Whenever I tell people what I have done, some politely look away, others react with shock . . .
It’s just over 18 months since I made the decision described in the post: Farewell Unreal World. The decision which just seemed to evolve naturally as my tastes gradually changed, but which has shocked some people far more than anything else I have done in my long and colourful ife. The decision that I no longer needed a television.
If you read the piece I wrote at the time, you will see that this was not so much a sudden decision to do something radical, as the logical de-cluttering of my lifespace by getting rid of a device which I no longer regularly used. I thought it might be interesting to write about it, and I certainly never expected it to provoke the sort of reaction it did (and still does) from people I meet. But more of that later.
First: a quick catch up. Yes, I am still living without a television, and I so seldom remember or notice this changed state that I have forgotten to write this followup piece on multiple occasions. I was going to write a follow-up when a month had passed, but I didn’t remember, so then I told myself 6 months. But the next time my TV-less status came into my mind it was 9 months, so I resolved to wait for the year anniversary, and forgot again. The only reason I’ve managed to hit the 18 month date is because I put a reminder in my phone the last time the thought crossed my mind, back in February!
So, my life without the actual object in the room seems to be pain-free (I’m not saying “my life without TV” since I had gradually diminished and ceased watching before getting rid of the actual device). I noted in that article 18 months ago having a stack of unwatched DVDs ready in the corner in case I needed entertaining . . . well, quite a few of those are still unwatched, some have been gathering dust for a long time. I will watch the occasional old film, or the odd TV episode on DVD, but aqt a rate where it would take me about 3 years to get through one season boxset. When I got rid of the TV I reminded myself that I could, if I so desired, catch the odd really good TV programme online. 18 months later, my online viewing in that time consists of two episodes of a series on canals from RTE, and assorted video clips from news stories on the RTE and BBC News websites.
As I said, disposing of the TV set and doing without live TV just seemed pretty natural to me at the time, given that I had stopped using it. I imagined that others might find this a little off – people are pretty wedded to their TV after all – but even I was shocked by some of the reactions from people in my life who heard of my decision or read the piece.
There was a visceral, almost fearful reaction, from those around me.
People who had happily chatted to me about “crazy” stuff I had done in the past (such as doing a naked photo shoot for an album cover and Hotpress magazine article, or running away to sea to do offshore radio) declared that this was just too odd.
“You’ve gone too far this time, It’s not funny, just plain weird” one co-worker told me.
Some pitied me. “If you have an addiction to TV, you should just try cutting down a little – there is no need to over-react by getting rid of it altogether” another colleague tired to counsel me, totally missing the point that I had dispensed with the set because I was hardly ever watching it, not because I felt I was abusing it.
Many people seemed offended by my decision to get rid of the TV, seeing it somehow as an attack on themselves for still continuing to enjoy television. Some felt that I would have problems visiting other people’s houses who had TV, because either my hosts would have to turn off their set, or I would be “offended”
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no problem visiting houses where there are TVs, just as I have no problem visiting people who have Black & Decker Workmates, Wii games consoles, or motorbikes, which also happen to be things which I, personally, do not use. Likewise, my personal preference in women tends to run towards dark hair, and I haven’t dated a blonde in 20 years, but no one would expect me to be offended by, or avoid visiting,someone just because they have a blonde partner.
To me, the way people feel so very personally challenged by my choice to do without a particular domestic accessory tells me more about their anxieties about the relationship with television than my own.
An interesting thing though. All those people, including the ones most vocally hostile when I wrote the piece, all seem to have blanked it out of their minds. They never bring it up, and in conversation will frequently ask if I saw such and such on television last night etc. It’s like I’ve made a choice which is too different for the mind to fully accept and record in memory.
Now, I’d love to tell you that my life is different and more full of time and interesting things since I got rid of the TV set, but that wouldn’t be strictly true, as my life had already become these things gradually, as my viewing declined, long before I got rid of the physical object.
But I can tell you that the space it occupied has been suitably filled with clutter.
Tranny memories . . and a new toy to play with.
I remember when I got my first radio. It was a little thing, not unlike the one pictured above, but with a big speaker grille occupying most of the front space (unlike the one pictured, which is designed to be used with headphones, but which is the nearest distant relative I still possess).
It was cheap, plastic, and could be held easily in one hand. The sound from it was a little tinny, but it was mine – finally I could choose my own listening, my own place, time, and station. The controls were simple – one wheel for volume (which also controlled on/off) and another for tuning. The radio being small, and the wheel sticky, tuning in stations, especially on FM, was almost an art form. And with cheap components it whistled and whined on AM, and would frequently de-tune from whatever station you were listening to.
