Stale Bread Lunch

Literate and nerdy. By Michael James Boyle.

The Case of Yanny vs. Laurel

May 16, 2018 ∞

My wife, Sasha, shared this audio clip with me this morning and I discovered 2018’s version of The Dress. The clip is a high pitched robotic voice repeating “Yanny” over and over… Or wait, it’s a low pitched man’s voice repeating, “Laurel.” I decided to dig a little deeper.

A few others got there first. The Verge has a writeup going into how different frequencies affect our perception of the audio and how susceptibility to prompting can also affect what you perceive. But I’m usually very susceptible to prompting, and I stood there repeating “Laurel, Laurel, Laurel” to myself over and over, but I couldn’t make it happen. It was so clearly “Yanny.”

I tried different devices, different headphones, and speakers, but I couldn’t make my brain hear anything else. Eventually I stumbled upon some pitch shifted versions. This didn’t do it for me at first, but on the very highest pitched one I started to see how someone could hear “Laurel.” There was something like an undertone there, some garbling in the background that hinted at “Laurel.” For her part, Sasha was finally able to hear “Yanny” by listening to the lowest pitched file.

So I did the only thing I could. I recorded the audio and went into Audition to apply some filters to see if I could figure out what was happening.

The end result was this:

In that audio clip, I explain how I modified the file. First I applied a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) filter to cut off all audio above 2 kHz. This, finally, made it say “Laurel.” Clear as day. Then something strange happened. When I went back to the original, I found, “Laurel, Laurel, Laurel.” Uh oh. Now I’m in an odd middle ground. I can sometimes hear one. Sometimes the other. It seems to matter what I prime myself for by hearing the pitch shifted or filtered versions first. But I still haven’t entirely wrapped my mind around it.

I went on to try various other filters and shifts. Listen to the audio for the full experience.


Disaffection Is Killing Us

May 18, 2017 ∞

I’m trying not to get into the practice of spouting off at people I don’t know on Twitter who are, mostly, just venting to each other, but I’m seeing a continuing and building pattern in lefty spaces that frustrates the hell out of me. So rather than try to speak up to people who really don’t need some random dude poking his head in to #wellactually them, I’m going to do my own venting and shout into the void here.

There’s a train of thought that goes something like this: “Democrats will never win unless they start fighting for things people care about.” On its face, this is simple tautology. Of course they won’t. But it really goes to show just how throughly movement conservatism has won the rhetoric war. It swallows whole the line that the Democrats don’t stand for anything.

I’m not trying to claim the Democratic party fits perfectly to my ideal politics. Of course they don’t. But first of all, the idea that Democrats always lose because they don’t stand for things people care about means vastly different things to the different people arguing it. And they all take for granted how clearly right their side is. For some it means Democrats need to “get over” their hangup about reproductive rights (no) and refocus from attempts to build a social safety net into policies that will help middle class people get and retain well paying jobs (because no one, not even those who would benefit, wants to receive direct aid, rather than a job they “earned”). To others it is just as obvious that it means a forthright, hard line protection of women’s reproductive rights, policing reforms, and broad new social programs like free tuition, single payer health care, student loan forgiveness, reparations, and universal basic income.

Everyone on both sides of this debate is certain that they are the vast majority of the left half of American politics, if not an outright majority, period. But Democrats are a coalition party. It is unlikely that they will be able to win majorities without pulling at least a little from all sides. That doesn’t mean you abandon your positions or that certain ideas don’t balloon in importance while others will remain flatly unacceptable. (I think the aftermath of the Obamacare fight is making single payer of some sort a broadly recognized must even among those in the coalition who might not have favored it a few years ago, and while I think the party needs to be accepting of fringe figures with conservative abortion views who will nonetheless vote with the party on supreme court nominees who will protect abortion rights, making some calculated compromise on reproductive rights is a complete no go.)

And yet it remains that the party that defends women’s access to abortion, pushes for universal healthcare, regulates banks (imperfectly and not enough, sure, but does it), issues relaxed sentencing guidelines on drug offenses, etc etc, doesn’t stand for anything and doesn’t deserve the votes of the left because they’re out of touch and don’t care about the issues people care about because I can find examples of things they didn’t go far enough or that I disagree with.

Never is there any self reflection that the narrative itself, that Democrats don’t really have their backs or advance policies that are good for the left, is what leads to people on the left—people who need to push all the harder due to gerrymandering, the electoral college, and packing in cities—to offer at best soft support on election day. Especially during off years when the fear of a supreme court nominee isn’t in play to make people hold their noses.

The fact that this meme is so embedded in consciousness that everything Obama did rounds to zero, that young, politically active people just know that Democrats don’t stand for progressive causes due to the very fact that they’re an opposition party and with complete disregard to the stark differences between what happened during the brief unified Democratic government versus what has happened under unified Republican government, is killing us. And you’re helping.

The disillusioned left doesn’t turn out, the Democrats lose their power in government, Democrats’ priorities don’t get done, and then the failure of action on progressive priorities leads to more disillusion. What have the Democrats really done for us lately? If they really cared, they’d win. And on the side of the Democratic politicians, they look out and see a fickle group that can’t be relied on to turn out and they look more and more elsewhere to secure their votes.

Meanwhile there is always someone further to the left who more perfectly embodies the spirit the left wing of the party’s voters would prefer. This is a good thing. There should always be pressure from the left. But the response isn’t “keep up the pressure” or “these ideas are gaining unexpected popularity, let’s cheer politicians toward the center who start picking them up.” (Isn’t that what we want?) Instead, the fact that the figure to the left isn’t immediately acknowledged by the leaders of the party as the clear arbiter of what the party should stand for, leads constituents on the left to reliably complain that the party is out of touch. Or that the leaders are just faking it because they only started talking about those lefty ideas after they became popular. And remember, there will always be someone to the left. This wouldn’t go away if Sanders had won. It would only shift as we all became disillusioned with his inability to follow through on all his promises and we all became surprised by how not progressive he was on whatever issue he decided to compromise on.

So we’re left with an eternal lack of enthusiasm that rides right up to “eh, they’re all the same.” There is an enormous gulf between being uncritical of the flawed motley Democratic party and living in a perpetual state of disillusionment that prevents ever really buying in to the political process and turning out Every. Single. Time. for every imperfect, but better, option. And this includes recognizing when Democrats you don’t wholly love do good and important things, or when they are out of power, acknowledging that yes they have talked at length about what they would like to do if they could.

I cannot believe that the American left (with whom I largely identify) can look out at the current situation and come away with the idea that Democrats don’t deserve our votes because they aren’t excitingly ideologically pure enough. Republicans who were dumb enough to think that Trump really had their backs and really was going to make a “beautiful” health care system where everyone got better coverage, I can understand. I’m never going to see eye to eye with them and their sin was believing someone who told them what they wanted to hear (also, racism and sexism). But the left needs to come to terms with the fact that buying into the idea that the Democratic party has no ideas and won’t really help advance progressive causes is what gets us here, every time. That getting mad at Democrats for using politics (the unprincipled nerve!) and then getting mad at Democrats for losing (weak pushovers!) and then immediately not caring as soon as there is any victory (because that’s just the way it should have been from the start, what do you want a cookie?) creates the atmosphere where this happens.

