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The Post Office Tower

Last month I did some professional services work for an engineering firm at their premises right next to the BT Tower in London. I shall always know it by its original name, the Post Office Tower, . I was delighted to find that my desk was situated near a window with a direct view of its base.

The tower had quite a prominent place in British culture in the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up, and has always been my favourite London landmark. I well remember being thrilled to see it for the first time, looking out of a railway carriage window approaching Euston on my first visit to London at the age of 8. At that time it was the tallest building in Britain, and an important landmark of the capital city. Ten years later I visited London again. I stayed in a hotel on Tottenham Court Road, from where it was clearly visible, and one of the first things I did was to walk over for a closer look. I recall taking a few photos of it, though sadly I no longer have them.

When I lived in London in the latter half of the 1990s I went to see it a few times, walking around the streets near its base and taking photos. In its heyday in the late 1960s it had viewing galleries for the general public, a gift shop and even a revolving restaurant at the top. But it hasn’t been open to the public since 1981 and I’ve never been inside.

Below is an image from its 1960s heyday, taken at the junction of Clipstone Street and Great Portland Street, showing the tower in its original form. It was undoubtedly more visually appealing then than it is now.

The triangular horn antennae which were an integral part of of its intended visual aesthetic were joined in the 1980s by a myriad of circular dish antennae, attached as if bolted on at random like headlamps on a mod’s Lambretta and somewhat spoiling its elegant lines. I took the following photo in June 2003.

All of the large antennae have now been removed, as you can see from the following photo which I snapped on my phone last month. Their function has been replaced by subterranean fibre-optic circuits, and the upper part of the shaft looks rather undressed now. Despite this the tower retains its status as a major communications hub, carrying the majority of the UK’s outside broadcast TV material, for example.

The tower was designed to remain as rigid as possible in high winds, because accurate alignment of the microwave antennae which were once an important part of its raison d’être was critically important in order for them to continue to function in all weathers, communicating with other stations, over and far beyond the hills surrounding London. To this end, its design incorporates a sort of “collar” in the form of a bridge deck, to anchor it to the exchange building near its base. The desk from which I worked in London last month had a good view of this, as you can see in the next image.

It’s more obviously visible in context in this following image, which I took from outside:

There’s a pretty good 3D model of the tower in Google Earth, which also shows this rather well:

I was fortunate enough to work on the top floor of One Canada Square at Canary Wharf, at the time the tallest habitable building in Europe, for a few months in 2000 and 2001. But I’d much rather have worked at the top of the Post Office Tower. Still, at least I had a good, if distant view of it from there.

Finally, have a look at this YouTube video, a film made in 1967 about the construction of the tower.


Doctor .. WHO?

As nearly all readers will surely be aware, the BBC has decided, in its rather finite wisdom, to cast Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in its long-running and highly popular science fiction show Doctor Who.

I must say I’m dismayed by this. It’s not that a woman can’t be a lead in an established TV series, or that a woman can’t be a Time Lord. Or Time Lady if you like. It’s just that this particular Time Lord has been established as a male character for 55 years. There is supposed to be a certain continuity of personality and identity. It’s supposed to be the same Doctor, in a different appearance.

My view is that a sudden change of gender rather undermines that.

Furthermore it actually introduces a sexist element that wasn’t previously present. Why, when we now know that The Doctor can change gender in a regeneration, did he regenerate as a man no less than 11 times in a row (12 if you count the War Doctor)?

And isn’t it a bit weird that someone who has lived 900+ years as a male now has a vagina and a pair of breasts to play with?

You’ll find though, that if you raise these objections on social media or other public fora, you’re in danger of exposing yourself as a chauvinist of the worst kind, or a misogynist.

There’s a word that’s sometimes used to describe persons suffering from a particular, indiscriminate, unthinking brand of liberalism; libtard of course. I’m not fond of it myself as I find it a touch crude and inelegant, but it does describe these people quite concisely, these irrational, shallow, juvenile people who think in black and white, look for racism and sexism wherever they can invent it and value virtue-signalling above all else. I must say the BBC’s politically correct Doctor Who initiative has brought the libtards out of the woodwork like no other issue I can remember.

And if they could manage a moment’s rational thought or consistency, these people might see that the BBC discarding a character’s maleness as an unimportant and disposable part of their identity is actually rather misandrist.

