Thank you Lou Ottens
You and a boat-load of WH Smitths C15's made owning a ZX Spectrum affordable for a twelve-year-old.
Have a pint.
As a principal member of the R&D personnel at Philips, Lou Ottens has been behind some of the most enduring audio products in both the analogue and digital domains, from the Compact Cassette to the Compact Disc. In this interview with The Register, Lou Ottens, now in his eighties, recalls the development of the Compact Cassette …
I enjoyed this, where the interviewer has technical knowledge of the item, and assumes a good level of intelligence on behalf of the reader. As a result honest and open answers are obtained, and kudos to Mr Ottens for those. Respecting his decision not to comment is welcome too.
The BBC (inter-alia) would do well to read and heed this - too often their science/technical articles are written by someone who clearly has no idea about science or technology and I end up feeling more stupid at the end that I did at the beginning. I know that the audience is different, El-Reg attracts a teccy-type of reader, but there is no excuse for general publications to assume all of their readers have no knowledge at all. Bring back Horizon as it was in the 1970s I say, this is the kind of excellent thing they'd do, with no celebrity interviewer/voiceover and no computer graphics, maybe just a diagram to show how the heads worked, or the gearing on differing spool sizes etc..
(I'll stop now before I start ranting)
Going slightly off topic... This weekend thebox.bz went offline. One of the projects they'd undertaken was to assemble a library of classic Horizon programmes, some from quite old VHS tapes, content that was available nowhere else. That endeavour has, alas, just been snuffed out.
El-Reg proves that less is more. A well researched interviewed talking to the right person, I suspect this interview has had very little editing, if any. Thank you.
In my experience as a physicist, who occasionally has got media interest, science journalists are well motivated and do the best they can at converting quite difficult things down into a form digestible to their (target) mass market. As for "there is no excuse for general publications to assume all of their readers have no knowledge at all", well, the great majority of their audience probably does have no useful knowledge at all (i.e. on the specific subject being presented). Why should the majority be excluded from mass market reporting? You knowledgeable types can just feel all smug at your extreme cleverness - and know enough to go and find a more specialist publication. Just treat the mass media reporting as a supply of adverts, or trailers, for the real sci/tech story.
I understand your point, but I don't feel "smug" at all. I feel let down that much reporting aims simply for the lowest common denominator rather than somewhat higher. I keep being told that A Level results are higher each year (this year excepted), and more and more people have degrees, so why not smarten up journalism too?
I think, for example, that The Economist gets the balance right, it explains well but adds enough technical detail to keep readers interested. If everything in broadcasting is aimed at the lowest point we just end up with the lowest point being perpetuated.
I also forgot the Channel 4 "Equinox" series, which was also quite challenging but very good. Pop science had things like QED too, which taught those of us with some knowledge something, and held the interest of those without.
That's a long ramble to say that many writers take the lazy route of the lowest reader. It is harder to appeal to a wider audience, and some do it, and do it well.
Annoyingly, I agree with both of you.
Popular science reporting *should* be just that - popular - or it won't get watched by a mass audience. i.e. it will be unpopular, literally. It should make a great jumping-off point for personal research if one's interest is piqued. I am reminded of many of my better University lectures which did not impart hard information so much as point out that, to paraphrase, "over there is a big field full of all these things that you might or should find very interesting. Now go over there and investigate for yourself."
OTOH if I have to endure one more program about space which explains that "the planets go around the sun, and Jupiter is Very Big, oooooh, look, it has moons and Saturn has rings!" I will - er - be very bored indeed.
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"Why should the majority be excluded from mass market reporting?"
Please bear with me if I take a while to get to my point on this. First some context. I am 31. My generalised perception of generations older than mine is that they are more likely to look up something they don't understand. My generalised perception of younger generations is that they are less likely to look something up unless it is some fickle celebrity nonsense.
I think that the 'dumbing down' of the media, is caused in part by people wanting easier to consume material which feeds back and creates an audience less capable of digesting that material. It is a spiral to the bottom.
