A design for life

1:48 pm : Sunday, 3 February 2019  |  , , , , ,

I only learned to use a computer in 1998. Prior to this I had no interest in computers. Maybe it was the rising popularity of the internet that got me to wanting to learn - along with the fact that my then-favourite talk radio host Nick Abbot had a slightly unhealthy number of tribute websites made for him. Whatever it was, I had to learn to operate one of these things. This would involve a computer course and visits to internet cafes. How could a 26 year old not know how to operate a computer? My mum only learned to type at 50! I had best set an example here.

1999 was an interesting time for the humble internet cafe. Some bloke called Stelios - who just so happens to run a bright orange airline company - decided to launch a chain of bright orange 24-hour internet cafes, with each one providing a good 400 computer screens. Whereas your typical cybercaff charged between £3 and £6 for an hour, the orange one would allow numerous hours overnight for just one little sexy pound. Yes the computers all ran on the delightfully unstable Windows 95, and viewing the web involved - not the highly popular and very cooperative Internet Explorer - but the thoroughly niggly and downright unstable Netscape Navigator. Those "Illegal operation" error boxes were a frequent occurrence. "Illegal? It's only Nick Abbot!"

Having discovered the personal website of a former classmate and professional computer molester, my next desire was to have my own website. This involved signing up with Geocities. - just before they were conveniently swallowed by Yahoo. From memory, the address of my 1999 website was: www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Runway/6091. Talk about memorable. It even looked like this - resplendent in your finest green and complete with obligatory clip-art platypus.

Years passed and though my site had numerous addresses it remained in some form or another, with differing designs bestowed upon it. Despite the advent of blogging and social media, my site continued to share humourous audio clips and rather brave poetry. Somehow the blogging aspect stuck the most, and what was once published on LiveJournal or Myspace has gone and found its home here. You know where to find me and my rot. You are most welcome. A net-nerd for 20 years. Wahey!

Double it up

8:10 pm : Thursday, 27 December 2018  |  ,

In 1983 the Electric Light Orchestra released their album Secret Messages. Originally conceived as a eighteen-track double album, it was ultimately slimmed down to a single volume with a miserly ten tracks - or eleven if you bought the cassette or CD. This was allegedly due to the economic situation of the time. It was a fate that befell the band Squeeze too - their 1981 album East Side Story would have been a double, but wound up being a single album. Thank you Margaret Thatcher.

Only 35 years later do we finally get to taste the double album, on vinyl too. Never mind all this compact disc nonsense. Downloads? Now you are just taking the mick!

Seventeen tracks are present. OK, so one of the originally planned songs is absent from this release. Side two of the album was supposed to feature this horridly fawning number that was embarrassingly titled Beatles Forever. It's absence leaves that side of the album four minutes shorter than the others, but that's all very well. Believe me, it was a dreadful song. Lennon was shot in 1980, and in 1981 ELO paid tribute to him by incorporating a Lennon medley into their live set. Come 1982, it was no surprise that Jeff Lynne would take it upon himself to write a song about the band that ultimately gave ELO their sound. The song was shelved, and years later he would come to work with the three remaining Beatles. Is it any surprise that he grew to dislike that song? It is drearily slow, it essentially just name-checks various Beatles songs, and tells us how he wish he could write a song like they did. Ho-hum.

Nevertheless, it is most satisfying to see the long-awaited release of the song Hello My Old Friend - Jeff's tribute to his home town of Birmingham. Sad canals with green-black water, skinny dogs and beer crates - this song has it all. A near eight minute masterpiece which was criminally cut from the 1983 original. Jeff poured his all into this song - the most intriguing drum machine pattern of all time, early 70s Moog synth, full string section, kiddies singing Frère Jacques - you could not want for more! And it took a whole 35 years for it to finally reach the general pubic... er, public.

The best flipping Christmas present I have ever received.

Break and enter

11:43 am : Wednesday, 14 November 2018  |  

Early this morning we suffered an attempted burglary. Attempted, but quickly aborted. Possibly due to my loud voice coming at them from the next room.

Because of her health needs, my partner has the big bed in the main bedroom all to herself, while I have a small bed in the spare room. Given that I sometimes snore, I will sometimes take to the sofa in the living room, and make my Neanderthal noises in there. Last night was one of those nights. On the sofa with a couple of cushions and a v-shaped pillow, tucked up and dreaming of Manchester or something other, whilst making ug noises.

