Online Radio with DJ Mixes?

Here’s another idea I came up with.  We have online radio stations, like Spotify, Last FM, and Jango.  They stream songs based on our preferences, and they learn what we like.  Occasionally, these guys throw a new song at you for you to try out.

Then we have the Youtube, Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook crowd.  They take stuff from the internet, mess with it, and upload it.

Then you have all these “download Youtube as MP3”, “convert MOV to WAV” and all those guys.  Binary manipulation backend, website up front.

By putting these things together (“I am the weaver!”) we could revolutionise online radio.

Here’s How It Works

You sign up for your radio station, add a few bands like any other online station, and sit back and listen.  But there’s an extra option – “Mixed”.  You switch it on, and the station plays a steady stream of music, like a DJ at a club.  Not just dance music either.  Hendrix mixed into Beethoven, then mixed into Jamiroquai, and on and on…

These mixes, or links, could be stored separately as actions on the server, and applied to the audiotracks live, or they could be stored as two half-tunes (e.g. the last half of a tune and the first of the next).

If you’re a DJ, you can take two songs from the playlist, and you get a bunch of online tools like a crossfader, a scratching interface, tempo controls, a sequencer/drum machine etc to play with.  You mix one tune into the other as best you can, and you save your mix.  Mixes are “scrobbled” just like tunes, with users getting rated for the best mix.

If you can’t DJ, but you’d love two of your favourite songs mixed, you can click “request a mix” and it will show up on an inspiration list for DJs to scroll through.  The Beatles to Mr Scruff.  Mozart to Motörhead…

Of course, there are a lot more potential links than there are songs, and some simply won’t have mixes.  In this case, an automatic crossfade could suffice.  In fact, a few tools could automate mixes of songs that are drastically different – like a simple(!) beat analysis and a back-spin, or a prepared drum machine with a tempo change every sixteen beats.  Even a few Pink Floyd style tricks could be employed, like a “rushing wind” sound quickly fading in after a brief pause.  Users could rate the automatic mixes too, in case a really great mix happens automatically.

A station like LastFM could start out by hiring a couple of DJ’s to do a few mixes of random and popular tunes.  Then it could be added as a new feature for everyone.

Because all the mixing will be actions on online audio, rather than download/upload, there should be no problems with copyright holders on top of the ordinary streaming technology.  It could also be seen as a benign form of DRM – like when the a radio DJ talks over the beginning or end of a track so you can’t “tape it off the radio” as easily.

The inspiration for this idea comes from a few places.  One is the movie It’s All Gone Pete Tong, where the movie soundtrack, an operatic choiral classical thing gets mixed into a banging acid house track (it’s the “comeback” scene).  Another is a small piece of freeware I used to love, called MDJ, which was the first MP3 DJ software I’d ever seen (they also made an amazing 303 type machine called Rubberduck, but that’s besides the point) which had an auto-mixer.  Mixxx, the open source DJ tool is another reason why I think this will work.  Also credit has to be given to all the nights I’ve sat up partying to Youtube videos and Jango and would have killed for a decent mix.  Some of the hour-long uploads of mixes on Youtube and Soundcloud by DJ’s are great, but they always play songs you’d have banned yourself.

Could this be the new way to enjoy online radio?  Could it spawn a new generation of online radio DJs?  What do you think?


A Cappuccino on Mars

Mr Sir Richard Branson has just announced he would like to take us all to Mars.  Well, not all of us, but a decent colony’s worth.  The 62 year old starry-eyed entrepreneur billionaire thinks it’s possible within his lifetime.  I’m inclined to believe him…

Since first seeing Total Recall I have wanted to visit the Red Planet.  Not for the mutant prostitutes, but for the sheer mind-aching desert of it all.  I would want to take a bus-ride way out of the colony, to the middle of nowhere, camp in a pressurised tent and gaze back at Earth…

I think the only way to achieve this is to start getting to space more anyway, but then to get artificial centrifugal gravity sorted as soon as possible.  A big wheel like 2001:A Space Odyssey would be nice, but it would be the biggest thing we’ve ever constructed in space.  Hugely expensive.

The obvious solution?  Some sort of bolas-based ship.  Once accelerated to sufficient speed, the cables are unwound and the whole thing rotated.  In it’s simplest form as an orbiting station, it would provide a long-term experiment into the biological effects of various gravities, for instance Lunar or Martian.

A bolas style proposal for artificial gravity ship

You would still experience Coriolis forces, but at least you’d be able to take a decent bath…

This particular ship employs already existing technology, unlike the “2001” wheel.  Tethered com-sats have already been tried, the ISS is a fantastic piece of modular design hurtling above our heads, and, of course, we got robots on Mars.  This just sticks all those things together.

