From ’57 to 57

From ’57 to 57

A couple of months ago I celebrated my birthday; it happens every year. This is not about that event particularly, but more about changes over time and how I’ve almost become inured to the wonder embodied in those changes.

Steps in CanterburyTo take a quick example: I was born in the same year that the Space Age started. In October of that year, the Russians launched Sputnik 1 (Спу́тник-1). These days, although truth be told I hardly think about it, I use several effects of that momentous launch daily. No, I’m not talking about non-stick frying pans and the other reasons NASA had to come up with in the 70s to justify continuing the space race, but about GPS, the Global Positioning System. And about online map systems. And about accurate weather with satellite images. I use each of these every day, I’d say, but I can’t say I even ponder on the technology needed to provide me with this information. I did actually write an article on GPS and SatNav for PCPlus once, when I had to understand how it all worked, but since then? Ha!

Another big change that I’ve lived through: that of the provision of music. Back in the very early 50s, the market was just moving from shellac disks for recordings to vinyl, 78 rpm to 33 1/3 rpm (and the smaller 45 rpm disks). That was the era I was born into, but in the early 60s, Phillips introduced the Compact Cassette with Musicassettes being sold by the mid-to-late 60s, although of poor audio quality. However, by 1976 (which is when I bought by first cassette recorder for my University room) the tape was usually CrO2 and had much better fidelity. I would record LPs onto cassettes to try and help prolong the life of the easily-scratched vinyl. I even had a cute little cassette case that I kept in my first car – mirabile dictu, it had a cassette player – containing 24 cassettes. Well, until the case was nicked when the car was parked overnight near my girlfriend’s digs in Catford. By the time I was married to that particular girlfriend, CDs had just been introduced and we bought a CD hi-fi for our flat and I bought my first CD (Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, if memory serves). Much later on after the divorce, I already had up to 100 CDs when my flat was broken into and my hi-fi stolen with a copy of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing still inside the CD player.

Dredger on the River Great OuseBy then I was hooked on the better fidelity (no clicks or hissing), so, of course, I had a Sony CD Walkman (the Discman) that I used in the car – a heavy piece of kit that’s long disappeared now. I used to hook it up to the cassette player in the car with a fake cassette that merely transcribed the signal from the headphone jack in the Discman to the head in the cassette. With a bit of luck the cassette player would assume that the fake cassette was a real one, and you’d get great music with nary a soupçon of a hiss.

And then after a few years it was time for MP3s to arrive and we haven’t really looked back. (Yes, yes, I know there is a small market still for vinyl, but it is very small. You won’t catch me buying a record deck nowadays.) My first player was a small light Panasonic something-or-other that had DRM built-in. You had to load songs through a special version of RealPlayer on your PC, so it could encode the MP3s to stop people just copying music tracks. Yes, really. I mean to say, WTF? After that, I’d play MP3s on my Sony Clié PDA. And then came the iPods…

Arches at the SavoyNowadays, there’s Pandora and Spotify, you buy DRM-free high-quality tracks from Amazon and iTunes, and my wife listens to Classic FM streamed from England. I ripped my CD collection several years ago – they’re all in the basement in boxes and they stare at me every time I go down there to give me a guilt trip. All my music now is compressed (here’s an article I wrote about the compression used), online in the cloud and streamed, especially streamed.

Over on Facebook, there’s a meme that happens every week. It’s bled into more social networks and apps over time (or maybe it was the other way ’round): Throwback Thursday, or TBT. For this meme, people post pictures on their timeline of themselves from days gone by and I’ve been posting some doozies there from my past. Unlike photos these days, these were taken with a film camera and eventually stuck in a photo album (when I was into that kind of thing). For the TBTs then, I’ve taken them out of the albums, scanned them (or even the negatives), the colors and contrast auto-corrected with a photo app (perhaps with some work with a healing tool in said app to cover the dust flaws), and then – finally – posted to Facebook. Which can be viewed as yet another type of photo album.

Sign for the National Film TheatreAt the time the originals were taken, the cost of processing film was expensive: you essentially had to want that photo to be taken. These days, the economics of photography has been reversed: the cost of taking a photograph is virtually zero but the cost (in terms of time) of selecting them, tidying them up, has risen. In the past, I’d take a photo and that was it. These days, I take a photo, the camera saves it as a RAW image, I then crop it, fiddle with exposure, contrast, color, sharpening, something Adobe Lightroom calls “Clarity”, and store it on disk and in the cloud.

Am I a better photographer? I’d say yes, mainly because of the instantaneity and “zero” cost of photography these days. I can take several photos of a scene, maybe varying aperture and speed, perhaps even switching lenses, and be able to view them on the camera’s screen straightaway. The cost, as I said, is zero, at least once I bought a large SD card for the camera. I also know that back on the PC I can select the ones that “work” and discard the rest. I’m improving through probability in other words: if I take one good photo in a hundred, say, then a day out photographing will produce a good couple of images, several lesser ones, and the ones inevitably destined for the bit bucket.

Fields near Cople, BedfordshireOver the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to restore those early photography days of mine. I bought an SLR (notice no D) with my Christmas present money in January 1979 (still at University, note) and basically took it around with me all over the place. Every reel I’d dutifully mail off to be processed, and after a few days I’d get the results back and lament my “eye”, the inability to get things properly focused (the camera used split screen focusing – in this era of autofocus you just don’t want to know). I’d try and remember the rule of thirds and other stuff, and produce good pictures. One in a hundred is a nice approximation that I tried to reach. Anyway, although I have all of the negatives from those days, I’d never really taken care of them and they’ve stuck together. So I’m going through them, soaking in water to release the stick between the emulsion on one strip and the glossy side of the next, hanging them up to dry, and then scanning them. Some of the strips come out quite well, others are pretty damaged, but it’s interesting to see what I was taking photos of and how well at this digital remove. The photos in this article are all scanned from the negatives and lightly processed (usually cropping a bit, fiddling with exposure and sharpness).

Old train station near EtretatAnd another small example: back in the third form at school (for you non-Brits of a certain age that means age 14 or so) I flunked some homework essay in biology, mainly because I did bugger all on it. As punishment, and to recoup brownie points or something, I had to write an essay on Joseph Lister. I went to the school library a couple of lunchtimes in a row, found everything I could in the biology section on Lister and wrote up a two-page essay (handwritten, of course). These days? Jump on the internet, go to wikipedia, find Lister (as I did a couple of sentences ago), and, if you’re an idiot, copy it, or if you have some intelligence, rewrite it in your own words.

Of course, I could go on detailing the changes over the past 57 years since 1957, but you’ll note that all of these advances I mention are due to computers and the rise of more and more computing power in smaller and smaller packages. This is endlessly fascinating to me: I wrote my first program in FORTRAN-66 on paper tape at age 17; part of my Mathematics degree had a programming component (same FORTRAN, but now on cards); and my job ever since University has been dealing with programs and computers. Computing has become an essential part of our lives, to the extent that we are not even aware that computers are being used. Our smartphones, the cables they use to recharge, the fitness monitoring devices we wear, our wifi routers, our car engines and driving systems, our Kindles, our house security systems (and the heating/cooling systems), as well as our iPods and phones and cameras, all use some kind of chip, software, and computing power.

Sunset just off the M1, junction 15

As I said above, at some point, these wondrous things start to lose their wonder. We take Arthur C Clarke’s maxim to heart: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and, after a while, we stop wondering at the feats of technology required for some of our devices and almost assume it just works by “magic”.


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