Monday, 21 May 2018

AND WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT, IT FIGURES [110]



Nine months after promising myself that I would upgrade my iPod nano to a Sony Walkman [link], I have done exactly that, when the iPod stopped working for a few days. I have now launched headlong into the devotional task of loading my CD collection of twenty-plus years onto it – the first purchase, from Virgin Megastore in Portsmouth, was of “Jagged Little Pill,” by Alanis Morrissette, and “Now 35.”

Apparently, my NW-A45 Walkman can play “HD Audio,” which Sony defines as anything above CD quality. I had not looked into this before buying it, as my main intention was to find something that can accept a 200 Gb micro SD card – Sony says it can take a card with ten times that capacity, but none has been made yet. However, if this Walkman is expected to beat CD quality, then I can leave MP3 behind: in 2015, Ryan Maguire reconstructed a version of Suzanne Vega’s atmospheric song “Tom’s Diner,” used in the 1990s as a control when testing the “lossy” codec that compresses sounds into MP3 format, that only plays the sounds that were, in effect, discarded – enough sound is left behind for you to still identify the song as “Tom’s Diner.”

After some research, I now have the definitive advice for converting your CDs, which I will be using on my entire collection: only use FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format, setting it to 44.1 kHz 16-bit if you have the option, because this matches the settings of the CD.


The “lossless” element of FLAC, a format that has been around since 2001, means all the available information on your CD is being retained. Because of this, you do not set a bitrate of kilobits per second like you would with MP3, because that rate will change with the song. Using the first CD I converted, “Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo,” there is a difference based on the type of song: “Devo Corporate Anthem,” a simple fanfare, reaches a maximum of 655 kbps, while “Through Being Cool,” a more involved, complicated, recording has a maximum of 871 kbps. A few Bee Gees tracks I have break the 1,000 kbps barrier, louder and richer than the Devo recordings, which proves what you can still get from a CD if it has been mastered correctly.

Put in as simple a manner as I can, CDs use a 44.1 kHz sample rate because it is twice the 20Hz to 20 kHz range of the human ear – it also matched the highest usable rate for recording digital audio on video tape - while the 16-bit pulse-code modulation used to digitise the sound, the latest development of a technology initiated to reduce the noise in long-distance phone calls, means the amount of detail picked out by the technology is more than “enough,” with a grove that won’t wear out like vinyl will.


What this does mean is that, if you have a CD that is “24-bit remastered,” this is talking about the digital master used to make the CD, which will still be 16-bit, even if more detail is available to sample. As an example, I have a 24-bit remastered copy of David Bowie’s album “Never Let Me Down,” but I also have the original 1987 release, because Bowie hated the song “Too Dizzy” enough to leave it off all subsequent reissues [and yes, I have written about that before]. The song “Beat of Your Drum,” with a chorus sounding like Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” is 34.3 Mb in size when taking a FLAC copy from the 1987 album, but the 24-bit mastered version raises this to 36.6 Mb – the difference is there, but you need a very quiet room to start with.

But with Sony highlighting the enhanced “experience” of HD Audio, the extra resonance adding to the recording, I feel like I have already achieved that, for now, by leaving MP3 behind, regaining the lost layer of sound from my, in some cases, decades-old CDs.

Monday, 14 May 2018

HE’S GOT A TV IN EVERY ROOM [109]



It has been nearly two years since I added a smart TV box to my television, and my viewing has never recovered. Unless I want to watch a programme right away, instead of catching up later, my TV will be switched from “DTV” to “HDMI-2,” so I can dive into the BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix – “HDMI-1” is for my blu-ray player, having got there first. I am very suited to this arrangement, as I now have a larger screen to watch the video essays you often find on YouTube for films, music, computer games, dead shopping malls, and other subjects that may be too niche for “regular” TV.

Because I don’t often watch traditional TV programmes, my TV has turned into a multipurpose screen for whatever I can put onto it, including films and podcasts. The same can be said of my phone, as well as my tablet and desktop computers: they all are now types of computers, able to do most, if not all, the same as each other. It reminded me of a Venn diagram I copied out of a book over fifteen years ago, where Nicholas Negroponte, founder of, among other things, MIT’s Media Lab, the One Laptop Per Child initiative, and “Wired” magazine, had predicted that media, telecommunications, and consumer electronics, with few overlaps even by the 1990s, will have become a conglomeration of “edutainment” by about 2005 – Negroponte described this in the mid-1980s, even referencing the idea of “surrogate travel” using virtual reality.


