The legacy of Lou Ottens

As has been widely reported in the media, Lodewijk (Lou) Frederik Ottens, the Dutch inventor of the Compact Cassette as well as the Compact Disc died last month.

He passed away on the 6th of March 2021 at the age of 94. At least he got to C90!

Lou Ottens in 2007 for an interview with De Ingenieur (image via WikiCommons)

Truth be told, Mr. Ottens didn’t really single-handedly “invent” the compact cassette; he was in charge of a team of Philips engineers in Hasselt, Belgium who wanted to develop a portable tape recorder / dictation device and the associated tape cartridges for the home consumer. This was achieved by simplifying, miniaturising and re-imagining several existing concepts and products. It was in mono.

Little could he know what legacy his personal frustration with open-reel tapes would leave.

The product debuted at the IFA in Berlin in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1966 when Lou Ottens and Gerrit Gazenbeek flew to Japan and were bluffed by Sony’s Norio Ohga into wavering all licensing fees for use of the format that the “Compact Cassette” became a standard the world over, eventually usurping the competing 8-track as well as (early co-developer) Grundig’s competing “Doppel-Cassette” (AKA “DC International”) cartridge tape formats.

Subsequent improvements in tape formulation and developments like Dolby NR soon allowed the humble compact cassette to become a serious contender to vinyl, and when Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 things got really portable and personal. There’s no point repeating the huge impact the cassette had on the world of music consumption, and it should also be mentioned that if it wasn’t the Compact Cassette then… well, then surely someone else’s recordable tape cartridge system would’ve done the same thing.

Techmoan painted a good eulogy of the story.

To me, personally, the cassette is a more than just a format from a bygone era; I have deep and fond memories of it — although I can’t actually remember when I last played one.

Oh, wait, I do: the last tape I played and actively listened to was an unopened double-cassette compilation from 1986. This was almost three years ago and in a car I no longer have. As for recording tapes… well, I actually did that some six years ago. Those recordings recently got digitised via a Yamaha deck, one of many I’ve accumulated since I stopped recording or listening to tapes. There are more waiting to be restored in the basement.

Yeah, this makes a lot of sense!

So what, then, is the attraction to these damn things? Is it the challenge of getting the best performance out of an imperfect device? Is it because it has discrete components and moving parts that really are user-serviceable? Or is it the fact that each deck and each tape has its own distinct sound?

Why, almost sixty years after they were first introduced and despite having been superseded by superior digital media, do analogue compact cassettes still hold such a place in the hearts of music lovers and gadget geeks old and young? They’re flawed! They’re tactile. They require care. They fit into the palm of your hand (or a jacket pocket). Very much like the human being that made a tape or passed it on to you, they have character.

They’re personal. They have personality.

Not so with an MD or a CD-R: although a private mixtapeCD would’ve still been burnt by a fellow human being, they all sound the same. Digital. Cold. Flawless. Bit-perfect and error-corrected audio reproduction like the mass-produced audio CD it would probably have originated from. And that, too was developed by a team under the auspices of Lou Ottens (this time in cooperation with Sony).

Urban legend has it that the dimensions and capacity of a CD (12cm diameter, capable of holding 74 minutes of music) was driven by Norio Ohga’s wife’s wish to have her favourite piece of music on a single disc side (a recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting a 1951 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Bayreuth). However, according to Lou Ottens and ex-Philips engineer Kees Schouhamer Immink, the original design called for a mere 60 minutes on a disc that should be 11.5cm — the diameter of a cassette.

115mm cassette vs. 120mm CD

And thus the Compact Disc was named after the Compact Cassette.

Lou Ottens is dead. Long live the cassette!

Photos by hmvhDOTnet unless specified otherwise.

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Revision: 2020

2020 was a year of infamy.

Corona, corona, corona and more corona peppered with travel bans, lockdowns, quarantine, curfew, face masks and social distancing… urgh, 2020 was a reviled year! Aren’t we all excited and happy now that it’s over?

Bullshit! The fat lady has yet to sing.

