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.

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.


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.



What’s Left But To Wallow In Nostalgia?

Hi there.

These days it seems to be the usual thing for me to apologise to you for not blogging sooner.

Well, I’m sorry.

Also,  Twitter seems to do it for me these days. 140 characters, wham, bam, thank you mam. What other medium forces you to critise the health secretary in only one sentence. There seems to be a lot of this about at present. Critising the government, I mean. The one in the UK, to be exact. I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like to be an U.S. American these days. As Charlie Brooker said: “I think there is something wrong with my television. It’s showing me images and sounds from a universe I don’t recognise.” Consequently, for old social liberals of the continental sort there is not much to celebrate these days. If I ever meet Francis Fukuyama I will certainly I have a few choice words for him: ‘The End of History’ my arse. With society around us becoming coarser, more polarised and all together more unpleasant, it’s to time to switch off the news, unsubscribe from the political twitter feeds and focus on the pleasant things in life, such as 12″ remixes from the eighties.


Indeed. I personally wouldn’t have come up with the topic myself (though admittedly I do hear a few of these), but my favourite corner of the internet, the UK’s ‘Guardian’ news paper last week asked its readers for the best 12″ remixes of the eighties. The response was impressive, with over 750 entries by old people like myself. As befitting the Guardian, the choiced ranged from the daft (early Kylie, The Goodies, Italo Disco) the so-so (T’Pau [who names their group after an old fictional alien. tsstss], Soft Cell, Peter Gabriel), the rare (Kariya, Act, Barrington Levy), the irrestible (Sister Sledge, Mantronix, Thompson Twins) to the sublime (Matt Bianco, Frankie goes to Hollywood, David Bowie, Prince, Freeez).  To make a point, let’s just remind you of this lovely example how to make an (at times hilarious) 12″.

So, instead of losing (even more) of my hair by worrying about the world turning into some populistic hell hole, I’ll rather work on my perfect, 10 hour Spotify playlist of amazing eighties 12″ tracks. Suggest some via Twitter!