Election

I’ll be thinking about a lot of things, no doubt, as I stroll to the polling station tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll try to imagine a politician who can’t lead his own MPs trying to lead our country. A man who didn’t have the personal dignity to resign when they passed a vote of no confidence in his “leadership”.

Or maybe I’ll wonder what a £10 minimum wage, increased corporation tax and uncontrolled immigration in tandem with massive giveaway public spending would do to our economy and society.

Perhaps I’ll think about what it would be like to have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who, like his leader, supported terrorist methods against his own country for decades, praising the “bombs and bullets” that killed British civilians and service personnel. A self-declared Marxist who carries a copy of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

Perhaps I’ll wonder why a man so lauded for his supposed integrity in some parts didn’t have the honesty to say whether we’d leave the EU if he were to become Prime Minister, despite being asked five times in the same interview.

I might be asking myself how much damage a newly-enboldened trade union movement with a government in its pocket could do to British industry and commerce, and how many jobs their disruption and militancy might send abroad.

Maybe I’ll remember the times when all the public services were nationalised under the last socialist government, when there was no competition for your custom and no-one was allowed to sell you a telephone.

Perhaps I’ll spare a thought for the people of Venezuela, a country that Jeremy Corbyn congratulated on finding a “better way of doing things” that led to 800% inflation and hungry people queuing outside supermarkets with empty shelves.

Or I might wonder how a politician who rushes to condemn any military action by his own country somehow hasn’t found the time yet to condemn an attempt to blow up the British cabinet that happened over three decades ago.

I might muse on the stupidity of at least two party leaders declaring that they wouldn’t have the courage to walk away from a bad Brexit deal. With a negotiating position like that, a bad deal is exactly what they’d get, of course.

I’ll reflect, possibly, on socialism’s track record of failure everywhere it has been tried – causing misery for the many, not just the few. Always.

Maybe I’ll think about our nuclear deterrent. Labour’s leader has already told us, and indeed our potential enemies, that he’d never use it. Yet his manifesto has a commitment to spend billions on renewing Trident, purely to appease his backbenchers.

Perhaps I’ll shake my head, thinking how easy it was for an extremist, swivel-eyed reactionary fringe to take over a mainstream political party. Perhaps I’ll wonder what they might do if they took control of the country whose traditions they detest. What restrictions on a free press they might impose. What measures they might put in place to subvert the democratic process, to prevent themselves ever from being dislodged. What might happen to the people of the Falkland Islands, or the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Or Gibraltar.

But most of all, I’ll be thinking about the least advantaged in our society. People who depend on the NHS, for example. The sick, poor and vulnerable. People who cannot afford to depend on a society broken by socialism.

For them above all, I will vote Conservative.

Wales and Back

Last Sunday, 7th May, I got up at 05:25-ish, had a hurried breakfast, gathered a few things together and dressed in the appropriate clothing, then set off to cycle to Wales and back, at 05:52. I’d uploaded the route to a Garmin Etrex some time previously and had it fixed to the handlebars to provide turn-by-turn directions and record the track. I had been planning this ride for months and had researched the route meticulously.

Conditions were a bit gloomy and cold as I set off and indeed they remained so for the first two hours, but I had leggings and three layers on top, so didn’t suffer too much. I made my way into Warwickshire, then pushed through into Staffordshire – I’d done some of these roads on a trip to Stafford and back last year so some of the ride up to that point was quite familiar. The Sun had started to penetrate the gloom by about 8AM and I warmed up nicely, thoroughly enjoying my adventure and the new scenery. Traffic was very quiet, in fact I hardly saw a car on the road for the first 90 minutes or so.

I negotiated the rather industrial dual carriageway section at Rugeley, then out westward into rural Stafforshire again. I stopped at one of those little village shops with a bench outside at a place called Sandon, after about 40 miles. I consumed an egg mayonnaise sandwich there and bought a flapjack for later. I cracked on through Stone, then pushed through a challenging hilly section into Shropshire then pressed on into Cheshire, enjoying pleasant scenery most of the way.

Then at about 12:20, I crossed over the Welsh border west of Whitchurch. Sadly the ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign that is evident on Google Street View is no longer there in real life, robbing me of the photo opportunity I’d anticipated, so I made do with a snap of a tourist information notice at the first layby over the border, and a pic of the bike leaning against a road sign presented partly in Welsh.