At 3:50AM I hear shuffling which I assume is my partner in the hall about to go to the bathroom. I am then woken proper by a humongous bang/crash from the kitchen, and my immediate response is: "FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!" Assuming the cat has knocked something over and broken it, I go into the kitchen to see the window wide open, having been forced. Call it foolish, but my next instinct is to go outside with my phone blaring its torch light, and a saucepan in my hand should there be any need for combat. No one around. We had a visit from the Police about half an hour later, though this did little to chill my partner's nerves, or calm me down sufficiently for sleep.

Someone I knew once described being burgled as like being raped. Your own home is violated, and your possessions are fingered. The last time I suffered a burglary was in 1992, when £1100 worth of audio equipment was taken. Since then I have lived much of my life with relatively little, knowing full well that I would have little, if anything, to lose. Funny how, having only just finished building a decent audio system, someone makes an attempt on our property. Coincidence? Or just some opportunist scum c*nt from Corby or Peterborough?

These properties are reserved for the elderly or the disabled, so will sadly attract the attention of the lowdown and filthy. Clearly they did not expect a loud voice to immediately serenade them from the next room.

Gone but not forgotten

12:53 am : Sunday, 4 November 2018  |  , ,

In 1992, in the race to replace the humble compact cassette, Sony launched the MiniDisc format. This was in competition with Philips and their Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) format, whose players were back-compatible with the good old analogue cassette. Trouble was, these DCC decks were pretty sizeable, even in comparison with a standard cassette deck. That just put me off. Even in 1996 when DCC was dying out, and its decks and prerecorded media were being offloaded cheap, I was still not interested. In 1997 Sony decided to give their minidisc format another push, and this time it was a very attractive proposition.

In 1998 the cost of a minidisc deck fell to £150, and I was persuaded. I was now convinced that the cassette could be replaced. The discs were smaller, had instant access (ie. no winding or rewinding) and sounded terrific. What could possibly go wrong?

The new millennium then brought us recordable CDs at an affordable price, which could play in almost any CD player. Solid-state technology then brought us the MP3 player, and these advances in music storage technology only served to hurt the minidisc format, which would eventually be declared gefrunk by Sony in 2013.

A couple of days ago I took delivery of a Sony MDS-JE510 minidisc deck. The very model I owned between 1998 and 2000. Well worn and missing its remote, it was still a pleasure to own one again. There were a couple of issues with the deck. The audio contacts on the back needed a good clean, the disc-loading mechanism is a bit tetchy with cheapo disc brands like KAO, and the display is a bit dim after all these years. The record head was also getting stuck, but I managed to free this up. The fact that it records and edits without any trouble is a triumph in itself.

All that is missing from this audio system now is a pair of speakers. Trawling eBay for a suitable pair is thoroughly amusing. You see a pic that shows a yummy-looking speaker at a wonderful price, only to realise the person is selling just the one speaker. WHY SELL JUST ONE SPEAKER?!? Others offer ripped woofer cones, blown tweeters and chipped veneer for unreasonably steep prices. Many people expect you to collect in person. Come guys! We don't mind paying £20-30 for delivery on top of the price - just put them in a fricking box and offer postage! My original choice of Mordaunt-Short MS10i speakers is proving hard to come by, and I was highly tempted by their very radical-looking MS812 models, though they probably would be a slight too radical for Her Ladyship! So I am currently watching some Gale 3030 floorstanders. There is the option of postage, but let us hope the bidding doesn't get too steep.

The spirit of radio

5:24 pm : Saturday, 27 October 2018  |  , , ,

Another item joins the music system, and this time it is a good old-fashioned FM/AM tuner. The model is a Denon TU260L, and dates back to 1993. Originally selling for £120, the tuner can still sell on eBay for £30-45. I bought mine for £12. Cannot be beat. Near immaculate in condition, and working as you would expect - given that there is little to go wrong with a radio tuner.

