety of sizes and capacities. I use the Zoom H4N, a mid range device which is capable of great results, both with its two onboard condenser mics and external mics plugged directly into the bottom of the device.

The preamps on the zoom are weak, and button placement is pretty awful for run and gun recording. So the next step up if you can afford it, is the H4N’s big brother, the Zoom H6. The H6 boots up much quicker (which can be important say in an interview situation), and allows up to four external mics to be plugged in. It also supports a variety of different mic attachments. This is a huge advantage, as not only can you use different mics for different situations, but if the mic breaks you haven’t lost your whole investment. I’ve always been nervous about the exposed mics at the top of the H4N; and I’d definitely consider upgrading in future. The H6 is also built more sturdily, and has more intuitive controls. Preamps still suck though. In the same sort of price range Marantz offer larger, bulkier, sturdier devices, at a slightly higher price.

For interviews, I’ve often used the H4N handheld (with the included handle). It’s not ideal – the sensitive mics cause a lot of ‘handling noise’, it’ll pick up background sounds (say in a coffee shop) much too well too – but it’s extremely light and portable, and has been my workhorse for most of the current documentary series.

I’ve left the best part till last. You can use the Zoom H4N (or H6) as an audio interface for multi-track recording, with or without a PC. This means you can run two mics into the device (and even record a third person, using the two small condenser mics attached), and capture multitrack audio right onto the Zoom. So you can have your H4N set up on a table, without the need for a (potentially noisy) computer, and get amazing sound from two people from external mics, or great sound for one person from the internal mics.

CONDENSER MIC

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For voiceover, radio drama, podcasting and so on, a condenser mic is highly recommended. More sensitive to sound than a dynamic mic, they tend to require a quieter room, and tend to cost more too. However, a single good condenser can last you years, and serve multiple functions (from recording a singers vocals, to narration, to presenting).

Many folks starting out (especially podcasters) are tempted by USB microphones, since they’re cheap, sound fine and don’t require an audio interface to connect to your computer. Don’t do it. USB mics are a dead end. You’re unlikely to be able to get more than one to work with your computer at a time, which means you’ll have to spend twice as much if you want to add a mic to your setup in the future. Start right, with a nice low end XLR condenser mic, a cheap 2 or 4 port USB interface (or mixing desk if you can’t afford the interface yet – they’re often available dirt cheap second hand), and some free recording software. You can build up from there – adding mics, WAV recorders, etc as needed.

I’ve had my Rode NT1-A since 2008, and I’ve recorded some part of every scripted radio series I’ve made on it. It’s a beautiful, particularly sensitive piece of kit, and available with a ‘shock mount’ and ‘pop shield’ (to prevent plosive ‘puh’ sounds from ‘popping’ during recording) for around 150 euro / 200 dollars.

If you’re looking for something cheaper – say you need two or three mics to record a podcast. I’d recommend the Audio Technica AT2020. These mics don’t have the amazing sound response of the Rode. They also don’t pic up an ants sneeze like the Rode will, and are much better if you need to simultaneously mic several folks.

MIC STANDS

To keep it simple, I’d recommend a couple of desk tripod stands for recording spoken podcasts etc. Or a full sized ‘boom stands‘ for recording radio drama.

AUDIO INTERFACE

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Lets say you want to record two or four people chatting. Ideally you’ll want to record each voice separately, in case you need to adjust levels later. You can run all those tracks into a mixer (like a DJ might use for a live gig) but they come out mixed, feeding only one track into the computer. Instead you need an audio interface. I recently picked up the ‘AKAI EIE PRO‘. It’s a cheap, light four port device which outputs through USB. The AKAI is pretty much hassle free to set up and has a very clean sound – no detectable noise whatsoever. You can carry it in a backpack, for a good portable setup. It is a little quiet though, so you might want to pre-amp the microphones you’re feeding into it. In retrospect, I could have picked up a Zoom H6 for only 100 more, which would have served many more functions. Doh.

RECORDING / EDITING SOFTWARE

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If you have a Mac, Garage Band is free, reliable and easy to use for multitrack recording and editing alike. Just because I’m used to it, and because it’s so quick and flexible for ‘cutting’ audio, I prefer Adobe Audition. Like Garageband, audition supports multitrack recording. Audition’s great advantage is that it’s insanely fast. You can open a dozen audio tracks, each an hour long in audition in a couple of seconds, and play and edit them without lag – something other program struggle with. With a little practice, you can zoom in and out of the recording and cut it extremely quickly. Audition does take time to master however, I’ve been using it for three years and I would say I’m intermediate with the program.