I examined my rear tyre, because for a mile or so from the target I’d started to feel the road noise through the seat a bit more sharply than usual – and it was indeed a bit soft. So I unclipped my ultra-portable mini bike pump from the frame and attempted to connect it to the valve. With laughable optimism, I hoped the puncture was slow enough that I’d get away with pumping it up three or four times on the way back.

Sadly the pump clearly didn’t fit, and closer inspection revealed that it was in fact intended for Schrader valves, not the Presta valves fitted to my road bike. I’d never once tried the pump since I bought it. All I’d managed to do was to remove the remaining pressure from the tyre.

But I flagged down a passing cyclist ten minutes later, and he had an emergency sealer / inflator canister which he kindly gave to me. I managed to get decent pressure into the tyre with it, and hoped that the white foamy sealer that it dispensed into the inner tube would do its thing.

So I set off homeward, but within two miles the tyre was starting to be unusably flat again. I have to say that although I was grateful to have the inflator, I wouldn’t bother buying one. The sealer gunge in it didn’t seem to work at all. Anyway the inflator still had a couple of shots in it, and by redoing the tyre and riding standing on the pedals with my weight over the front wheel, I managed to get to a little village called Burleydam, a few miles closer to home, where I stopped for refreshments at a pub with a roadside beer garden.

I was feeling pretty dejected at this point. I reinflated the rear tyre for a few minutes with the last gasp of the inflator, and using the same front-wheel heavy riding technique, managed to get to Audlem, a few miles further on. By the time I got there I’d come roughly 10 miles from Wales, but was still more than 60 from home.

The tyre must have picked up its puncture a few minutes before I arrived in Wales. How unlucky do you have to be to get a puncture within a mile of the most distant point of your longest ever road trip, after going for literally thousands of miles without one? But I have to confess that I knew the rear tyre was well past its best. I reasoned that since it had done several thousand miles without a puncture, it was probably good for another 144. But in reality it was not providing adequate protection for the inner tube.

I sat at a picturesque bench under a shelter in the middle of the town. After a few minutes a kindly elderly man came pootling along on an electric bike, so I asked him if he had a pump. He said that he had a stirrup pump at home and would be happy to go and get it. I thanked him and he set off to get his pump. I could see that his bike’s tyres had Schrader valves (the kind you find on a car normally, not a road bike), but hoped that his pump had a dual head, like mine.

It didn’t, unfortunately.

I decided that my best bet at this point was to swap in the spare inner tube I had with me and wait for another cyclist to come along with a pump. So I did that. I’d borrowed the disposable nitrile gloves I normally keep in the saddle bag a few weeks ago and never replaced them, so my hands got filthy of course. But at least it was easy enough to get the tyre off and on the rim – a few thousand miles of wear had loosened it up. I checked the rim carefully – it didn’t seem to be worse for wear from riding a semi-flat tyre. Once I’d done this I stood the bike up again, fitted the wheel back on and started putting things away in my bag.

I looked at the disposable inflator closely, then smacked my head. It had a Schrader – Presta adaptor screwed onto the end of its nozzle. Just as well I hadn’t thrown it away at the pub in Burleydam once it was finished.

Fortunately the pleasant old bloke with the electric bike and stirrup pump had decided to while away half an hour at the bench, so I borrowed his stirrup pump, fitted the adaptor – and managed to inflate the tyre to full pressure. I thanked him profusely and very happily set off homeward. I was a bit nervous of picking up another puncture, given that the rear tyre was obviously worn down a bit. But after twenty miles or so I started to relax again and enjoy the ride home. The strong sunshine had warmed me up somewhat so I stopped and removed my leggings and one top layer, and stuffed them into my back pack.

I stopped at Stone for a coffee at Costa Coffee and a bought a bottle of water. The rest of the ride remained enjoyable and I seemed to have plenty of energy left, which was a relief. I’d taken a couple of energy gels with me and consumed one with about 50 miles to go. I don’t like them and don’t use them normally but I’d decided I’d need all the help I could get over a ride of this distance. I’m sure it did help. This one (tropical flavour) wasn’t as unpleasant as the first one I tried a couple of years ago (apple). The key to a long cycle ride is frequent and adequate refuelling and hydration.