2020 will probably go down as the year of SARS-CoV-2 but sorry, we’re still in the middle of the very same pandemic. We still have a stretch to go — as the lack of regular New Year’s celebrations have shown.

Don’t hold your breath. The year you think you’re remembering ain’t quite done yet.

Still, 2020 started like any other year. We optimistically rung it in with celebrations, fireworks and a few Chinese lanterns that descended upon the monkey house at the Krefeld Zoo in Germany. Around 30 primates died in the resulting inferno. Many Australians, in turn, spent New Year’s on the beach in order to escape raging bush fires.

Finn steers a boat to safety

Oz was ablaze again. Happy New Year!

A house burning in Lake Conjola, New South Wales, on New Year’s Eve

A few days later, the USA assassinates Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and nine other people with a drone air strike. Iranians are peeved. Thousands attend his funeral where 56 mourners die during a stampede. Iran responds by firing ballistic missiles at international military bases in Iraq, killing exactly nobody. A few hours later, Iran accidentally shoots down a civilian Ukrainian airliner shortly after take-off in Tehran, leaving 176 people dead. More people demonstrate following the government’s initial denial of the error.

Prince Harry and wife Meghan decided to “megxit” the British royal family, and as of the 31st of January the UK is officially no longer part of the European Union.

And that was just January. That’s how it started.

In February, a cyclone storm named Sabine (also known as Ciara) ravaged much of northern Europe (including the UK), causing serious disruptions and damage.

Later that month, a German nutcase named Tobias Rathjen shot nine people of foreign origin in two shisha bars in Hanau before driving home to shoot his mother and himself. A few days later, another nut named Maurice Pahler injured dozens of locals when he crashed his car into a crowd of revellers in the town of Volkmarsen during a Rosenmontag carnival parade.

Parasite became the first foreign-language film in Oscars history to win “Best Picture”.

Its title is rather ironic in this context because the Academy Awards were one of the last big events to take place in the year. As the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, events the world over gradually got postponed — if not cancelled altogether: Mobile World Congress, the Geneva Auto Show, Game Developers Conference, E3, the Eurovision Song Contest, DEF CON, Miss World, Glastonbury, Roskilde, Rock am Ring, Oktoberfest, even the Summer Olympic Games… the list goes on. Dozens of movie releases were postponed.

Everything went online. Shoppers stockpiled toilet paper, viewers binged on Tiger King, work went home, meetings went Zoom, and car rental company Hertz went bankrupt.

T-Mobile and Sprint merged in a $26 billion deal. Segway officially ended production of its iconic two-wheeled vehicle, and Olympus got out of the camera business. Bob Iger resigned his position as Disney’s CEO while the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google had to face a US antitrust subcommittee (an unprecedented public interrogation of the leaders of four of the world’s most powerful companies).

SpaceX sent two NASA astronauts to the ISS (the first time a civilian contractor had done so). Both the UAE and China launch spacecraft headed towards Mars.

Short-form video platform Quibi came and went in 2020. Adobe finally killed off Flash. Bookogs, Comicogs, Filmogs, Gearogs and Posterogs closed.

Larry Tesler (the man behind cut/copy/paste) died, as did Bill English (the inventor of the computer mouse). We also lost Terry Jones (Monty Python), basketball star Kobe Bryant, footballer Diego Maradona, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, racing driver Stirling Moss, test pilot Chuck Yeager (the first person to exceed the speed of sound) as well as Asterix co-creator/illustrator Albert Uderzo, cartoonist Mort Drucker, and South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner.

Other notable deaths of the year include actors Kirk Douglas, Max Von Sydow, Brian Dennehy, Irrfan Khan, Ian Holm, Wilford Brimley, Sean Connery, David Prowse (Darth Vader’s physique) as well as directors Joel Schumacher and Alan Parker.

The world of music lost Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers, Little Richard, Ennio Morricone, Joseph Shabalala (leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo), Genesis P-Orridge (head weirdo of Throbbing Gristle), Dave Greenfield (the Stranglers), Florian Schneider (Kraftwerk), Eddie van Halen, Johnny Nash, and Spencer Davis.

