Zora's list

zora Yesterday's Scripting News points to a Christopher Lydon interview with Steve Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent. When I used to live in Boston, I often heard Lydon on WBUR's The Connection; it's a real treat to catch his class act now on the Web. There's something missing from the audioblogging experience, though, and I've written about it before: audio is a more opaque datatype than it ought to be.

We routinely quote fragments of text, and although the tools available for doing so leave a lot to be desired, it's something most people can figure out. We almost never quote fragments of audio. Here, for example, is a clip from the Lydon/Kinzer interview. It wasn't incredibly hard to quote that bit of audio, but it wasn't trivial either. I'm on Windows today, so it took some fiddling to switch from microphone to wave recording, and to capture the exact quote I wanted. In my case, I only needed to save to Radio's /www/gems folder, so the upstreaming of kinzer.wav was automatic, but in other situations that step is less straightforward. All in all it's doable to include an audio quote extracted from an MP3, but you need to be pretty motivated to do it. It's not going to happen casually.

In theory, it should be much easier in the case of streaming audio. With RealAudio, for example, you can form a URL that includes start and end times, so you can literally quote from a stream. But as I discovered in my earlier posting, it's again not trivial. In that posting, I mentioned one of my favorite episodes of This American Life, entitled Superpowers. The second act of that episode tells the story of a modern-day wonder woman called Zora. It includes an extraordinary recitation of the list of skills that Zora set out to master. I've sometimes wanted to bookmark and point people directly to that place in the stream. So I finally sorted out how to do it. The base URL of the stream is here, but although that URL works on Windows, on the Mac -- because QuickTime wants to handle the rtsp: protocol -- it won't work unless you encapsulate it in a wrapper file, e.g. superpowers.ram.

Here's an URL for Zora's list -- that is, the minute-and-a-quarter starting at 24 minutes and 24 seconds from the beginning of the stream:

rtsp:\//a129.r.akareal.net/ondemand/7/129/1854/7d2416a19/ www.wbez.org/ta/178.rm?start=24:24&end=25:40

Nailing the exact start and end times was, again, a tricky endeavor. The Real player doesn't give you any help bookmarking those offsets. And then I had to make and upload the encapsulation file. Finally I achieved the result. So here, for your listening pleasure, is Zora's list.

When we think about the opacity of audio (and video) datatypes, we tend to assume that some kind of Google-on-steroids is going to come along and make all this stuff more accessible. And indeed, technology like Fast-Talk Communications' phonetic indexing will certainly be part of the answer. But it strikes me that plain old Google could do a lot for us too, if only quoting from streams were easier to do. A few days after I post this entry, for example, the phrase 'Zora's list' will be in Google's index. Thereafter, when I want to point someone to that audio fragment, I'll be able to say: "Search Google for Zora's list."

Achieving that effect ought to be way easier than it is. Why, in discussions of weblog formats, APIs, and tools, do issues like this never seem to arise?

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/07/30.html#a760