I made it home seven minutes before sunset, having cycled 144.2 miles. My previous record was 101 miles. I’d added Shropshire, Cheshire and Clwyd (a “preserved county of Wales” according to Wikipedia) to the list of counties to which I’ve cycled from my garage door, a set which previously only included the neighbouring counties of Leicestershire.

I’d fitted my Garmin and my DAB radio with Energiser Ultimate Lithium disposables, and they both lasted all day. Very impressive. The Garmin was actually still showing four quarters on the battery symbol when I switched it off after 14 hours, 45 minutes.

One nice aspect of this particular route is that I had the Sun behind me both ways – travelling westward in the morning, and eastward in the afternoon.

 

I was poorly prepared for this one, I must admit. I’d planned the route properly, had the Garmin set up, had a fully charged smartphone and spare battery (Google Maps is a cyclist’s best friend). The bike was well lubricated. I had a spare inner tube and tyre levers, plenty of money, food, fluids and adequate clothing. I was certainly adequately fit. But I was relying on an untested tyre pump and a rear tyre that I should have replaced about 300 miles previously.

Thousands of miles of incident-free cycling had lured me into a false sense of security. I will not do a ride of any significant length without preparing properly again.

But I won.

Ginger Wallpaper

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. There are quite a few things I could have written about since the last time I wrote here. The dying gasps of the Labour Party, long overdue, for example. Or I could have authored a few pithy comments about Brexit perhaps, and especially the many attempts by elements of the liberal establishment since the referendum last June to defy or obstruct the people’s will.

I cycled 5776 miles last year, an accomplishment I was rather proud of. I should surely have typed a few words to recognise that achievement.

But what finally brought me back here is the following dismal piece of news: nine of the top ten entries in the current singles chart are Ed Sheeran records.

I cannot imagine a more damning indictment of the vapid state of popular music than that. (Well OK, I can. All ten of them could be Ed Sheeran records).

Of course, I’m not exactly part of Ed’s target demographic, I accept that. When my parents were my age, they probably loathed the music of my generation. They didn’t understand it. It was too edgy, original, visceral. It had moved on from the norms with which they were familiar.

But that’s not why I despise the “music” of Ed Sheeran. There’s nothing difficult to understand about it; nothing new or alienating or raw or challenging. No, I loathe it for the opposite reasons – it’s utterly anodyne, bland, safe. Trite to the point of self-parody. So banal as to be completely pointless in any artistic sense. The term “wallpaper music” actually flatters it. It’s not really music at all, just an insipid, vacuous, waste of time.

Kids these days have amazing stuff that I certainly didn’t at their age – portable phones with the processing power of 1980s mainframe computers with access to thousands of online services, hundreds of TV channels, social media, video games with eye-popping visuals.  But we had our own music, and they don’t. Not of any significant worth, anyway.

Ed, if you should by some unlikely twist of fate come to read this blog entry – I promise you, your guitar has more than four chords. See if you can find another couple.

Cycling

In my late ’20s, I bought a bicycle, a Raleigh Routier, from a cycle shop in York. I used that bike quite a bit, most memorably for rides to and from Durham and Bishop Auckland from Hartlepool in 1989, and a 40-odd mile round trip to work in Derby from my house in Markfield, one summer day in 1990. I’d had bikes when I was younger of course, but that was the first one I ever rode over any significant distance.

That bike was stolen in the early ’90s and I didn’t own a bicycle for many years after that, but about ten years ago I bought another bike and started cycling again as a means for getting to and from work. When I started a job at Nottingham University I took my bike on the train between Spondon and Beeston each day. I replaced that bike with a car in 2008 after which I cycled only occasionally.

A bike I was particularly fond of, my Ridgeback tourer, was damaged in a collision with a car in 2010. That brought a halt to my cycling for a while but I bought a new one, a Carrera hybrid in 2013 and went out on it five or six times that year. I don’t think I went out on it at all in 2014.

But at the beginning of 2015, a friend on a music forum started a conversation about cycling, setting himself a target of 1000 miles for the year. Thinking that I should use my own bike more often, I offered to do 500 myself.