Unlike London, analogue radio isn't exactly plentiful here in Northamptonshire. On the FM band we have BBC Radios 1 to 4, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, Classic FM and Heart FM. That totals all of seven! On medium wave (or AM as our American compadres will call it) there is BBC 5 Live, talkSPORT, Smooth Radio and BBC Asian Network. Long wave gives us BBC Radio 4, and whatever now broadcasts on 252KHz - formerly the home of Atlantic 252.

So why an analogue tuner and not a DAB one? Well, domestic DAB tuners are few and far between, can cost a lot, and do tend to look somewhat ugly in comparison. One somewhat affordable model here by a brand called Tibo does not tend to get many good reviews. One niggle is that everytime you switch it off, the volume defaults to zero. This begs the question - why have a volume control on a tuner? Isn't that what the amplifier is for?

Given that we tend to be Radio 2 listeners, we are catered for. Saturday afternoon with Liza Tarbuck is always a delight. She has such a soothing, mumsy voice, and I can just imagine her stroking my hair as she talks!

With a bit of luck I may have a minidisc deck coming shortly. There was a format that I loved. While it did not succeed in replacing the analogue cassette, it was tremendous, and there is just enough space in the cabinet for it.

Rewind and try again

12:46 am : Thursday, 11 October 2018  |  , ,

The assembly of our audio system continues, though only because I was able to perform a successful repair.

A month ago I purchased a Sony TC-KE300 cassette deck, and was delighted when it turned up the very next day. The seller was certainly keen to do well, and he succeeded. Happiness soon turned to profound dismay when I realised the deck was in fact faulty. Yes it was 20 years old and originally installed in a pub or club environment, but remained in a very good condition. Trouble was - pressing play, forward or rewind would result in the forward spool winding backwards and emitting a mechanical rasp.

If there is one thing that goes wrong in an audio product, it is belts. Through the years, rubber belts can stretch, harden, lose their shape, or even melt into a very unpleasant goo. Both belts in this deck were intact and appeared in good state, and it was sadly a mechanical, cog-based issue. A cog that exists deep within the tape transport. Sensing defeat, I contacted the seller who arranged a prompt refund without any argument. A great shame, as I merely desired a working deck.

Weeks passed, and because of illness keeping me in, the cassette deck remained on its side in the spare room. I consulted many online forums and watched many videos that I hoped would be able to shed some light on this specific issue. Last night I landed on a Polish language site dedicated to cassette decks, which contained a page dedicated to this very deck. The problem is apparently very common on many Sony decks. In this case, a cog situated on the spool motor spindle would ride itself up that very spindle, thus preventing the tape transport from performing its play and wind manoeuvres. All I had to do was open the frighteningly intricate sandwich that is the entire tape transport, glue that cog back in place, pin the two belts in place and then pray that they both successfully drop into place once I close that sandwich!

My delight when the deck started to operate as intended was immense! I walked into the bedroom where Hannah was in bed, going: "Wa-heee! I repaired that deck!" I am only disappointed that I did not spot the errant cog when I first had it all open four weeks ago. But in all fairness, I had yet to happen upon the following sound advice:

Deck spotkała typowa przypadłość nękająca ten typ mechanizmu Sony. Pękł trybik w zespole odpowiedzialnym za zwijanie i przewijanie taśmy. Jest on chyba na ciepło osadzany na oś silnika i po latach pewnie na skutek zmęczenia materiału pęka i albo zsuwa się z ośki albo zaczyna się na niej obracać. Skutkuje to awarią przewijania i zwijania taśmy oraz hałasem generowanym przez mechanizm. Naprawa polega na wklejeniu trybiku w odpowiednim miejscu na osi silnika przewijania. Dostęp do mechanizmu łatwy, likwidacja usterki jest szybka.

I mean, how can you possibly fail with advice like that? Just beautiful! I owe that guy a Tyskie.

And as for tape cassettes themselves, here in the UK we can still buy a 5-pack of Maxell UR tapes for £4 in Wilko. Yes they are just plain old bog-standard ferrics, but using cassettes was always about wallowing in tape hiss, so we just have to smoke it and shut it. Type IV metal cassettes that used to sell for £4-8 each are now being sold on the net for £85 each, but hey, it's your money!

