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Cassette Tape Preservation

A few months ago, my grandfather passed away. He was 88 years old, and had lived a long, happy, and fulfilling life – there were no regrets or sour feelings about his passing.

While his belongings were being sorted through, they happened upon this:

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I have no doubt that this kind of thing happens all the time when someone passes away. I can’t imagine the number of unknown or blank CD’s, VHS, cassette tapes, and all kinds of other media that must be discarded as garbage. Who knows what they contain? At some point, it was probably important to the person who kept it.

So, I decided to preserve this tape and listen to what was on it. The first step was to dig through my box of USB miscellanea and revive some old hardware:

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This is an Ion Tape Express. It’s more or less the size of a walkman, but connects to your computer via USB. There’s a C-Media audio-to-digital chip within the enclosure which helps to minimize how far the analog signal must go before it’s converted to digital. You can pick one of these up at Radio Shack for about $60, and they’re fully Linux compatible.

I have no doubts that a better analog-to-digital conversion could be done with both a high-end tape deck and analog-to-digital converter. But for household amateurs such as myself, the Ion Tape Express is a good intersection of price and space (after all, how many tapes do you convert in a year?) I have no interest in taking up a lot of space with high end audio gear that won’t get used all that often.

The conversion is as simple as pressing “play” on the Ion, and then record in your favourite audio editing/recording software. In my case, I decided to use Audacity.

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In the end, only the first 30 minutes of the first side of the tape had content. I recorded all 90 minutes of the tape and preserved it as a 41khz .wav file. Ultimately, the tape contained nothing of real value, but disk storage is so cheap and dense that it doesn’t matter: I’ve now digitally preserved something of my grandfather’s that should last for all time so long as it’s stored and backed up correctly by those who come after me.

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Pirate Vietnamese Famicom Carts

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It’s Christmas here in Vietnam, and look what Santa brought me: a selection of pirate famicom cartridges!

Stadium Gate Station

The BC pavilion at Expo ’86. Stadium Gate Station can be seen at the far end of the monorail track. Photo courtesy of Jerrye and Roy Klotz MD, licensed under Creative Commons.

The theme of the 1986 World Exposition in Vancouver was Transportation. Vancouver’s state of the art driverless, computer-driven SkyTrain mass transit system had just opened, showcasing the best in Canadian engineering talent. The expo grounds were filled with varying examples of transportation. Japan had its HSST high-speed rail system on display. Gondolas transported expo-goers high above from one podium to the next, giving breathtaking views of the expo grounds. Water ferries carried passengers across False Creek from one area of the expo to the next. The history of world transportation was chronicled at Expo ’86, from the steam engine to modern magnetic propulsion.

Monorail in service at Vancouver’s Expo ’86. Photo courtesy of Ian Alexander Martin, licensed under Creative Commons.

Most attractions were built as temporary features, and the Expo ’86 Monorail was no exception. Built as both an exhibit and method to transport expo-goers from one site to the other quickly, the monorail spanned the entire length of the expo grounds. Because of this, the monorail can be seen in the background of many Expo ’86 photos, and was fondly remembered by attendees. After the expo, the monorail was dismantled and sold to the Alton Towers amusement park in England.

When most people think of abandoned transit stations, they think of New York or London, with their maze of tracks and tunnels going back a hundred years. Most people attending an event or concert in the Plaza of Nations have no clue that an abandoned station is just over their shoulder, footsteps away.

A section of the monorail actually ran through several of the temporary buildings. One trio of temporary buildings, the Plaza of Nations, still stood as it did in 1986, a full twenty years after the expo was over. Few people will remember that Stadium Gate Station was a stop on the monorail route, and actually stopped within the Plaza of Nations building itself. In fact, rumours circulated the Vancouver Transit mailing list for some time about an ‘abandoned’ monorail station, so I decided to go for a walk around the Plaza of Nations to find it. In the photo to the left above, you can see the last remnants of the monorail track, held up by metalic, white pillars as it curves around.

Finding the station itself proved to be a bit of a challenge. I walked around all three buildings numerous times before spotting the telltale ‘U’ shape of a guideway where the rail would have gone. You can clearly see this, on the second floor of the building in the picture to the right. Gaining access was a simple matter of climing up a set of stairs (used as exit stairs while the station was active) that was only blocked off by a chain. As you can see from the photo, there is equipment all around, preparing for the building demolition.

Stepping into the station is like stepping back in time. It is amazingly free of graffiti and vandalism, thanks to its inconspicuous location. In fact, with a little cleanup and restoration, the station could be ready to resume full service the next day.

As you can see from the photo to the left, the station is surprisingly intact. The wooden slats along the roof are all in pristine condition, the station signs in excellent shape. The metal bars guide passengers to the individual train doors. Even the lights and speakers are still all intact. All that’s missing is the one solid rail down the middle of the guideway, and you’d have a perfectly functional station.

The exit markings are still in perfect condition, used to guide passengers out of the station. We get a good look down the center of the empty guideway. You can still see most of the intact multi-colored lights where the wooden slats end on the roof.

Unfortunately, this piece of history is now gone – it’s been demolished.  The Plaza of Nations, which housed Stadium Gate Station, was originally built as a temporary structure. It was supposed to be destroyed immediately after Expo ’86, along with the rest of the temporary structures. However, the Government of BC saw new possibilities in the use of the Plaza of Nations, so it (and Stadium Gate Station along with it) stood for over twenty years after the expo. Now, the only remaining remnant of the Expo ’86 Monorail is a short section where it passed through the opposite building.

Liechtenstein

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I’ve always wanted to visit a micro-state. There’s just something neat about paying a visit to a truly sovereign country that is smaller than most cities. Liechtenstein is certainly no exception; it’s been settled in one form or another since the Roman days, and has been recognized as a sovereign country for longer than my home country of Canada has.