Want things to move to the left? Come out in force and vote for the people to the left of the other people running. Want those people to move to the left? Vote in off year elections and primaries. Show them what you care about. You aren’t going to get your glorious revolution. That would feel great, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s a long slog of doing a bit better and a bit better than that. Obamacare is stupid and imperfect and vulnerable, but single payer is much more likely as a goal in a world after it than before. Keep the pressure on and ratchet. And for fuck sake, don’t throw up your hands and say, well, I guess we get Trump because I just can’t recommend people get worked up about voting for a politician (ew) who can be criticized from the left (serves them right).


Second Week Frustrations

Feb 1, 2017 ∞

The thing I’m finding most frustrating, after more than a week of extreme frustration, is a thing many conservative allies are doing, and it is this: the idea that any opposition to an action by Trump is illegitimate if that action is something another Republican might do. I’m not talking about Trump supporters, but I know a significant number of people who are, more or less, just as opposed to and frightened by Trump as I am, but lie toward the right of the political spectrum.

This has created odd and uneasy alliances, and I welcome them. Ideological purity is a great way for a movement to eat itself. I heap criticism on the craven Republicans who have gotten into bed with Trump, convinced that he is their ticket to achieving their big issue (usually lowering taxes on the wealthy and destroying what vestiges of a social safety net we have in this country, but we can throw abortion bans in for good measure, too). I should equally praise those who might also want those things but believe that Trump is too high a price.

But here’s the thing: It isn’t illegitimate for me to oppose those things. Of course Republican anti-Trump allies aren’t expected to drop their other political preferences. But Democrats are supposed to roll over and only fight back when Trump is incompetent or obviously corrupt, like we should all be able to agree that the one true policy preference is whatever Jeb Bush would have done.

Let me be clear. Trump isn’t the only problem. He isn’t even an isolated problem. If Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican primary and gone on to lose the popular vote by almost three million, but squeak by into an electoral college win, all my problems wouldn’t disappear. I’m horrified by Trump’s incompetence and his white nationalist agenda. But he didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m furious that Senator McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat (and no, there’s no nicer way to put it). I’m furious that a president who bent over backwards to meet Republicans half way only led to the vilification of a centrist Republican health care plan as tyrannical. And none of this magically goes away with Trump.

Of course complaints about Democratic opposition don’t stop these same people from criticizing the Democratic leadership for being weak. No, there’s no leadership, they say. It’s a broken party. Why can’t someone stand up and lead an opposition? The only people doing anything to oppose Trump are conservative iconoclasts! Make statements? They’re only empty words. Vote against a measure? Empty opposition that won’t make a difference. Speak out? You’re frothing at the mouth. It’s like everything he does is bad. I’m losing patience. Join a protest? See this is just as bad as Trump, we can’t hand things off to a popular uprising. Use parliamentary maneuvers to obstruct and draw things out? You’re breaking more norms! This is why Trump is bad, and you’re making it worse!

Meanwhile if you’re a moderate Republican lawmaker all you have to do is a subtle wag of your finger and a light statement, and you’re suddenly (or rather again) independent Saint McCain. (Never mind about Palin, waffling on torture during the Bush years, declaring an intention to prevent Clinton from filling the empty Supreme Court seat for her full term if she won, none of which are, apparently as damaging to US norms as it would be for a Democratic senator to deny unanimous consent.)

The bottom line is that no one wants Democrats to be effective. Left wing purists see parties as, at best, a necessary evil because they involve building coalitions with people with whom you don’t 100% align, and Democrats are the worst of the bunch for being such a big tent. Republicans don’t like Democrats because they’re Republicans. It’s just so easy to believe the narrative that Democrats are screwing everything up.1 And it’s equally easy to believe moderate Republicans are the salvation. For the left, the bar is so much lower because when they speak up, it’s a pleasant surprise and a sign of hope. For the anti-Trump right, it’s just so much more comfortable. So the goal posts shift where they need to go. And yes, this has something to do with many of those same anti-Trump people dragging their feet on voting for Clinton or deciding to make a “principled” vote for Gary Johnson.

  1. Note that this doesn’t mean I think the Democratic party is all roses and perfectly oiled machine. There is plenty that needs to be rebuilt, but I honestly think that there isn’t anything they could do, today, that wouldn’t produce this narrative. And I really worry that I’m starting to see a narrative form on the Left that goes like: “They betrayed us by losing, therefore they don’t deserve our votes in the midterm.” Which, as foot shooting moves go, is pretty much a classic.  ↩


Voting for good when perfect has left the building

Mar 2, 2016 ∞

Everyone who’s throwing a fit right now, or perhaps even worse, tuning out because they don’t like any of the options in American politics, please stop and take a breath. It’s hard to believe, I know, but the country is a big place. That all your friends, or your parents and their scary conservative friends, or the people you see shouting on Facebook think a certain way, doesn’t mean that those feelings are universal. Somehow we have to take a million disparate and often contradictory opinions and churn them into a coherent policy.

At the end of the day, for a presidential race, one person is going to get the job. Just one. The chance that the person who gets the job is going to line up perfectly with your preferences is nil. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that the chance that the positions the winner actually pursues match up perfectly with their own preferences is nil. Some of this is about compromise. Some of this is about political reality. But a lot of it is just a numbers game. How likely do you think it is, really, that out of everyone in the country you and your friends hold the perfect set of opinions everyone else can rally around?

So if you can’t quite get excited because this one is horrifying and that one said something you didn’t like, get over yourself. You’re not here to elect a clone. You’re not here for a cult of personality who can sweep you off your feet and make you fall in the kind of love that blinds you to the fact that your crush is actually kind of a dick with a bunch of nasty habits. You’re here to pick a steward for the country. You’re here to have a say in what direction policy moves, not to dictate that policy or chose the perfect one.

Voting for the person who pissed you off with her pandering won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children stance on violent media and who you think has too many ties to a wealthy establishment you rightly distrust isn’t a tragedy or a betrayal. It just isn’t what you’d want in an ideal world. Because that’s not the vote. You aren’t choosing between your ideal proxy and this imperfect representative. You’re choosing between a complex human with admirable and despicable traits and someone who disagrees with nearly everything you stand for. Staying home because you’re insufficiently inspired is literally saying that you don’t care if we end up with someone who thinks we should kill innocent family members of people we think might be terrorists because you don’t like the other option’s tone enough. It’s saying that you don’t care if we end up eliminating all taxes on the wealthiest Americans and eliminating virtually all regulations on Wall Street, because you suspect the other option also has some ties to big money and might not spit quite as much fire against the 1% as you’d prefer. It’s saying you don’t care if Roe v. Wade is overturned or if trans people are made into human punching bags because the other choice didn’t come around on gay marriage quite as quickly as you would have liked. It’s saying that you don’t care if we stick our fingers in our ears and yell “Global warming isn’t happening, burn burn, drill drill” because you think the other choice might be a little slimy.

