Archive for the 'technology' Category

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016


When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.


Mixing ‘The Message’

8 March 2009

We’re so used now to the sound that Grandmaster Flash created in the early ’80s that it’s hard to remember how different – and innovative – it was when he and his music first appeared.

Like other black music innovators – Gil Scott-Heron comes to mind, and Charlie Parker, come to that – he’s had his problems with drugs. He’s touring again, with a new record, and so was interviewed by Andrew Purcell in the Guardian, to whom he explained how he evolved his sound, in an age before ubiquitous personal computers or digital sound. As the article reminds us, he was the first person to mix two records without losing the beat; the first DJ to use drum machine loops live; the first to scratch;  and the first to make a record entirely of samples.

His method required technology that didn’t exist. “I needed a way to have the platter continuously spinning while I’m moving the record back and forth,” he says. “I went to a fabric store. When I touched this hairy stuff – felt – I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sides and ironed it until it became a stiff wafer. After that, I was able to stop time.” DJs have taken slipmats for granted ever since.

When he tried out his technique in public, the crowd stared as if he was mad. Flash, only a teenager, ran off stage, threw up, went home and cried for days. But he couldn’t stay away from his turntables for long. Soon he began searching for a bigger, louder system. “I went to junkyards, abandoned car lots. I asked supermarkets for the big jugs they put pig guts in, to make cabinets for my bass speakers.” He worked out that traffic light sensors made good tweeters.

At home he dismantled domestic electronics like hairdryers and  radios in search of the perfect sound. There’s also a great line about wearing out records as you scratch them:

I ask him how many copies of the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache he has worn out, in half a lifetime of playing it for its drumbeat, since the earliest parties at the Black Door club in the South Bronx. “About 30,” he reckons. Really? That’s fewer than one a year. “Oh yeah, but I play it until it’s disgusting, because the deeper the cavern is, the more you can do with it. I play it until it sounds like eggs frying on a Sunday morning.”

Tucker’s sound mirrors

1 June 2008

Tucker\'s sound mirrors -

Watching an old episode of BBC’s Coast on DVD I came across the story of Major WS Tucker and his sound mirrors, built in some numbers in the ’20s and early ’30s along the south coast as an early warning system of incoming enemy planes. They were relatively sophisticated parabolic reflectors, which concentrated the sound and also enabled direction to be estimated. They were rendered redundant by the development of radar, and Tucker, apparently, was retired early and instructed to dismantle the mirrors. He didn’t completely comply.

And in a strange way, he had the last laugh; the organisation developed by Tucker to manage and respond to the incoming information was taken over wholesale by the radar teams – a reminder that the social and management systems that are developed around technologies are as important as the technology itself.

A web search throws up a surprisingly detailed set of documents from different sources.