I set off on my first ride of 2015 on the 9th of January. I took a wrong turn through a farm gate, and was bitten by a dog, just below the knee. I think I managed about 7 miles on that first outing. Undeterred, I kept going and had reached my target of 500 miles by April. Naturally I moved the goalposts for myself and decided I’d try for 1000 miles in 2015. But I’d hit that by June. Eventually I set my sights on 2112 miles by December 31st, 2015.

I came to find cycling compelling, addictive. It appeals to me in so many different ways.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it undoubtedly keeps me fit. The roads and country lanes of North-West Leicestershire are not flat. I recall cycling home to Derby from Nottingham University one day in 2007, and nearly collapsing once I arrived. Yet the same distance (14 miles) would be an unremarkable run out for me now, of the sort I do every other day.

bikemelbourneThe hybrid, a few miles from Swarkestone Bridge

Secondly, it has been a terrific challenge, at least once I arrived at a suitably demanding target.

Despite being a fundamentally outdoor pursuit, it also appeals strongly to my inner (perhaps outer) nerd. I have taken great and lengthy satisfaction from planning rides using online maps and route planning tools, calibrating my bike computer, making use of GPS devices and preparing spreadsheets to document my progress and provide various statistics. The satisfaction of entering another ride distance into the spreadsheet and seeing the yearly total climb a little further toward the target is a powerful motivation. I sometimes go to sleep pondering the number of miles I need to do in each of the remaining months, mentally distributing them according to the probable provision of daylight hours and decent weather.

I even quite enjoyed learning to adjust the derailleur gears on my road bike.

The quality of construction and design of the bicycle has evolved quite a bit since I bought my Routier in 1989. But even more significant has been the development of tools and accessories that make the cyclist’s life easier. It’s possible to plan routes on an online service (I like the course creator at bikehike.co.uk) that will determine the exact distance, show you a gradient map and export routes to another device if necessary. Much easier and more convenient than unfolding a map, then drawing on it with a pencil, as I used to do 25 years ago.  Frame-mounted GPS units or watches will show the exact distance travelled and even record your route. Take a smartphone and you have a handheld device that will pinpoint your location on a map at any time, as well as providing a camera (all of the photos in this piece were taken with an Android phone, and I’ve used it for navigation purposes more than once). And bike lights, once bulky and powered by heavy batteries the size of small tea mugs are now small, lightweight objects that will give bright light for many hours on a pair of AAAs or even a coin cell.

Cycling has given me an opportunity to explore the area surrounding my home to a much greater degree, over the last year or so, than I had ever done in the preceding five years that I’ve lived here. I’m very fortunate to live in a rural area with a wealth of potential cycle routes through leafy lanes and farmland. I have mainly used a small number of regular routes which I’ve planned or discovered for myself through the early part of 2015, but there have also been occasions, time having permitted, when I’ve taken a random, unknown path quite spontaneously. My favourite ride is a 25 mile route that takes me through Swepstone, Snarestone and Twycross down to Sheepy Magna, then across to Market Bosworth and back through Barton in the Beans, Nailstone and Ibstock. I often do that one on a Saturday when the weather permits, accompanied by a football commentary on Radio 5 Live provided by a DAB personal radio strapped to my arm, pedalling quiet roads in open spaces. Joy.

bikezouch600The road bike near the Leics/Notts border

I have never been so conscious of the weather expected for the following few days, or of the sunset times. I have learned that weather forecasts are generally quite accurate over four days or so, but that even when the next three or four days are forecast to be rainy, there’s nearly always a sufficiently dry interval to get out on two wheels (I am prepared to go out onto damp roads on my hybrid, but not in actual rain. I insist on defiantly dry conditions for my road bike to leave the garage).