And if you don’t think that any of these issues are real concerns or enough to make you scared and excited to cast your vote, I don’t know what to tell you. If you think that this isn’t how politics should work, that’s fair enough. If you long for the dreamy-eyed candidate who can sweep you off your feet while silkily convincing everyone who disagrees with you how wrong they are and uniting the country into one big happy love fest where everyone prospers for a century to come, that’s a great dream. Work for all those things. Give money to advocacy groups you agree with. Vote in the primaries. Vote in your local elections. Encourage people to run who have no hope of winning but will bring voice to issues you care about and ensure the main stream candidates can’t take you for granted. These all help one step at a time. But do not take your ball and go home. Don’t let yourself think that striving for that perfection is more important than a livable end result. Do not let perfect be the enemy of good. Do not think that disillusionment with your inability to find that one perfect politician means there is nothing worth fighting for and voting doesn’t matter.

Cast your vote for the direction you want the country to move in, even if it isn’t the end point you want. Even if it is one step back, two steps forward. That’s how our democracy works. The people who disagree with you sure as hell aren’t going to stay home. So I’m sorry you’re not as excited as you’d like to be. I’m sorry you’re disgruntled about the options you have. And yes, your complaints are valid. But we’re not here to be excited. We’re here to elect the people who are going to make real, tough, boring, complicated, and imperfect choices. That isn’t exciting. That’s vital. That’s breathing air. That’s drinking water. It’s work. It’s your job. Do it.


Games and Grades

Sep 9, 2015 ∞

Over the last few years there has been a fresh kerfuffle over game reviews frequently enough that they have all more or less rolled together into one ongoing undulation of confusion over what any of it means. Many trends are at fault, from a general confusion between product reviews and criticism, to the unhealthy way in which Metacritic scores rule the lives of many studios, but beyond all of that, I think, is something deeper. People simply don’t understand what grades mean.

In the most recent incarnation, sections of the internet are upset over the review scores given to Mad Max. Why this is the game people are focusing on is lost on me. I’m not sure why anyone should be surprised that a licensed game coming on the heals of a hit movie should receive mediocre reviews, but apparently some people are upset that Polygon’s Phil Kollar gave it a 5/10.

The crux of this Forbes article by Paul Tassi is that while 5/10 might sound like half-way between the worst possible score and the best, the real scale goes from 50% (F) to 100% (A). Basically Tassi is arguing that Polygon is that one annoying teacher who rails about grade inflation, insisting that C is average no matter how many smart students there were in AP Chem this year, and no I don’t care how you’re going to explain that on your college applications.

The problem with this is that it gets grading completely wrong. Grades expressed as a percentage are not directly comparable to letter grades, and you can’t force a direct translation between the two unless a conversion is explicitly given. They mean totally different things. And yet, I remember having this exact same argument about grades when I was in school.

When you get 80% on a test, that means something specific, namely that out of 100 (or however many) questions, the grader scored you as correct on 80 of them and incorrect on 20. That 80% of the questions answered correctly often translates to a B grade is the case only because that is a traditional target used by many teachers over the years when designing tests. But not all tests are equal. What if you wrote a 10 question test with two questions designed so that you doubt anyone in the class could answer them. You might rarely get a right answer on them, but when you do, it would be informative, wouldn’t it? If you don’t expect anyone in a given year to be able to answer those two questions, is it fair to cap your expected grade at a B with As distributed only the rare occasion of a stand out student? No. In this case you adjust the scale to your expectations with 80% becoming an A.1

Another test might ask questions where getting any one wrong would say something seriously troubling about your readiness to move on. Think of a driving test or some other certification. Sure you did 8 of the basic maneuvers right, but you blew through that red light and crunched the fender of the car in front when parking. That doesn’t sound like a B.

The trouble is, we used to think we could address game reviews this way. (Well, they got 8/10 possible points on graphics and 9/10 points for “gameplay”, so…) But judging a game is, at best, more like grading a paper. The criteria are so many and varied (and yes, personal) that you can’t spell it all out in terms of questions answered right or wrong out of a total. You just skip right to the letter grade. And that’s what outfits like Polygon do. If you look at how things shake out, it works pretty well. If 0 is an F and 2 is a D, 5 is a C+ or so, which sounds about right for a game where there’s something there, but not enough.

If Metacritic is set up to evaluate game reviews as if they’re ticking off right or wrong answers on an exam and interprets a 5 as getting half wrong, I think I see where the problem is, and it’s not with Polygon’s review scores.

Update: I should note that the perception problem that Tassi is pointing out is real, just as grade inflation countermeasures like my tongue in cheek reference to a teacher giving abnormally low grades can be. But the problem here is with Metacritic. If people have accepted a standard that 50% on Metacritic might as well be 0%, they need to find a way to apply a curve to translate the scoring systems of different reviewers so that if Polygon’s 1 = F and Metacritic’s 50% = F, Polygon’s 5 doesn’t get interpreted by Metacritic as a 50%.

  1. Yes, I am aware that some schools give number grades rather than letter grades. This confuses the issue because you now have two different percent scales, the final grade scale, representing an abstract concept about how well you did in a class, and the raw score scale that tells you how many questions you got right out of a total. This is where curves come into effect, translating the one number into the other so that if getting 60% of all possible points in a class is actually doing rather well, the scores get stretched and mapped so that 60% score becomes an 89% grade, just like it might have become a B+.


Gaiman / Ishiguro Conversation About Genre »

Jun 4, 2015 ∞

Neil Gaiman has a lovely conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro in the New Statesman. It begins with a discussion of how and if genre is an important concept before delving into wider topics like the fostering (or discouraging) of creativity in societies and how stories connect you to the past.

I don’t really have much to add beyond linking to it, other than to say I was nodding along enthusiastically through their entire discussion of the complicated importance of genre. They didn’t simply dismiss it, though the conversation started from the proposition that artificial barriers between what can and cannot be said in a certain sort of novel are silly. I appreciated that they acknowledged how genres can foster communities while still being frustrated by the rigidity that can result. In particular, I think Ishiguro’s observations about genre and class when it comes to literature in particular (as opposed to, say, film) really hit the nail on the head.

Anyway, just go read it.


Why Is Geekdom So Vitriolic?

Aug 13, 2014 ∞

This isn’t new ground, but every few days the world of geeks, techies, and enthusiasts seems to turn inward and heave a collective sigh. You see geeks (or nerds or whatever self-applied name you prefer)—we who pride ourselves on our enthusiasm for things, who identify as the underdog, who revel in our trajectory from close-minded communities that didn’t get us into welcoming utopias—are host to some pretty rough shit.

You see it in the trouble with being welcoming to women.

You see it in the entitled firestorms that erupt out of disagreements over what we should like or who belongs as a part of the community.

And you see it in the fact that touching on geeky interests seems to be the necessary formula for receiving death threats.