Q Magazine closed down. Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

In Botswana some 330 elephants died as a result of toxins caused by microscopic algae in water holes. Greta Thunberg reminded attendees in Davos that climate change is real.

In the UK, cellular towers were set alight following bizarre conspiracy theories connecting coronavirus with 5G technology.

America was set ablaze following protests and widespread looting after a cop took the knee on George Floyd’s neck. In response, idiot-in-chief Donald Trump cleared the streets of demonstrators so he could pose in front of a church with a bible in hand.

In August, an explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate fertiliser killed more than 200 people and lays much of the Lebanese capital of Beirut to waste. The population mourns by rioting and trashing what remains of the city. A few days later, Belarusian long-time authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko gets re-elected despite allegations of vote-rigging. Citizens are peeved and proceed with riots, and just another few days later, more protests, riots, and civil unrest occurred around the United States following the shooting of another black man by a white cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Men approach law enforcement with their hands up in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Calls that #BlackLivesMatter and to #DefundThePolice rang loud as protests sweep through hundreds of cities and bring an unprecedented level of anger and scrutiny to the police and law enforcement’s use of social media. America is truly at war with itself.

Statues topple. Everything has become racist. Certain terms get blacklisted.

America burns. California records its largest wildfire season in modern history.

Bay Bridge, as smoke from various wildfires burning across Northern California mixes with the marine layer, blanketing San Francisco in darkness and an orange glow

In September, the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos burns down, leaving 12,500 people without shelter in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown.

Moria burns down

Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria rages on. Nobody really cares about the war itself; more time and effort are wasted on the scores of civilian refugees who have become pawns in intra-european disputes.

A French high school teacher was beheaded for displaying caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class. Apple announced a switch to ARM processors.

Gary Larson started drawing cartoons again. I rediscovered my passion for woodworking, and I rebuilt my Hi-fi setup. IMDb celebrated its 30th birthday in October, and Discogs turned 20 years old on 1 November. A fly landed on Mike Pence’s head.

A monolith of unknown origin was discovered in Red Rock Country, Utah.

The monolith

Actress Ellen Paige is now Elliot Paige. Elon Musk names his offspring “X Æ A-Xii”.

Red Hat announced its termination of the CentOS distribution.

After protesting en masse (with no face masks) against corona restrictions, Germans flaunt lockdowns to flock towards and huddle around popular winter resorts during the snowy Christmas period. Infection and death rates start soaring.

Finally, the year concludes with positive news: Coronavirus vaccines have been developed and are being distributed. Orange Man had severe difficulty grasping that he lost the American presidential race to Joe Biden. The UK and EU finally agreed on a deal that will define their future relationship. Argentina legalises abortion.

And that’s how it ended.

Images via credited institutions. Hover for more.

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Webris, netsam and the demise of Flash

Webris and Netsam are the names of two internet companies. This is not about them.

Instead, “webris and netsam” is a term I use to describe material and debris left over by internet-related tasks — you know, the kind of stuff you download during a specific project and hold on to in case you might need it later or because it’s too good to delete.

Then you either forget about it, never use it, or standards have changed.

Here, for instance, is a bunch of clip art and icon packs that I rediscovered in my “web design” folder. The oldest file is dated 1998, and the smallest of these 32px .GIF files is 453 bytes in size. These sizes were appropriate for current displays — twenty years ago!

A collection of 32px web-friendly icons and clip art

Back then designers cared about loading times or file sizes because nobody in their right mind would force a site’s visitor to download a huge photo only to display it as a small thumbnail due to the hosting and bandwidth constraints of the time. Conversely, excessive HTTP file requests on account of each of the multiple little icon files was to be avoided — hence image maps, and now CSS and Font Awesome. Things have progressed.

A collection of site-specific icons and logos

Then there are icon sets designed for providing attractive links to social media sites.

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Offline, online, offline, online

Hi! How’re you doing?

I’m fine. Thanks for asking. I’m better now.

No sooner had the ink of the previous post dried did the blog go offline for a day — at least that’s what the alert message said. A day later it came back, and then it went down again for three days.