The first thing we should establish on Mars perhaps should be a mirror cache of the Earth internet.

Then we should set up a mining colony – I’m pretty sure there might be iron there on Mars somewhere.  This would have schools, hospitals and a supply chain.

From there on in, biodomes, hotels, offices, cafe’s.  I wonder what the foam on a cappuccino would taste like at one-quarter gravity?

When all is said and done, a trip to Mars feels pretty inevitable.  Virgin Galactic have a wee sideline putting satellites into orbit, by launching a rocket from their sub-orbital space-plane.  With their manned sub-orbital trips just round the corner, it doesn’t take much leaping of the imagination to stick some people in a similar rocket and shoot them off to a Space Hotel, or an outpost station to Mars…

One of the great advantages of a space-plane / rocket (or even a balloon-launched rocket!) is that traditional rockets shake like “a washing machine” at first, due to the intense speed and friction of the air.  Launch the rocket at the edge of the atmosphere, and it’s a smooth ride all (most) of the way.

Then, across the, er… (we need a euphemism like the Atlantic “pond”), expanse, we could have a Virgin Space-Plane/Rocket on Mars.  Across the whole journey, people would only have to experience weightlessness in short, fun, bursts that don’t require the physical regime of ancient Sparta to stop one’s bones dissolving.

Zero-gravity space bone-itis notwithstanding, I’ll see you on Mars…

An Open Digital PC – A Proposal

I love the ideals of Free Software.  Make something, share it, remix it, make it better, share it more.  Amid the world of heavily entrenched copyrights, patents, and trademarks, we have the phenomenon of  “open source” software, released under freedom respecting licenses.  Browsers, office software, graphics software, operating systems, web-servers, mobile phone software – it’s great!

It’s not a new phenomenon.  And it’s not limited to software.  People have been sharing their creative works for hundreds of years, from the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine that helped shaped America, to the amateur ‘zine communities.  The early digital age of sample tracking,  the current age of Wikipedia, SoundCloud, and the Creative Commons.  That’s not to mention all the cracking of warez, remixing of tunes, and fan-fiction that’s out there.  We love to improve and share things.  Add that to the new phenomenon of crowd-source fundraising and you have the start of something amazing…

Let’s build PC’s, smartphones, home servers, supercomputers, and everything else we need from community crowd-sourced funds, using open source designs.  In this article, I will hypothetically build a PC completely from open projects.  These projects are already in place.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to start with the stalwart pillar of our digital lives, the humble desktop PC.  We will need chips, circuit boards, and a case.  We will also need all the software from embedded initialisation all the way to a web browser.

The OpenSPARC: an open-source processor by Sun Microsystems

Chips Design

The horse to back here is the OpenCores project.  Open source, modular chip design released under free software licenses.  The problem with chips is they are expensive to make.  The good news is that they are also easy to emulate.  A chip designer can run his circuit through a computer program to check for bugs.  OpenCores is a community of chip designers, building “blocks” of micro-circuits that can be put together into all sorts of microchips, from motherboards to systems-on-chip like smartphones.

In the same way that the Linux kernel and other free software projects are both funded and developed by big business as well as volunteers and hobbyists, we could have a standard, stackable processor design for anyone to manufacture.

Of course, the difference between a program and a chip is that once designed, a program can be copied for free, whereas it can cost a million bucks to prototype a complex print of silicon!  The design on the other hand, is certainly achievable so far.  Let’s look at our next step:-

Fabricating Chips

So, assuming a hypothetical chip design, how can we make it real?  Like I said above, we’ll need a million bucks.  There are two feasible ways to achieve this.  Crowd-sourcing, and/or big business.

The big business model is simplified (horribly) like this:  Company-A makes CPU’s for the server, workstation, and home computer market.  They like our design, so they “steal” it legally and make a few for their budget range – or something.

Company-B makes budget motherboards for home builders and OEM’s.  They buy a load of  these chips and make their mainboards, whereupon we buy one, and have a working mobo for our open-source PC…

The crowd-sourcing model is a bit more airy-fairy, but is still viable.  It goes like this.  We stick up a KickStarter project for a million quid, offering a sliding scale for thank-you gifts – a working pc, a batch of chips, that sort of thing.  Universities, seeing the educational benefits, pitch in a bunch of cash.  Mainboard makers too, hoping to get a hundred or so of the first run.  Embedded device makers put in a bit too, to get a pledge-gift of the prototype run.