It’s that last one that prompted me to write this time. I saw Jenn Frank retweet this article from Vice. That article and the subsequent discussion, starting here with her summation that, “No, movie critics do not get death threats, but critics of movies based on comic books do,” got me thinking again about why this is. Now, to be fair, I don’t have statistics here. I don’t know if a careful accounting of threats would bear this out, but it sure does feel that way, and those threats sure do come out in the geekier corners of the internet.

There are several things at play here, but before I get into the more subtle bits, I want to say this: death threats are never OK. Yes, sure, I know at some point recently you turned to a friend and said “Ugh, I’m going to kill you” or something like it. And you might be wondering why telling someone you don’t know on the internet that you’d be overjoyed to see them die painfully in a fire because you disagree with something they said is any different. The reason you can get away with that in your personal life is that you know the person you’re talking to. They can see you and hear you (or have seen and heard you enough that they can imagine seeing and hearing you with accuracy) and know the context. The internet makes us feel like we’ve gotten to know many people with quasi-public personas, but you don’t. And they certainly don’t know you. Even if you think you’re just being passionate, it’s never OK to tell someone you wish they were dead. Trust me. They may not take you seriously per se, but they don’t think you’re kidding. And thats before even getting into the truly dark stuff.

But what about the middle ground? The stuff more along the lines of “No, you’re wrong. You suck!” We’ve all felt that reaction when someone criticizes something we love, and if most of us are well adjusted enough not to lash out in the form of death threats, we’ve probably caught ourselves starting to respond to someone in other, more minor, unhealthy ways. Why is this so much more prevalent in geek culture than in the main stream?

The first reason is, simply, that we care. Geek culture is defined around people who care an awful lot about something. A TV nerd isn’t someone who just passively enjoys whatever happens to be on. They’re someone who seeks it out and feels passionate about their likes and dislikes. And if they self-identify as a TV nerd, they’re someone for whom that passion is a part of their identity. Listening to someone attack those likes can feel like an attack on their person. Conversely if you don’t really care that much, if you find TV just to be a good way to pass a little time, you’re not likely to get worked up about it, and you’re also not going to call yourself a TV nerd.

More deeply, geeks in particular have an aversion to being shut up or silenced. This is where all sides of arguments often flounder. When two sides disagree, it’s very easy for both to think that the other side isn’t just disagreeing with them, but is trying to erase their ability to speak their mind. Ironically enough, this generally takes the form of them countering by trying to shut down the other end of the discussion. In a broader sense that’s what this whole discussion is. Critics say something some people don’t like. People say they don’t like it. Critics say people shouldn’t say that. Obviously that’s overly reductive, and, in a sort of Godwin’s law derivative, the first side to reach for personal attacks needs to cool it the most, but both sides would benefit from recognizing that each has the right to their opinions.

I think that at the root, geekdom’s problems here stem from the fact that we’ve all been told, repeatedly, that whatever it is we like is stupid. That it ins’t something grownups should enjoy. That it isn’t real literature. That only a loser would care about that. Geek culture may be going mainstream with summer blockbusters being based on comic books, but it’s a fractal. It’s nerdiness all the way down. There’s always a level deeper that mainstream society doesn’t get. “Movies are frivolous, go read a book.” “I love film, but gosh, grow up and watch a real movie” “Comic book movies are fun, but you actually read comic books?” “Comics are fun, but you’re going to a convention?” “I love cons, but I don’t get all the dress-up. That’s so juvenile.” And so on. No matter how mainstream various parts of geekdom will get, geeks will always be born being told that their interests aren’t normal or valid.

Part of the wonder of the internet, and of growing up in general, is finding the freedom to select groups of peers who share those interests. It’s realizing you’re not alone, and there are people out there who value what you do. To be sure this can lead to groupthink, and it can be a way to hide from challenging opinions, but it’s also wonderful. Nerds as a rule don’t lack for access to opinions that our interests are silly or wrong or unimportant.

But that experience does set up a poison. Being told that our interests and opinions aren’t valid should make nerds particularly empathetic to underdogs everywhere, whether we identify with their points of view or not. And to be sure many segments of geek space do cheer as women break into male dominated fields. They do stand up for trans folk fighting for the right to be themselves, and support queer people’s desires to live openly however they see fit. But it can, and does, go the other way, too. Those communities are hard won and it’s easy to see threats at the gates instead. The sentiment can all too quickly turn to, “But I only just found a place where I can be comfortable being myself, and now you want to change it?”

Likewise nerds, of all people, should love tearing something apart and analyzing it. Especially if it’s something they love. It’s what we do, right? But when someone from a position of perceived authority comes out and says they don’t like something, it’s all too easy to hear that voice telling you to grow up. That your preferences aren’t valid. And that feels like a call to arms, not an opportunity to geek out over why your opinion differs. Even worse, if the dissenting opinion comes from within the community, it can feel like a betrayal. The voice telling you that you’re stupid for liking the things you do is coming from inside the building!

So it’s understandable that vitriol follows passion. That people who see their own existence as a struggle against a dismissive mainstream will lash out at being dismissed. And I don’t think we need to blame the internet or passion or give up our desire to bond with fellow outcasts. But next time you feel perplexed about how anyone could possibly fail to like your own beloved movie or book or game, try to channel that feeling into an examination of how it could be even better. That’s what geeks do best. Lean on it. And you don’t have to come away agreeing with the conclusions, but recognize that thinking about where counter-arguments are coming from is a great opportunity to think more deeply about your most loved topics.

And also, just, like don’t be a dick about it, OK?

Edit to add a depressing postscript: No sooner did I post this than I saw people being horrible to Zelda Williams over her father’s death. I’m not sure this really adds much to the conversation, other than just that people suck, and if you look, you’ll find them being terrible to people with any sort of visibility.


You Should Be Embarrassed

Jun 6, 2014 ∞

Every now and again, someone writes something so boneheaded, so hurtful, that you have to wonder if even commenting on it is giving it too much credit. Fortunately, one of the upsides of not yet having a readership is that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility that I might send traffic anyone’s way. Nevertheless… ugh, fine, Ruth Graham at Slate thinks you should be embarrassed if you are an adult who likes Young Adult (YA) fiction.

OK. Look. I don’t read a lot of YA. I like my books plenty messy and ambiguous and surreal. But I do read a fair bit that is classified as science fiction, a genre the type of person who looks down their nose at an entire publishing category probably thinks is for underdeveloped children, too.1 She certainly dashes off a quick comment that at least those adult YA readers aren’t reading, shudder, detective novels.

I also play games, a medium that has seen a wonderful flowering of very adult narrative possibilities as my generation ages. But I should probably be embarrassed about that, too. After all, I once watched someone play Call of Duty and all it offered was a bunch of high teenagers shouting homophobic things into a mic and shooting each other in the head. And I heard that it’s, like, one of the most popular games, so therefore I don’t see how games could offer anything compelling.2

Oh, and I heard this really bad song on the radio. It’s really popular, apparently, so I guess modern music doesn’t have any artistic merit.