All I know is that my hosting company were working on something on the back end because I had two hosting “products” at the time — one of which was a promotional goodie that went bad and took on a life of its own. I didn’t want it, I cancelled the trial.

That was in August. And that was just the beginning my troubles.

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Meta blogging

This blog, in its present form managed via WordPress, is ten years old this year.

According to popular blogger Anil Dash, one of 15 Lessons from 15 Years of Blogging is that “Meta-writing about a blog is generally super boring.”

And he might be right.

Any housekeeping writing about how it’s been a while since you’ve written, or how you changed some obscure part of your blog, doesn’t tend to age very well and is seldom particularly compelling in retrospect. The exception are genres like technical or design blogs, where the meta is part of the message. But certainly the world doesn’t need any more “sorry I haven’t written in a while” posts.

Yet this is exactly what I’m going to ramble on about now.

When this blog (in its current incarnation) was launched, the web was quite different.

It was all about written content, with a few pictures added for fun and demonstration. Bloggers wrote about this, that, their hobbies and life in general, with no real regard about whether their words were read and with even less interest in becoming self-important influencers with huge hero images. Web pages were static, had a fixed width (or none at all), and text had a set size (or relied on browser defaults). Images were kept small because of bandwidth and loading time considerations.

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Civil unrest may be the second wave

The coronavirus crisis is far from over.

While some people are relieved that they’re able to return to work, I have returned to working from home after a symbolic three-week stint at the company office.

Considering my current tasks, working hours and the risk that remains, it’s just plain stupid to do anything but work from home. Most any facility or service I need is either online or has re-opened. Some never closed, and I’ve not been close to running out of pasta or toilet paper either.

I suppose I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m also far too frugal to voluntarily pump time, money and exhaust fumes into unnecessary commuting rushes or conferences that can just as effectively be held online. This should be “the new normal”.

The unwashed masses, though, are dissatisfied.

#BLM FTW!! (photo by BP Miller / Unsplash)

Americans have taken to the streets wearing no masks and total disregard for social distancing in order to protest against racial injustice and police brutality by rioting, looting and destroying the property of innocent civilians. Even in The Hague this past Sunday peaceful protests against coronavirus clampdown regulations turned ugly. A scant few hours earlier, hundreds of drunken and unruly youths trashed the Stuttgart city centre following a routine drug check on Saturday night.

The vandalism as well as an unprecedented degree of violence targeted at police has been plastered all over social media. Every copycat kid wants to be the next Twitter whistleblower or TikTok star to launch an entire hashtag.

What may be worth observing is that a disproportionate amount of the arrested have migrant roots, not unlike those hundreds of factory workers recently infected with COVID-19 across German meatpacking plants: they’re cheap labour from Eastern Europe.

The district of Gütersloh, the site of the largest facility, is the current coronavirus hotspot and has gone back into lockdown. As a result, citizens are enraged: they may have to cancel their precious vacation plans!

Oh yeah, slavery and racism are alive and well in 2020 — albeit in different guises.

Society has a long way to go.

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A few thoughts on the current coronavirus crisis

Here’s to another day of “social distancing” and “home office”.

This is my fourth week of “lockdown”. City streets are deserted, roads are empty.

Nature is taking a breather.

After the German government suggested (and eventually enforced) the lockdown, it took two days at the office before I, too realised, “Balls to this. This is a crisis. This is not normal, this is not going to work, and this is not worth risking the health of family and colleagues over.” So I packed my stuff and left. I haven’t been back at the office since, yet have clocked up more working hours than on a regular day.

My dining table has become my temporary office desk (I need the space for the monitors). This may become the “new normal”. While I’m no stranger to “remote working” and some of the luxuries it affords on account of my job functions I still think this ain’t right.

Colleagues who, because of different shifts and geographic locations, hardly see each other under normal circumstances are now more disjointed. Ironically, when you do speak to them using the conferencing facility of your choice, there’s an eerie sense of situational unity in our separation from one another. By now, everyone has heard of Zoom.

So have hackers and pranksters. “Zoombombing” has become a thing. Criminals and opportunists have taken to targeting the desperate, the scared and the feeble-minded.

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