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.

Classic FM comes to Freeview – in glorious mono!

Digital Radio; photo by Stephen Martin, used under terms of a Creative Commons licenceDAB Digital radio in the UK has long suffered from sound quality issues on many stations due to broadcasters’ preference for squeezing a large number of stations into their multiplexes. The low bitrates utilised mean most stations are even broadcast in mono: a huge backwards step from FM.

It is often suggested that anyone wanting higher quality radio broadcasts should listen to the radio channels provided on Freeview, the UK’s digital TV platform. For BBC radio stations, this still holds true. These are generally broadcast at 128 kb/s on DAB, but 160 kb/s on Freeview. Some stations such as Radio 4 Extra and the Asian Network are even bumped up from mono to stereo on Freeview. The only exception is Radio 3, which on DAB is 192 kb/s and full stereo, rather than joint stereo, at times when there isn’t an extra channel for the Daily Service, or live parliamentary or sports coverage.

However, Freeview has long been lacking many commercial radio stations, most notably the UK’s most popular national commercial station, and the only one broadcast on FM: Classic FM. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised this week to hear an advert for Classic FM on Freeview. My surprise turned to dismay when I looked at the technical details. On Freeview, Classic FM is only broadcast in 64 kb/s mono. Now, on DAB, Classic FM is one of the most generously-treated stations, in 128 kb/s joint stereo. It’s always worth remembering that DAB and Freeview both use the MP2 audio codec, which is approximately two-thirds as efficient as MP3. The Classic FM DAB bitrate has been slowly eroded over the years, but 128 kb/s is just about acceptable. I would have hoped Classic FM on Freeview would have been at least 160 kb/s like the BBC stations.

I have to wonder what Classic FM’s owners, Global Radio, hope to achieve by putting such a poor version of the channel on Freeview. Presumably, they are hoping to pick up new listeners who would not tune in on an FM or DAB radio. Let’s hope the tinny, monophonic sound doesn’t put them off. My fear is that Global will later declare their move to Freeview a success, and use it to support claims that a low bitrate mono is perfectly acceptable for the station on DAB too, allowing them to squeeze an additional advert-packed station into the multiplex, and leaving Classic FM listeners with the same tinny, mono sound full of digital artefacts that fans of Smooth Extra and Planet Rock have to put up with.

There are, thankfully, still ways to listen to high quality digital broadcasts at home, although neither is really practical for listening on the move. One is via the digital satellite platform, which is free once you have a dish. On digital satellite, Classic FM is broadcast at 192 kb/s. The other way is to listen via the internet. Classic FM is available as 128 kb/s MP3 online, and stations such as Planet Rock are actually in stereo. In fact, most stations are available in higher quality online than via any type of over the air broadcast, the most extreme example being BBC Radio 3, which streams at 320 kb/s in AAC format.

The advice for anyone serious about music is to invest in a receiver that allows you to listen to internet radio – or at least in a cable to run from your PC to your hifi. This will also give you access to thousands of radio stations from around the world, including online-only stations free of interruptions or adverts. You may just find you prefer a station that doesn’t tell you every half an hour that you could be listening to a far inferior quality broadcast via your TV.

Useful links

Drugs rethink means scrapping “grandfather rights”

Image from "Cigarettes and beer" by Mister Graves on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenceA government report this week found that there is no link between tough penalties and drug use. This has prompted calls from various politicians for a review of drugs laws. While it’s clearly a complex issue, it’s hard to argue with a rigorous report or with scientific research into addiction. Perhaps there is a case for changing the law so that addicts are treated as people with medical conditions rather than criminals – if necessary as a mental health issue with compulsory treatment, as addicts are hardly in the best position to judge whether they need help.

It’s clear that a comprehensive review of drugs laws would have to include alcohol and tobacco. These hold what I refer to as “grandfather rights”. This is a term that refers to something that is exempt from a current law or regulation because it already existed prior to the law’s introduction, even though it would certainly not be allowed were it new. Examples of grandfather rights include domain names: UK academic institutions must choose a domain at least three characters long, but some universities such as Leicester have two-letter domains (le.ac.uk) as they pre-date the rules. Another example is driving licences. A standard UK car driving licence used to allow motorists to drive a small van or a minibus, but this is no longer the case. Anyone who obtained their licence before the change may still drive the larger vehicles, but new drivers may not. Likewise, alcohol and tobacco are only treated differently from all the currently illegal drugs for historical reasons. If they were discovered now, they would most certainly not be legal.

Many of the experts who have spoken out in favour of changing the approach of drugs actually support a tightening of the law around alcohol and tobacco – something ignored by the group of people I term the “drugs lobby”, that is those who want to see drugs legalised because they want to use them, even if they try to dress it up with scientific or political reasoning. Professor David Nutt was famously sacked as the government’s drugs advisor after he criticised their re-upgrading of cannabis. He is often cited by those who wish to see cannabis decriminalised, but how many people realise how much he would like to see tough new restrictions on alcohol, and ultimately for it to be banned? The Green Party is known as a political party in the UK that wants to see a move away from the criminalisation of drug use. Yet it too wants a tougher policy towards alcohol, including a complete ban on advertising and sponsorship, significantly higher taxes, and much harsher drink-driving penalties. Needless to say, neither has much time for the tobacco industry, either.

The very same arguments that can be used to justify a rethink of policy towards the drugs that are currently illegal necessarily show that there needs to be a rethink when it comes to drugs that are currently legal. You can’t argue for policy to be based on level of harm but then exempt certain substances arbitrarily. If there is good reason to cast aside the historical origins of drugs laws, and to ignore international, legal and social customs and conventions, there is no reason to continue with the glaring anomaly that still allows people to smoke tobacco in public and in front of their children, and that sees our hospitals full of drunks at the weekend, receiving treatment for cuts and grazes when they should really be receiving psychological help.

But here’s the rub. It’s already politically very difficult for a government to be seen to be relaxing laws on illegal drugs. Telling the addicts it’s going to be harder to get their booze and fags would be trickier still, and is yet another reason why such a comprehensive review of drugs policy is unlikely to happen.