Star Wars without the fanfare

20th Century Fox logo - click to play Star Wars opening on Youtube

As today is Star Wars Day, and marked with a public holiday in the UK, I’ll start with some reminiscing. When I was a child, the only place you could see a Star Wars film was on TV. The excitement and anticipation while waiting for it to begin were immense. Then finally, the screen faded to black, and there would be the famous drum roll, before the 20th Century Fox logo came into view. In 1999, the same excitement was transferred to the cinema for the release of the first of the prequel trilogy. The trailers ended, and there was a brief pause in the darkness as the screen extended, before those drum beats sounded. See what the opening sequence looked and sounded like on Youtube.

The accompanying fanfare is the only music in the original Star Wars films not to have been written by John Williams. The Fox fanfare was composed in the 1930s by Alfred Newman, head of a whole dynasty of composers and musicians that includes his son, Thomas Newman, the current James Bond composer. Newman wrote an extended version of the fanfare in the ’50s after the introduction of the CinemaScope widescreen format, with the second half accompanying text reading “Twentieth Century Fox Presents a CinemaScope Production”. Here is a clip showing what it was like at the start of the 1954 film River of No Return:

Twentieth Century Fox CinemaScope opening - click to play on Youtube

In the Star Wars movies, the second part of the fanfare accompanies the Lucasfilm logo, and so perfectly does it fit into the opening sequence that many people believe this part was composed by John Williams. It is said that George Lucas liked the old fanfare, which had fallen our of use once CinemaScope became commonplace, so decided to use it for his film, and that John Williams deliberately composed the Star Wars theme in the same key as the fanfare, B flat major. For the original 1977 Star Wars (later titled A New Hope), Alfred Newman’s own 1954 recording of the fanfare was used. For The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams re-recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra, and this recording was used for many other Fox releases afterwards.

The opening sequence remained the same when the prequel trilogy was released in the ’90s and 2000s. Despite Fox having moved on to a 3D, rotating version of their logo with a lighter, less militaristic-sounding version of the fanfare, Star Wars retained the classic static logo, which left room for an updated Lucasfilm logo during the CinemaScope phase of the music, and Williams’s recording.

The Disney era

With the announcement in 2012 that Disney was to purchase Lucasfilm, it became clear to some fans that the opening of any future Star Wars films would have to change. With the films no longer distributed by 20th Century Fox, they could naturally no longer begin with the famous fanfare. This led to much speculation about what would take its place, with suggestions such as the Disney castle with the Death Star in the background. The assumption was that we wouldn’t find out until Episode VII is released later this year.

However, last month saw the release of all six existing films in digital streaming format for the first time, and purchasers soon discovered that Disney have already removed the Twentieth Century Fox opening from all but Episode IV. Distribution rights to all of the other films came as part of the Lucasfilm deal, but Fox owns the original in perpetuity. Now, I feel company logos and music are very much part of a film, and these are rarely changed in re-releases. One can watch the James Bond series and see all sorts of old United Artists logos, rather than them being replaced by the MGM roaring lion. And if you see an old Paramount movie, you are informed that it is “A Gulf+Western Company”, despite that industrial conglomerate having disintegrated by the end of the ’80s. By all means, stick a new logo before the film starts on the DVD release, but the original logos and music should stay with the film. Unfortunately, there is a precedent for all aspects of the Star Wars to be altered with each new release, often not for the better, so it should come as no surprise that Lucasfilm should remove the Fox opening at the earliest opportunity.

So what replaces the old logo and fanfare? The films now begin with the Lucasfilm logo alone, accompanied by a re-edit of some of the closing title music from The Empire Strikes Back.

New Star Wars opening fanfare

They have clearly made an attempt to reproduce some of the grandeur of the original opening, with a trumpet fanfare and ending in a timpani roll. As it’s Star Wars music written by John Williams, it fits the bill. It’s a pity they couldn’t have found something in B flat to match the opening theme. I reckon it is actually in the key of E flat. Unfortunately, no-one has uploaded a clip showing this new fanfare followed by the Main Theme, and uploading and conversion between different video formats often seems to result in them sounding a semitone higher than they should. Here is another clip showing someone who has purchased all six films on iTunes comparing the new opening to A New Hope, which is the only film to retain the traditional Fox opening:

New Star Wars Fanfare AND 20th Century Fox both on iTunes

It could have been a lot worse. At least they have retained some sort of fanfare, and not added any other logos or music. The Disney Castle with their traditional music, despite having the title When you wish upon a star, wouldn’t really be in keeping. But will this be how Episode VII begins, when it is released later this year? Not necessarily. John Williams is due to record the soundtrack for the new film with a group of orchestral musicians in Los Angeles – sadly no longer the LSO, apparently due to scheduling constraints. He may well have written a brand new fanfare, or at least re-record this one, perhaps transposed into B flat. We are really none the wiser about how the film will begin, but the signs are that it will follow the traditional form of a fanfare followed by “A long time ago…” then the Main Title. Now, if only they could add a drum roll to play as the logo faded in from black…

Aldi: refreshing lack of cigarettes on sale

Didcot's new Aldi under construction last year

Didcot’s new Aldi under construction last year

Until last year, I knew little about the Aldi supermarket chain. Surely it was one of those stores selling strange, unheard-of, cheap brands of goods stacked up on the floor, at rock bottom prices?

However, in July 2014, the newspapers featured obituaries of Karl Albrecht, the co-founder of Aldi and reportedly Germany’s richest man, who had died at the age of 94. These gave a brief history and explanation of the chain’s business model. Aldi was founded by Karl and his brother Theo, the name standing for Albrecht Discount. The aim was to sell goods at the lowest prices, but that didn’t mean they were poor quality. The brothers negotiated deals to buy items in bulk from suppliers, which were sold in simple stores, often from the cardboard boxes they were supplied in. They carried far fewer items: one type of each, as it were, meaning the stores could be smaller and the profit per square metre higher.

In the 1960s, the brothers fell out over the issue of whether to sell tobacco products in-store. As a result, the chain was split into two: Aldi North, run by Theo, which sold cigarettes; and Aldi South, owned by Karl, which did not. When they expanded overseas from Germany, they divided the countries of the world up between them, and it is Karl’s Aldi South that runs the Aldi stores in the UK. (The two chains share a global website which has a map showing which countries each covers.)

As a result, Aldi stores in the UK do not sell cigarettes, unlike most of the conventional, big supermarket chains. There’s something seedy about the tobacco counter in a supermarket, usually up a corner somewhere near the main entrance. It’s slightly better now the law requires them to have shutters hiding the product, but even so, supermarkets generally have a family feel to them, and it seems inappropriate to have tobacco products on sale there. It’s hard to understand why they continue with it. Surely the retailer can’t make much money from selling cigarettes? For small newsagents and corner shops, it’s clear that they depend a lot on impulse sales, and let’s face it, anyone who smokes is unlikely to have strong willpower when it comes to other items by the till, however overpriced. But it’s hard to imagine the availability of a tobacco counter being the deciding factor as to whether someone does their weekly shop at a particular supermarket.

Given that many of the big supermarkets have reported falling sales recetly, perhaps they need to take some lessons from the discount chains such as Aldi. I hope they will also take Aldi’s lead and banish cigarette sales from their stores for good. In the meantime, I suggest giving Aldi a try. It’s not for everyone, and for most people won’t replace the big supermarkets entirely, but you will probably save some money, and I feel any company founded on the principle of not selling tobacco in its stores has to be given some credit when deciding where to shop.

Chinese New Year: sheep or goat?

Chinese New Year window display. Photo by Ann Fisher on Flickr, Creative Commons licenceThe Chinese New Year is upon us, and I have always been uncertain as to whether it is the Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat, despite it being my birth year.

In fact, it is neither, or perhaps I should say it is both. The Chinese character for the animal, 羊, pronounced “yáng” in Mandarin, actually refers to the subfamily of mammals that includes both the goat and the sheep. A sheep in Chinese is specifically a 綿羊 (mián​yáng), or “wooly sheep/goat”, and a goat is a 山羊 (shān​yáng) or “mountain sheep/goat”.

There isn’t an equivalent English word in common usage. English speakers would think of the two as distinct animals and use the separate words. A rather obscure term would be “caprid”, which refers to animals of the subfamily Caprinae – Capricorn comes from the same Latin root. However, chances are most English speakers wouldn’t know what was meant by a caprid.

That just leaves me to wish all readers a Happy Year of the Caprid!

For more detail see this interesting article which also explains why it is definitely “sheep” in Japanese and “goat” in Vietnamese.

BBC internet radio streams join race to the bottom

Digital Radio; photo by Stephen Martin, used under terms of a Creative Commons licenceI shouldn’t have tempted fate. At the end of my article on the poor sound quality of Freeview radio, I mentioned that internet streams are much better, singling out BBC Radio 3 for broadcasting at 320 kb/s. Little did I know, the BBC were just about to switch that stream off.

