Tags: radio



Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Wired for sound

The newest episode of has the highlights from one of their occasional live events. This one revolves around the deliberately contentious premise of television vs. radio.

AV Smackdown … The Podcast on Huffduffer

Seeing as Huffduffer is all about audio rather than video, you can probably guess that I’ve got a soft spot for radio. Not that I have anything against the moving image; it’s just that television, film and video demand more from your senses. Lend me your ears! and your eyes. With your ears and eyes engaged, it’s pretty hard to do much else. So the default position for enjoying television is sitting down.

A purely audio channel demands only aural attention. That means that radio—and be extension, podcasts—can be enjoyed at the same time as other actions; walking around, working out at the gym. Perhaps it’s this symbiotic, rather than parasitic, arrangement that I find engaging.

Neal Stephenson draws a distinction between vegging out and geeking out:

To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal — and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.

He expanded on this distinction in a talk at Gresham College on Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture.

The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture on Huffduffer

I enjoy vegging out in front of the television. I enjoy geeking out with podcasts.

Sound and vision

Every creation of Tony Wilson’s was labelled with the letters followed by a number. The first poster was FAC1. was FAC51.

The Joy Division album was FACT10. The album artwork was designed by Peter Saville. The words “Unknown Pleasures” don’t appear on the cover. Neither do the words “Joy Division”. Instead, the cover contains a series of 100 lines representing pulses from —thanks to . It was a groundbreaking piece of graphic design. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: a two-dimensional representation of raw data.

That was almost thirty years ago. This week Radiohead released the video for the song House of Cards from the album In Rainbows …except it isn’t really a video at all. It wasn’t shot on film or video. It is a three-dimensional representation of raw data.

You can play with the data visualisation, altering it while the song plays. You can even download the raw data. You are not just allowed to play around with the data, you are encouraged to do so. There’s a YouTube group for aggregating the results.

Suddenly every other music video seems very flat and passive. I’m reminded of a prescient passage from Douglas Adams’s essay How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet:

I expect that history will show “normal” mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this.

Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?

Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.

What was the Restoration again, please, miss?

The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.


In the latest episode of the Rissington podcast a listener asks What Podcasts do you listen to regularly? The panel answer with some top-notch listening recommendations. I’d just like to chime in with my own number one choice: Radiolab. Yes, technically it’s a radio programme rather than a made-for-Web podcast but that’s also true of my second choice, Mark Kermode’s film reviews.

The latest episode of Radiolab is somewhat special: the whole thing was recorded live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The subject matter is also pretty special. The episode is devoted to War of the Worlds; not the book, not the many film versions, but the classic Orson Welles radio dramatisation. There’s a lot of resonance with more recent phenomena like ARGs. While we can’t quite place ourselves in the mindset of 1938, it’s still pretty thrilling to listen to that original broadcast. A recording of the radio broadcast is available on the Internet Archive.

Ah, Orson Welles! Most people will remember his best film work as being Citizen Kane but we really know that Touch of Evil (but not the studio cut) is his real meisterwerk. And while everyone remembers his War of the Worlds broadcast, who knows of the genius that is :

We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there.

As for his renowned acting talents, surely his finest work was revealed towards the end of his life when he poured his soul into this Paul Masson wine commercial.