Many editors / producers prefer AVID’s Protools, which is a nice program and certainly fully featured, but has one massive disadvantage. Protools not only requires you to plug a dongle in (using up a precious USB slot) when in use, but also requires your computer to be plugged into an audio interface (containing a DSP, or digital signal processer), usually the one the software came with. You can forget recording or editing your audio in a library or coffee shop, with pro-tools you’re chained to your studio. To me this seems ludicrous, but if it doesn’t hamper you too much protools is definitely an industry standard, and worth learning. It’s cheaper little brother Pro Tools LE, comes bundled with many audio interfaces (including the AKAI EIE).

COMPUTER

I record and edit radio drama on a 2013 Macbook Air i7, with 8 gigs RAM. This is probably overkill, but the speed definitely lets me work faster. Really any computer with a usb slot or even a line in will let you record audio. Any modern laptop or desktop (although probably not a netbook), whether Windows or OSX, should be fast enough to record and edit audio. I certainly do recommend the air for it’s speed, although the battery life is much better on the i5 models.

OUTDOORS MIC

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There are as many mic recommendations as there are situations in which to use them. For indoor recording, condensers like the ones recommended above are great. For a noisy environment, you might want to use a more traditional dynamic stage microphone like the Sure SM58. If you’re going to be wandering around outside however, or capturing sound in a variety of locations, some noisy, some quiet, you’re best off with a shotgun mic. I’ve just picked up a very low end model, the Rode NTG1.

Already I can tell it’s loud, muted and ideal for a outdoor recording. While the sound is very ‘flat’ compared to a condenser mic, it’s much easier to control the volume and direction. This will be my go to mic for interviews. You will need some sort of additional grip to use this thing off a stand (as it only comes with a mic stand adaptor).

For recording on location drama in stereo, I’d recommend Rode’s stereo condenser, the Rode NT4. Rode sell a kit that goes with this mic (or with the NTG1), which includes a ‘pistol grip’ and ‘blimp’. With this setup you can record outside, even in windy conditions and get better sound than you’ll hear on almost all radio program (and even movies). We used the NT4 and blimp to record all of ‘Any Other Dublin‘.

HEADPHONES

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Any cheap pair of headphones are fine for monitoring a live recording, or basic mixing. If you’re starting to produce for radio, a decent mid range pair of Sony or Seinheiser headphones will do fine. Unless you’re producing music, missing some high and low range sound will in practice not interfere with editing. If you do want to spend the money, I’d recommend Beyerdynamic’s D150′s. These headphones are balanced which means they support proper balanced audio for mixing. They have a very flat accurate response, so they’re not ideal for bass heavy music. For cutting voice though, they’re a great pair of light, comfortable, hardy headphones.

SPEAKERS

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I’m no expert on speakers, so I’ll just go ahead and recommend the kit I picked up on Chipzel’s recommendation. A pair of KRK Rokit 6′s. You’ll want surge protected power for these guys to protect them from power spikes, and ideally a DI box to, to protect them from damaging signals (especially if you’re going to play a guitar right into them).

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Gareth Stack Show Live – Comedy Chernobyl

Vital update of most important importance: we’re switching to a monthly format. If God protects us from the spectre of global thermonuclear war, next show should be April 3rd. If you’d like to see more of this kind of thing, like us on Facebook.

Download: Episode 2

Subscribe: We’re on iTunes.

This weeks show featured interviews with controversial comedian Robert Coyle, award winning conceptual artist Jonah King, and Caoimhe Lavelle and James Moran from the Bluebottle Collective.

The show was produced by superproducer Ronan Misteil, and presented by Andrew Booth. Special guest was Gareth Stack. Prank call featured was by Siam Collective, with permission. The show is produced live at the studios of Radiomade.ie. All jingles produced by Roger Gregg and the Crazy Dog Audio Theatre.

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The Gareth Stack Show Live – Featuring Gareth Stack

Download: Episode 1

Update: We’re on iTunes.

I’m ordinarily a modest man. I received an award for it in college. It was a small thing, hardly worth mentioning, although they kept giving it to me year after year. ‘Gareth’, they said, cheer speaking as they held me aloft on their warm, respectful shoulders, ‘Don’t be so modest. Wait, no, do, that’s what the award is for, we guess’. So it was with the greatest reluctance that I accepted Andrew Booth‘s longstanding invitation to appear on his highly regarded radio programme, ‘The Gareth Stack Show, Live Featuring Gareth Stack’. I’ve always been one of the shows many avid listeners, and although I’m of course very busy at the moment preparing myself for the biennial GarethCon, I was honoured to participate. Andrew runs a tight ship over there on ‘The Gareth Stack Show Live Featuring Gareth Stack’, let me tell you. Lots of ‘mistakes’ and unfunny moments are carefully added into the show in real time to give it a naturalistic feel. You’d never know the hundreds of hours Andrew and his team put in, planning and rehearsing each weekly episode.