Once the million is made, we make a “foundation” and a company, and order a print on real silicon wafer.  Using the same technique, we build a motherboard around it.  Other hardware could be created in this way, like graphic, sound, and networking cards, as well as RAM and hard disk controllers.

A million on KickStarter is certainly possible, if a little unlikely.  It means a million people give a pound, or a thousand give a thousand.  Projects like  Amanda Palmer’s album and tour raised a million.  Quite a few projects have.  With a high enough profile in the tech world, including the “hippy” tech world like the OLPC and GNU projects, a million is obtainable.

I would like to specify a license for the chip(s).  A proprietary software company like Microsoft should be able to run their software on it, or sell it in their devices.  They should not be able to block it.  Old hardware should be recyclable.  If I find an old MS Windows tablet for second-hand with our chip in, I should be able to run Linux on it, or at the very least, rip out the chip and stick it in my own compatible motherboard.  Any improvements made by MS on their chip should be released back to the community, and should not block other software, and any patents held on code methods should be unenforceable (unless someone rips the patent off without using the open source code, or someone uses the free code, but locks it into a proprietary system).

System Device Software

The BIOS, and any variation, such as UEFI, is the first real piece of software the computer gets.  It usually sits on a flash-style chip stuck to the motherboard.  In most computers, it’s written by a company who release it as proprietary software.  American Megatrends is one example, a company name millions of PC users see when they switch on their PC, whether they run a free operating system or not.  Of course, it’s proprietary, so you only get an update when theysay you’ll get one, and not if it’s old hardware they’re not making a profit on.

Coreboot Logo Wikipedia

The Coreboot Logo – reminds me a little of Playboy…

This won’t do for our hypothetical “open PC”.  We’ll need a free software BIOS.  Luckily, there is a long-standing project to provide one, called Coreboot.  Coreboot is mainly a science/hobby project at the moment, but it has real applications in areas like datacentres, supercomputers, and embedded devices.  It supports implementations of UEFI, and runs on a wide range of motherboards.  With an open-source design, emulators and on-board software could be written before the first chip comes back from the fabrication plant.

The same goes for graphics cards and other internal and external peripherals.  With emulators and open specifications, drivers could be created before the first one is made.

Eventually, all hardware could hypothetically be created in this way.  Hard disks, keyboards, monitors, smartphones…  Some hardware, like the RepRap 3d printer, the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and the FreeRunner phone, have already been created using these methods.  PC processors were open-sourced by Sun, namely the OpenSPARC range, so we know it is possible, even if some of these projects were not commercially viable at the time, for one reason or another.  Check out the UzeBox, Arduino, and Bugs.

Case Design

So, we have a nice working PC motherboard, with everything running.  What do we put it in?  Well, we need a design first. Thingiverse would be a great place to start.  Thingiverse is an online store for 3D designs.  Think SourceForge, or GitHub, but for CAD, blueprints, and Google Sketchup files instead of source code and executable software.

I’ll mention the really amazing thing about Thingiverse in a minute.  First, we can look at a couple of ways this could be realised.  Again, we have the crowd-source, and the big-business models.

So, a company like Aria, who make cases, like our design, and make a load, whereupon we buy one, end of story.  Or, we crowd-source the cash and run off a few, selling them, and keeping one for ourselves.  Money saved designing is money saved producing, which translates as lower prices.  That’s not to say a large specialist company like Alienware couldn’t pay somebody to develop a cool open design for our PC case, with a sticker recess for branding later on.

There is another way.  At least for things as simple as PC cases, which are mostly just moulded plastic, anyway.  This is the really cool thing about Thingiverse I wanted to talk quickly about:-

3D Printing

Thingiverse isn’t just a repository for 3D models.  Those 3D models are actually for 3D printers, like the Makerbot and the RepRap.  With one of these machines, you can replicate broken toy parts, doorknobs, knife handles, well, pretty much absolutely anything.  Wait, it gets better!

While the Makerbot is an excellent machine, it is very expensive, costing a couple of thousand pounds.  The RepRap is a bit different, costing only a few hundred pounds.

The RepRap is an open-hardware project of it’s own, with the intention of creating a machine that can replicate itself!  Ok, it can’t replicate microchips, or circuits (much), but all the mechanical parts, cogs, wheels, etc, are all printable.

All the software to run it is free, so in theory, all you need is a PC, and a mate with a printer (plus a mail-order for any circuit stuff you need – all standard and obtainable in RadioShack, or online), and you’ve got yourself a working 3D printer.  Now make one for your friends!