Now we have our all-purpose screens, what I have realised is that, now that “television” is – was – a bit of a magpie medium to begin with. Films have been a big part of schedules since the very beginning, but that involved taking an established form out of its usual setting, a pitch-black, quiet room – and making it a background object in the corner of a room. Comedy programmes, panel games and discussion shows, especially when in front of a studio audience, have their origins in theatres and halls – drama used to be the same, but have become more filmic themselves. News is often nothing more than radio with pictures – indeed, BBC News reports are planned as a one-minute piece for Radio 5 Live or the World Service, before pictures are added further down the line. What was television offering all this time, other than making it more convenient to access moving pictures?

Decades ago, I would have asked the same question of cinema, radio and newspapers, as television has been described as the death knell for all of them, but I just don’t think that TV won if you can now access all of these through a screen. I don’t think the internet won either, because describing it as a medium, in the same way that the others are types of media, doesn’t really work either – everything is online because it is higher in quality and efficiency for getting content to you than by sending it over the air, or by printing it out. The restraints on different genres of content were also freed from TV more quickly than it took for TV to adopt them, but everything moves faster these days, and you can never say there is nothing to watch on TV anymore.

Monday, 7 May 2018

NOW MAKE IT SOUND LIKE A BIRD [108]


Sooty shearwater (titi)
I love when people share something you had no idea about, which makes you want to find out more.

I had been to an appointment last week, and once the main business was concluded, the subject came up of the local elections happening across the UK, and how nothing about it was mentioned on TV and radio news today – UK broadcasters cannot mention why they cannot report it. In fact, I said, that must be why “The World at One,” on BBC Radio 4, reported that the remains of a dodo, the notoriously extinct bird, held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, was found to have been shot, instead of dying of natural causes.

It turned out this discovery, using a CT scan to inadvertently debunk what was believed for over three hundred years, was initially reported two weeks before, but was only now being aired on “The World at One” – it happened to also be the same dodo that inspired Lewis Carroll to write a dodo character into “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” However, when I mentioned this to the person I met for the appointment, it reminded them of the “mutton bird,” an Antipodean creature that was eaten into extinction by tribes of people, because they were incredibly delicious. I said I would need to look this up, as I had never heard about it before – this led straight into an online search right then and there, which did not yield any articles that could be found straight away – there is a band, from New Zealand, named the Mutton Birds, but it does not appear that the band broke up in 2002 due to the cannibalism of the band’s members.
Dodo head held by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

I knew I would wind up trying to find out more when I got home, so here is what I could find. “Muttonbirds,” usually referenced as one word, is a collective name given to species of various seabirds, usually petrel, named shearwaters. For centuries, the young of these species, particularly like the Australian Short-Tailed shearwater, also known as the yolla or Australian muttonbird, and the New Zealand sooty shearwater, or titi, were harvested for their food, oil and feathers. The practice of “muttonbirding” also referred to the qualities of the meat – apparently, the yolla tastes more like beef, but the texture of the meat is similar to mutton or lamb.

“Muttonbirding” is managed in New Zealand by the Maori, where their farming of the birds stretches back at least four hundred years. However, what began as subsistence farming in Australia at the turn of the 20th century became an industry, with over a million birds harvested each year from the 1920s – this has since reduced to about 150,000 per year, not just due to preservation, but also declining demand.

However, the bird that prompted this discussion of muttonbirds, the one eaten to extinction, appears to also be bound up with the history of the British Empire. With Britain no longer able to send convicts to the United States, the east coast of Australia became the next target, and the convicts and soldiers that landed in Norfolk Island In 1790 were sustained by the immense numbers of “Mount Pitt Birds” found on the island. It took three years for the settlement to become self-sufficient but had managed to work its way through over a million of their “birds of providence” by that point, counting young, adults and eggs. After that, the proliferation of other animals as a result of the settlement – cats, rats, mice, pigs – worked their way through the rest: from 15,000 nesting pairs in 1796, Providence petrels were extinct on Norfolk Island by 1800. Today, there are estimated to be up to 100,000 of these birds, but this is mainly down to their continuing to breed on Lord Howe Island, but they are still considered to be vulnerable due to their remaining within this area and nearby islands.
Providence petrel

For the Providence petrel, the best option appears for them to be left alone, and that we should probably be afraid of the sooty shearwater: in August 1961, thousands of them descended in Santa Cruz, California, flying into objects, regurgitating food, and dying on the streets, the result of toxins in algae that were eaten by plankton, and then by the birds. It made a local resident think of a Daphne Du Maurier story – the resident was Alfred Hitchcock, who released “The Birds” in 1963.