Cycling also offers boundless opportunities for retail therapy. In 2015 I purchased:

  • Two pairs of cycle shorts
  • Two pairs of winter cycling leggings
  • A pair of thermal tights
  • A second bike helmet
  • A high-visibility jacket
  • Several front and rear bike lights
  • Three bike mirrors
  • A handlebar extender, for mounting gadgets
  • A seat post camera mount
  • A GPS bike computer
  • Two GPS watches
  • Three personal radio / phone armbands
  • Two pairs of cycling gloves
  • A Boardman road bike
  • Two new (faster) tyres for the hybrid
  • Two bike pumps (one floorstanding, one portable)
  • A pair of wearable reflective strips
  • Two sets of pedals (to accommodate shoes with cleats)
  • Two pairs of cycling shoes (see above)
  • A cycle cleaning brush
  • Various consumables (lubricants, cleaning materials, inner tubes)

 

graph2015Miles per Month, 2015

Most of my excursions have taken place during my lunch break. They often provide a very useful means of clearing my head of the mental clutter of work. But during the summer months I often venture out during the evening as well, making the most of the more numerous daylight hours. On a few occasions I’ve gone out after dark, and that’s a very different experience, but quite rewarding, despite – or perhaps because of – being unsettling sometimes. Out in the country the spaces between villages, perhaps a mile or more from the nearest artificial light save the ones attached to your bike, can be very dark indeed.

I hit my target of 2112 miles in October, and by the end of 2015 had cycled 2702 miles.

But of course, I didn’t stop there. I set myself the same target for this year, 2112 miles. And I’ve already done 103 of them.

road_foreverBecause you see, the road goes on forever.

 

Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, leader of the legendary British heavy rock band Motorhead, died yesterday, at the age of 70. Phil Taylor, the drummer from their classic lineup with guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, died last month.

I first saw Motorhead in January 1978 at a club in Middlesbrough called the Town Hall Crypt – a basement under the Town Hall. I’d gone with two friends from school. We missed the last bus, and by the time my Dad came to pick us up, we’d already walked half way back to Hartlepool. It was their first album tour. They were extremely loud.

I actually learned to play A-shaped barre chords at that gig – I was right up at the front of the stage watching Fast Eddie coaxing power chords from his humbucker-equipped Strat a few feet in front of me. It had never occurred to me to clamp my little finger over three strings at once instead of fingering them individually and to be honest it seemed like cheating.

lemmyTheir next two albums propelled them into the big time and I don’t think they played Middlesbrough again, but I saw them whenever they turned up in Newcastle over the next few years. I was there for the Overkill tour and the Bomber tour. In 1980 I went to the ‘Brain Damage Party’ event at Stafford Bingley Hall, a great big shed where I’d seen Rush twice the previous year. Motorhead were the headliners, but Saxon, White Spirit, Vardis and a number of other bands from the short-lived New Wave of British Heavy Metal were also on the bill.

A few months later I saw them on the Ace Of Spades tour at the Mayfair club in Newcastle, and that was my last Motorhead gig. I tuned out after that, though I’ve downloaded some of their later albums in the last few years.

I met the band backstage on the Overkill tour – Lemmy,  Philthy and Eddie were signing autographs for a few fans after the gig in their dressing room at Newcastle City Hall. Lemmy drew a hat on the photo of himself in my tour book before signing it.

Lemmy’s lifestyle was by all accounts rather like his music – completely unpretentious, utterly uncompromising and arguably a bit excessive. Born to Lose, Lived to Win. We shall not see his like again. Perhaps if he’d indulged a bit less in the typical rock’n’roll excesses he might have had a few more than his three-score-and-ten. But that’s the way he liked it, baby. He didn’t want to live forever.

The UK’s Media and its Power to Manipulate

This photograph must be the saddest, the most tragic image I’ve ever posted on this blog. It shows a dead Syrian boy, lying face down, drowned, washed up on the Turkish coast.

syrian-migrant-boy-turkey

The UK’s Independent newspaper printed it earlier this month, prompting a huge public outpouring of grief and support for Syrian refugees, which appears to have pressured our Prime Minister into accepting 20,000 of them to seek refuge in the UK.

You might be forgiven then, for assuming that the child drowned in some desperate attempt by his family to flee war-torn Syria.

But that’s not what happened at all. The family of this unfortunate child killed him by placing him in an unseaworthy vessel, in order to leave a country where they had already found refuge and were completely safe, to attempt to enter another country without permission.

If they were ever refugees, they were certainly refugees no longer. At this point they were economic migrants. Would-be illegal immigrants.

Despite this, the photo was redistributed endlessly on social media in a campaign to highlight the plight of refugees. “We must do more to help!” bleated one of my Facebook friends. “AT WHAT LEVEL DOES THIS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH FLEEING PERSECUTION OR ESCAPING A WAR-TORN COUNTRY?” screeched another easily-led contributor, responding to a post that spelled out the answer to her question in terms her seven-year old daughter should have been able to understand.

