The Digital Renaissance

25 April 2010

I was watching the BBC Virtual Revolution program and Aleks Krotoski drew a parallel between the invention of the printing press as the stimulus that powered the Renaissance, and surmised that the development of the internet was fostering a similar digital renaissance now.

The linkage between the invention of the printing press in around 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg and the cultural movement that began in Italy at around this time is some is somewhat tenuous. To then say that there was a cause and effect is an even greater leap of faith.

But it is quite clear that the two came out of the same developments of culture and the sciences. The arrival of books is an art form that that was quite clearly part of the renaissance.

And there was significant resistance to the changes that were happening. The Spanish Inquisition formed in 1487, used censorship (chopping heads of as well as burning books) to maintain the catholic orthodoxy.

So are we now in a new “Digital Renaissance” of the internet, where the old institutions are being overthrown and replaced with more open and diverse forms of art and culture?

I am sure that it is very hard to see these changes in society at the time they are happening. Far easier to look back with a couple of centuries hindsight to see these big cultural changes.

But the shear scale and diversity of the changes to the communications landscape that the whole world is undergoing has got to have a significant effect on society.

Let us just hope that eventually the cultural innovators win out over the digital orthodoxy.


The BBC Ashley Highfield podcast

18 November 2007

Well I got around to listening to the Ashley Highfield podcast and I felt it answered some questions, but still left me feeling the BBC could do so much more.

Firstly standards. The BBC has always (until now) supported open standards. Radio transmission, Analogue TV (PAL) digital TV (DVB-T) digital radio (DAB) etc. Why is the internet different? Why do you have to use proprietary standards for Listen again (real player) when plenty of perfectly good open standards exist.

Is it because it is meant to be a streaming service that you cant record? Well I am sorry then it is just a fig leaf because it can be recorded.

The exact same argument will happen with the video streaming service. You will placate your rights holders by saying that the streaming service cant be recorded but I suspect that this will be easily fixed when we see the details. So this is just another fig leaf.

The rights holders should be told that all their content is out there for free anyway. It just that those using it are not making too many waves. I do understand that we need to bring these slow and clunking companies and people along the journey and I commend the BBC for pushing on this.

The solution for iPlayer and the horrible DRM is to do what the Open Rights group advocated and launch a streaming service. Register your computer with your TV licence number and use a streaming video format. Yes it will be easy to record, but that is what happens now with broadcast TV.

Cory Doctorow also commented on the podcast.

There is also the Open Rights Group That produced a Compelling argument (pdf) for the BBC to drop the iPlayer and concentrate on a streaming service.

Well I would say the answer is Miro brought to you by the Participatory Culture Foundation.

What really needs to happen is for the BBC to release the back catalogue as Greg Dyke said they would at the start of all of this.

I guess what we need to do is keep plugging away at the people involved in this. Eventually they will see the light.

The BBC and Open Formats

18 August 2007

It seems as though the BBC has decided to remove the links to the .ram files from their listen again service. I noticed that only some of the programmes had this link a while ago and now they all seem to have gone. I presume this is to make it harder to copy the stream to a mp3 or ogg file.

Obtaining the ram file is still pretty easy, in fact using the command line to get it is easier than copying the previous link. So on a Linux command prompt enter:

curl | grep [.]ram

Where the link is a copy of the link to start playing the file. This should give one line on the console starting something like:

<a href="/radio/aod/shows/rpms/radio4/nowshow.ram"><img src="/radio/aod/images/ico_realplayer.gif" width="16" height="12" alt="" border="0" align="left" vspace="1" />Listen using stand-alone Real Player</a><br clear="left" />

Put this link to the .ram file into my script, add the on the front, and this will create an mp3 or ogg file of the show.

#! /bin/bash

# A script to record BBC Listen Again programs.
# Orignal by Seb James 2007
# Extended by Stuart Ward 2007
# Released under the terms of the GNU GPL.
# Usage example:
# convert_real
# Where the argument is the content of the link on the bbc site
# called "Listen using stand-alone Real Player"
# This program will take as almost as long as it takes to listen to the
# program, plus as long as it takes to convert the realaudio file to a wav
# file, and then to encode it as an mp3 or ogg-vorbis file.
# mplayer with realaudio support via proprietary codecs must be installed.
# oggenc or lame is required. Default is mp3 format

BITRATE="-b 128"

while [ $# -gt 0 ]
 case $1 in
 --mp3 | -m)
 --ogg | -o)
 --quiet | -q)
 --date | -d)
 SUFFIX=$(date +%Y%m%d)
 --bitrate | -b)
 BITRATE="-b " $1
 echo "Unrecognised option: $1"

if [ -z $STREAM ]; then
 echo "Usage:"
 echo "$PROGRAM [--mp3 | --ogg] [--quiet]"
 echo "Where the argument is the content of the link on the BBC's web radio player "
 echo "called \"Listen using stand-alone Real Player\""