Spin doctor

8:06 pm : Monday, 17 September 2018  |  , , , ,

My birthday fell on the 10th of this month, and for it, my partner allowed me to spend £100 on a second-hand turntable. While that same £100 would have bought me a brand new Audio Technica AT-LP60 - a rather respectable unit too - I instead chose to go back 30 years, to a German-made classic that I owned in my teenage years. Enter the Dual CS505-2.

For £100 it is in a rather terrific condition, with an unscratched dust cover, although it does have issues that need to be ironed out. When it arrived I discovered the tonearm was loose on its vertical bearing. Taking that bit apart, I discovered that a "caged ball bearing" part was missing. We shall assume the previous owner took it apart and lost this vital ingredient, and did not have the stomach to be upfront about this when selling it. While I was able to temporarily fashion a makeshift plastic bearing from a TePe interdental brush (!) and render it operable, I will need to lay my hands on some 1mm ball bearings, some grease and a 3mm washer. The alternative would be £20 for a new tonearm and bearing assembly.

The motor and pitch control assembly also requires attention. The motor spindle itself is divided into six sprung "fingers" - a bit like an umbrella with its six sides, and these "fingers" are pushed open or sprung closed in order to regulate the effective diameter of the motor spindle, and thus the resultant RPM of the platter. One of those fingers is bent outwards, thereby affecting speed stability, and would possibly break if I tried too hard to push it back into place. Someone suggested a hack involving cotton thread, so I will try that. Otherwise it is £25 for a new motor.

Is it really worth the effort and money to bring an old turntable back into use as opposed to buying a new one? Yes, it is. New turntables that are properly made are quite pricey, and their affordable counterparts always seem to have little imperfections, like a platter that bobs up and down while turning. Choosing your own cartridge and stylus combination can also be limited with newer turntables. If you favour real quality, then you do have to look back to the golden age of turntables, when they were made with proper attention to true performance. And that is something that will NEVER come from a Crosley or a Jensen.

Music time now, and we are going back to 2007 for this song from one-man act Soapbox Story. I never realised it at the time, but the singer Will Hunt is actually the son of former ELO member Bill Hunt. All this time and I never suspected it! I also wrote a blog post about him back in 2006.

Soapbox Story - Lost And Found

Sound decision

9:46 pm : Thursday, 6 September 2018  |  , , , , ,

I have started to assemble an audio system once again. I have always taken my listening seriously, yet for the last near 20 years have done most of my listening on a PC or an MP3 player. Now is the time to get back to how I used to listen to my music - on proper audio separates.

In the mid 90's I went through a spell of homelessness. Actual rough sleeping, along with living in temporary accommodation. If the whole experience taught me anything, it taught me gratitude for every little shred or speck that I am given in life. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and you can lose the lot in a stroke.

Once back on my feet again and in suitable surroundings, I cobbled together a collection of second-hand audio equipment that was purchased from that buy/sell/exchange company that used to have numerous shops in London's Notting Hill. Cheap vinyl and cheap CD's were also plentiful. As a listener I was catered for in terms of hand-me-down goods. As my financial situation improved, I upgraded my audio equipment piece by piece, and assembled a thoroughly decent listening system - not to mention a comprehensive music collection. Then in 2000, something happened. A certain guilt fell upon me. I looked at my audio system and 300+ CD's and thought to myself:

This is obscene. I came from the street with next to nothing, and some of the people I knew back then are still there, eking out a survival. I have amassed this lot at great expense, while there are f*ckers out there who cannot afford to eat or clothe themselves. This is not right. I can survive perfectly well with just my clock radio.

Then began the process of selling what I had and imposing upon myself this voluntary poverty - rather like a Hare Krishna devotee taking their Vow of Poverty. I could not allow myself to have luxuries while others were suffering.

Since Hannah and I have been living together (for six years now), she has expressed desire for an audio system with a record deck included. I have never been against the idea, yet I have actively prevented her from going down the Crosley Cruiser route! While those cruddy suitcase turntables may not actively ruin your records - despite what some may tell you - they do however ruin your listening enjoyment. In a shop she spotted what looked like a Crosley on stilts and said: "That looks nice!" I replied: "As long as you don't play anything on it!"