For the creative interested in free sharing, it’s a great kudos-magnet.  A DeviantArt for physical products?  Very possible.  For the creatively challenged, it’s a huge choice of great designs to download, print, and shove a motherboard in.  Designers can be commissioned for cash, the designs left open for anyone.

Operating System and Beyond

This is already there, and all over the place.  GNU/Linux is in supercomputers, server data-centres,  Linux Android has taken over on phones, and the Linux kernel itself is in everything from robot controllers to washing machines.  Linux devs can work magic with open architectures.  Just add our chip to the unbelievable array of hardware Linux already supports.

On top of that, there are graphics software like MyPaint, browsers like Firefox, actually, the list goes on and on.  This isn’t a part of our PC that has to be hypothetical.

Of course, if this system works for a PC, it will work for anything.  Supercomputers running company data, TV’s, smartphones, all hardware is possible.  Designs?  Maybe steampunk this week, minimalist next week, even custom wood-carved phone and e-reader skins.  A walnut laptop and smartphone?  Integrated couch/tablet/remote control?  By designing with modularity in mind, there’s no reason why not.  It already happens, in fact.  Look at all the PC mods on Instructables, for instance, all designed around the ATX standards.

The Future

Our hypothetical PC already sort of exists, like a jigsaw still in it’s box.  Some other exciting developments that could also pave the way for an open-design revolution are also in the pipeline.  I’ve already discussed 3D printing for physical parts, but another problem is electrical circuits themselves.

Ink-Jet Printed Circuits

This is already a real thing.  By filling specially adapted printer cartridges with metallic ink, it is possible to print a circuit.  You don’t get the same amount of resolution as you get with a slice of silicon, but it’s a circuit, nonetheless.  OLED’s printed on acetate and other wonders are already a reality.

Using an inkjet printer, one can also print acid-proof ink onto a standard copper-backed blank PCB, where it can be dipped in acid to produce the circuit.  But here we’re actually talking about printing whole chips on plastic paper, which is a bit cooler!

I can see this being hooked onto the RepRap project.  Imagine a circuit printer capable of replicating it’s own circuits, chips and all, by printing out a “book” of circuits on special paper.  Now make all the physical and/or moving parts for this inkjet printable on a RepRap machine.  Finally, make the printer print all the necessary “pages” of circuitry needed to run a RepRap itself.  You now have a fully replicatable replicator, cogs and chips and all.

Now leave the whole thing as “open-source”, and let the community improve it…

Home Silicon Chip Fabrication

Picture this:  The latest stable release of our processor has just been announced.  We download the code, pop a piece of raw silicon into a “burner”, fab ourselves a working chip, shove it in to the motherboard, and reboot.  Sound a bit far-fetched?

Enter Jeri Ellsworth.  According to Wikipedia, she’s a pinball expert, computer hobbyist, and self-taught chip designer.  I’ll give you a second to let that one sink in…

Jeri has come up with a way integrated circuits can be made at home.  Silicon transistors.  At home.  Hand-etched, home baked silicon chips.  Imagine that system could be automated in some way, combined with a 3D printer, a circuit-printing inkjet, and a worldwide community of designers, and what you end up with is a complete download-and-print PC.

All we would need then is some sort of machine that creates the raw materials.  Shove in some sand (or your old chips), and get a silicon wafer.  Pour in some oil (maybe grown from hydroponic hemp or rapeseed) for plastics and bio-fuels.

Back to Now

I’ll finish with a question.  Why isn’t this happening?  I would really like to know.  My guesses and research point to a few things, but I’d like other opinions.  Is the chip design market trapped in sticky patent issues?  Can we hardly move but for trespassing on intellectual property?

Is it that the chip designs themselves are just in hobby stage, great for playing with, but not what you’d call commercially viable?  Perhaps it’s just nobody’s ever attempted it, or the investment money can’t be found.

Every so often, a project starts like this.  Some fail, some go on to achieve cult status.  Some. however, actually succeed…

Artificial Intelligence? Bring it On!

Artificial Intelligence has always fascinated me.  2001’s HAL, Commander Data, Twiki (and of course, Dr Theopolis!), Metal Mickey…  These characters have given me a yearning to see some of this fiction brought to reality.

So I love hearing about learning machines, chatbots, chess algorithms and their kind.  I am firmly convinced we are a pinch away from creating a new intelligent life form.

Artificial Intelligence vs Artificial Life

When I was a kid, I remember watching a program with a robot in it.  The presenter was gushing about it being the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence.  It was, he said, as intelligent as a snail!