So my response to this principle of exclusion is: No one is excluded by the content of an article like this one. They are only excluded by their desire to understand it. The media should produce material just slightly beyond the capability of the masses to understand on first reading or viewing. It is now easier than it ever has been to look up points of clarification. If the media never provokes the general mass to acquire further knowledge, I hate to think what will happen to Horizon in another 40 years.
In my teens I used to stay up late at my computer taping out crap programs in QBASIC (oh, I feel sick, the horrors) with the "BBC Learning Zone" on BBC2 as interesting background noise. When a 70s or 80s Horizon came on it was enough to distract my attention. The beards commanded respect.
> My generalised perception of younger generations is that they are less likely to look something
> up unless it is some fickle celebrity nonsense.
On the face of it, this is a plausible claim. But my understanding of school education these days is that is (at least) intended to promote more self directed learning. Whatever its failings, why would this make "younger generations" less likely to look non-celeb stuff up? So, can anyone provide evidence that it is actually true?
>Whatever its failings, why would this make "younger generations" less likely to look non-celeb stuff up?
I'm a little uncertain about your meaning of 'this' in that question. Were you referring to dumbed down media or the current emphasis on self directed learning in education?
If you mean the first: it was my contention that a dumbed down article attempts to leave fewer unanswered questions about basic principles at the cost of delivering fewer points of interest that may compel someone to look into a subject further.
If you mean the later: My contact with the 'yoof' is rather limited so I can't directly answer the question but I have an anecdote and an opinion. To manipulate the way a child learns you have to start early. When I was about 14 I had to do a school project in which I had to "research" the subject 'disability'. The teachers were very excited about this idea but the class was bemused. We were used to being spoon fed information and thought they had absolved themselves of the responsibility to teach us. Result: It didn't work.
Most of my class copied and pasted from Microsoft Encarta (the web was in its infancy) without learning a thing. We continued doing exactly what was wrong and what was intended to change - we blindly regurgitated information without taking it in. For us, our ways of 'learning' had been set firm and we were resistant. Not intentionally so, but resistant none the less.
My point of view then is that new teaching methods take time to get right and even more time to have a notable influence. Only once children leaving school have had a significant number of years using the new methods can those methods be reasonably evaluated. I am very happy to concede that recent school leavers may be more likely to seek information for themselves, but they have not had an opportunity to influence my perceptions.
I'd also like to know if others share my perceptions or not.
"well, the great majority of their audience probably does have no useful knowledge at all (i.e. on the specific subject being presented)"
Perhaps, but is this true? And what exactly do you mean by 'useful knowledge'? And then at what level should science reporting be pitched?
These are serious problems for science, especially in this highly technological era. It seems to me that the best answer is to assume that the 'default' reporting level be pitched at those who have graduated high school science. My reasons are that that target is actually a large number of people, and they are of a demographic that matters when it comes to implementing policy: they're voters, educated consumers and some of them eventually go on to be policy makers etc.—and even physicists. (More on this below.)
Of course, targeting those who've lesser knowledge is useful and should be undertaken for all sorts of reasons that I've not time to enter into here, but it should be done as a secondary exercise. What I'm saying is that most science reporting is dumbed down to the point where it is essentially useless. (Or that it is interpreted in misleading or hyped up ways, often deliberately so: reporting on cancer research being the classic example, here both researches and reporters are complicit; reports if not bullshit are often presented in disingenuous and misleading ways to a gullible public). Such trivial reporting often irritates the technically minded and it's questionable whether those who've no interest or little education in science will benefit significantly (please note I'm paraphrasing here, this issue is detailed).
Why high school graduate level in science? Well, someone who graduates science at high school has the basics of five or six years of science—that's chemistry, physics and often biology. Moreover, they know a good deal of basic mathematics: trigonometry, algebra and calculus. Whilst concepts such as e^(pi*i) + 1 = 0 may be somewhat difficult, they'd not be incomprehensible double-Dutch. For instance, they'll know about e, pi and (-1)^1/2, and even if they can't derive Euler's equation from scratch, few would have difficulty in understanding the beauty within just from its structure alone.
