diamond geezer

 Friday, December 31, 2004

Why you're going to celebrate New Year at the wrong time

It sounds simple enough. When you hear Big Ben start to chime twelve, 2005 begins. Unfortunately it's not simple at all.

1) Digital television isn't live. If you have digital TV you'll have noticed that digital TV is broadcast fractionally later than analogue TV. Use your remote to switch over from analogue BBC1 to digital BBC1, for example, and you'll probably hear the same snatch of conversation all over again. This is because the encoding and decoding of the digital signal causes a brief but noticeable delay, and so no live event can ever be broadcast live. See in the New Year digitally on Freeview or Sky (or watch a football match, for that matter) and you'll be celebrating a second or two late. Such is progress.
Test: On my TV, digital BBC1 (via Freeview) runs approximately one second behind analogue BBC1. Unfortunately I can't test ITV or Channel 4 because my Freeview reception is crap, I can't test Channel 5 because my analogue reception is crap and I can't test Sky Digital because I don't subscribe to it because it's crap.

2) Digital teletext isn't live. I already hate BBCi (the BBC's digital teletext system) with a vengeance. Here's another reason to hate it. Old Ceefax features the time in hours, minutes and seconds, because Ceefax is perfectly accurate. New BBCi only includes the time in hours and minutes, because BBCi isn't (and cannot be) accurate. Not that you'd be sad enough to see out the old year on teletext, of course.
Test: When I check the time on old Ceefax it's spot on. When I check the time on new 'improved' BBCi the clock runs highly irregularly with the minutes changing anywhere between 15 and 35 seconds late. BBCi has a gobsmackingly unreliable clock.

3) Digital radio isn't live. Same problem as above. Digital radio signals take longer to process than analogue so someone with a 21st century digital radio will hear everything a few swconds later than someone with a 20th century wireless. Even the Greenwich Time Signal doesn't beep at the right time on digital radio, it beeps late, so never set your watch by it. Such is progress.
Test: I risked my sanity by attempting to listen to Radio 1 simultaneously on VHF radio, digital radio and Freeview. Good old VHF broadcast everything 'on time', but digital radio was one second behind and Freeview was another 1½ seconds behind that.

4) Online radio isn't live. Not that this will surprise you. What with downloading and buffering and all sorts of other bytesize mullarkey, the BBC's online Radio Player runs very late indeed.
Test: Radio 1 online runs as much as 14 seconds later than Radio 1 VHF, which is as rubbish as you might expect.

5) Analogue radio isn't live. No, really. "The transmitted signal takes a finite time to travel from Broadcasting House to a transmitter, and then from the transmitter to the radio. Of course, the further a radio is from the transmitter, the greater the delay - at 200 miles from the Radio 4 LW transmitter at Droitwich the delay is roughly a thousandth of a second - and as a compromise the pips are delayed so that they are accurate at a distance of about 100 miles from the transmitter." (more here)
Test: I couldn't test this one, but I did get my atlas out to check which places are exactly 100 miles away from Droitwich and therefore get accurate pips. Answer - Cambridge, Lincoln, Blackburn, Snowdon, Taunton, Southampton and, yes, central London.

6) Big Ben isn't accurate. Big Ben's not doing badly for a 150-year old clock - in fact it's a masterpiece of Victorian chronological engineering - but even with regular adjustment it can be a second or so out. Just because you can hear Big Ben chiming in the New Year doesn't mean that the New Year has begun yet. Or that it didn't start slightly earlier.
Test: Big Ben was two seconds late seeing in 1990. Trust me, I checked at the time.

7) Big Ben only chimes on time if you're standing right next to it. The BBC have a microphone positioned right beside Big Ben's giant clanger, so the sound of the midnight chime hits the airwaves almost instantaneously. Stand and listen to the great bell anywhere else in London, however, and the sound travels towards you at a rather slow 330 metres per second, just as the laws of physics decree. This means you'll hear the New Year arrive one second late from 10 Downing Street, 2½ seconds late from Trafalgar Square and 7 seconds late from St Paul's Cathedral. [You may, or may not, remember that Big Ben's aural delay lay at the heart of a particularly cunning episode of Captain Scarlet. No OK, you probably don't.]
Test: I was standing beside the Thames at midnight on New Year's Eve last year, about 330 metres away from St Stephen's Tower. That means I should have heard Big Ben ushering in 2004 precisely one second late. Unfortunately the sound of the cheering crowds around me drowned out any sound Big Ben might have been making, so I couldn't confirm whether or not the theory works.

Moral of the story: Before you go out this New Year's Eve, set your watch accurately using analogue Ceefax. Or stay in and watch analogue TV. Or just get drunk and you'll neither notice nor care that you're celebrating the arrival of 2005 at the wrong time. Happy New Year, whenever it begins.

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