Lost Skills

Some skills are not so much lost as replaced by others. In this case, I’m thinking of audio recording. I used to record a lot, mainly actors and theatre SFX, and greatly enjoyed it. In times past, which is where I belong, people like me would use open reel tape decks both in the studio and on location. They were very well engineered and a joy to work with. The power they produced when rewinding and fast forwarding was amazing. You could feel the draught on your face.

There weren’t so many portable open reel machines, but they were good. You could tape an interview on location, edit it with a splicing block, razor and chinagraph pencil, and the edited version was of broadcast quality. The leader in the field was Nagra, wonderful machines but expensive. If you didn’t have that kind of money you could always use a Uher. They were excellent too and cost a bit less.

Although a few people used open reel decks in the home they were by no means common. For two reasons. The first was size: they tended to be large and heavy. The second was the fact that the user had to thread the audio tape from the full spool to the empty spool to start recording or replaying – and taking the correct route to get there required a little knowledge and a modicum of physical skill. Oh, and did I mention leader tape?

So these ‘problems’ were addressed by manufacturers having an eye on the mass market, Phillips, for example, and they came up with the audio cassette. The audio cassette was, and still, is very small, so the machine used to record on it or replay it could also be small. And they went down very well with the public at large since these neat little audio cassettes came ready spooled. At a stroke, the hassle was removed!  As a result, cassette machines really took off. People could be seen jogging along pavements with their Walkmans and they became a standard feature of cars for many years. But the price paid for this user-friendly miniaturisation was a big reduction in recording quality (explained in a note below).

In fact, the real cause of the loss of open reel recording skills was not the audio cassette but the rise of the computer, which allowed us to dispense with tape altogether. We have now moved from the analogue era (tape) to the digital (computer recording and editing). The program I used at work was Pro Tools, which was and still is a sophisticated recording and editing package.

So, what’s it to be: analogue lor digital? When I recently suggested a solution to an audio problem it was soon pointed out to me that my solution involved straying into the analogue domain. This was true, but with it came the assumption that digital is inherently superior to analogue. It’s certainly superior to the audio cassette format, but is it superior, say, to an open reel machine recording at 15 inches per second? I don’t think so.

You could argue that a good analogue recording gives us the whole wave where the digital recording gives us samples of it. So many that we almost have the whole wave, but it can never give us the wave in its entirety. So how is that better? And it’s worth pointing out that we all have analogue ears!

Where digital recording scores, though, is when it comes to editing, as the previous clip showed. Lifting part of a recording and relocating it is easy, stretching the on-screen representation of the wave to find a precise edit point is easy, deleting part of a recording is easy.

And these are just three examples of how wonderful it is to edit using good software. There are many more. But there is a downside. With on-screen editing it is possible to make a singer or an actor sound much better than he/she actually is. I know because I’ve done it.

So, as technology develops, we replace old skills with new ones because it’s the obvious thing to do and we old timers are left on the shore watching the tide go out. But that’s OK. We can live with that.

Note on Audio Cassettes

One thing cassettes cannot do is make recordings of broadcast quality. There are two reasons for this: the width of the tape and the speed at which it passes the record/replay heads. The size of a cassette tape is determined by the size of the cassette. The width of the tape is only 0.15 inches (3.81mm). This narrow width has to accommodate four tracks – the left and right channels of Side A and the left and right channels of Side B. And here we meet a misconception arising from the use of the word ‘Side’. All four tracks are actually on the same side of the tape because audio tape is only recordable on one side.

As if this isn’t demanding enough, each of these four tracks has to be separated, otherwise the listener would experience crosstalk – two tracks being played at once and one of them might be heard backwards. In short, very little tape is available for each track. So let’s come up with an idea which makes this bad situation even worse. The tape crawls past the heads at a mere 1 7/8 inches per second. The result is noise, because too much information is being crammed onto too little tape.

Compare this to an open reel machine using one or two inch tape passing the heads at 15 inches per second. Here there is ample room for the information being recorded, it is no longer crammed onto tiny amounts of tape and there is no problem with noise.

Noise reduction systems were designed deal with the cassette noise problem. The best known of these by a long way are the various versions from Dolby Laboratories, founded by Ray Dolby. They are very ingenious, though to my ear the results, while far less noisy, don’t quite correspond to the original sounds being recorded. But few people buying a commercially recorded audio cassette of the Grateful Dead have ever heard the original so they aren’t likely to notice.




If waste water is coming from an overflow it is telling you there is a problem which needs to be addressed. Ideally, the overflow pipe should be situated in a really annoying place – the idea being to force your hand. If an overflow is hidden from view then the problem is likely to be ignored.

The overflow in the picture is in this category. It is close to ground level and not overseen by a window. It has been spilling out waste for months.

OverflowIt may be useful for putting cigarettes out, and the local vegetation may like it, but the foundations won’t. And then there is question of wildlife. For example, this enterprising crow.