All right, I’ll cut out the sarcasm, but seriously, it’s hard not to react to the article in that tone. And you get the point. Selecting a popular thing you don’t like may make a great straw man, but a solid basis for characterizing whatever category it belongs to, it is not. And insisting that rebuttal must seek to overturn her opinion about the example she chose is cheap rhetoric, too. When you get past the generalities, the core of Graham’s argument is that she didn’t like The Fault in Our Stars and concludes that because it’s popular and it offers an uncritical, simplistic view of adolescence,3 all YA is simple and offers an uncritical view of adolescence. She doesn’t seem to consider that she might just be reading bad YA. Or, more appropriately, YA that she doesn’t like.

In all seriousness, if you find yourself writing an article trying to convince other people that they not only shouldn’t like something they do like, but that they should be ashamed that they like it, you should stop and reconsider what you are doing with your life. By all means encourage people to read adult fiction. Explore why so many adults seem to be turning to YA to find literature that satisfies them. Explore why so many books are being sold as YA. Tell us, hey, if you liked this maybe you should try this other book. It’s similar but ultimately deeper. But if your whole shtick is to try to tell people not to like something that they do like, you have to consider that the problem just might be you and not them.

Like I said, I don’t read much YA, but I don’t agree with the premise that it is, by definition, uncritical of the process of growing up. A classic element of much YA literature is to tell kids that, yes, it is that complicated for other people, too. Adults have a tendency to look at children and say, “Look at them. So simple. Not a care in the world.” But it is a time of extreme turmoil where things change so fast in such fundamental ways, few adults could cope. Stories about teenage years remain popular precisely because of all the uncertainty and anguish that comes from not having yet carved out your own place in the world. Good literature for children recognizes this and capitalizes on it.4 There’s also a clarifying aspect to books written for children. Not all books for adults5 are needlessly long or over-wordy (and so what if some are, there’s a place in the world for long, heavy prose, too). But books for younger people must often do more with less.

If there’s a problem with our reading culture, as a man, the one I’d focus on is the assumption that adult men don’t read fiction at all. Or worse, the problem that it might be true. When preparing to query a novel, as I am at the moment, you definitely do get the sense that out of ten books being published seven are for young adults, three are for adult women, and maybe somewhere there’s room for an eleventh. Editors and agents aren’t stupid. This isn’t some plot. I’m sure it reflects the reality of what sells and who buys books. But I wonder what happened to make reading, reading whatever, something that men apparently feel they aren’t supposed to do. It can’t possibly help men, or adults of any shape and flavor, to be interested in reading to slap the book they’re enjoying out of their hands and to tell them to be ashamed because people who look like them shouldn’t be reading that.

  1. Unless, of course, it’s written by someone who, before discovering that you can do wonderfully interesting things using the techniques of sci-fi, first wrote “literary” fiction. In that case it will be regarded simply as modern, shelved in a different section and praised for introducing such new ideas no matter how familiar they might be to long time readers of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, this sort of thing encompasses many of my favorite sorts of books, but the conversations around them can turn awfully snobbish and tiresome.

  2. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with enjoying Call of Duty. It’s also a game that is, solidly, made for and played by adults.

  3. I’ll take her word for it. Based on the title and quotes she offers, it doesn’t sound like a book for me.

  4. I also have to say, while this, no doubt, has nothing to do with the author of the piece, bravo Slate for choosing an illustration of Alice, she of Wonderland fame, to accompany the piece. No doubt the illustrator thought it neatly encapsulated the idea of someone grown too big for childhood, remembering the scene where Alice grows too big for her world. A potent metaphor and, obviously a memorable one, but also a pretty good example of how great stories for children are not simple, straightforward, or bloodless.

  5. Erin Morgenstern, author of the lovely aimed at adults, but vaguely YA-adjacent The Night Circus pleaded with us on Twitter not to disparage adult books in our defense of YA, and I absolutely agree.



Mar 28, 2014 ∞

A brief programming note: If you were subscribed to my RSS feed just now, you probably got annoyed by seeing every item come back up as unread.1 The reason for this is I made a slight change to the way I generate the feeds which should, I hope, result in fewer future annoyances.

Basically, the RSS spec gives an opportunity to tag each item in the feed with a GUID which can by any snippet of text (optionally a permalink to the item) that uniquely identifies the post. Most readers that I’ve seen use this value to determine if a post is a new item or not. In other words, the body text can change completely, but if the GUID remains the same, it won’t appear as a new unread item in your reader.

I’ve noticed that in some feeds I subscribe to this causes problems (most particularly in Gruber’s). Sometimes he will publish a new item and then, very soon after initially publishing it, add a paragraph or fix a major problem in the post. My reader, however, will have cached the initial version, so even if I come to my reader long after he made the change, I’m unaware of the new content unless I see it on his site itself.

In an attempt to avoid this issue, I initially generated my GUIDs as the permalink plus the date of the most recent revision of the article. This has the effect of automatically pushing out a new version whenever the CMS sees the article as having been edited. This was a mistake.

Unfortunately, I underestimated the number of times I’d spot a small typo and want to go in and fix it. Suddenly I found myself wondering whether I ought to go in and capitalize something I’d accidentally put in lower case because I knew it would cause a new version of the article to appear in the feed. Sure, I’d like to have people read the fixed version, but if someone already read it, it hardly seems right to bug them with a new unread version in their reader over a change they would struggle to locate.

What I’ve done now is to add a custom field that allows me to append a version string on the end of the GUID. This way I can go in and make small fixes without triggering a new version in the feed, but if I make an update or a major factual correction, I can chose to flag the item to be pushed out fresh. I promise to be conservative with the use of this field.

This behavior still isn’t perfect. I’d love some way to make it so that minor corrections and typo fixes appear for anyone reading the article for the first time, even if the RSS reader cached it before I made the corrections, without making a new version appear as unread in someone’s reader who has already read it. But this seems like the best option given the available technology.

  1. Maybe even twice, because I’m stupid and published the change to the feed before spotting a small mistake. I’m very glad I’m doing this now when my readership approaches zero and not later. Sorry!


Indie Dreams and Selling Out

Mar 26, 2014 ∞

Yesterday, Facebook bought Oculus VR, the scrappy virtual reality pioneer. Oculus went from a $2.4 million Kickstarter in 2012 to single-handedly bringing VR from a bad ’90s novelty to an imminent gaming reality. The immediate reaction was, to say the least, negative. My Twitter stream filled up with a there-was-an-earthquake-in-SF sized flood of howls of no. Even the top comments on Zuckerberg’s announcement on Facebook itself are, as I write this, full of bitter disappointed snark like this and this and this or, simply, this.1

Notch (Markus Persson), the creator of Minecraft, and one of the pillars of the indie gaming community, reacted quickly on twitter by canceling his deal with the VR company, saying, “We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out.” He later expanded his reasoning on his own site. The nut is this (emphasis is his own):

Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.

Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend’s avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you’re actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?

But I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.