Monday, 30 April 2018

I’VE BEEN HIGHER THAN THE HIGH SIERRA [107]


What is in a name? If that name is “Cortina,” enough to make a documentary: in 1982, the BBC broadcast “The Private Life of the Ford Cortina,” not as an episode of “Top Gear,” but as part of the arts series “Arena.” Named after an Italian ski resort, the car was portrayed as having woven itself into the fabric of British life over the previous twenty years, becoming the archetypal British family car and company car, its ascending trim levels equating itself with social status. In styling terms, it was the closest you could get to an American car without importing one.

However, the “Arena” documentary followed an announcement by Ford that Cortina production would end in 1982, to be replaced by a new model based on a futuristic, aerodynamic concept unveiled the previous year. The comedian and writer Alexei Sayle, appearing as a Cockney punter through the programme, lamented the demise of his favourite car like a death in the family, before turning on its successor:

“They’re gonna call it the Sierra, the bloody Sierra. And what does that mean, eh, Sierra? What’s that about, eh? It don’t speak volumes to me, an English person, Sierra. It’s not like Cortina, you know what I mean? They’re doing away our car for some poxy hatchback. Oh I think it’s - I think it’s disgraceful. I’m angry.”


That “poxy hatchback,” named after the Spanish word for a mountain range, was the future of car design, requiring only tweaks over the following eleven years while the rest of the industry redrew its cars from scratch. Although the Sierra remained rear-wheel drive just as front-wheel drive became more common, this helped it to be adapted into high-performance sports models, like the XR4i (also sold in the US as the Merkur XR4Ti), the XR4x4, and the fabled Sierra RS Cosworth – South Africa also had the XR8, with a five-litre V8 engine. My grandfather had a more regular Sierras, and it was as comfortable and dependable as a Ford is should be, with the familiar blue oval badge coming with its own set of expectations.

However, in 1982, the Sierra’s design was proving to be ahead of its time, making it more difficult to form a personal connection in the way others did with a Cortina, unless you owned one of the sportier models. The Sierra proved to be very popular in Germany, where it replaced the lower-selling Taunus, and for the last six years to 1982, the Cortina was a rebadged Taunus. But with the goodwill generated by the “Cortina” name carrying forward in the UK, it was likened to a jelly mould and a spaceship, and the lack of a Sierra saloon option until 1987 meant buyers scared off by the then unconventional design were forced to look at the smaller Ford Orion, or at competitors like the Vauxhall Cavalier – while the Cortina was the UK’s biggest-selling car in each year of the 1970s, the Sierra usually found itself second to the Cavalier or the Ford Escort.


Right now, the name “Mondeo” has been used by Ford longer than “Sierra” and “Cortina” ever were, and if their recent decision to phase out regular cars in the US and Canada, apart from the Mustang and a version of the Focus, in favour of more sports utility vehicles and similar crossover cars, the whole notion of a standard “family car” may already be over. However, the nostalgia over the name “Cortina” can still be found in the UK, and in real numbers – according to howmanyleft.co.uk, 3,520 Cortinas remain registered on British roads, against only 2,642 Sierras. Perhaps, the Sierra is still too close to the cars we have today for nostalgia to kick in and save those that are left.

Monday, 23 April 2018

DISTURB THE SOUND OF SILENCE [106]


All I need is to press “Scan,” and my digital radio will produce a list of available stations, but there is no game in that. My main radio used to be a large hi-fi system, to which you could connect your own FM aerial, and see if you could pick up stations that should be too far away. I managed quite well – a fifty-mile radius from my home is not too bad for FM radio, even if some stations could be drowned out by signals both nearer and stronger. I still have the hi-fi system, mostly for the record player and CD recorder I also attached to it, but radio is far more convenient to find now and, if you are listening online, you can pick up a far better sound than FM can ever produce.

I have decided to try the game again, this time with a supermarket own-brand radio. For reasons known only to them, Tesco are selling a twelve-band world radio – FM, medium wave, long wave, and nine short-wave bands of varying wavelengths and frequencies - for EIGHT POUNDS (or about ELEVEN US DOLLARS). Short wave was not something I used a lot, mainly because you could still listen to the BBC World Service on medium wave in the UK until 2011, and because short-wave radio is more used for foreign-language broadcasts to far-flung areas, for amateur / ham radio, and for time signals used by radio-controlled clocks.