CrowIt has been using the overflow as a drinking fountain, which might not be such a sharp idea. The source might be a sink, in which case it will probably be swallowing not only water but detergent.

While Trump might consider this a useful strategy for countering Covid 19, most people would not. On which subject:

image1The credit is in the image. I like it because, in its witty way, it illustrates how Trump’s mind works.

Androids and Robots

We are accustomed to them in sci-fiction, but they are becoming more common in real life. Do we think this is a good thing? Some examples.

A Chinese company, Pangolin, produces not only kitchen staff but waiters as well. According to one restaurant manager quoted a while back in The Times, the use of robots allows him to employ only a third of the normal number of human staff.

Robot waiter

No doubt policeman like the kitchen staff idea since robots are not likely to spit in their food before serving it up. And the rest of us? The way I see it, robot waiters will not require a tip.

Little attempt is made to give robots human features. The same is not true of androids, which are intended to resemble us. The following example is an android hotel receptionist made by the robotics company Kokoro. I don’t know what her name is, maybe she doesn’t have one yet, but I do know she speaks four languages – which is three more than your average bear and quite impressive, really. Depending on how well she speaks them. Guests of amorous disposition will wish to know what she will be doing at the end of her shift, but she will surely remain tight-lipped.

Android Receptionist

I move swiftly on to two products of the French company Aldebaran Robotics. The first is a bank clerk by the name of Nao. From April 2015, Nao will be working in several branches of the Mitsubishi Bank. Rumour has it that Nao is entirely trustworthy and will never become the inside man in a heist. Time will tell.

Nao Bank Clerk

And lastly, Pepper, who will be selling Nespresso coffee machines in Japan in the course of the year.

Nescafe Robot

Are we in favour of this trend? I have only just recovered from reading about a lady who lost most of her hair to a robotic vacuum cleaner – though falling asleep on the floor didn’t help.

James Hutton – Geologist

James Hutton (1726–1797) was a Scottish farmer and naturalist. He was also the founder of modern geology.

He was a great observer of the world around him. More importantly, he made carefully reasoned geological arguments. Hutton came to believe that the Earth was perpetually being formed; for example, molten material is forced up into mountains, eroded, and then eroded sediments are washed away. He recognized that the history of the Earth could be determined by understanding how processes such as erosion and sedimentation work in the present day. His ideas and approach to studying the Earth established geology as a proper science.

However, the processes identified by Hutton required very long periods of time, and to realise how original  his views were, it is only necessary to compare them to those prevailing when he was publishing his research.

In the late eighteenth century, when Hutton was carefully examining the rocks, it was generally believed that Earth had come into creation only around six thousand years earlier (on October 22, 4004 B.C., to be precise, according to the seventeenth century scholarly analysis of the Bible by Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland), and that fossils were the remains of animals that had perished during the Biblical flood.

Hutton was from Edinburgh, and it is not surprising that he is featured in the National Museum of Scotland in that city, where he is seen by many.

James Hutton

But few people know of the existence of the James Hutton Memorial Garden. This is not surprising given that it is small, largely unadvertised, and accessible by a long flight of very steep steps from an obscure location off Holyrood Road. So for those who are unlikely ever to see it, here it is.

Hutton Memorial Garden 1

Hutton Memorial Garden 2

(Quotations are from EARTH: INSIDE AND OUT, edited by Edmond A. Mathez, American Museum of Natural History.)

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Airing Tonight

Airing tonight is the first of three programmes by Richard Fortey. Fortey is a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. He is well known as a writer. I have two of his books and have read each of them twice. It strikes me as amazing that it has never occurrred to me to review them, as I would have done had they been novels.

The books are both excellent:

– ‘Life, An Unauthorised Biography’

– ‘Trilobite, Eyewitness to Evolution’

The sub-title of the second is very clever, given the astonishing construction of the trilobite eye.

The programmes air at 9 pm GMT on BBC 4 for three consecutive weeks. For those living outwith the YUK they may be available via the iPlayer. They will be worth watching.Here is what the BBC has to say about the first episode.

‘High in the Rocky Mountains lies a fossilised seabed harbouring remnants from one of the most fascinating periods in the planet’s history. More than 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian explosion, it appears Mother Nature was experimenting with an astonishing diversity of new species. Studying the petrified relics from this era has broadened our understanding about how complex life evolved.

Here, Professor Richard Fortey exhumes evidence of a curious menagerie of marine creatures, from tulip-shaped filter feeders to spiky, wriggling scavengers and titanic predatory shrimps.


1/3. Professor Richard Fortey travels to fossil sites to learn more about the distant past. In the first episode, he visits the Rocky Mountains to explore a 520-million-year-old fossilised seabed containing bizarre and experimental lifeforms that have revolutionised our understanding about the beginnings of complex life. Among the finds are marine creatures with five eyes, worm-like scavengers covered in spikes, and a metre-long predator resembling a giant shrimp.’