With physics, they'll be able to understand and mathematically manipulate basic mechanics, heat/thermodynamics, light (and know about the particle/wave duality), and electrodynamics and even be knowledgeable about the basics of quantum physics. At this point they might not understand the intricacies of cavity resonators or why radiation from a black body is aperiodic (thus understand the ultraviolet catastrophe conundrum of the late 19th C.) but with a little explanation they'll accept and understand the basics when explained to them.
Even more importantly, with good reporting and simple explanations, they'll be able understand why things that depend on such physics occur (for example, with high school science alone, it's not hard to understand the basic reasons for the snow or noise that appears on an analogue TV in the absence of a signal without needing to fully understand the thermal noise equation). Essentially, by the time a high school student graduates, he/she has a reasonable understanding of not only Dalton's Scientific Method and how that impinges on science and technology but also he/she possesses a basic ability to extrapolate and develop upon already-learned scientific knowledge. For those without any working knowledge of science or only popular superficial knowledge thereof, this is hardly possible, as one hasn't developed a working methodology of the subject (and targeting them in the first instance simply isn't as productive).
So what do we get from science reporting in real life? Putting magazines such as Nature, Science, Physics and other peer-review journals aside then what do we have left? Not much, bugger all in fact! Take the next level of science journalism down, New Scientist or Scientific American for example.
Whilst Scientific American isn't as bad, it's obvious that the editorial policy of New Scientist is pitched well below that of a high school science graduate. Frankly, technical explanations are trite in the extreme, pathetically inadequate in fact. And as for a maths or physics equation coming near the magazine, we'd have a better chance of quantum physics randomly reincarnating Margaret Thatcher, methinks. The same problem goes for popular science programs on TV; these are little more than 'ooh ahh—look at that' shows with little or no explanation of the underlying science involved.
The fact is that science reporting is diabolically inadequate. Those with high school science but who are not involved directly with science are never pushed to keep their science education current; as science reporting never pushes them they consequentially lose their 'habit or ethos for science'. Put another way: popular culture is only superficially interested in science, few outside science have an intrinsic and knowledgeable understanding of the subject.
Moreover, and tragically for science, those who despised science at school, usually the lawyers, accountants, economists and politicians, are those who have ended up with control over science policy and science funding. (It's a strange irony that scientists themselves are usually those least able to control science funding.)
In essence, we're left with a society that's pathetically illiterate when it comes to science, it's a society that doesn't think in a scientific way, and nor is it forced to so do. The consequences are that it's a society that's often scared of science—mention the word 'chemical' for instance—and thus it's all too prone to accept junk or pseudo science (for instance, look at the farce that's the climate change debacle: scientists themselves aren't immune from both accepting and doling out sophistry). That we're in a scientific age with a society that collectively doesn't think scientifically is mainly attributable to the failure of science education; there are no ifs and buts about the fact!
Meanwhile, scientists are locked away in their ivory towers—in environments where they only have to relate to and explain things to their peers. No so you say: well, where's the plethora of magazines that fit between the trite science of New Scientist and peer-review journals such as Nature, Science etc? Also, where are the TV programs that actually explain science and engage the viewer at a technical level? Right, there's none—although some 50 years ago there were at least a few. Touché.
It seems to me that the only ones who can correct this crisis are those professionally involved with science. When one becomes a scientist (or an engineer for that matter), one needs to accept that an essential part of the job description is to ensure that society gets dragged along with one. The two aspects of the job are hand in glove.
I used to read New Scientist when I was doing my O and A levels at school in the 1970s (it was an accepted use of free study time in the Library), and beside ogling the calculator adverts, I found it a good counterpoint to the taught science. It was sufficiently detailed to engage the mind of a scientifically curious teenager, with sufficient detail to be seen as useful knowledge, and would in my opinion be graded in content and detail above Horizon (which I used to watch regularly as well), and other science and philosophical programs such as The Body in Question and The Ascent of Man.
I continued to read it on-and-off through University (it was one of the popular collage periodicals in the Junior Common Room at my college).
Once I left University, I stopped reading it.
Recently I noticed that supermarkets have started putting it on their magazine racks, so I thought I would pick up an issue or two, with the intention of getting my late teen kids interested.
I was shocked! I thought that as I had not studied Science in the last 30 years, that i would struggle a bit with some of the developments and maybe some of the maths, but no.
