Whose Time Is It Anyway?

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Here in our quiet little corner of the People's Republic of Europe, our Government decided a while ago to flog off the radio spectrum in order to pay for their countless spin doctors, pointless focus groups, endless ministerial jaunts, never-ending quangos, and failed experiments with Socialism. In return, they gave us the opportunity to enter the brave new world of Digital Broadcasting. And, rumor has it, they will eventualy build enough transmitters so that those of us who don't live in London will actually be able to receive it. Last I heard, the target date is 2013. Meanwhile, I've had to fill the entire attic of our house with bits of bent aluminium to try and drag some scraps of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) out of the airwaves and down to the kitchen so my wife can have rock music on loud enough to drown out the sound of me washing the dishes.

Anyone brave enough to have tackled the diary entries from my previous life will know that, up until now, we've been using a rather nice stand-alone Soundbridge Internet Radio to get a constant stream of rock music that generally smothers my unfortunate domestic noises. However, since the BBC released their iPlayer, the fragility of the copper-wired Internet in our part of the country has been exposed for all to see. Now all we get from Virgin Classic Rock in the evenings and weekends is "It looks like you can't get our digital stream..." followed by several seconds of rebuffering and then another five minutes of music. So the boss gets to hear me clanking her best plates together.

Those distant diaretic ramblings also documented the problems of trying to get Microsoft Media Center working with the exciting new digital technologies in our forgotten little corner of Merry Olde England (well, actually almost the geographical center, but still a long way from London). Suffice to say that it basically involved turning the roof of our house into a miniature version of Jodrell Bank, but at least we now get (depending on weather conditions) around 80 channels of digital stuff on the TV. Which, apart from 30 TV channels that seem to still be showing programmes from 1973, includes loads of radio channels. As I couldn't figure a way to drag the 42" wall-mounted screen into the kitchen every time I did the dishes, I suggested to my wife that she just turn one of these up really loud and pretend we live next door to a rock festival, but she wouldn't go for that.

So, for her birthday the other week, I treated her to a shiny new DAB radio. It's a really neat thing that consists of five different lumps of plastic - two speakers, a control unit, a combined bass woofer, and a separate tiny little matrix display thingy that you stick on the wall. This means that I can hide everything but the display thingy on top of the cupboards out of the way of the soapy fountain that is me doing the dishes. And combined with some low-loss cable and the aluminium-filled attic, we can actually get Planet Rock and a couple of dozen other stations. In fact, there's even one that just plays birdsong all day!

One really neat thing with DAB is that you can view the secondary information stream. Saves loads of arguments about which band it was that recorded the track you're listening to. It even tells you the name of the program you're tuned to, and what's coming next. I guess this is pretty much underwhelming to those who have already had DAB for ages, but - as late arrivals to the digital scene - we got really excited about it. Shows how interesting my life is most of the time. However, after playing with this for a while, I suddenly realised that the people who make the hardware obviously don't do any field testing of their products. I mean, the options for the "extra info" on the neat little display thingy are the MUX channel name (such as "DigitalNetwork1"), the time and date (in case you don't own a clock), the signal strength, the bit rate, and the rather nice scrolling text messages.

Now, as a developer, what would you do? Have it remember what you selected last time and go back to that option automatically? Have it default to the rather nice scrolling text messages? Allow the user to select which they want as the default in the setup menu? All, in my opinion, obvious options. But no, they decided that it should always default to the MUX channel name every time, and you can't change this behavior. You have to press "Info/Display" twice every time you turn it on or change channel. Imagine if Windows started with a DOS prompt every time and you had to type "WIN" and click "Yes" to get to your desktop. Err... a bit like Windows 3.0 in fact. Maybe the radio's O/S developers were still using that.

And here's another thing with digital radio. It can't tell the time. With the old-fashioned steam radios of the FM and AM variety, the time signal was pretty much accurate. OK, so if you lived a long way from the transmitter you were maybe a picosecond or two behind as the radio waves fought their way through the clouds and trees, but it was near enough. Now its a second or two behind because it has to go through some magic process to get converted to digital and back again. How do I know? Because the kitchen clock is one of those radio-controlled things. Supposedly it uses proper radio waves so as to be accurate to a fraction of a second. Even when those waves have to come all the way from Rugby, which is nearly 60 miles away. And, of course, the same happens with digital TV. I recently read a letter in the paper from someone who has three DAB radios as well as digital TV, and they said they all vary by several seconds. So in our brave new digital world, you never actually know what time it is. Maybe that's what they mean by Internet time - everyone has their own version.

I suppose I could just use the fancy radio-controlled watch that my wife bought me for Christmas instead. Except it has 97 functions and only four buttons. And one of those just turns the backlight on. Every time I put it on it tells me the time in Hong Kong. I have to carry the instruction book around with me so I can reconfigure it - possibly another good example of lack of field testing. And they say that software is hard for "ordinary people" to understand. Just imagine how much fun we'll have once they get Word and Outlook to run on a wristwatch. Not only will you need to carry a box of instruction manuals around (which I guess is good for us here in the documentation team), you'll probably miss your train because you won't know what time it is, or if your time actually is the real one...

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Whose Time Is It Anyway?