What did I find on short-wave radio? Firstly, between 4.8 and 4.9 MHz, I found what appeared to be a 1980s Casio keyboard playing some random notes – there also noises like a fax machine and dial-up internet, as there appeared to be more than one broadcast in that range. At about 6.0 MHz, I found the first instance of speech, but I could not hear what language it may have been over all the other noise on the signal, until I held on to the aerial with my other hand – moving away from my computer also helped a bit. Various stations were found up to about 6.3 MHz. An American English radio bulletin came up at about 9.9 MHz, and a rather insistent piece of classical music was heard at 11.7 MHz, with various other pieces of speech and music heard between 10 and 12 MHz.

It turns out that, because short-wave radio can cross continents by reflecting signals off the ionosphere – medium wave, FM and higher TV signals usually can only travel in straight lines – there are restrictions caused by when during the day, and year, that reflection is most effective. If you pick up a short-wave radio, you will find most stations located between 5.8-6.2 and 9.4-9.9 MHz, because these frequencies have the least disruption. The many stations I did hear may also all be part of one or two services, as both the BBC World Service and Voice of America broadcast from some transmitters for only one or two hours at a time, in certain languages, on certain days, when the frequency works the best for where it needs to reach. All the Casio noise also turned out to be the signals for my alarm clock, as time signals are usually clustered around 5, 10 and 15 MHz.

However, I don’t know how much more useful my world radio will be, at least where I am. Short-wave broadcasts normally target countries where getting good information is either scarce or vital, like parts of Africa, or Iran or North Korea, which are targets for the BBC and VOA. If you can otherwise use FM, digital radio, or even podcasts, you will. Still, I will keep my battery-operated radio to remain informed if my electricity  supply, or wi-fi, goes out.

Monday, 16 April 2018

NO MATTER WHO’S THE LEADER WHEN THE SUN SETS DOWN [105]


The idea of owning a personal copy of a film or TV programme is only around forty years old. Unless you had spent thousands on your own cinema set-up, or on a new-fangled home video tape recorder, 1978 was the year home video began in earnest, and anyone buying into it had to decide which direction they would take.

Sony introduced the Betamax video recorder in 1975, with VHS, JVC’s competitor format, launching the following year. They were marketed with a specific use in mind – the ability to time-shift your television viewing. A two-hour video tape costed as much as £20, but were expected to be reused often - pre-recorded tapes cost at least three times as much, taking as long to make as they took to play back. With the recorders themselves costing up to a thousand pounds, selling films to the general public would have to be done another way.

The answer was, as will be with DVD and blu-ray, to copy the main method of getting music into homes: pressing video onto a disc. The first disc format, usually known as LaserDisc, went on sale in 1978. It was originally known under the hilarious name “MCA DiscoVision” – the name had been chosen back in 1969, before disco music appeared, but if you are forming a company to hold video-on-disc patents held by MCA, then owners of Universal Pictures, and the electronics group Philips, it was the right name to choose. LaserDiscs look like 12-inch CDs, recording their data in a similar track of spaced pits - the discs are big enough to see the track with the naked eye - but the pits are used to interpret the waves of a composite analogue signal, rather than binary code. A LaserDisc player was two-thirds of the cost of a VCR, requiring fewer moving parts, and pre-recorded films, the first of which was Universal’s “Jaws,” cost as much as a blank tape did.


The second format was CED, or “Capacitance Electronic Disc,” launched by RCA in 1981 under the "SelectaVision" brand they also used for their VCRs. However, the release date was originally meant to be 1977, with the project having started back in 1964. However, the long gestation period was because RCA was perfecting their own patents: instead of using a laser on a reflective plastic disc, the CED would be made of the same vinyl that made audio records (with carbon added for conductivity), could be made on the same presses, and would even be read with a diamond stylus that physically touched the record. The video signal is then generated from the resonance measured from the changes in electrical capacitance between the disc and the stylus. Because the merest piece of dust on the disc would disrupt this process, attracting moisture from the air, the records would be shielded from view within a cartridge, from which the player would retrieve the record without the owner touching it. The first CED on release was not “Jaws,” but the more laid back film “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown.”