The content was trivial, and the author(s) clearly felt that they had to explain everything from first principals. I found almost nothing taxing, and was able to get almost all of the articles by skim-reading them, missing out 70% or so of the content that I already knew. This was not the mind-expanding New Scientist that I had read thirty years ago.
I gave them to my 17 year old son, and he found nothing in them that he felt interested him enough to justify me regularly buying it (although he is a knowledge sponge, and read a lot on-line).
It's a terrible shame that one of the most approachable science publications appears to have done what I can only describe as dumbed down. But maybe that is just because the are following their audience, rather than leading it.
Your views are more common than perhaps you realise. A colleague and friend of mine who works for large government research organisation says whenever he catches me reading New Scientist 'you still reading that junk mag, eh?' or words to the effect (he then asks me for the latest copy of Science and satisfies himself with that). It's common opinion amongst scientists where he works. My only remaining interest in the mag is to catch up on science news.
The trouble is that New Scientist isn't alone, and I believe one of the significant reasons is the gobbling up of small specialist magazines by large publishing corporations that's occurred since the early 1980s. What then happens is the mag is treated as a cost centre and must perform accordingly--that's to say it's profitability is compared with all other mags in the stable. Result: it's dumbed down to the LCD to increase circulation.
There's other reasons too which I didn't cover in my earlier post. These have to do with the significant drop in the status of science amongst the general population over the last 50 or so years. Science no longer has anywhere near the status that it did when I was in high school decades ago (a fact brought home to me when I visited my old high school for a reunion a few years back). What I found was that the three separate labs, Phy, Chem and Bio and their individual prep rooms together with a tiered lecture theatre for each, were closed down completely and all moved to single room in an outhouse extension of the main building. I almost burst into tears, I could hardly believe what I saw, this was sacrilege on a grand scale, and it happened without any outrage or controversy.
This is a cultural problem, and it's especially acute in English-speaking countries. There's a number of reasons and one of them is postmodernism. It seems that that destructive cultural meme, which has little time for absolutes, known experience and defined standards, not only has more of a stranglehold over English speakers but also that it's taken an especially strong hold in education. As I said, there are other reasons too, but these are too long to cover here.
Thus, New Scientist, is only a manifestation of a bigger and broader issue. That's why I said scientists need to come out of their ivory towers, put on the overalls and get themselves dirty educating society. They can't leave it all to the educators as education has been corrupted. This crisis took 40 years to develop and it could take that long to fix, however I truly hope not.
I agree the general state of New Scientist is depressing. While I stand by my belief that BBC reporting should remain at a very broadly accessible level, NS is exactly the kind of publication which should pitch to a higher level - indeed, I thought that would have been the entire point of a magazine with that name. That said, when some of my work was reported in NS, I was perfectly happy with the result.
I also distinguish between "(news) reporting", which need not (and imo perhaps should not) be technical at all, especially in the mass media, since the point of news reporting is primarily to make the audience aware of something. This is distinct to features or documentaries, which people usually choose to watch, and where greater expectations of their knowledge are entirely appropriate.
As for "an essential part of the [scientist] job description is to ensure that society gets dragged along with one. The two aspects of the job are hand in glove", I would like to agree. But media & outreach interaction can be a vast time sink, and while I do not begrudge it, it can and does affect research output; and, further, not all scientists are very suited to it, and in many cases, neither is their research topic. By all means call for a larger cohort of science communicators, which is indeed the current trend, but expecting all scientists to turn into some sort of media/outreach enthusiast is neither practical, nor a good use of their time and resources.
"NS is exactly the kind of publication which should pitch to a higher level."
Indeed it used to, that's my point. Now there's nothing at that level (and most won't (can't) read Nature or Science etc.)
"I also distinguish between "(news) reporting"
No argument with that. Same again--it's just that the non-scientist science-savvy have no where to go. That's a big question not only for scientists but for everyone. Or it ought to be, as the net effect is a deskilling of society.