People are so effortlessly manipulated by the left-wing press. Rather sad, isn’t it?

The “High-Definition” Audio Con

Years ago I became excited by the prospect of new formats for digital music reproduction, to replace the Compact Disc Digital Audio format (CDDA) format conceived in the 1980s. A number of competing formats emerged, all intended, ostensibly at least, to provide a more natural and rewarding listening experience by virtue of representing music in “higher definition” – SACD, DVD audio, more recently Blu-Ray audio.

I’ve had an interest in the techniques used by digital audio since I studied encoding methods as part of a Computer Science degree course, and as a technologist who loves music, I was intrigued enough to research the technology and principles that underpin these new formats.

I discovered that they were completely pointless.

Here’s how digital audio works, in simple terms. Any sound is experienced as variations in pressure against the ear drum – these arriving there by means of a sound wave. Audio recording is the process of capturing a representation of this sound wave, or ‘waveform’ by some means. Before the advent of digital recording, this was often done by representing the waveform by an electrical signal encoded as magnetism at continuously varying degrees of strength along the iron oxide emulsion bonded to a flexible film tape.

Digital audio works by sampling the waveform at regular intervals. These samples are stored as numbers representing the amplitude of the wave at the point it was sampled.

There are two essential dimensions in a digital recording, then. The first of these is the sampling rate, or frequency at which the original waveform is sampled. The second is the bit depth, or the number of binary digits allocated to store each sample – which represents the accuracy of the representation at that point in time. The CD audio format uses samples taken at the rate of 44,100 per second (44.1 khz), at a bit depth of 16 – so one second of CD audio is represented by 44,100 16-bit numbers. For this reason the CD format is sometimes referred to as 44.1/16.

Let’s consider the sampling rate first.

If you’re at all familiar with the principle of encoding visual data in digital format, you might see an analogy between the definition of a digital image, and the definition of a digital audio recording as described above. Naively, it’s tempting to draw a comparison – the greater the frequency, the greater the ‘resolution’; the more accurate the reproduction. Intuitively, this seems reasonable. However, after a point, in reality it becomes categorically fallacious. Here’s why.

Human beings can hear frequencies from approximately 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. This upper range begins to degrade from the age of eight or so. Digital audio can be (and is) filtered, so that sounds at inaudible frequencies are removed from the recording by the time it is transferred to the medium used to deliver music (or spoken word, or bad Rush albums, or whatever). This next point should be obvious but I’ll state it here anyway – removing the representation of inaudible sound from a digital audio recording makes no (zero) difference to the experience of listening to it.

Here’s the critical point. It has been known since the 1940s that a sampling rate of twice the highest frequency to be encoded is sufficient to capture a signal losslessly. There exists a mathematical proof for this, published by an American mathematician and electronic engineer named Claude Shannon. This is why CD audio is represented at more than 44,000 Hz. Digital audio is based on this principle. A higher sampling rate than 44.1 khz simply cannot improve the fidelity, or ‘resolution’ of human-audible material by the slightest degree – in theory, principle or practice.

This is a hard, well-established and indeed proven fact. Anything which contradicts it is marketing nonsense or simple ignorance.

Nonetheless the sampling rate fallacy is widespread; one of the most successful urban myths of modern times. Here’s an image snatched from a BBC website page about digital audio, which attempts in part to show, entirely mistakenly, why a higher sampling rate represents a waveform more accurately.

_70351001_new_audio_464

On the face of it it looks compelling, doesn’t it? Look how much more accurately the Blu-Ray audio samples seem to track the waveform labelled “Original music recording” than the crude, stepped samples of the CD audio data.

But actually, they don’t. The Blu-Ray audio sampling rate cannot in any circumstances provide more information than the CD sampling rate to reconstruct the waveform. This is a corollary of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem described above.

Now let’s examine the other important measure of a digital recording – the bit depth. This governs the range of values that can be used to represent a single sample. This is not such a cut and dried issue as the sampling rate in theory, because a 24-bit number for example can, undoubtedly, pinpoint an analogue value with greater accuracy (ie less error) than a 16-bit number, as used by CD audio. A 16-bit number allows one of 65536 discrete values to represent the sample, whereas 24-bit allows one of 16777216 values to be used.

