July, 2013

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The Cutting Edge of 1950s Technology

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

A whirlwind vacation in Memphis, Tennessee this week yielded, among other things, a visit to Sun Studios. This is the record studio famous for having discovered folks like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In addition to all sorts of interesting tales about the birth of rock and roll, the tour included a look at some seriously interesting 1950s – vintage recording equipment.

One rather unusual item was a ‘record cutting lathe’, the device that used to cut the lacquer master used to generate the negative ‘stamper’ that pressed the actual records. This particular one was a desktop machine about a yard across that must have weighed at least 100 pounds.

I happened to notice that one of the controls on this monster was labeled outside-in / inside out, presumably for selecting the direction in which the recording head moved as the master was cut. When the tour was over, I asked the docent why anyone would want to cut a record from the inside out.

She admitted she didn’t have an answer, but allowed as to how it was a good question. I did some research online later that day. Here’s what was revealed.

As you probably remember, LP records turned at 33-1/3 RPM, which amounts to about half a turn per second. But the length of one turn around is greater at the outside edge of the record than  toward the middle. So the speed of the stylus over the groove decreases as the program plays, starting at about 17 inches per second at the outside of the record and slowing to  about 8 inches per second at the inside.

This means that the fidelity of the recording is potentially better for the outermost grooves. Since most classical music starts out quietly and builds into a dynamic multi-instrument crescendo, it was deemed desirable by some to cut classical records from the inside out, so the more demanding end of the piece could enjoy the better performance of the outermost grooves. But it never really caught on, at least in part because it would completely confuse an automatic record changer.

It was, however, fairly commonly used for the recording of long, multi-disk transcriptions, where the odd sides would be recorded outside-in and even sides would be recorded inside-out. That way, listeners would not hear an obvious change in fidelity on the transition between disks.

I’m consistently amazed by how much our progenitors were able to achieve with so little to work with. I wonder if, sixty years from now, others will say the same about us.



Monday, July 22nd, 2013

I’m going to guess that more than half of the blogs out there consist primarily of regular entries beginning with “I haven’t been blogging much lately…” Well, guilty as charged. The last entry here was more than six months ago. You see, I’ve been busy with clients, traveling, tied up on other projects…


No excuses. I ran across this a few days ago: http://www.hughhowey.com/my-advice-to-aspiring-authors. Now I’m sure that I’d need scientific notation to enumerate all the ‘advice to aspiring authors’ articles ever written. But one of Mr. Howey’s key points is to take the endeavor seriously, as you would any other thing of importance. So thanks for the kick in the tush, Mr. H.

And on to other things.

I was out of the country when Asiana 214 slammed into the seawall at the approach end of runway 28L in San Francisco. At first, all I knew of the event was the fuzzy picture of the burned-out hulk, as viewed on the ancient television set in the living room of our bed and breakfast in Bermuda. Tough to get any useful information, even allowing for the fact that there really isn’t much useful information to be had so soon after such an event.


This is traditionally the point at which we say that it’s improper to draw conclusions until all the facts are in. But I’m not an NTSB investigator, or an AP reporter, or a talking head on the television. I’m just an opinionated guy who flies the small stuff from time to time, weighing in with his two cents.

So, with those caveats taken care of, I’ll say that it sure looks like the crew of that airplane screwed up big-time. If you want the particulars, the Wikipedia article about the crash is pretty complete. But it left me thinking that this wasn’t a very ‘satisfying’ accident.

What I mean by that is that it wasn’t a case of a crew fighting against a major mechanical failure, or one that somehow wound up in an impossible-to-anticipate situation. It was just a couple of guys who, on a perfectly clear day with no significant wind, flew a perfectly-functioning 200 million dollar airplane into the ground.

And it’s even more troubling in context. Consider Air France 447; a highly trained crew stalling an Airbus 330 from 38,000 feet all the way down into the icy Atlantic. Or Colgan Air 3407, in which an admittedly fatigued crew managed to stall a Bombardier Q400 into the ground outside of Buffalo.

These are the sort of accidents that guys like me are supposed to be having, not the professionals.

And where it leaves me is with my view of the pros as steely-eyed aviation gods, with thousand of hours of experience and hyper-effective training, starting to erode. Could they perhaps be only human, and subject to the same foibles as the rest of us?

If that’s the case, and the evidence is increasingly pointing in that direction, then maybe this is as good as it gets, and we just need to expect an accident like this every few years. And all in all, it’s really not that bad, when you think about it. Asiana 214 killed three people; nearly that many die every hour in traffic accidents.

But it’s still troubling. And I can’t help but think that we’re missing something.