The BBC had announced a few months ago that they were going to discontinue streaming in Windows Media (WMA) format. Despite following developments in digital radio, I was unaware of this. The announcement was hidden in a blog deep inside the BBC website. Even people who had seen the announcement failed to realise the full implications of it. Not only were the BBC planning to remove the WMA streams. They were also going to switch off all streams broadcast using the SHOUTcast platform, which included the high quality AAC streams.

Now, they have replaced SHOUTcast with streams broadcast using HTTP live streaming (HLS). This is a format apparently preferred by Apple, and appears in effect to comprise a playlist that sends the broadcast to the client in chunks. Through this protocol, a 320 kb/s version of Radio 3 is still available via the Flash-based iPlayer on the BBC website. In fact, similarly high quality versions of all the other BBC radio stations are now available. The problem is, no standalone devices currently support this method of streaming. Despite the BBC’s claims to have talked to manufacturers over the last year, it seems highly unlikely that existing hi-fis and radios will be upgraded to support it, as it requires significantly more processing power, due to the need to stitch together the different chunks and do some processing.

As a stop-gap measure, the BBC have left just one SHOUTcast version of the stream for each of their national radio stations. These are in 128 kb/s MP3. While this is comparable to commercial internet stations, it is a step backwards for BBC Radio. Radio 3 in “HD audio” is no more. To make matters worse, they say these streams will be available for “another year or two”. After that, it will be HLS or nothing, which will render all current internet radio devices obsolete a far as BBC Radio is concerned.

Lots of listeners are very unhappy with the changes, as can be seen from comments on the BBC blog. Let’s look at some of the other issues with the BBC’s move:

  • As the MP3s contain no digital rights management, the BBC’s “listen again” facility is no longer available on internet radios. Anyone who bought such a set to catch up on programmes they miss will no longer be able to find many of the programmes as of this week.
  • There is only one version of the MP3 stream to cater for both UK and overseas listeners. Any programmes where the BBC only has rights to broadcast in the UK, for example sports coverage, can not now be broadcast over internet radio. I wonder if this may even apply to certain Proms concerts – I know there have been issues with licensing some Broadway musicals in the past.
  • Some internet radios designed for use by blind and partially sighted people have stopped working.
  • People listening on the move also have to use the 128 kb/s MP3 streams, no lower bandwidth version is available.
  • In the future, BBC stations will not be listed on internet radio aggregation sites alongside broadcasters from around the world, diminishing the standing of the BBC.
  • Even the name Audio Factory is badly chosen, as it is already the name of a production company that has nothing to do with the project, and is no doubt now receiving calls from irate BBC listeners. Ironically, they have even done work for the BBC in the past! If the BBC can’t even check the name of a project, can we trust them to check the project won’t negatively affect consumers?

Is it fair that the BBC can suddenly decide to stop providing a service to everyone who owns an internet radio? While it’s true that anyone can listen to the BBC via a computer, many people still want to sit in their lounge and listen in high quality through good speakers. People will have bought radios so that they can just switch them on and listen ion the kitchen, without having to log on to a laptop, start a browser, find the BBC website, etc. If internet radio is ever going to enter the mainstream as a consumer product, it has to work on consumer devices in the living room.

Another problem is that if the BBC can get away with disenfranchising internet radio owners, the commercial broadcasters are bound to follow. Of course, foreign broadcasters may also switch. I had actually encountered HLS before when I tried to listen to Taiwanese station e-classical, although I didn’t know it was HLS at the time.

There are a few workarounds. The community of people supporting the Squeezebox network players have already produced a plugin to play the HLS streams. However, that’s very much an exception as it is open source, easy to modify the firmware, and powerful enough to do the necessary processing. Is it also possible to use software such as VLC to re-stream the broadcast as a standard stream which can then be fed into a device. The BBC have even tried to hinder developments such as there by keeping the stream URLs secret, deleting them from the comments section of their blog. However, they are widely available online. The Radio 3 stream, for example is:

http://a.files.bbci.co.uk/media/live/manifesto/audio/simulcast/hls/uk/sbr_high/ak/bbc_radio_three.m3u8

I have wondered about the longevity of internet radio before. However, my concerns were about the aggregator sites that all standalone devices rely on, such as Reciva or vTuner. There is usually no way to enter a URL directly. Sets rely on being able to download a database of stations from a server, and if the server no longer exists, the internet radio will no longer function. But I had never anticipated the streams themselves being switched to a format that could not be played on existing hardware.