The example I like to use is incredibly simple and illustrative of the problem: despite chemistry at school, it seems that in day-to-day life no one [well, very few] knows how to remove stains etc. with common solvents--an observation I made over the years. One sees turpentine ruining plastics regularly when kerosene would save the day. And the way people mix up the solubility of oils in alcohol/metho versus kero and turps is astounding, the average person hasn't a clue despite years of high school science.
When I was a kid, this would have been almost unheard of, just about everyone knew. Moreover, if I had the time I'd provide you with dozens of similar examples from both physics and chemistry.
"I would like to agree. But media & outreach interaction can be a vast time sink."
I understand this problem as much as anyone. I can be obsessive when working in a lab, in fact, it's not unusual for me to spend 48+ hours straight working on a problem totally oblivious to the world at large. At times like this, little annoys me more than distractions, they ruin my train of thought. If you've ever studied HPS then you'll know about the long line of great obsessives throughout history.
That said, who is going to solve the problem:
(a) Who fully understands the problem other than scientists and engineers?
(b) Who knows what the proper solution ought to be other than scientists and engineers?
(c) Who is capable of properly solving the problem other than them?
No one, I suggest (at least not to the degree that's needed in the present crisis). If you or anyone else has a better solution then let's hear about it. Irrespective, scientists need to initiate the discussion and argument, and so far the profession has fallen short on that.
Still have plenty of those at home and one of the last Yamaha decks on my hi-fi rack...
I was happily killing the music industry (oh, wait, I wasn't) while supporting German chemical concerns in the 70's and 80's, in the Soviet Moscow - BASF Chrome tapes were my favourite...
I was quite proud of being somewhat of a virtuoso with tape repairs and trouble shooting and one of the local pioneers of head azimuth adjustment. To see the horror of the uninitiated as I'd stick a small screwdriver into their precious shiny capitalist tape player! Those in the know would look at each other and just wink and smile - "bloody amateurs..." :-)
Ah yes, the ancient lost art of azimuth adjustment!
To hell with calibrated measuring gear and all that; people would look on amazed as I whipped out a pocked screwdriver and transformed their muffled ol' cassette deck with brightness and clarity :-)
Of course I never had any threadlock on me, so once it had been adjusted once it would wander out of true again after a few months. Cue an encore performance!!
It wasn't all bad being a geek...
"OK, done. Now, can you grab a bottle of nail polish from your mum's dressing table?"
Amplify the advice: buy a few bottles and put them in the maintenance draw. Maintenance and prototyping people use the stuff all the time. Nail polish isn't quite as good as the pro stuff (such as that once available from Brolite Paints) but it's much easier to get. And if you can't stand the usual pink shades that women love then select your own colour (the Brolite stuff that I'm familiar with used to be bright red).
It should be second nature to lock the AOT (Adjust on Test) tweakables. They include mechanical alignments as here, inductor slugs, trimmer capacitors and potentiometers etc.
Your method ought to be an act of desperation only!
The correct procedure is to use a calibrated alignment azimuth tape. If you do not then you're aligning to the cassettes you're using which can be (and often are) out of alignment. Cassettes are often out of alignment because the recorder was also out of alignment, or as is often the case, ill treatment (heat etc.) distorts the cassette case to such an extent that the tape guides do not fully correct the misalignment.
For diehards with considerable patience (it's tedious) then you can make a calibration cassette yourself. Azimuth is the only tape you can make without sophisticated measuring gear. The idea is to record a tone, often 3kHz and 10kHz for fine, onto the best* cassette available. On playback, put a VU meter or multimeter on the output and adjust the level to say a point mid-scale. Now reverse the tape inside the cassette (turn upside down so when in playback mode the recording (physically) runs backwards to the way it was originally recorded), then again note the playback level on the VU meter.
Keep up this iterative process (reversing the tape within the cassette) until you reach a point where the output is at maximum. Don't worry if the i/p and o/p levels are not the same as you're now using the opposite side of the head (opposite channel) and it'll be marginally different (always is). By simple trigonometry, at the point where the level is maximum the recording alignment is at 90 degrees to the tape.
(Clearly, this method is much easier on a normal reel-to-reel recorder than a cassette. It's why I'd recommend a diecast framed cassette--less distortion with repeated openings and closings of the case.)