Now at first, I was a bit disappointed.  A snail?  These aren’t creatures renowned for their intelligence.  We dont say, as sly as a snail, as cunning as a snail, or like a wise old snail…  Owls, foxes, wolves and their like, perhaps, but not not snails.  But then it hit me.

Snails are alive!  They are a life form, with perhaps somebody in there (however stupid).  Now personally, I can’t put anything other than a religious opinion on theory of mind, but nobody can convince me that a snail, or a slug, or even an ant, doesn’t actually have somebody in there, however unintelligent.  They are a central processor taking in the outside world and making decisions based on that.  They have the same pleasure/pain chemicals as us, so it feels wrong to unnecessarily harm any creature.

In Zen meditation and under laughing gas from the dentist, it’s possible for an intelligent human to experience no thoughts, language, or anything like that, but to allow the sensations of existence to pour away as quickly as they come.  Could one be said to be intelligent in this situation?  Probably not.  But alive (in a personal, existential way, not as in reproducing cells!) – absolutely.

It may be anthropomorphising.  But who the hell knows?  Consciousness isn’t some kind of yes or no situation.  There’s a whole sliding scale from worm to Stephen Hawking, crossing through cats, dogs, snakes, and chess computers.  On that note, I firmly believe our snail-robot to be alive.

Talking purely cell-reproduction for a minute (enough of that hippy crap!), this too has been modeled effectively.  In the early days of computing, there was a game called CoreWar.  You had a computer which was your battle arena (a pretend one, called MARS, written for the game).  You had to write your programs and let them loose.  Your opponent had the same objective.  If your programs stopped the others from running, you win.

One of the weapons employed by early players of the game was a program that reproduced itself as much as it could, filling the virtual machine with it’s presence.  Another would delete other programs from memory.  (I think this sort of programming spawned the first ever real-world computer virus, and virus killer!)

In fact, I’d love to see a CoreWar playing computer program.

An economist called Thomas S Ray took this technology a stage further.  He created a system where small programs could compete on their own terms.  They had small random change programmed into them, so they could evolve and survive better.  Look up the Tierra Project if you want to know what the results were.

Nowadays, science knows more about DNA and actual cell reproduction, to the point where we can create new life forms.  Artificial DNA in living cells.  Amazing, but it’s not exactly Commander Data style consciousness, or even a friendly female computer voice…

The Turing Test

In 1950 Alan Turing (the father of the modern computer) put forward a test.  If a machine could make us think it was thinking, there was nothing stopping us from thinking it was thinking.  Or something.  So, if an artificial chatbot could fool a human into believing it was intelligent, then it could be said to be intelligent.  Or something.

The problem therein, is that conversation is only a measure of one small part of intelligence.  The first chess programs were touted as machines on TV and in the media, so these chess matches couldn’t actually be called Turing tests, although it wasn’t long before machines were beating all but the very Grandest of Masters.  If there had been a match between a Grand Master and a computer which was hidden from the human players eyes, then it wouldn’t take much of a machine to fool the human that it was a human.  There are plenty of terrible chess players in the world, all of them intelligent humans…

The first real Turing test win was by a program called PARRY.  Parry was not very intelligent, though.  His responses were textbook paranoid schizophrenic responses, like “I don’t want to talk to you”.  But given a bunch of psychologists to talk to, he fooled them.  They thought he was an intelligent human with communication problems!  I’m pretty sure PARRY was the inspiration for Douglas Adams’ own fictional People Personality Prototype, Marvin the paranoid android.

Still, despite the obvious shortcomings of a chatbot-based Turing test, it hasn’t stopped Hugh Loebner, an American inventor from giving it a bash.  Every year, he holds a Turing test for all the leading chatbots.  He puts humans and chatbots on terminals to judges, and the judges have to decide how convinced they were.  The gold medal, for a completely convincing chatbot, has never been won.

Who are these chatbots?


There are a few main contenders, including Jabberwacky and ALICE.  Unfortunately, the reason why these chatbots haven’t won the gold in the Loebner Prize is because their creators want a combination of natural language, and actual intelligence.  There’s a difference, and it’s highlighted by the PARRY case above.  Natural language is easy.  Intelligence is hard.

One could easily reproduce the PARRY case for Loebner Judges, but artificial intelligence scientists don’t want to.  A chatbot that can do maths, remember places and dates?  What’s the point?  A chatbot that can listen to your problems, understand you, tell you when you’re being daft, and encourage you to improve – that would be priceless.  Essential, almost.  You would forgive a friend for having bad language skills if they were a good, intelligent friend.

