The Interstellar Age

Since my first encounter with Star Trek in the early seventies, Astronomy, Planetary Science and Astrophysics were all academic careers that I secretly coveted. Wouldn’t it be amazing to slowly but methodically entangle the secrets of the universe with a bunch of like minded people or continuously improve the technology needed to assess the necessary data. In other words, become a boffin.

It unfortunately turned out that I was far too lazy to put the work in to become adequate at either physics or math, so by the time I was ready for university I knew that this was not a realistic career to pursue. Today I know that it that it takes ages to get through grad school, that it is pretty tricky to become a PhD student in the necessary field and that you get paid peanuts as a post-doc (if you can get a job at all). So, probably the right decision to rather watch sci-fi and read about space exploration than actually be involved with it. I rather pay my yearly dues to the Planetary Society, listen to the right podcasts and marvel at the work the boffins crank out.

With the remaining members of Voyager 1&2’s science and engineering team celebrating 40 years since the two probes blasted off, the New York Times featured this event quite prominently in its science section, with a particularly lovely article about the remaining engineers by Kim Tingley. I have been following the fate of the two probes for decades as well (the advent of the internet has helped) and thought recently it would be nice to get a nice roundup of their history, so I bought Jim Bell’s book ‘The Interstellar Age’ . Bell is an accomplished academic and heads his own department at Arizona State University (and is the president of The Planetary Society), so you’d think he’d make a top notch author for a book on the Voyagers.

Well, unfortunately, he isn’t. I have no idea why, but rather than focusing on the scientific wonders and engineering issues that such a project discovers, he uses the book to frame his own personal academic career within the timeline of the two probes. Hell, it takes him 41 pages to begin the actual story. Interspersed with the history and some of the findings of the probes there are semi-funny anecdotes of him being a helpful grad-student, but then he omits the story around Voyager1’s faulty radio receiver before the Jupiter flyby. He also spends far too long on the design of the golden records.

I got increasingly frustrated by this book. While without question a nice chap, I really wasn’t particularly interested in Bell’s career, even if it touched Voyager from time to time. I’ll now have to hunt for somebody else’s account of those two technological marvels.

Recommendations welcome.

Matt Bianco: Gravity

It’s only been 7 months since Mark Fisher’s death, and we already have new Matt Bianco album. I didn’t know what to think about that. For me, Matt Bianco meant Mark Fisher’s catchy keyboard harmonies and Mark Reilly’s characteristic voice (I know, there was a different Matt Bianco with Danny and Basia, but that never did it for me). My favourite MB tunes were all Fisher/Reilly collaborations, so with him gone it was difficult for me to imagine what a Fisherless MB album would sound like.

While Fisher was ill, Reilly already collaborated with the dutch alternative jazzers New Cool Collective. I quite liked what they came up with: the album had some cracking tunes and I liked the New Cool Collectives idiosyncratic melange of brass and rhythm. So for the next Matt Bianco album Reilly again switched musicians: out are long time collaborators and studio heroes such as Tony Remy, Andrew Ross, Nick Cohen, Simon Finch, in are Graham Harvey (him of Incognito), Magnus Lindgren (Scandinavian Sax wunderkind), Dave O’Higgins (ditto, just not Scandinavian and already on Gran Via’s ‘Victim of Love’) , Geoff Gascoyne (British jazz bass legend) and Martin Shaw (Trumpeter extraordinaire). Elizabeth Troy – who got the background vocals job after Hazel Sim left) was allowed to stay.

So, all new personnel, new sound? Definitely, yesyes.

Out are the sequencers, the drum computers and electronic percussion. No more layered synthesizer harmonies, appregiatos and funky rhythm guitars. This is Reilly accompanied by classic acoustic jazz band, doing a Kurt Elling impersonation. This is not meant as a slight, as it works really well. A longstanding joke between the three remaining Matt Bianco fans is that you usually get two or three cracking songs per album (that’s ten pound per song if you order the Japanes import), and Reilly and his collaborators don’t disappoint: ‘Heart in chains’ and ‘Before it’s too late’ are excellent, and up there with the best of 30 years of Matt Bianco.

The album has been on heavy rotation at Chez Fordiebianco’s for 6 weeks now (tolerated by the best girlfriend ever – some sort of compliment, I’m sure) and I am still enjoying it. If you think about it, becoming more jazzy was always on the cards as Fisher and Reilly became more mature. HiFi Bossanova was already halfway there, so it feels natural that Reilly and the Jamie Cullen Band (which is what his marry men apparently are) have just progressed to where they should be.

This is a beautiful album that is beautifully produced and as such deserves a first class hifi system.

Nice one, Mark.

Unboxing the Pinebook64

So last week a package was delivered to my work place. It came in a padded envelope and was addressed to me from someone in Hongkong. That’s usually a good thing. As it turns out, is was.

Mmmmh. What could it be?

Aha! The long awaited Pinebook64. As the team from PINE sensibly only orders the hardware to be built once enough orders are in, I had to wait 4 weeks for my particular  unit to be built, but for this price was happy to be built.

 

Certainly a new take on packaging a laptop for a 9000km journey, but it worked, as the plastic minicase was broken, but the Pinebook arrived in perfect shape.