The difference between the value to be encoded and the value selected from the range to represent it, the ’rounding error’ in other words, is known as the quantisation error.

In practice though, what happens is this: during the process of converting the analogue signal to audio, a tiny quantity of white noise is added to the signal. This practice is known as dithering, and its purpose is to make the quantisation error independent of the source recording – in other words, the error / distortion is all in the noise. Without dithering, 16-bit audio would give you a slightly distorted version of your source recording. Dithering allows an undistorted, completely accurate representation of the source, plus a little noise.

Here’s the important point – in 16-bit audio, you can’t actually hear the quantisation noise. To discern it at all, you would have to have exceptional hearing. You’d also need to be listening to an extremely quiet passage of your recording in a soundproof room, using remarkable equipment, at a volume that would render you deaf (seriously – literally deaf) when the drums kick in.

To be clear, bit depths greater than 16-bit do have a legitimate purpose in the recording process, because audio data can be re-encoded many times in a studio, with a little error being introduced in each new generation. This means that the quantisation error is multiplied, potentially hundreds of times, in the production of consumer audio – which introduces a risk that it might eventually become audible. 24-bit recording and processing minimises the cumulative error and can prevent this.

However as a medium of delivery to the listener, no purpose whatever is served by encoding the final product at more than 16 bits, at least for human listeners.

What does all this mean? For regular two-channel stereo, the so-called “high definition” audio formats don’t actually work. They cannot offer a higher resolution, or greater fidelity listening experience than that offered by the existing CD audio format. It’s not the case that the difference is too subtle to be discernible on most equipment, as some imagine. There is no audible difference at all.

Why do they even exist, then? That of course is down to the power of big numbers in marketing, and the potential to make people pay more money for a format that, intuitively, seems as though it should be superior.

Naturally, these formats are popular among those members of the audiophile community without the technical nous to know any better. They offer tremendous opportunities for equipment snobbery. Many will even tell you that they can hear a difference, but their credulous faith in “high-definition” audio places them squarely in the same category as the advocates of astrology, religious belief and homeopathy; concerns similarly with no basis whatever in logic, science or reality but sadly no shortage of followers.

It’s important that we resist these pointless formats though, because they are wasteful not only of consumer money, but of bandwidth, storage, and CPU time.

It is possible already to purchase music downloads encoded at a sampling rate of 192khz, and a bit depth of 24. One of these will take six times longer to download and take up six times more space on your hard drive than an equivalent 44.1/16 download. It will typically cost twice as much. And it will offer exactly no improvement whatever; not the slightest difference in “resolution” or “definition” than a standard CD.

If, thanks to the marketers and the gullible audiophooles who are their useful idiots, one of these ridiculous formats should eventually become the standard for the distribution of digital music, then whether we’ve been conned or not, we’ll all end up paying the price.

Twenty Years of Peace in Northern Ireland

It is twenty years ago exactly since the Provisional IRA’s “ceasefire” – the day they declared a “complete cessation of military operations”, as they described it. It wasn’t a perfect ceasefire and the fragile peace faltered for a while a year or two later – but nonetheless this day, twenty years ago was surely the watershed moment in the end of organised terrorism in Northern Ireland.

I was absolutely amazed to see this happen, having been used to seeing atrocities in the news regularly for as long as I could remember (the ‘Troubles’ had started at the end of the ’60s).

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But what really stunned me was the timing. The Provos had set off huge bombs in London occasionally. I had been hoping to move my career there for a while, so I was quite apprehensive about this. Their cessation came into effect, as if for my own convenience, on the day before I started a new job as a systems manager at a Japanese bank in the City of London. I couldn’t believe it.

Of course, it must have been a considerably bigger relief for thousands of ordinary people on both sides of the religious and political divide in Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure what motivated the leadership of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA (the same thing really) to do this. I can only assume that they had come to realise that the years of violence had only strengthened the resolve of the Unionist majority and the British government to oppose them, and polarised the two communities. Perhaps they were sick of the lethal justice regularly visited upon them by the British armed forces.

Most probably I imagine they foresaw, correctly, that they’d have more influence from a position in which they’d be able to take part in the political process than one which perpetuated their exclusion.