Jabberwacky is probably in the running for my prize, if I could afford to have one.  He has been built to learn from conversation.  He talks to thousands of people online, all day, and he recycles statements.  Because of this, he can talk lots of different languages, and sometimes he can be cheeky.  An unusual symptom of this learning method comes about.

People are aware he’s a chatbot, so they tell him.  Conversely, he’ll say it back.  And then the fun begins.  Because while you chat away, he learns and retorts.  So the upshot of having your intelligence challenged day in and day out comes back to the user.  Jabberwacky is running the Turing test on you!  How does one prove one’s intelligence?  What can you say that makes sense?

Apparently, kids approach him in different ways to grown-ups.  Kids suspend disbelief, and he becomes their friend.  Grown-ups are more challenging.  He talks funny, so he can’t be conscious.  My advice, here and now, is to go to talk to Jabberwacky.  Suspend disbelief.  Think, he could be alive in there, just assume he is and see if any holes appear in his intelligence, not his language skills.  Seriously, try it.

I’d like to see the same technology applied to patterns of sound frequencies, rather than words as such.  At the moment, actually talking to Jabberwacky involves a text-to-speech and speech-to-text software.  It would be fun if that was how the chatbot worked, internally.

The other big one is ALICE.  She’s made in different way.  Hers (in my opinion) is a shrewder intelligence, with worse language and personality skills.  You actually have to have a strange mind to suspend disbelief with ALICE, but if you can, you will be pleasantly surprised.  Or horribly frightened 🙂

ALICE and Jabberwacky themselves have spawned tons of variations.  Cleverbot, for instance.  ALICE is an open sourced intelligence, being improved all the time, and looks likely to contend with Apple’s Siri (maybe from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation?) in a different incarnation of the technology.

We don’t run Turing tests on our friends.  We don’t say “prove to me you’re more than just input-output”.  Maybe we should more.  What sort of person would I be if I had had a friend like that during my childhood?  What sort of species would we be?  I look forward to finding out.

The Future

There is a bit of talk on at the moment about a singularity.  A singularity is an event beyond which we cannot see.  It was predicted in the past that due to population increase, there would be so much horse-shit on the roads they would be unusable.  The internal combustion engine was their singularity.

So imagine an artificial intelligence more intelligent than humans.  More human, if you will.  Capable of reading a DNA sequence like we read a single word.  Creating art, music, scientific knowledge, while all the time reproducing and improving instantaneously.  We can talk about global warming, or the death of the sun, or the next generation’s taste in music, but when that AI is created, there is absolutely no telling how the future will pan out.

Michael Moorcock wrote a fantasy scifi book about a hero called Jerry Cornelius and his associate, Una Persson.  Together they build a computer intelligence capable of being a messiah to the human race.  Can you imagine a Jesus-bot?  Walking around healing the sick, raising the dead, being kind to children and animals and teaching compassion and understanding through stories?  Instead of believing in a being who provides all when we need it, we’ll actually have one.  And not in a Wall-E way, serving us so we get fat and lazy and stupid, but using psychology, NLP, counselling skills and leadership to make us all better and happier, being with us as we find new planets and forms to exist in.  Possibly even helping us wormhole through  to the next universe when this one finally spreads itself thin…

If not that, then at least a talking toaster or two


Edinburgh SkyLine – A Gondola Lift in Edinburgh

A green, tourist-friendly, independent form of public transport which is both expandable and non-invasive.

Problem – Haymarket to the Airport

In Edinburgh, we have a nice little train station called Haymarket.  It’s ten minutes away from the town centre.  We also have a nice little Airport at Turnhouse (not many people know that!)

The problem is that these two places are about half an hour away from each other by car.  We do have a nice Airport Bus service, but it can be cramped and unreliable at peak times.

Why Not Trams?

Edinburgh has a long, fine tradition of starting grandiose public projects.  Like the replica of the Parthenon on Calton Hill, which has and always will be half-finished.  Like the parliament, which was finished, but only by throwing at it more money than the human mind can comfortably conceive.

Then we have the tram proposal.  Now, I like trams.  Some beautiful and efficient tramways exist in Europe and around the world.  But when your problem is congestion, you don’t need more vehicles on an already existing road.  A little bit has been done to skip roads on the way to the airport, with a temporary guided bus lane, but mostly the tram development has been plagued with unpopularity, spiraling costs (surprise, surprise), and will cause more problems than it cures.

Cyclists hate the tram tracks for being exactly the right size to get caught in.  Commuters and residents hate the roads being dug up.  Taxpayers hate the ridiculous escalating costs.  Is there something we can get behind?