Back in those days, you still referred to these things as a “transistor radio” – hence the nickname “tranny“, which at that time either had not acquired any more adult meanings, or perhaps such things were beyond my innocent world. The “transistor” radio was one of those phases we go through linguistically, where we specifically incorporate the name of some new component into the name of a thing, even though most of the users would have little knowledge of what a transistor actually is, or how it differed from a non transistor radio. These technical names attach themselves to things for a period, and then eventually fade away, the transistor radio just becoming the plain old radio again.
Another good example of that is the “Microcomputer“, which, if you took it’s name as a literal meaning, would have been a computer so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to find it on your desk. In fact, “Micro” computers were great big hulking beasts, taking up most of your desktop, and took their name from the then relatively new to mass market micro-processor at their heart. For a while in the early 80s, computer stores were always “Bill’s Micros” or “Sutton Micros” or “First Micro” etc, until the name gradually faded away to be replaced by the more prosaic “computer” of the desktop or laptop variety. Though of course, the biggest tech giant, which was born in those early PC days, does still carry the name – Microsoft.
Another example of such nomaculture, which has now almost faded away is the cellphone, which is what most mobile phones were initially called by users in the 80s and early 90s (and still are, to an extent, in the USA). This was again a case where the technical aspect of a product’s operation was included in the name – possibly by the designing engineers – and eventually being lost as generations of users, to whom the product is no longer a novelty, use them without any knowledge of the “transmission cell” technology which enables them to function.
Cellphones became mobiles, and just phones in many cases, and have now gained the title “smartphone” as they have started adding functionality not traditionally found on phones, such as mail, web-browsing, application support, and radio. How long will it be, I wonder, before the “smarts” of the smartphone are so taken for granted by users that they cease to have to be defined as smart, and become again, simply “the phone” ?
The arrival of radio onto mobile phones predated the smartphone era, and saved my bacon on one memorable occasion in 2009 when I was doing an outside broadcast for Phantom, and we suddenly lost the off-air monitor function on the desk. As I was not playing the music locally, but remote-controlling the playout system back at base through a laptop hookup, it was vital that I could hear what was going out on air, and i suddenly found myself adrift. Cue a few moments of panic before I realised that my trusty Nokia mobile could be pressed into service as an off-air monitor, though I’m sure it did our image no good at a very public location for me to be seen wearing, not the usual “big DJ headphones” but a tiny mobile with Walkman type personal earphones.
That was an FM radio facility, but mobile phones have moved on smartly since then, to the point where a variety of apps allow you to listen to online stations, or online feeds of terrestrial stations, from pretty much anywhere in the world, restricted only by occasional copyright issues. Most radio stations have their own app for ease of listening, and those that don’t are usually possible to get via specialised apps such as Tunein or Fstream (pictured above).
So a couple of days ago, I was lying in bed, enjoying what was, for me, a very rare lie-in. And I was listening to an online station through my smartphone. Nothing unusual in that . I use the phone for a lot of online listening: to get Radio 4 in good quality for example, or to listen to stations not available locally. But usually when listening, I am using headphones. In fact, I would virtually never listen to radio, podcast, or music on the phone any other way.
But lying in bed earphones are a drag, and I was feeling too lazy to get out of bed and go fire up the laptop to listen through the speakers. So I did something i rarely do, which was listen to the phone without headphones, through it’s own little speaker. And that’s when it hit me.
There I was, holding in my hand a device that was roughly the same size and shape as my first ever radio, though possibly a bit lighter. And I was listening to the radio on it, with that same slightly tinny sound that you get from small speakers, except that this was probably slightly better in that there was no whistles and de-tuning.
What I held in my hand at that moment was, to all intents and purposes, a “tranny”.
I know many radio purists of the old school who will disagree, and talk about receiving terrestrial signals. But to me that is not the point.
When I was a kid, I had a little box, and I could use it to listen to RTE, or BBC, or some other station I wanted to hear. Now, today, I can hold in my hand a box that allows me to do exactly the same. And more – If I want to, I can just as easily listen to Caroline or Radio Jackie or a station in Australia, all in the same quality, and without having to be in their specific area.
Just like the tranny of old, the battery will run down after a number of hours of listening. But instead of having to buy new ones, I simply plug in and recharge. And the phone allows me to do lots of other stuff too (though that is not the point of this piece).
The problem with internet radio always used to be it’s lack of mobility, as well as the fact that in pre-broadband days it could be clunky and intermittent to listen to. Better connection speeds solved the reliability issue, while the smartphone has essentially liberated online radio from the home, and allowed it to go with you. Wifi is nice, but not essential – as long as there is 3G coverage, most radio station apps will work just fine.