Max Temkin, indie game magnate in his own right, and one of the minds behind Cards Against Humanity, most closely matched my own feelings on hearing the news with his post on the subject: “I join a lot of the people on Twitter who feel that this acquisition was somehow kind of sad, which is a curious emotion to feel about a social network buying a hardware startup.” He goes on:

If I had to hazard a guess, here’s what’s sad about it: Oculus was this big, open question in gaming. Just this weekend I was on Giant Bomb with Phil Fish and Zoe Quinn, and we were speculating wildly about the ways that the Rift would allow us to explore new worlds, understand body dysmorphia, and have computer sex. We hoped that Oculus could show us what was next for an art form that we love. And they did, and it sucked: Oculus will be a hobby project owned by an advertising company, used some day to collect personal information from “users” which will be sold to the highest bidder.

(For the curious, the segment he references is recorded here with the VR discussion starting at about 42 minutes in. Fair warning: includes drinking of Buckfast, swearing, discussion of teledildonics, acid, and synesthesia, before descending into a discussion of the downfall of society.)

To be sure, not all reactions were bad. Will Smith of Tested writes that Facebook buying Oculus VR is probably a good thing. In short, he points out that as Oculus had already taken on venture capital funding, this acquisition may shelter them from many threats: “As a VC-funded company, Oculus was walking a tightrope. A major mistake, one botched product release, one VC who wanted a quicker return on his investment, or even one story about VR addiction on the Today show could erase everything Oculus had built.”

With a little time to simmer down on the subject, I’ve wound up somewhere in between. I don’t trust Facebook. I can’t say I even like Facebook. Where Facebook has intersected with games, I’ve actively disliked it. So the addition of Facebook takes a little of the shine off Oculus. But the addition of Oculus might make Facebook a slightly more interesting place.

One thing that has always been interesting about Facebook is that unlike most technology startups of the last couple decades, Oculus included, they seemed determined from the beginning not to become a product to be acquired or folded into a bigger fish. They wanted to become a company. With their recent acquisitions, it’s clear they want to become a conglomerate. Something more like Disney, perhaps, even than like Google. So perhaps it’s as wrong to view this as the merger of Oculus into Facebook the product as it would be to think of Joss Whedon as making films for that animation studio that makes the Mickey Mouse cartoons.

But regardless of the practical considerations, even with the most optimistic lens, it still left me agreeing with Max Temkin from above. It makes me sad. And, yes, it is interesting to wonder why that is my reaction. His is a very good analysis of the specifics of this case, but for me, anyway, I think there’s something more general going on. I get this same kind of feeling to varying degrees whenever I see an indie startup gobbled by something bigger.

In part, I think, it’s because it represents a little death of some fraction of the indie dream. When we get invested in an independent company or artist, it’s easy—at least for those of us with creative ambitions, ourselves—to get swept up in not only the product, but the story. A small group of bright, enthusiastic, talented people bands together and makes something, not as a bullet point on some quarterly investor call, but because they believe in it. And they succeed, doing well enough to keep doing it. Well enough to live well. It’s an aspirational dream. Even if they take on funding, as long as they retain control, the idea of a group like that making the thing can be as exciting as the thing itself.

I had a little of this disappointment when Whiskey Media dissolved in 2012 and Giant Bomb moved to CBS Interactive. It was easy to imagine them in their old basement as this clubhouse of creative, opinionated people making crazy things and talking to people who make crazy things. It seemed like a nice dream to have a group of websites founded on the idea of strong editorial voice, standing against corrosive CPM advertising. It seemed like being bought by a wealthy conglomerate was the admission that the dream was over.

As it turns out (as evidenced by the totally not-approved-by-corporate tenor of the video linked above) they’ve kept their spirit pretty well so far. But it was still a shock to go from seeing videos shot in a brick basement with their own bar to a cube farm in an office tower. I can’t come up with a much better way to describe the feeling of an indie being bought out than that. The trouble is that indie dream is just that. It’s an idea. When I imagine the clubhouse in the basement, I don’t have to work out the financial realities. Or live with the apparently terrible, illness-inducing mold in the air. Staying as they were wasn’t an option, so it isn’t fair to represent the two paths as some sort of choice. What is sad, ultimately, is having to face up to the fact that it couldn’t work. That isn’t to say indies can’t thrive or that all indies who sell to bigger companies would have died otherwise. But the reality is that in many of these cases, the dream of that independent group of people making great new things without corporate overlords was only a dream. And whatever the particular reasons behind that this time, no matter how good they are, that realization sucks. And it’s sad. And it’s worth mourning.

  1. That last comment appears to have been deleted since my original post. It read, simply, “Fuck.”



Mar 20, 2014 ∞

Speaking of Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, preliminary signs are not good. That’s unfortunate. As someone with a scientific background who is often frustrated with mainstream journalism’s tendency to abdicate responsibility for determining the truth of anything, the pitch sounds great. Silver, who gained notoriety as a statistician able to punch through conventional wisdom first in the realm of sports, then in elections, by focusing on the numbers, presents his new site as a venue to expand that approach with more staff able to cover more topics.

Focusing on numbers seems like a great way to go. Any field gathers its share of Very Serious People who know what they know and know that they’re right because, after all, they’re successful, how could they be wrong? And when they aren’t successful? Well, they were only saying what everyone else knew, too. No one serious disagreed. You can’t be mad at them without being mad at yourself. The media loves talking to these people because it’s easy. It turns out that understanding every bit of knowledge you might need to come across in the course of reporting is hard. Whereby “hard” I mean “impossible.” One easy, and better, safe, way out of this is to punt. Contact a successful, respected person and report what they say. If that position is deemed too controversial, just find another who disagrees and print both. We are rightly hungry for journalism that takes responsibility for vetting its sources and is willing to call bullshit when someone states what everyone thinks they know, but the data disproves.

Unfortunately two people I trust a great deal when it comes to using numbers to draw conclusions about the world, aren’t impressed so far. Sam Wang,1 like Silver, has successfully tackled the task of predicting election results via aggregated polls over the last few rounds at the Princeton Election Consortium. He points out via Twitter that, “stat-worshippers are also hedgehogs.” This is a reference to Silver’s stated goal for FiverThirtyEight to be a “fox” not a “hedgehog.”2

But numbers aren’t just numbers. Interpretation matters. Knowing which numbers to chose matters. And the way you move from numbers to a conclusion matters. Paul Krugman pointed this out on his blog:

But you can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

I sincerely hope they get things turned around. We desperately need data driven, opinionated reporting coming from sources high profile enough to shift the conversation. But we run the risk of being even worse off than we were with bad appeals to authority if we believe that numbers immunize us from other sorts of critical thinking. There’s a reason why statistics and lying are so connected in popular imagination.

Update: Again via Sam Wang, some more specifics on the early missteps of the FiveThirtyEight crew. The Way Things Break covers some of the same ground from above, then dives into their misuse of statistics and flirtation with climate change denial via the hire of Roger Pielke Jr., who apparently has a bad habit of using statistics to argue a predetermined point while getting much of the basics wrong. Paul Raeburn at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog covers how Jeff Leek, writing for FiveThirtyEight, dresses up an exercise in garbage in, garbage out and, by cloaking it in numbers, disguises it as a statistical approach to determining validity of a health news headline.