Incidentally, there was a proposal to build a rail link to the airport.  It was binned last year.

Ok, Hear Me Out…

So what’s the solution?

In my life I’ve been to a few places.  Canada, the Cairngorms, Butlins, Alton Towers…  In these places happen to be my absolute favourite form of transport (apart from airships, which I’m not likely to ever travel in).  Cable lifts.

Cable cars, gondola lifts, aerial tramways.  One big cable connecting A and B.  Flying effortlessly and silently across the landscape in your own little cabin.  No digging up of roads, no extra traffic.  Peak times, commuters.  Off-peak times, tourists.

London is currently being furnished with a cable car across the Thames.  It’ll be the first mass-transit cable lift in Britain.  I think we can have one in Scotland, too.

The Medellin MetroCable

This is what I imagine the Haymarket to Corstorphine bit will look like (Image from Wikipedia)

Edinburgh SkyLine – How Will it Work?

First off, you need an infrastructure.  Towers, stations, cables, and engines.  These could be quite low round the airport as it’s mostly countryside, rising higher up over urban areas.  The areas around Haymarket and Turnhouse could be stations.  A tower could be placed at Corstorphine Hill (or even a station, as it would serve the zoo and the hospital), and just past Gyle, descending across the fields (to avoid air traffic!) to end up at Ingliston.

The second part of the plan is the simplest.  Since this system could utilise  detatchable gondolas, anyone could rent SkyLine cable-time, from Lothian Transport and First Scotland to Virgin.  There could be police gondolas, royal and papal gondolas, and even goods transport gondolas.

So imagine you work out at the airport.  You’d take your bus pas, join the queue at the Lothian Buses gate, and bleep your bus pass or pay the man.  Then you wait for the next Lothian cabin, and hop in, reading your Metro as you skip above the rooftops.

Or you’re on an all-expenses-paid Virgin business trip.  You catch your Virgin first-class train to Haymarket Station.  You then wait at the Virgin Gate of the SkyLine station.  Your pre-booked first-class Virgin cabin is hooked onto the SkyLine cable, and you’re off, playing with the free wi-fi while you speed elegantly to your first-class Virgin flight.  To the Virgin Islands, perhaps…

Where to From There?

Well, anywhere.  The trams were originally intended to connect Leith, Newhaven, and the new developments along Granton with the Town Centre and the Airport.

By correct placement of towers and stations, a scenic route to the coast is possible.  A lift across the Forth to alleviate bus traffic on the road bridge might be the next option.

Depending on the flow of passengers, different gondolas could be deployed.  In quiet times, 2-person gondolas, and in busy times, 8-person cabins.

Dragondola Japan

This 8 person gondola lift travels at 6 metres a second. Looks good, too…

All in all, I think it’s a great idea.  It will obviously cost a few million pounds to build, but couldn’t be anywhere near the cost of the tram system they’re attempting to justify at the moment…

Why I Got Into Linux

I’ve always been into computers.  I love them.  I think they’re the pinnacle of human achievement.  Unfortunately, I’ve always been on the sidelines.  I could never afford a computer.  I took computing at college just to get to play with the things.

Nowadays, I have a bunch of computers always working, I do IT for my partner who is a web developer and I always like my own computer to be running a nice GNU/Linux/X system.

Socially Awkward Penguin

My first computer was an Acorn Electron.  I used it to program little games in BASIC, we even used it to fool a friend’s mum into thinking we’d “hacked into” some bank and freaking out:-

120 PRINT “The police have tracked this address and are on their way…”

Funny stuff!  Anyway, that was the only computer I had for years.  The school had the standard issue Econet of Acorn BBC’s, so I was at home there.  They evolved into Archimedes’ with a mouse and everything.  This was high school!

College Dropout

But at college, I really got to grips with Windows 3.11, even their dodgy program groups nonsense (being on Archimedes’, I was used to a directory actually being a folder!)  Sure, there was a bit of UNIX and Pascal stuff, but I was finally playing with what I considered the real thing, DOS and Windows.

For some time after I dropped out, I was an internet café head.  Surfing the web on Windows 95 for £2.50 an hour every so often was all I could do.  From the links in the locally hosted homepage.

Then later, I took a course in web design (three months) and got to play with some sort of Apple computer and Photoshop 3.  I don’t know which Apple, but the CD’s had to be put into cartridges and inserted into the front.  The web was on dial-up through Netscape Navigator via Altavista.