I remember doing online broadcasts 10 years ago, and at times it could be a pretty lonely show. The emails came in, but they could not be described as thick and fast. These days, working with Caroline, my response from online listeners vastly outnumbers satellite ones, and it seems to be almost as easy for people to tune in as it used to be.
It’s funny that I never made the connection between the smartphone and those old, little portable radios before. It took the removal of my headphones, and a sudden reversion to that lower sound quality of yesteryear, for me to make the emotional connection.
Broadcasting is not necessarily about aerials and signals, any more than good radio is about vinyl rather than CD.
Radio is about the content, the connection, the passion.
The old transistor radio was just a tool to deliver that content to me, just as the new age tranny in my shirt pocket does in 2013.
Some shots of the 252Khz Longwave transmission tower in Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland, currently broadcasting RTE but originally erected for Atlantic 252. Pictures taken Sunday 17th March 2013.
I don’t normally go out of my way to photograph broadcast sites – I usually prefer to think and talk about the content rather than the technology – but a friend in the UK asked me for some pictures, and as I was walking in a forest only about 20km away today I thought “why not?”.
So there you have it, 252 site on a typically misty St. Patricks Day.
Looming into the mist above the River Thames, this massive tower and crane captured my interest on a recent walk, but would later be the scene of a tragic helicopter accident.
Walking along the Thames Path from Westminster one cold and misty day in October 2012, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the sight of the massive tower under construction on the south bank of the river. Standing far taller than the surrounding skyline, the crane alongside and tethered to it served to make it look somewhat like a rocket on the launchpad, waiting to blast off with spacebound cargo, the image all the more appropriate given it’s location just streets away from the London HQ of the British Interplanetary Society.
I was compelled to photograph it, and it made a great landmark on my walk as I came towards and finally past it.
How sad today to see it at the centre of a very tragic accident involving a diverted helicopter which crashed having clipped the crane in cloudy conditions.
However much we reach skywards, however proudly our buildings and our machines rise upwards in defiance of the laws of gravity, it takes so very little in the way or circumstance, or weather, to bring us crashing down again.
But we will keep building high, keep flying, keep reaching for the stars. It’s what we do.
What happens when you try to swear at your Digital Assistant . . it’s either very polite to you, or more likely, trys to pretend that you really said something other than a swearword or insult.
Background: On my way into work today, I got Siri (the voice activated assistant and voice to text transcriber on the iPhone) to play a song out of the library that I fancied hearing.
When it was over, I said “Repeat”.
It repeated the last thing it had said to me (which was “Now Playing Disobey” but didn’t actually play the song. Obviously it associated the “repeat” command with wanting to hear what it said, but not replaying what it had just finished playing.
OK, so I decided to be more specific.
We take it up from there:
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
The iPhone 4s has arrived in Ireland from October 28th, bringing the upgraded specs and the new “Intelligent Assistant” Siri to the Republic’s smartphone soaked market.
The improved camera and processor will be welcomed by those trading up, but how does Siri cope with Irish placenames, and an Irish accent? Is it just a gimmick, or a useful interface for the phone? I put it though its paces with some surprising results, including new weapons technology and a gift for diplomacy.
The iPhone 4 has been reviewed in a million places by people much better than I at judging the smartphone market, so this piece is really focussed on:
- How it feels for me upgrading from a 3GS
- Playing with Siri (for fun)
- Working with Siri (will it do practical stuff for me?)
- Siri and the local market (Irish accent/placenames)
If you’re used to the iPhone anyway (and especially if you have already used iOS5 on your older phone) the 4S will be very easy to adapt to – everything is pretty much in the same place, just with extra bells and whistles.
I was moving from a 3GS and found the experience absolutely painless – it takes a while to go through the activation process, but when it is finished, everything has been copied across from your old phone (if that’s what you choose to do) including all your photos, music, apps, favourites etc. The only thing you will need to do is a once-off re-entry of passwords for things such as your Apple ID, email, Google+ etc. (this is a positive – you wouldn’t want someone to be able to access these simply by hooking up to your computer and migrating your data).
In my hands the phone feels much the same, perhaps a little lighter, and certainly more square. I’m not sure I like the new style of volume buttons, they seem easy to mishandle when simply holding the phone.
Reception seems to me to be identical to my 3GS in difficult places such as my front room, which is in a communications death-zone and only ever gets 1 bar (even right back to my Nokia N95 days).
I have seen today reports of 4S users experiencing battery-life issues, however I’m not in a position to say if this affects my 4S, as I’ve had it on and off the laptop several times during the day doing various tests and copying stuff. I think it is possible that the battery on standby is dropping a little faster than I might expect, but I’ll need another couple of days to confirm that. If some sort of an OS bug is responsible, it should be easily addressed by a patch in any case.