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So, Liechtenstein has always been on my list of ‘must visit’ countries, if only to say that I’ve set foot on the soil there. My original plan called for a train ride from Munich into the heart of Liechtenstein, a short two hour visit, and then back to Munich. But there was something that wasn’t glamorous enough about this plan. It needed something else.

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After looking at a map of Liechtenstein, I decided that I could actually walk from one side of the country to the other. An Austrian “OEC” (express) train took me on a breathtaking trip through the Austrian alps from Innsbruck to Feldkirch. After a quick bite to eat at the Feldkirch train station (which turned out to be a very modern, clean facility,) I set off to walk the three kilometers within Feldkirch to the Liechtenstein border.

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The City of Feldkirch reminded me of the towns of Banff or Jasper in Alberta. It had that nice, high ‘alpine’ feel to it. The water was that ‘national park’ shade of green or blue. The weather was perfect for a hike across a whole country; it was about twelve degrees above and mostly sunny. As I continued to march along, the old European city gave way to a breathtaking view of the Rhine Valley.

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Along the way, you could see people doing all sorts of everyday things. A group of school kids playing soccer, someone walking out of a hardware store with the day’s project supplies, another person lights up a smoke and enjoys the great weather. In this photo, you can see the houses in Feldkirch, Austria in the foreground, and then houses in Schellenberg, Liechtenstein in the background. It also became increasingly clear why people would settle in this area: the Rhine Valley is completely walled in on practically all sides by the towering alps.

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The Principality of Liechtenstein is not a member of the European Union, nor has it implemented the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement of European citizens between sovereign countries. Because of this, there is still a checkpoint at the Liechtenstein-Austria border manned by Swiss guards.

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I approached a guard house on foot, and engaged one of the Swiss border agents there. He didn’t seem to be too happy to see me. Whether that was because he was busy doing something else or because I was on foot is still up for debate. I asked the guard if he spoke English, to which he shook his head rapidly and said, “No.” I then frowned and said, “Do I need to show my passport?” The guard sighed and pointed at the desk, motioning that I should put my passport there. I did so, and he scanned it on some sort of imaging device (I presume, to check if I’m a wanted criminal, or something.) He then asked, “Where are you going?” I answered, “Liechtenstein.” That seemed to satisfy him, since he returned the passport and let me go on my way. (The photo to the right shows a sign marking the end of Austria. The word below it, “Grenzuebergangsstelle” means, “Border Crossing Point.”

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It was at that point that I crossed into the smallest doubly land-locked country in the world, a country with a population barely above the size of a large town or small city. Schaanwald was the first municipality on my trip across the country, a small border town set on a hill looking over the Rhine Valley. I noticed that gas in Liechtenstein was very expensive, almost two Swiss Francs per liter (more than $2.00 Canadian.) The license plates are a simple white on black prefixed with “FL” (Fürstentum Liechtenstein, or “Principality of Liechtenstein.”)

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The Liechtenstein countryside is simply a pleasure to hike through. There are multitudes of hiking and biking trails everywhere. The country capitalizes on its natural beauty extensively, promoting all kinds of outdoor activities. It’s almost a shame that I only had five hours to spend in Liechtenstein before I had to catch a train in Switzerland.

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I hiked through the small town of Schaanwald, and then the even smaller town of Nendeln. The houses and side streets gave way to a highway that wound its way down around the side of a mountain, into the Rhine Valley. Thanks to the great weather, there were a large number of bikes and motorcycles in attendance. The majority of vehicles on the road were from Liechtenstein, with a healthy minority from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.

The Principality also has a fantastic transit system. It was great that I was walking from one end of the country to the other, but it would be very easy to catch a bus along the same route. In this photo, you can see the distinctive neon green ‘Liechtenstein Bus’ picking up a passenger across the street from one of the Hilti offices. (Hilti is the largest employer in all of Liechtenstein.) The bus starts in Feldkirch, Austria, goes across Liechtenstein, and ends in Buchs, Switzerland. Thus, this ordinary transit bus crosses two international borders many times in the course of a day.

It would have been a great honour to take the bus or train across Liechtenstein, but walking across made the whole journey more interesting. I eventually made it to the city of Schaan, just north of the capital of Vaduz. It was here where I originally intended to take a train. In this photo, you can see an Austrian train pulling in, stopping on its way to Feldkirch. The railway line that cuts across Liechtenstein (more or less following the same route I was hiking,) is owned by the Austrian railway company. Like the Liechtenstein Bus, several trains travel from Switzerland to Austria (and vice-versa) via Liechtenstein every day.

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The city of Schaan gave away to the countryside as I continued on, this time looking more like the Fraser Valley than anything else. It wasn’t much more of a walk before I came upon the bridge that crossed the Rhine, marking the western border of the Principality of Liechtenstein. In this photo, the land to the right is Liechtenstein, and to the left is Switzerland. I had crossed the whole width of the country in about two hours.

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I also have to apologize for the poor quality of this photo, the sign demarcating the beginning of Switzerland. As you can see, the sun was already relatively low on the horizon, making it difficult for me to get a good shot of the demarcation sign and Swiss flag. There are no border controls on the Swiss-Liechtenstein border, since the Swiss guards check everything on the Austrian-Liechtenstein side.

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From the bridge it was only a short walk over to Buchs, a town on the eastern border of Switzerland. At the point that I crossed into Switzerland, I had set foot on four separate countries in one day (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.) The picture to the right looks back at the border from Switzerland (the little circular sign on the bridge marks the border,) with a Liechtenstein bus straddling the border in transit to Buchs, Switzerland. I looked back on the Principality one last time before continuing my journey to the Buchs Hauptbahnhof (Central Station,) to endure four more hours on the train back to Munich.