Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lossless: Keeping your options open

There have been a number of articles 'comparing the sound' of music encoded in a lossless way vs. a lossy way, for example, this one at Slashdot:

Slashdot News Story | Can We Really Tell Lossless From MP3?

I think this question misses a key point (though the original article does touch on it). If you have your content stored in a lossless form you can play it in a number of ways, including compressing music so it sounds as it would if it were being decoded from a lossy source, but you can't do it the other way around.

For example, if I start with a FLAC music file (at any given sample rate) I can convert it to MP3 and listen to the resulting stream with MP3 compression artefacts added (just as they do in the article), or I can listen to the music directly from the FLAC file through something like the Linn Klimax (also mentioned on the BBC, btw). It is not possible to start with an MP3 file and listen to the 'MP3 sound' and then somehow get the 'FLAC sound' from the MP3, because the MP3 has lost some information (hence lossy). The lost bits are just not available. Ever. Lost for good.

You don't need to use something as expensive as a Klimax to enjoy music encoded using FLAC. There are lots of free player programs for your computer (e.g. Play for the mac) and home music stystems (e.g. the Logitech Squeezebox). Yes, lossless formats do take up more space, but bulk storage is quite cheap today and getting cheaper, so this is no longer a really significant issue.

So, keep your valued music in FLAC format and keep your options open. You may not be able to afford a Klimax now, but who knows what the future might bring or how your ears might change.

And, of course, avoid DRM like the plague.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Candidates for hybrid vehicles

We hired a Prius and went on a drive around Wales fairly recently. Wales was stunning, and we'll be making a return trip. The Prius was mostly a not particularly remarkable family car, but there were a couple of area where it really excelled.

The first one was in the quiet of the morning when leaving a B&B. There is a button which tells the Prius to avoid using the internal combustion engine for as long as possible. In this 'stealth mode' we pulled away from B&Bs with just a crunch of gravel, if that.

The other situation where the Prius excelled was in heavy traffic in London. When stopped in traffic, i.e. most of the time (or so it seemed), the car used minimal energy and was pumping no fumes into the air. However we still got to enjoy the noise and fumes from the thousands of other vehicles around us.

Given this experience I'd say hybrid technology is great for:

Early morning or late evening movements in residential areas. In the UK the all electric milk float has been around for ages, and increasingly we are seeing grocery delivery vehicles using either all electric or hybrid vehicles. Great stuff, but we need to see much more of this.

The London cab. This is a great vehicle. Tight turning circle, loads of room inside and driven by someone who actually knows where they are going. But, boy, are they noisy and polluting! Most of their life will be spent stood still in traffic jams or waiting for a fare with the engine running (to keep the driver warm). Hybrid technology (or some kind of all-electric) technology would be perfect for cabs in London and other large cities.

Waste collection vehicles. The nosiest of them all, with their mighty compactors on the back and the amazing range of loud noises they make as they whir, wheeze and rattle down the streets. These vehicle clearly need heaps of power to run the hydraulics for compacting, tipping and all that, but do they really need to run the big diesel engine and compressors while racing (oh, yes) from one set of rubbish bins to another? I think not. With Hybrid technology batteries could be charged while the engine was working to drive the hydraulics, and the engine could be off for the sprints between bins. The engine could kick in for longer runs, but for most of the stop-start small street stuff, the vehicle could be much quieter.

Buses in London are noisy beasts too. TfL are already looking at using Hybrid technology for those, but it seems to be taking a long time to put into practice. I saw the first hybrid double decker at the Lord Mayors show a few years ago, but even now I hardly ever see one actually in service.

If we can get these kinds of vehicles to be less polluting in terms of noise and exhaust it would significantly improve the environment in our modern cities, and hopefully set an example for other city road users.