* If you can get one of the exotic cassettes with the metal (diecast) frame then all the better. The metal will not distort to anywhere the same degree as does plastic.
Agreed. Engineers talking through case studies to other engineers is always fascinating. Maybe the Compact Disc next?
Anything will do, as long as it goes into some engineering deep pith and discusses the trials and joys and the journey along the way. Even notorious failures which took a novel chance would be very welcome.
The evolution of the Compact Disc format is covered in some depth by a book called "Perfecting Sound Foreve" by Greg Milner. Fascinating book, which shows how much our perception of what is a 'good' recording has changed over time along with the technology.
As for the el Reg article - it's absolutely excellent. As others have noted, a well informed interviewer eliciting fascinating answers. One of the interesting later developments related to compact cassette was affordable multitrack recording with things like Tascam "Portastudios". Rather than using the four tracks as two stereo pairs (one for each "side" of the tape), it used them simultaneously for four independent mono tracks. Most machines operated at double the normal cassette playback speed to improve sound quality.
AFAIK, the CD revolution actually had 2 stages.
The first stage was designing the format and getting it going, but a second stage was performed by a then young and rather naive engineer in the Netherlands who came up with a way to manufacture CDs MUCH cheaper by optimising the (until then rather complex and laborious) process. The "naive" bit comes in because he didn't patent what he did, and soon his idea was copied all over the planet without him receiving anything for his efforts.
Not that he didn't go on and make money on other things later, but it was a classic beginner's mistake, and we all had the benefit of it.
On my bookshelf there's a book by a guy (currently the book's in one of at least a dozen boxes due to a move, and I can't readily recall his name) who wrote reviews for a British motorcycle mag in the 1960's and 1970's. 25 years on he decided not just to bundle some of his articles in a 'best of' compilation, but to go and visit the designers of those machines, and interview them on the background of their design choices back then.
Very interesting indeed.
Parents cleared their loft recently and handed me a stack of C90s that I had left up there. My latest commutes have involved getting an old Walkman and hooking it up to the line in on the car stereo. Have been driving to work listening to the UK Top 40 (a mix of Bruno Brookes on the Beeb, and David "Kid" Jensen on the Network Chart Show). Amazing how well I remember and can sing along to the Nescafe sponsor jingle on the later shows.
I urge you to relive your youth!
Very true, but many a failure is created in the same way
On the other hand, failures may be produced much more efficiently by committee
And, yes, I too have many a fond memory of cassettes. One favourite one was when a friend and I, after crossing many borders in Europe, and never getting stopped (when they still had border control between France and Germany (yes I am that old)), we decided we wanted to get stopped at least once. We stuck an AC/DC tape into the portable player, and as we approached a particularly humourless-looking German border guard, we had "Highway to Hell" blaring out of our old VW Beetle (a 1300). It did not work, we were simply waved through imperiously. Our faces must have looked so honest.
So I will join in raising a pint to those brilliant people who made the cassette possible
Thumbs up to this whole discussion - an intelligent airing of viewpoints hung on the back of a c60.
Got given a player in 1969 - still prefer cassetes in the car to any MP3 - just push it in and play.
Later (I was a Portastudio user), the cassette ushered in the bedroom musician revolution.
[ha, I even demolished my original player to make it into a miniaturised stacked reel affair with 2.5 inch spools, so I could take it into gigs and secretly record - it worked too..]
Can we have a picture of Mr Ottens?
"The sound quality of casette is still superior to most mp3s"
I think MP3 sometimes gets more criticism than it deserves. Many people still associate their quality with 128mbps Napster-era downloads, but apart from the low bitrate, the problem with those was that many early encoders gave poor quality results. (In fact, given that the 128mbps MP3s I produced using a LAME-derived (i.e. good quality) encoder were far better, I'd say that that was an even bigger factor than the bitrate.)
At any rate, 192+ mbps MP3s made using a modern encoder should be approaching CD quality and comparable to a good cassette.
"As a result, the recording head, the erase head and the pressure roller had to move in. It is as simple as that. The patent people made it a patentable fact, stating that moving the heads into the cassette fixes the cassette into its position."
So it was obvious, but they got a patent for it anyway...
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