# Create a folder in which to work.
mkdir -p $HOME/radio

# And make that the working directory.
cd $HOME/radio

if [ -z $QUIET ]; then
 echo "Filename: $outfile.$ENCODE"
 echo "Stream: $STREAM"

# This will get the stream idenity parameters

mplayer -vo null -ao null -frames 0 -nocache -identify -playlist $STREAM \
 2>/dev/null | grep "^ID" | \
 sed 's/=/=\"/ ; s/$/\"/' >$HOME/radio/$

. $HOME/radio/$
if [ -z $QUIET ]; then
 echo "Title :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE0
 echo "Artist :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE1
 echo "Copyright :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE2

if [ ! -p $HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe ]; then
 mkfifo $HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe

# Thanks to Mike McKay ( for the named pipe method here:

if [ $ENCODE = "ogg" ]; then
 oggenc --quiet -q 1 $BITRATE -t "$ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE0" \
 -a "$ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE1" -o $outfile.ogg \
 $HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe & \
 mplayer -vc null -vo null $QUIET \
 -ao pcm:fast:file=$HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe \
 -playlist $STREAM

# for mp3 files, use lame to encode

elif [ $ENCODE = "mp3" ]; then
 lame --quiet --tt "$ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE0" --ta "$ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE1" \
 -h -v $BITRATE $HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe $outfile.mp3 & \
 mplayer -vc null -vo null $QUIET \
 -ao pcm:fast:file=$HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe \
 -playlist $STREAM

# remove the named pipe
rm -f $HOME/radio/$outfile.pipe
if [ -z $QUIET ]; then
 echo "Started: $started Finished: $(date)"
 echo "Title :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE0
 echo "Artist :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE1
 echo "Copyright :" $ID_CLIP_INFO_VALUE2
 echo "Successfully created the program. $outfile.$ENCODE"

This also raises the issue in my mind if this is legal, and from my reading of the BBC terms and conditions it would be, then why is the BBC trying to make it difficult to do. Are we not creating a divided society where the computer literate have better access to information because they can get around silly roadblocks.

Some of the BBC shows are available as podcasts, though this is very limited in the scope compared with the total radio output of the BBC.

Because I can transfer TV shows to my laptop from my mythtv system and play them on the train, without breaking any DRM or having any arbitrary time limits but the general public have to use the likes of iPlayer, or 4OD that have all of these restrictions in place, I have better access to information. Is this right.

I can here the counter arguments that releasing this onto the Internet in these formats would encourage rampant copyright infringement. I believe that the fundamental point here is that the law works in a retrospective manner. You are punished for the deeds you have committed, there should not be limitations on information that disenfranchise the majority of the law abiding public because of a few who would abuse that access and break the law.

The BBC Listen Again to pod

26 June 2007

I have been downloading and listening to some of the BBC podcasts for some time now. I quite enjoy Digital Planet, and In Business. But through some frustration that the scope of this is so limited and knowing that mplayer played the full range of programs from the Radio Player website I did a little searching around and found this little script. I had a bit of a play around with this and added a few bits to it to make it a bit better, like getting the stream info and using these to set the ID tag for the audio file.

I was a little hesitant in releasing this to a wider world until I found that this product essentially did the same thing, (I bet there is some GPL software in there). And I also had a careful look at the BBC website’s terms of use which clearly state it is ok for personal non-commercial use.

So here is the current state of my script for converting streams from the BBC to mp3 or ogg. I use this to keep me amused on the daily commute. I do get annoyed with the number and the volume of announcements on the trains, I am already sat down so don’t need to know where first class is, or to take all my stuff with me, as to reading the safety card, has anyone ever read it?

I would welcome and suggestions for changes or improvements, to the script that is.

The BBC iPlayer project and DRM

10 June 2007

The news that the BBC is proposing to use Microsoft Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) as the basis of their iPlayer project is worrying.

The BBC has a duty to lead in the media world which it has fulfilled for many years, making the UK a leader in many of the media technologies and content throughout the world. This has a direct impact on the UK economy.

This is because the BBC has always used open standards. A direct parallel is the development of GSM mobile phones largely lead by the UK has resulted in a worldwide technology that I work in.

I believe we are at a similar turning point with digital media. If the BBC does not show the leadership demonstrated with its other on-line services we will disenfranchise the UK citizen and damage the position of the UK in the world.

I would urge everyone to sign the petition and write to your MP