Tag Archives: Morse code

Damon Albarn’s Soundscape Gives the BBC Something to Celebrate

Damon Albarn (Screen shot of BBC interview)

These past few weeks have difficult for the people who run the BBC (which of course is one of the co-producers of The World).

No-one at the Beeb feels like celebrating a birthday. But the BBC is 90 years old. And, awkward or not, it’s marking the day—November 14, 1922—when it made its first broadcast.

At exactly 5:33pm London time on November 14, 2012, scores of BBC stations in the UK and around the world dropped their regular programming. Instead, listeners heard the chimes of Big Ben, followed by a scratchy old recording of an announcer: “This is 2LO calling…” 2LO was the name of the BBC’s first transmitter from 1922.

After that, an old tune—a hit from 1922. Mixed into it was rhythmic birdsong. And then a child’s voice: “Hello future,” the child said. “I hope music still matters because music is everything. Without it there’s nothing; just silence.”

And then there was silence, before the program restarted with a mishmash of more sounds—some eerie, some sweet. All made you listen on.

The BBC commissioned musician Damon Albarn to put this audio collage together. Albarn’s resume is itself a bit of a collage. He’s the front man of the bands Blur and Gorillaz. He’s also recorded songs with African musicians, and he’s written an opera that was staged by the English National Opera in 2011. The BBC asked Albarn to create something that would convey a sense of not just the past 90 years, but also the next 90 years.

And through its various radio outlets – talk stations, music stations, foreign language stations – the BBC solicited responses to this question: “What message would you give to somebody listening in 90 years time?” Albarn said he was overwhelmed by the responses.

“It varied from the very old and wise who tended not to imagine the future but were interested in providing a piece of hard-earned wisdom,” said Albarn.

Middle-aged people tended to be “quite downbeat,” said Albarn. But the young were different. “They in a way were the most interesting because they were very free—in a sense, the only people will have the only connection with 90 years.”

In the soundscape, one child says: “I think there will be more people and because there’ll be more people I will tell them to be careful not to get lost because it might be like really, really busy.”

Not all the messages are delivered with the human voice. Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous quote, “Love is wise, hatred is foolish,” is rendered in Morse code. There’s also the sound of what Albarn calls a “scary” Cold war spy station.

At the end, there are the BBC’s “pips” which—like Big Ben—usually mark the top of the hour. Albarn weaves the pips in and out of a piano tune.

And then, after three minutes, BBC programming returns to its regular schedule.



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In Cairo, Cars Speak

Cairo taxi driver Hicham Uhmarey (Photo: Gabriel Luis Manga)

[Note from Patrick Cox: In Boston, where I live, honking is not considered a skill, and the car horn isn’t much of a tool. Hitting the horn is a way of giving obnoxious voice to your frustration at the rest of the world as represented by the idiot who just cut you off. In Cairo, and in many other cities, drivers are more expressive and creative. They’re also noisier: many Cairo drivers put in a louder horn when they get a new car. Below is reporter Julia Simon’s take on car horn speech.]

I lived in Cairo a little more than two years and whenever I’d walk down the street and hear a honk that I thought was just a…honk. It turns out, that honk has a meaning.

The honk—four short bursts followed by a slightly longer one—means: “Open your Eyes.” It’s directed at people who aren’t paying attention. Or in the words of Hicham Uhmarey, a Cairo cabbie, people who are “crazy,” and not looking up.

Uhmarey has been driving the streets for two decades. He says that in Egypt, honking is a language. Drivers combine short and long honks to make words, like Morse code. He says most drivers speak this language, not just taxi drivers.

Uhmarey took me for a cab ride around Cairo for a little lesson.

It probably won’t come as too much of a shock that a lot of the honks represent such descriptive swearwords that I can’t translate them here. But the honks aren’t just for other drivers. Some are for women that drivers see walking on the street. There’s a special one for “I love you.” Honking is a male language.

Even so, some women do know they’re getting honked at. But they may not know whether the message is “I love you” or “Oh beautiful woman.” To the untrained ear, they sound similar. What’s more, many of my female Egyptian friends don’t know any honks at all. Even among the few who drive, many haven’t gotten the chance to learn the honking language.

But I am proud to say that I am now officially a student of honk. Hicham Uhmarey confirms that I can now honk “I love you.”



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Tourette’s Hero: Changing the World One Tic at a Time

Jess Thom dresses like a superhero. Mask, shiny blue cape, the whole bit. She calls her alter ego Tourette’s Hero.

Whether dressed as Tourette’s Hero or as herself, Thom speaks with an impressive array of verbal tics. She says biscuit a lot.

“Tourette’s is a condition that waxes and wanes BISCUIT,” says Thom. “So it changes over the course of somebody’s BISCUIT life.”

Thom is 31. She remembers having tics from as early as age six, though she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her twenties.

The tics are more severe these days.

Tics can “change over the course of a day (HAPPY BIRTHDAY).”

Happy birthday is another of Thom’s regular tics.

And then there are the rude things that pop out. Thom is among the ten percent of people with Tourette’s who exhibit Coprolalia, the involuntary blurting out of taboo language: swearwords, body parts etc.

Whether taboo or not, Thom’s tics are often very funny. There’s a reason, after all, there are so many jokes about Tourette’s.

Thom welcomes the jokes. In fact, she likes to own them. Hence her website, Tourette’s Hero.

The point of Tourette’s Hero, Thom says is to “celebrate the creativity and humor of Tourette’s, and to reclaim the laughter associated with Tourette’s.”

And Tourette’s Hero isn’t just a website just for people with Tourette’s. It’s for everybody. (Though be warned: it may not be appropriate for young children or those offended by strong language.)

On the site, Thom posts tics that she has said in the past two years. She invites people to vote for their favorites:

  • Batman Breastfed my Mum
  • I Love You Chemical Weapon
  • Lucy in the Sky with Pencils

People can also submit artwork to illustrate them.

Thom delights in the poetry of her Tourette’s. Her condition, she says, opens doors. Her tic-filled conversations take her and others to unique places. And the website is part of that conversation.

Tourette’s Hero, she believes, is part of greater movement among disabled people to change attitudes towards disability by means of humor and creativity.

Biscuit. Happy birthday.

Also in the pod this week:

  • An Indian boy’s life changes forever when he is transported on a train to Bengal, where they don’t speak his native tongue, and he can’t figure out how to get home. Detailed article on this here.
  • Morse code signals to and from the Titanic in the days and hours before it sank.  The pod has excerpts. The entire BBC program is here.
  • Renewed interest in a Nazi-era German film version of the Titanic.


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