One other thought comes to mind. If it can be acceptable for the BBC to switch the format of their internet steams to render them unplayable on people’s radios, why can’t they do the same for their DAB broadcasts? At least then we might benefit from DAB+ instead of the outdated DAB system. Somehow, I doubt the changes have been made with the consumer in mind at all.

No Digital Dark Age as long as we make backups

Backup! by Rob Nunn, www.robnunnphoto.comGoogle vice-president Vint Cerf warns that the 21st century may become a “digital Dark Age” as a result of the use of digital media for storing our records. He says hardware and software obsolescence will mean future generations will no longer be able to read our documents or view our photographs. Media outlets such as the BBC translate this to a more personal level, recommending that people print out their most precious photographs to avoid losing “digital memories”.

I disagree with this assertion on a number of levels, and not just because Mr Cerf is clearly trying to promote a new project of his. From the perspective of future historians in centuries to come, they will have far better records of our lives than of any previous generation. Some people may assume paper records from previous centuries give a complete picture of people’s lives, and think of how we have all those wonderful old photo prints from the last 100 years. Yet in fact, the records we have are rather patchy, and only represent a small proportion of all the documents that were created at the time. That is because the media on which they were written has degraded or even been lost in fire, flood or periods of civil disorder. We may think we have a lot of historical artefacts, but that doesn’t mean the way records were kept was especially good for preserving them for future generations, nor was that a consideration for people at the time. We don’t know what we haven’t got!

The big advantage of digital over old paper records is that perfect digital copies can me made easily. The advantage is twofold. Multiple copies can easily be kept in different locations to ensure that if one is lost, the records are intact. It also means that as one technology or storage medium becomes obsolete or starts to degrade, the data can be transferred to whatever the latest medium is. With the rapid growth in size of hard discs, for example, each new copy requires much less effort and is far quicker to make, even with increasing amounts of data to copy. The latest PC hard drives can hold millions of floppy discs’ worth of data, and a blu-ray can hold 100 times as much as a CD. So there is no need to find increasing amounts of physical space to hold archives.

Making backups of digital data can really pay off. Just last month, a severe fire destroyed the offices of my local district council, taking its servers with it. In a matter of days, their website was back online, soon joined by the full archive of planning applications and all the comments on them, restored from an off-site backup. The only items missing were applications and comments that reached them the previous day, and so had not been entered into the system: perhaps bits of paper sitting on someone’s desk, now burnt to a cinder. Not only was this a heroic effort by the council, but it also showed the advantage of having everything digitised. Had the records all been on paper, they may well have been all up in smoke. I don’t know if councils used to keep copies of all their planning applications in a separate location in the pre-computer age, but even if they did, it could have been on microfilm and would not have been very accessible to the public, or council staff for that matter. The online planning database contains records going back decades, which have been scanned in. I see no reason why they can’t be transferred to new systems in the future and still be available in centuries to come.

While large organisations tend to take the security of their data seriously, individuals can be more haphazard when it comes to preserving their digital memories. Last summer, it was reported that Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones, who won a bronze medal at the Sochi games, had appealed for the return of her stolen laptop. It contained two years’ worth of her photographs, including those from the Winter Olympics. While the theft of any property is always disgraceful, I was surprised that anyone would apparently have only one copy of such important photographs, especially as it was months after the event, let alone keep that one copy on something as stealable as a laptop. Theft of laptops aside, the biggest risk with any PC is disc failure, which can instantly make all files inaccessible. You can never make too many backups. Keep copies on external hard discs, DVD-Rs, USB drives, upload to cloud storage. Some people may by chance be saved from total loss of their files by having uploaded them to share on sites such as Facebook, although these will rarely store the full resolution version of the original photograph, and should not be relied on as they could disappear at any time. Plenty of photo sharing and social network sites have closed without warning, so everyone should still keep their own copies of their photos and videos.

To go back to Vint Cerf’s original point, since when has being a historian or archaeologist been easy? He is worried that future software may not be able to read a Microsoft Word ’97 document. Yet if it was possible to decipher the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, I’m sure the future digital archaeologists will be able to work out Bill Gates’s most esoteric file formats.

Digital archives will mean historians of the future will have a wealth of information about us, and the ease of shifting to new media as they are invented will protect our records from loss due to damage, fire or theft. With everyone a potential published writer online, and everyone a potential photojournalist with a smartphone in their pocket, our period of history will be the best documented ever – probably as far from a Dark Age as there has ever been.