 

 

Pretty thing, innit?

All connectors present and accounted for.

Two USB2 connectors, headphone connector, micro ssd slot and power. What else do you need?

 

The unit came with a completely depleted battery (which we were warned about on the Pinebook forum – apparently an issue during quality control), but after two hours it happily started up. It immediately booted into this special Ubuntu remix, running on a board supported package (BSP) linux kernel, making it possible for this Allwinner board to run this OS. Hardware specs are not particularly exciting, as you would expect from a machine for £75.

It’s got a 4 core Arm A53 CPU on an Allwinner board with a Mali 400 MP2 graphics unit, a 16GB EMMC and 2gb DDR2 Ram. It’s pretty much a low-specced mobile phone in a (well designed) plastic laptop case. But, the display is gorgeous, it looks and feels pretty sturdy, and it’s perfectly usable.  The GUI is responsive and easy to use (previous Ubuntu use will help), Libre-Office runs well and Chromium is acceptable to use. Even that terrible slog on browser resources, Apple’s iCloud website, is usable. Youtube and Vimeo work well on Chromium. The speakers are very very tinny, but the DAC is of acceptable quality, so headphone use is ok. I haven’t yet checked battery performance, but I’m expecting good results from a solid state machine like this.

The PINE community has  a few different OSs you can try, but at present I’m quite happy with the current OS. Only bugbear is the inability to switch GUI’s, as I’m pretty sure at these specs would benefit from using LXDE instead of MATE, but I’ll be happily tinker away until I got it sorted. For this price (it’s actually more 160£ with import tax and postage) you can get a used chrome book or modestly specced used Windows laptop, but what’s the fun in that? The future is definitely in low priced, low specced machines like this. Will it replace my Macbook Pro for day to day use? Of course not. Would I take it on holiday for some light browsing, emailing and watching movies? Yes.

Jazz Under The Dome

It often astonishes me how much good music is out there, lying around in charity shops, often for sale for a pittance. I often wondered what it must feel like as an artist to find the product of  years of hard graft in a bargain bin in a charity shop, for sale for 50 pence. Probably a bit dejected, I would assume.  A few weeks ago I purchased about 20 or so Jazz records from a charity shop (paying a few bob more than was expected of me) and took them home for sorting. The vast majority turned out to be the usual dixie albums by various pop and mum’s cousin from down the road bands that somehow scraped enough money together to make a record, but a few where genuine discoveries. One of them is the impressive ‘Jazz Under The Dome‘ by the Freddy Merkle group. Stylistically to be found around Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ (though harmonically a bit more conservative), this is a collection of songs composed, arranged, conducted (from the piano, which he plays on the sessions) by one Bill Potts. An excellent feature on Bill Potts by Eddie Dean in the Washington City Paper gave me a bit of background and led me to discover a whole range of amazing jazz from the late fifties: Lester Young’s sessions with Pott’s trio in some dingy nightclub in D.C. Potts recorded with his own gear, and ‘The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess‘, a commission from United Artists. The guy had some serious jazz chops, and as I’ve been listening to his music for the last 4 hours I can thoroughly recommend his oeuvre.

That’s where the true fun lies when taking old second hand vinyl home: one album will open up a narnia of cool new stories, biographies and much more music. So for tonight the house is swinging to the tunes of Bill Potts and his various co-conspirators.  And thanks to the much maligned Spotify I didn’t even have to go through baskets of second hand vinyl to find them.

 

 

China delivers. Again.

Hello!

The tubification of the household continues. After the introduction of one of Aric Audio‘s pre-amplifiers to the livingroom’s audio chain I was on a roll: what I needed now was similar tubey, valvey goodness for the man cave upstairs. I already had a lovely little pre-amplifier from the nice man at BTE-Design and another chunky Marantz SM-80 to drive the rather power hungry KEF LS-50s, but what was missing was a DAC that could deliver tubey, valvey goodness and decode the bits and bytes coming from the computers in the man cave.  Many audio forums were scrutinised, hours were spend on ebay, and in the end the Xiang Sheng DAC 01-A, a tube DAC and headphone amp was chosen. Recently updated with a new XMOS-U8 USB interface supporting DSD64 and 128, this was future proof for more high res music and backwards compatible enough to play my old 128k MP3s from 2001. Doukmall from Ebay again delivered on time and on budget and for £150 there was really not that much risk.

As promised, ten days later a package from China arrived, direct from the manufacturer,  XiangSheng Electronic Co in Hefei. DHL get around, don’t they?

Well packaged, with a moderately readable instruction booklet its compact and has loads of inputs:

USB, optical, coax and two analog inputs. The outputs are straight analog or tube enhanced.

Sorry, didn’t have a banana at hand.

If you want to, you can open it up and switch the jumpers to turn it into a pre-amp instead, rendering the headphone amp obsolete. Xiang Shen’s custumer service was quick to help with any questions and the unit has been working faultlessly ever since it arrived. To play higher resolution tracks via the USB 2.0 interface, you’ll have to download XMOS’s driver which is ubiquitous on the net and which works well on Windows 10.  It sounds brillant, with significant improvement to my last DAC, even though that was significantly more expensive. Another win for China MidFi. I certainly bow to our new Chinese MidFi Overlords.