UPDATE: Don’t seem to have the battery issue myself – tested today, 6 hours on standby with 3G, Wifi, Siri and Location Services enabled, dropped 8% in the 6 hours.
The new camera, by the way, is excellent, and the jump in quality from my older 3GS is especially evident. I’ve not had time to try out the video yet.
AND SO TO SIRI
Siri is the new voice-activated “intelligent assistant” on the iPhone, and the bar that it has to jump for me is not speech recognition itself (such systems have been around for decades, albeit clunky in some cases) but accuracy and more vitally, practical usefullness. By which I mean, yes, it’s fine to have fun playing with the system by having offball conversations, but does it actually do useful stuff that I would need on an everyday basis?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes. (I say surprisingly because I’ve used voice recognition systems in the past, particularly on the Mac 12 or 13 years ago, and while they were fun, they took a lot of effort for very little useful return).
But Siri is on the way to greatness. Not brilliant, yet, because it has a few minor glitches, but there is without doubt a set of useful functions already, and this is just the beta version.
So what can it do?
Well let me start with one tiny, tiny thing, that just on its own makes it worthwhile for me.
It’s 7.30am, it’s a bitterly cold morning, and I am trudging up the hill to work, with my iPhone buried deep in an inner pocket to protect it from the rain. I have 12,000 tracks currently in my collection, and am buying new albums at the rate of three or four a week, plus receiving many as promos, and there are simply many tracks on my system that I do not know yet. Even if I know I am listening to the new Florence album, it’s my first time hearing it, and I want to know what the current track is called.
No more stopping and fishing out the phone in the rain to see what’s playing – a simple squeeze of my earphone button and Siri asks me what i want, and gives me the info, then goes back to playing the song. Simple as that. (whatever you ask Siri, and its spoken response to you is echoed on the screen too, as above).
Likewise, if I suddenly get a gra for some Nine Inch Nails while walking up that hill, a quick squeeze to summon Siry, a simple command “Play Nine Inch Nails” or, if I want an actual track “Play Metallica, Nothing Else Matters” and it is straight on.
This works with other content like podcasts too – I tried it with “Play Podcast Feedback” and it had the latest unlistened episode of the Radio 4 show playing instantly.
Likewise texting, or sending emails.
Simply say “Text” and it will ask you for the receipient, then the content, and then read it back to you, and ask if you want it sent, changed or cancelled. (You can also speed it up, for example, by specifying “Text Steve Conway” and it will then only need the content. This works well for texts, but for emails it tends to only grab what you are saying until the first pause, and then make it the content of the email, which you can only change in its entirity, not add to.
For emails the way round this is to go into email editing mode, and a microphone symbol appears, you can press this and create your email in chunks. An ability to add to existing content on an email when in fully automatic mode would be good.
The system can read incoming texts out to you, and ask if you want to reply, but this feature is not available for emails – yet.
Likewise, it is easy to set reminders or schedule meetings.
SIRI IN IRELAND
So how accurate is the speech recognition? How does it cope in Ireland?
The answer is “pretty well” – it seems to have little trouble accepting my commands and emails, and it even copes with Dublin placenames well enough. The few times it flaked out on me were usually in situations where it understood my words, but not what I actually wanted (it will search for such things on the web if you want).
Below is a test I set the phone for an email with a mixture of Irish placenames and surnames.
First is what I dictated:
Hi Steve here’s the plan.
We meet in the city centre at 8pm and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun laoghaire on the 46A, after that we can try O’Shaugnesseys, take a walk along the pier, and then go back into town for dinner.
If you can’t make it please send me text, regards Steve
Below is what Siri typed – incorrect parts highlighted red.
Hi Steve here’s the plan
We meet in the city centre at 8 PM and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun Laoghaire under 40 succes after that recanted electroshock missiles take a walk along the pier and then go back to town for dinner
If you can make it please send me text regards Steve
Recanted elctroshock missiles? . .
Having said that, Irish surnames are probably a trial for any AI software!
So in review, a very useful tool, will certainly be used by me day to day, and will hopefully get better with upgrades.
Now we’ve done the work, let’s have a little fun:
1> Let’s talk about nature . .
2> – One of Siri’s rare failures, I was trying to educate it on how to find the best alternative music in Dublin, but it had Christmas on its mind . .
3> – Now lets ask it the big question.
OK, how about coming down on one or other side of a current politica; / social divide?
So there you have it. It can copy with the irish voice, knows our placenames, but can’t quite get the hang of our pub names yet . .
All in all, a great upgrade from the 3GS, and a genuinely useful voice interface.