  1. Who also happens to have been my favorite neuroscience professor in college.

  2. This phrase comes from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” It’s come to mean dividing thinkers into two camps, those who see the world through the lens of one big, all-important way of thinking, (hedgehogs) and those who model the world through a collection of many smaller approaches, coming up with new ideas fitted to new situations (foxes).


Privilege’s Signs and Signifiers »

Mar 19, 2014 ∞

The other day I wrote about how China Miéville’s novel, The City & The City conveys the way that the little affiliative signs we give off are more than just petty posturing. One aspect of this I didn’t address head-on is how this interacts with cultural privilege. Today I read a very well-presented article about how this sort of thing plays out in the context of trying to get more women and minorities into areas traditionally dominated by white men, and it made me regret that I didn’t cover this better in my article on the book.

Zeynep Tufekci addresses her piece on Medium at Nate Silver who recently launched his numbers-oriented news site, FiveThirtyEight.1 Silver had bristled at the contention that his predominantly white-male outfit was a part of an exclusionary culture, stating, in short, that whatever their racial or gender makeup, they were outsiders. Tufekci goes on to analyze how this psychology works out and can lead to many of the people who (let’s give the benefit of the doubt) unintentionally reinforce cultural barriers to feel that they are above and in fact stand against such exclusion.

What interested me in the wake of writing an article on The City & The City is how the novel can be seen as an allegory of this sort of cultural segregation being taken to an extreme. Being in Beszel or Ul Qoma doesn’t place you on the social strata, though Ul Qoma is presented as ascendant and Beszel in decay. In the book, they are regarded as so separated as to be thought of as different physical locations. But think of the different worlds we do have and how we are consciously and unconsciously sorted into them. We can and do interact across social and class boundaries, but signifiers, whether chosen like clothes or inborn and unalterable like skin tone or something in between like accented speech, influence how much access you will have to them.

A citizen of Beszel capable of being a perfect chameleon has a super power. He might step into a telephone booth in Beszel and emerge in Ul Qoma with a change of clothes. Imagine how much easier it is for this person to get on in Ul Qoma than his countryman who must constantly watch his speech and way of moving to prevent Ul Qomans from unseeing him.

The goal in the real world isn’t assimilation, though. People often act as though the ideal is to be colorblind. But if different cultural backgrounds didn’t matter, it wouldn’t be nearly so big a deal to have diversity in the first place. It’s not that all those cultural signifiers are unimportant trivia elevated above their station. Rather the book drives home how these little arbitrary signs are important.

The goal, struggle sometimes, is to be aware of those signifiers. Both the ones you broadcast and how you react to those you see in others. You aren’t doing anything wrong by embracing your own cultural signifiers,2 but you can’t think you’re immune to them, no matter your background or how openminded you are. Noting privilege is not an accusation. It’s when we forget about it that it becomes damning.

  1. And secondarily toward Ezra Klein who recently left the Washington Post (as Silver left the New York Times) to form his own mold-breaking news site at Vox Media and also toward Glenn Greenwald who is going similarly independent. Tufekci’s article is to some extent a response to Emily Bell’s observation in the guardian that for people trying to change the face of journalism, they seemed to be amassing a lot of white male faces.

  2. You do, however, need to be careful that your zeal to hold on to your right to your own culture doesn’t exclude others. Or, rather, you need to if you are trying to create an open space. There’s nothing wrong with having closed spaces in certain contexts (though they can be unhealthy), but you absolutely cannot try to export them to a larger culture. And you can’t go around saying you’re trying to foster a diverse, open space and then defend rituals that push people from other backgrounds away on the grounds that you need to be free to be you.


Hello, World

Mar 14, 2014 ∞

I’ve been working on this website for quite a while on and off. It’s somewhat nervous-making to push the button and set the server to allow traffic in. At some point, though, you’ve just got to do it. So here we are. Cheers!

Why did I make this website? I cover most of it in my Welcome Letter, but the short answer is that I’ve come to the point where I feel I need one. Something I’ve discovered about myself over the last few years is that whatever else I’m doing, I have a fundamental need to make things. And at a certain point when you make things, you have to share them. It’s a part of the process. You don’t have to get famous or share them widely, but having an audience is a part of what it means to be art or media or whatever you want to term the things people make. In this day and age there’s no need to ask permission. The internet is the place we can all go to put things out there big or small.

You’ll notice I already have a few of those things here. The common way of launching a blog is to start with a “hello, world” post (I suppose that’s what this is. Hello!) and move on from there. But the design I had in mind for this site doesn’t work very well with fewer than about four each articles and breadcrumbs. And example content sure beats lorem ipsum any day. So even though this is the hello, world post for this blog, you’ll find a few posts that go back before it. They’re scattered back through time as thoughts struck me, and there’s certainly something odd about publishing blog posts reacting to events long gone, but there they are.

I’m not sure what this space will become over time, but I’m glad now to have a space. Hello, world.


Audiophiles, Samples, and Standards

Nov 26, 2013 ∞

Thanks to Marco Arment I’m now aware that Neil Young is promoting the most recent in a well-intentioned, but misguided, quest for a better audio format. These come from a true sense that most people these days don’t hear audio in all its glory and, worse, that it can be very hard for even people who do have good equipment to get recordings that make the most of it.

Unfortunately, all these formats, for the most part, solve the wrong problems. This excellent article by Monty from, and even more so the followup video,1 go into the technical details as to why. In extreme brief, yes it is, in fact, possible to perfectly reproduce any analog waveform you might want with 16 bits sampled at 44.1 kHz (CD quality). Properly conducted listening tests bear this out. So just increasing the sampling frequency won’t get you anything (and might even hurt).

So why am I sympathetic, then? Because most available music is made in such a way that it doesn’t come close to exploiting the quality available in “CD quality” sound. This means that music mastered for a new—scarequote—audiophile format might end up being better, even if the format isn’t any better, simply because the people doing the mastering know it is being targeted at people who want to play the audio on good equipment in a quiet room and get the most out of it.

The biggest problems with audio today come from a combination of the loudness war and the fact that engineers, rightly, target their music for playback on a wide variety of equipment, with the knowledge that many, perhaps most, will listen to it through pack-in earbuds and car stereos. High dynamic range is not your friend under these circumstances, and if you most of your listeners won’t hear the subtle bits unless you compress them2 it makes sense to do that and sacrifice some quality for the tiny percentage of listeners sitting in a quiet room with big speakers. This is a large part of the reason why vinyl LPs can sometimes sound better than CDs (beyond issues of subjective preferences). They’re often a different master, encoded in an inferior medium, but targeted at superior equipment.