For our system, I am seeking out the very components I was using up until 2000. I chose them with care and attention at the time, and know what to trust! We have the Denon PMA250SE amplifier and a Technics SL-PS770D CD player thus far, and other parts will be added in time. As the CD player itself is 20 years old it needs a new laser pickup, and I have ordered one at a cost of £11. The player itself is utterly trustworthy and sounds delicious, and thankfully almost every CD player released in the last 20 or so years uses the same standard-issue Philips laser transport. I will resurrect it, don't you worry!

Audio time now. Here is a mashup put together by myself. The backing track is from the genuine Massive Attack instrumental, which has been extended in places, and the vocal track of Robin S is out there to find on Youtube. Raise the key of the vocal by a semitone, get its tempo in sync with the music, balance the vocal with EQ, compression and careful use of reverb, and the result is actually worth listening to. I still find it hard to believe I actually put this together myself!

Massive Attack vs Robin S - Show Me Sympathy

Sheeple carrier

7:06 pm : Saturday, 4 August 2018  |  ,

Early in 2017 I attempted to follow the herd and become an iPhone user. This I did by purchasing a thoroughly prehistoric 3GS model for all of £22. After years of being an Android devotee I dipped my toe in the water, and found myself just not getting on with it. What did not help was being stuck on an old version of iOS which severely limited the choice of available apps for me.

On Wednesday my partner, who I care for, sent me a link to a site that offered discounts for carers or people who care for someone. I passed the grilling and was admitted to the site. One such offer that was thrown up at me was for the iPhone SE - the smallest of the current bunch but still being sold brand new. The offer was for a free handset, unlimited calls and texts, and 4GB of monthly data for £22 per month. Naturally I bit the worm!

The next day being Thursday, there is a knock at the door, and I am an iPhone user once again. While I may not have been impressed the first time around, a later and faster model with an up-to-date version if iOS is hard to beat. I am a sheep once again. Yes it is a shame to have to retire that Galaxy SIII Mini, but it really did start to hang at the most inopportune moments.

What amazes me about the iPhone is how it comes so immaculately packed in that box. Obviously for the money these things are worth you would expect some degree of opulence thrown in. And yes, I am fully aware that it was likely hand-assembled in China by poor sods who were deprived of sleep and paid a miserable pittance. But then, how can we determine which companies do or don't employ said practices? Do Samsung and Huawei also see their products assembled in similarly unethical circumstances? Sure you can boycott these Goliaths of the tech world, but who do you then turn to when you need a mobile phone? I would suggest that all of these companies are complicit in said tactics, so there's no escaping that - whoever makes your phone.

Another product that comes heavily discounted on that site is Cath Kidston, who just so happen to be adored by my partner! An over-the-shoulder satchel in your finest dotty material for only £30? Of course I don't mind!

Treading on eggshells

9:24 pm : Wednesday, 11 July 2018  |  ,

Very recently I somehow succeeded in getting myself banned from Twitter. While the microblogging site has been under pressure to clamp down on questionable content - and I am very much in favour of them doing so - they do appear to have gone a bit far in their policing of "threatening" content.

While grazing on my Twitter feed, I happened upon a tweet by the satirical news site the Daily Squib:

Notice their use of the hashtag #KillAllMen - a hashtag that has been around since time immemorial, and is clearly designed to rattle those who somehow deserve a good rattling. I responded with the following tweet:

It's Valerie Solanas all over again! #ScumManifesto #KillAllMen

For anyone out there who does not already know: Valerie Solanas was a radical feminist and author who, aside from shooting Andy Warhol, also wrote a publication entitled the SCUM Manifesto - with SCUM being an acronym for "Society for Cutting Up Men". Put simply, she envisioned a world where men would somehow cease to exist. Her views clearly, and views that some people may even sympathise with.

My reply merely referenced this publication, along with the highly-popular #KillAllMen hashtag. I am a man, remember. I may play the flute and also shun beer and football, but I remain a man. I have proof of this, but I am not about to start posting a pic of it. In fact, such pics usually prompt the use of the #KillAllMen hashtag.

Despite these facts, Twitter saw fit to suspend my account for allegedly violating rules on "hateful conduct", and despite my subsequent appeal are choosing not to restore it. A clear case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Rules and regulations going a little too far in their drive to make Twitter a safe place. It clearly makes you not want to say anything or use any hashtag whatsoever, for fear of offending somebody!