Monday, 28 May 2018

YOU'LL NEVER LIVE IT DOWN UNLESS YOU WHIP IT [111]

When you can no longer tell yourself that all will be OK in the end, and how it can’t possibly get any worse, you confide in the relentless march of time: it must be over soon.
The twenty-second amendment of the United States Constitution means that Monday 20th January 2025 is the latest possible date that Donald Trump must vacate the office of President, even if he ends up serving two consecutive terms.
With the prospect of a Trump presidency lasting into my forties – hell, “The Simpsons” may still be producing new episodes by then – I need to plan for what lies ahead.
When the date of a meeting with North Korea was first announced, I refrained from writing about a post-Trump world because I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if I previously said that was something he never needed before [link]. However, after the commemorative coins were minted, Trump cancelled the meeting, then said it was back on, then said “we’ll see,” then attacked “The New York Times” for the umpteen thousandth time, I feel safe that the level of chaos Trump has created around himself is enough to imagine I may, one day, be able to look past it.
I do not expect public discourse, let alone politics, to return to how it was, because people have been emboldened by what Trump has said, either in opposition or in agreement to them. It is all the news has become: racial hatred, sexual assault, cultural wars, identity politics, immigration, democratic processes, the due process of the law, and “alternative facts” – everything is conjecture, everything is debatable, and we all have to live with that, apparently.

What I do know is that everything will find its centre, or equilibrium once more, even if it has to make a new one, as people take stock of where everything has reached. All the rhetoric of “drain the swamp,” and “Make America Great Again” – originally Ronald Reagan’s slogan, without the inclusive “Let’s” – implies that the core of what the United States was has been lost, or destroyed, although you would only talk your own country down in the way Trump has if you were insistent that you were the only person who could fix it.
The only reason I can feel sure of this, apart from hope, is that this situation sounds a bit like what happened to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, as people failed to grasp his concept of “deconstruction,” which he intended to be a continuing re-evaluation of Western values, as done by previous philosophers, and not a destruction of them, with the intent of making your own ones. Derrida had to explain that the notion of there being a “centre” was a functional one, as there had to be a centre that helped to form our understanding. Then again, when all you have is the text, the words, to hand, you have to see them in the sense of how they have been used. For Trump, this is all we have, no matter how badly it is presented, or spelled, on Twitter, in a form that relies on impulsivity, ahead of deliberation, time, and thought.
I hope it is clear that this isn’t a repudiation of the way politics is currently conducted in the United States, but of the way conduct is currently conducted. The lessons that the next President may take from Donald Trump may be to engage with their population in a similar way, or find different ways, but any American who may feel the same as me, a non-American, does not have a President that effectively represents them – we’ll just have to wait and see how long before that changes.

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.