This is where the problems started – stacked against LaserDisc, which could be mistreated like a CD and still play, CEDs would be too temperamental, only produced a VHS-level picture against the higher quality of LaserDisc and, of course, was released too late. RCA announced they would stop making CED players in 1984, which paradoxically caused demand for the discs to increase, until they finally ended in 1986, when RCA was broken up for sale, after losing $600 million on the whole endeavour – the UK would only see the whole system on sale for six whole months. LaserDisc would carry on much longer, having proved very popular in Japan, with discs on sale until 2001, and players still being made as late as 2009 – its analogue picture quality was still on a par with early DVDs, and its ability to provide chapter searches and audio commentaries made it the premium alternative to VHS, through film series like the prestige Criterion Collection. Pioneer Electronics, which had bought out MCA and Philips’s stake, changed the name, and pushed the format to the very end - when they bought into it, in 1980, it was Pioneer that started pushing the more futuristic "LaserVision" as the name for the format, and "LaserDisc" for, well, the discs. In 1987, Philips tried naming the format "CD Video" in Europe, using gold-coloured discs, but LaserDisc had already failed to catch on there, so it lasted only a few more years. 


VHS became the dominant home video format for twenty years, but this was only achieved through economies of scale. While the cost of a pre-recorded tape was initially too much for most, it created the market for rentals instead, increasing what demand there was, and reducing the cost of making each tape. More companies began making both recorders and tapes to meet demand, and the overall cost continued to fall. The only downside of the ubiquity of VHS was that, when it came to replace them with DVDs, the plastic used to make the tapes was not recyclable – presumably, my collection remains in a landfill to this day.

Right now, “home video” no longer involves ownership for many people – online video streaming has replaced both the rental market and the need to record TV shows to watch at a later date. I have bought films on Blu-Ray because they were no longer available on Netflix, and recording TV shows to keep now involves a dongle attached to a desktop computer. When a problem is solved, it shouldn’t slowly reappear like this.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

FOR WHAT I’VE HAD IS WHAT I’LL NEVER GET [104]


It turns out that, when I was writing about dead shopping malls last week, and about vaporwave music before that, I actually wanted to talk about nostalgia, so I shall. Nostalgia formed the critical base for both subjects, and once I ended a thousand-word discussion on shopping malls by saying I wasn’t sure what lessons to take from them, it wouldn’t be long before someone said it would be nice to read a follow-up as my thoughts about them develop.

That person was my sister Layla, of Richee & Layla at His and Hers Reviews, and they made a podcast [link] reviewing Steven Spielberg’s latest film, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One.” The film’s story is built around OASIS, a virtual reality environment in which people learn, work and play. This world is constructed out of all the popular culture artefacts you can imagine, and the quest taken in the film is based on finding “Easter eggs” hidden by the world’s creator, inviting people to “like” what he likes.

In the podcast, Layla said that “Ready Player One” will live beyond its time in the cinema because the idea of nostalgia is so big. This is not just historic nostalgia for the 1980s – “Back to the Future,” “The Shining,” Atari computer games, “Doom” and so on – but also the vicarious nostalgia of longing for the past, by living through the past of someone else. In “Ready Player One,” characters are being told that something is nostalgic, and that you must like it because it is nostalgic, “and if you are not nostalgic for it, you are a fucking monster” - my sister also brought up the notion of “ruining your childhood,” if the object of nostalgia is not how you personally remembered it.


Nostalgia used to be a diagnosable condition, like depression: it was first outlined by Johannes Hofer in 1688, referring to the state of Swiss mercenaries located in less mountainous areas, in France and Italy, than where they came from, and was known as “the Swiss disease,” in the same way that syphilis used to be the disease other countries called their enemies. The word “nostalgia” came from Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain,” and was originally translated into English as “homesickness.” Medical studies of nostalgia had stopped in the 1870s, by which point soldiers in the American Civil War were diagnosed with it. Psychological studies, however, are obviously still ongoing.

The nostalgia I believe was awoken in me by listening to the ghostly echoes of vaporwave, and in walking through an empty shopping mall, are evoked by the same type of memories “Ready Player One” wants to create – memories for when music, film, TV, and architecture were done that way, because things were better then. I talked about the safe spaces that shopping malls create, and vaporwave makes new connections by cutting up the music of the 1980s. However, these subjects are using that nostalgia to criticise the end of the consumer society, which created the conditions in which vaporwave and dead malls now exist. If the good times evoked by nostalgia for 1980s music and shopping malls had been real, I would not have vaporwave, I would not have made a video about a dead mall near where I live, and I would not be writing about it here.

I had not known what lesson to take from looking at dead shopping malls, but I realise that the nostalgia evoked by them, and by vaporwave, is for something that may not have existed but more of a vision that did not happen to me – I was six years old when 1990 came around, so the 1980s remains an interest because it is on the edge of what I can remember. Like any good postmodernist, I am looking for what references I can bring forward and cobble together to give meaning to the present day, but when you are looking at what happened within your own lifetime, you will always pick the good times first.