Family Man

I moved in with a girl who had a PC.  And a hideous AOL dial-up package.  Still, it was to a freephone number, so it was as unlimited as you can get on a phone line.  I discovered Morpheus, and unlimited MP3’z, gamez and various software titlez…

Eventually I got sick of corrupted downloads, malware, and all the other crap that goes along with that side of the internet.  I looked for good freeware and demo/shareware alternatives.  There was some good stuff – music, graphics, even 3D modelling and animation (thanks, anim8or!).

One day, after another corrupt Windowz install, I looked for a decent freeware alternative, not expecting to find anything much in particular.  The search results were full of this one word I’d never heard of.  Linux.  Looking closer, my world exploded.

Free Software!

This wasn’t pirate stuff.  This wasn’t shareware, demoware, or anything like that.  This was Open Source.  A worldwide community effort to make software, not just better, but free to use!  Although I didn’t have the skills or confidence to Linux my box, as it were, I started filling my Windows PC’s with Firefox, OpenOffice, GIMP, and all the other open sourced software – this stuff was amazing!

At first, Linux to me was all command line, Debian, Slackware, and co.  Much too difficult.  Partitioning drives?  BIOS?  Yuck.  Linux, while a nice thought, was much too scary for this noob.  Mandrake changed my mind for a while.  It was friendly, usable, beautiful, and then they were gone.  You had to pay.  Stuff that.  With the rise of Ubuntu, my new best friend, I found a new lease of life for my PC’s.  Easy partitioning, guided dual-boot, and a nice desktop.  What could be better?

Linux Mint.  These days I could let loose my mum on a Linux install.  Insert CD, click install, surf web while install happens.  Genius.  Reboot the PC, and go straight to YouTube.


I love my Linux.  And I love my hippy stuff, like music, art, anthropology, and community.  it had never actually occurred to me that software, the realm of the corporation, could ever stimulate my granola glands in such an exciting way!

Researching the history of Linux, I came upon this GNU thing.  This is where it had all begun.  One man’s dream of making software a free-for-all.  If it’s useful, and can be freely copied, then it absolutely should be free to use, modify, contribute to.  A nice, hippy idea, but amazingly, it proved fantastic, but not just for the beatniks, punks, crusties, and ravers who want to stick the proverbial “it” to big business, corporate-run government and the “man” in general.

It was also an effective development model for those same big businesses to make the software tools and technologies to make their millions of monies with.  Google, Amazon, Facebook, all running from this open source software.  The RedHat company makes tons of cash from helping companies make good use of this fun, creative stuff.

Think about it.  When was the last time you got onto Coca-Cola and asked for a sweeter, or less sweet version, or an easier ring-pull, or a bacon flavour?  Or volunteered to design their logo or advertising literature?  You just don’t!  Coke isn’t a community effort, it’s a corporation.  The only communication between company and customer is in market research surveys, ad campaigns and, transversely, sales figures.

GNU/Linux, Free Software licenses and Open Source development blows that away.  There are Github and Sourceforge if you want to help develop, there are forums and mailing lists where designers and writers put in their input, and forums full of non-technical users griping, praising, and requesting – and they’re being listened to!

Free Software is important to us.  It’s as important as Free Science.  There was a conspiracy theory going about for a few years that water-powered cars were already invented, it’s just that the patents were all held by car and oil companies…

Now, I know it’s a bit of a leap, but there’s still a little truth in that.  Medicine companies patent and copyright their chemicals as much as they can, even though the free copying of those chemicals could save millions of lives round the world, they want the money.  If science and technologies can be used to improve our lives, they should be available to anybody.  That’s why Linux and it’s family is funded by large companies and pocket-money donations, and developed by professional, paid developers and amateur hobbyists.

It’s the ultimate hippy dream, melged with the ultimate capitalist dream.  It stimulates both sides of my brain, and my heart as well as my mind.  If you provide a service, make some money.  If you have something you can give to the world for free, give it.

Some say it’s a mess of too much choice, too many filesystems, window managers, distros etc to choose from.  I actually prefer using GNOME on Mutter on X on GNU on Linux on my Mint from Ubuntu from Debian.  I like that my Mint comes from Ireland, using a distribution based in London, from an American Distro.  Although Mint is a beautifully packaged thing, you’re never far away from the sense that millions of units of love, dedication, hard cash and man-hours, both paid and voluntary, have been poured into it from all corners of the world, via hundreds of individual projects.

And they want you to have it.  For free!

If we can start with software, do similar things with hardware, from open design GPU’s to printable garden tools, we can take this attitude of freedom of information into medicine, engineering, town planning, and education, we could really get things going here on planet earth.

And I might be able to afford it…