I was astonished to at the star studded roster of guests, from lady actressette and cookwoman Aoife Coughlan, to writer and clinical psychologist Mr Dr Darragh McCausland and music hacker John Leech (Siam Collective). Not to mention the subversive antihumour mixed into the proceedings by the notorious Gordon Rochford and Andy McGarry. I think I even heard some Saul Philbin Bowman in there, but I can’t be sure.

All in all it was quite the experience. I look forward to listening to the next person chosen to play the part of Gareth Stack. I know he’ll do a better job than I did. But it seems impossible that he’ll be more humble about it.

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Enclave

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Image: Richard Mosse, The Enclave at RHA – Michael Foley

Whether or not you think you’re ‘into’ contemporary art, I promise this show will shake you to your core. The RHA gallery (near Stephens Green) is currently featuring an amazing installation of photos and video from Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (essentially a hell on earth perpetual war zone).

The work was Ireland’s entry into the prestigious Venice Biennales last year, and it’s a profoundly moving show. Richard Mosse’s photos of Congolese war lords, soldiers, landscapes and refugees, are shot on colour stock that is also sensitive to infrared light. The resulting images make the invisible, visible – forcing us to confront an unimaginable forgotten conflict. They transform suffering we’ve been conditioned to ignore, into a compelling psychedelic vision.

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Image: The Enclave, Multimedia room, RHA – Michael Foley

The cornerstone of the exhibition is a video installation featuring several screens arranged around a large room. The audience is free to wander amongst them, shifting their perspectives as video leaps from one screen to another. The camera tracks down dirt roads revealing the casualties of recent battles. It takes us up into the forested hills to explore ominously abandoned campsites. It carries us down into an enormous refugee camp, whose silent residents wordlessly communicate our culpability.

The footage features simple, powerful tracking shots filmed by Trevor Tweeten and a resonant ‘found sound’ orchestration by Ben Frost, composed from the explosions of battle and the creeks and echos of the jungle. It’s one of the most deeply affecting pieces of cinema I’ve witness, more reminiscent of the Jungian films of Alejandro Jodorowsky or even Dario Argento’s haunting tripe ‘Suspiria’, than documentary footage. It’s all the more surprising to find something so moving in the gallery context, where video work too often falls into self absorption or obtuseness.

You owe it to yourself to see this show. ‘Enclave‘ is playing every day at the RHA from 11 till 5, from now until March 12th.

Mad Scientists Of Music – February Update

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Artist Highlight – (John Leach, Siam Collective / Gamepak)

John Leach is the man behind psychedelic rap collective Siam Collective (pictured). Out of costume he looks like Damon Albarn circa 1996, and talks like the charismatic head of a hip hop fuelled electronics cult. Along with A4 Sounds’ Andrew Edgar, MarQu VR and ‘Jeff Jeff Jeff’ he runs Gamepak, the group responsible for bringing chiptune gigs and circuit bending workshops to Dublin. I spoke to John in the creepy cosy former Magdalene laundry he calls a home. Here here is, in full mad scientist mode talking about humanity’s cybernetic relationship with the circuit.


And here he is demonstrating the black art of cartridge ripping.


Documentary Update

I’m sitting in the basement of Trinity Library, surrounded by studious folks burrowed in their laptops, their little desktop kingdoms defended by troops of empty Monster energy drinks and granola bar wrapper sandbags. On my laptop is a table of my work on Mad Scientists of Music to date. With the exception of a couple of sonic experiments it’s almost entirely been recording, collating and editing interviews: Capturing dozens of hours of ‘tape’, cutting out ems, ahs and digressions and slicing them into clips with names like ‘Quentin Tarantino’s Starwars’ and ‘Alien Language’. I’ve interviewed thirteen Irish electronic musicians, from circuit bending hackers to chiptune pop stars, and recorded several tours of their musical toyshops.

I’ve travelled to Limerick, Liverpool, Brighton, Maynooth and all over Dublin, in the process learning a little something about audio recording and the many many ways you can screw it up. I’ve had to deal with a couple of disasters – several of my preliminary interviews had to be completely redone due to foolhardy mic placement, and a whole week of editing work on a marvellous interview with Ewan Hennelly had to be redone from scratch when I managed to accidentally erase a bunch of files.

Technical mishaps aside, the interview process has gone great. My guests have included theramin robot builders Deathness Injection, the toytronica hackers of Gamepak, Irish hiphop diva Meljoann, and rising chiptune superstar Chipzel. Our conversations have gone everywhere from copyright to UFOlogy. I can’t wait to get this stuff out there. Thing is – there’s a long way to go before this documentary’s finished.

I keep a running tally of clip lengths in my SUPER-MEGA-EXTRA-ENORMOUS-SPREADSHEET-O-DOOM, and (with about half the interviews still to edit) we’re already looking at over 500 individual clips, containing 371 minutes of finished interviews, or enough for 12 thirty minute episodes, not counting music.

Putting it all together, mixing, building a sound scape worthy of the material and generally having fun – not to mention the chop chop chop of cutting the interviews, is going to take a looong time. With that in mind, I’m going to start posting Artist Highlights – brief bios of musicians featured in the documentary, with a couple of interesting / entertaining clips to accompany them. These won’t necessarily reflect the style or substance of the final series, but they’ll help motivate me to keep cutting, and hopefully provide a small thank you to the many musicians that have made the series possible.

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New Live Show – Threat Detection

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Radiomade is a facinating web based Dublin radio station. They ‘hit the headlines’ as they say in the yellow press, late last year with a successful effort to beat the world record number of consecutive interviews. Last July a similar stunt saw station proprietors Jack & Dan host 24 DJs in 24 hours. Point is they’re doing something new, capturing the imagination of a generation disillusioned with Ireland’s utterly terrible and inexplicably popular commercial and semi-state radio offerings.

Just before Christmas I got in touch with Radiomade and suggested a couple of shows to the guys. One is an ambitious monthly culture / comedy offering that it looks like we’ll be debuting in the near future. The other, a weekly discussion about videogames, technology and interactive entertainment kicked off last night. Threat Detection features myself and Exchange Dublin veteran James Van De Waal. Each show starts with a monologue to kick the discussion off, followed by an in-depth dissection of a trend, issue or incident in gaming. To start the series, we felt is was important to address the issue of games as a medium – specifically a growing and ferociously compelling form of immersion.

Here’s the first episode’s opening monologue…

‘There was a general air of disrepair. Shops were boarded up. The pavement was broken and potholed. A few automobiles traveled on the broken streets. They, at least, appeared to be of a slightly advanced design, but they were dented, dirty and noisy… Clothes had not changed nor had the common speech…. It appeared that in four hundred years nothing at all had been accomplished. Many familiar buildings had collapsed. Others still stood. He looked in vain for a newspaper or magazine’.

An excerpt from John D MacDonald’s short fiction ‘Spectator Sport’, published in 1950. In the story a time traveller visits an America three hundred and fifty years hence, discovering a society that has chosen to focus its energy entirely on the creation of ever more compelling interactive dreams. Dreams a man may labour his whole life to permanently inhabit.

Videogames terrify me, not because I dislike them, but because I find their dizzyingly abundant fantastical worlds so all consuming. The great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott came up with a word for finding one’s life satisfaction in an uncreative imaginary avoidance: He called it ‘fantasying’, the act of escapist self-delusion. At their worst videogames offer the most compelling opportunity for fantasying possible. Let me read you something else…

‘I think the twenty first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios and TV combined… The exodus of people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup’.

Thus begins the introduction to Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book ‘Reality is Broken’, with a quote from Edward Castronova’s ‘Exodus to the virtual world: How Online Fun is Changing Reality’. McGonigal attempts to refute this dire warning, suggesting that since games really do provide a more compelling experience than reality, harnessing their power can incentivize social goods and reinvigorate democracy.

Videogames let us embody avatars, alternative versions of self in worlds unbound by our physical limitations. We can experiment with gender, escape into empowerment fantasies or wreak death and destruction on distant or fictional opponents. Games give vent to our secret impossible dreams and desires; they can enlighten us, enervate us, sate us or drain us. Games combine narrative storytelling, music, theatre and with the added lure of interactivity. They are perhaps the ultimate human form of entertainment, and it’s time we took them a little more seriously.

Is Castronova with his dire warnings of a polis abandoned by its citizens a Cassandra, doomed to be ignored as we sleepwalk into a brave new world of dulling distractions? Is McGonigal right in seeing games as a new freedom to extinguish the unpleasant and mundane, a tool to solve our most intractable problems? This is Threat Detection, a new show about videogames.

You can catch Threat Detection live each Tuesday at 6PM GMT on Radiomade, or catch up with past shows here.

Image: Logo based on four hyperboloid bundles in a tetrahedral like intersection by Fdecomite. Used under – Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

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The World You Think You Live In

Experimental narrative video piece I made a while back. The narration is adapted from an unpublished short story called ‘The Wedding Tree’. I talked about the ideas behind this story in an Ignite talk at Mindfields a couple of years back called ‘The Nuts & Bolts Of Making Stuff Up’. Video of that talk never emerged alas.

Update 2: Without warning, Youtube returned sound to the video. So much for open and transparent copyright policies guys.

Update: Youtube has seen fit to censor another one of my videos, due to the inclusion of ‘copyrighted’ material. To view the original video go to vimeo - https://vimeo.com/81525310

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