So what would be a better solution? The problems of targeting and preference are never going to go away. In fact if a new, high resolution format were to take off, it would eventually get just as bad as CDs, because engineers would stop being able to make assumptions about the people who buy it. But we can now do much of that work on the fly at the time of playback. What I’d like to see is a format that encoded (at standard 16 bits/44khz and with high quality, high bitrate, lossy data compression) uncompressed, neutrally balanced, audio but was designed to play back with presets based on the equipment used. So the default could apply compression and an engineer supplied equalizer setup that mimicked current audio recordings, targeted at small speakers in loud environments. Play it back on a computer or phone without knowing anything or changing any defaults and nothing changes. However, you could dig in, uncheck a box, or select “high quality headphones” or “large speakers” or something of the like3 and you get the version with full dynamic range and equalizer tuning for those situations.

The advantage of this is that it doesn’t take any more space than we currently use and people who don’t care can keep on not caring and still buy the same music. Sound engineers, who no doubt would love to listen to music not mixed for $10 earbuds, can make the mix that they would like to listen to available without producing a version that will get them complaints from 90% of their audience. And we consumers who would like to be able to put on a pair of nice headphones or sit in our quiet living rooms with big speakers, and listen to every bit of the music we can get out of them, can play the same music through a car stereo and hear a mix that’s designed to make the right compromises.

  1. The video is only available only in WebM or Ogg. If you aren’t using Chrome or Firefox, go ahead and just download it and open it up in VLC. It’s worth it. You also might get a warning on a Mac that it thinks the video might be an application and that it isn’t signed by a developer. Just right click and select open and you should be fine. But don’t come after me if you get a virus or something for some strange reason I can’t predict.

  2. Talking audio level compression here, not data compression, where you increase the volume of quiet bits and decrease the volume of loud bits so the overall dynamic range is smaller and you can hear the quiet bit over the engine noise in a car without turning the volume to the point where you blow your ears out when the guitars kick back in.

  3. You could even envision some system for playback equipment to report back what sort of situation it is, but there are all sorts of backwards compatibility troubles there, not to mention the inevitable appearance of tiny speakers that report as “hifi” just so they can claim to be “audiophile” and big speakers that report as small so they can present the more compressed version that will test better on a quick listen.


The Google Books Ruling »

Nov 15, 2013 ∞

The courts finally decided in favor of Google in the long running court case between the tech company who thrives on indexing, and commoditizing, the world’s information and the Author’s Guild over scanning and indexing copyrighted books.

In brief, Google’s argument was that this is fair use, the oft cited, but rarely litigated principle that copyright doesn’t prevent certain activities that naturally flow from using the work or are in the common good. The Author’s Guild argued, basically, that even if Google wasn’t wholesale distributing the works, they were profiting off of them by scanning them and using them as targets for search queries alongside which they placed ads. This was something, they felt, that the copyright holders had a right to do, or not do, for themselves.

The optimistic view of this ruling is that it provides a high profile stamp of approval to the principle of fair use, making the flow of ideas easier, and making it more difficult for corporations or estates to lock down pieces of the common culture, preventing them from being used in new and interesting ways because they are afraid that they can’t anticipate the consequences.

The pessimistic view is that this is less about fair use and more about the big guy wins. Intellectual property law is ever more becoming a tool for large corporations, not a basic protection for individual creators. In that light, this ruling is hard to see without a twinge of fear that the principle on display here isn’t fair use, but what the bigger, wealthier guy wants to do.

I can only hope that when it is the movie industry against an individual or small firm or a conglomeration of individual authors trying to defend their rights on safer ground, the ruling there will defend the principle of fairness and not the creed that the activity of our economic titans must not be disturbed.


Coffee Science

Oct 2, 2013 ∞

Via Marco Arment, I encountered this interesting blog post from Dr. Bunsen (Seth Brown) on “Coffee Science.” His goal was to determine experimentally what among a few common differences in technique actually had a measurable effect on his friend’s enjoyment of the cup. Because how good your coffee tastes is such a fun subject, I think these experiments provide a nice little platform to think about how this kind of thing plays out when we try to write about scientific approaches to more serious subjects.

It’s always great to see someone attempt measure things people usually just assume, but taking on the name “Science” also brings some risks. When we apply science to our everyday lives it’s hard not to take shortcuts that wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) fly doing it “for real.” That’s understandable. You’d think measuring such everyday things would be an easier task than the work that goes on in labs, but really it’s often much harder due to the much squishier, poorly controllable subjects. No one is expecting a clinical trial here… But then again there’s a reason that is required when the results really matter.

I should point out that Seth Brown’s about page states that he has a background in computational genomics. I have no doubt that he is well aware of everything I’m about to point out here and is a far more qualified statistician than I am with my less computational developmental biology background. And indeed he points out some of these issues himself. That said, let’s take a closer look at some of his results and use them to think about two things: the pitfall of expecting a big result and the danger in assumptions about what you are really testing.

First let’s look at his marquee result. Seth found that he could not measure a significant difference between using a burr grinder vs a blade grinder to prepare coffee for brewing with an Aeropress for his guests. This is set up to be a surprising conclusion due to a set of a few assumptions:

  1. That a burr grinder’s purpose is to improve the taste of the brewed coffee.
  2. That a taster must be able to reliably state a preference in a blind test for it to qualify. (As opposed to, say, something that might arise out of a longer-running survey.)
  3. That any individual element in the brewing system should, on its own, be able to make for a striking difference in quality. (Versus, say, more complicated combinations of grinding and brewing methods.)

I’m not saying that those are bad or unreasonable assumptions. In particular numbers 2 and 3 come out of a critical need to limit the scope of the experiment to something achievable. But it is important to be aware of them. What he found was that his guests stated a preference for coffee brewed from beans ground by the blade grinder over the burr grinder at about the rate of a coin flip. So being unable to prove that the burr grinder outperforms a blade grinder, a burr grinder is a useless expense, right? Here he falls into a frequent problem with presenting science to the general public. His result is a failure of his assay to tell a difference between the two conditions. As he goes on to state below, he doesn’t have the power to detect subtle differences. This means we can’t be sure whether we should make a conclusion about the difference in grinders or about the assay.

But before he gets the the details, he expresses this lack of result as follows, “Surprisingly, 13/24 or, ~ 54% of subjects actually preferred the blade grinder. This data suggested that blade grinders might actually produce better tasting coffee than burr grinders.” Seth knows this is a premature conclusion and his next step is to go on to perform the statistics. But if we were talking about, say, public health research, the article written about this research would be very likely to stop there. We have our result! Blade better than burr! Of course an educated reader should know better, but this demonstrates how difficult it can be to talk carefully about science.

What actually happened? He had a weak assay (because it would be a monumental task to produce a strong one) and one of his assumptions was that he’d see a large difference and that the difference would be one of coffee taste. If the benefit of a burr grinder turns out to be subtle or to be beneficial for other reasons (such as allowing different brews) he’d be unable to pick up on it, but because of the way he presents the data, this isn’t the message that a reader would be likely to take away. Though it most certainly isn’t what he’s trying to say, a naive reader might come to the conclusion that he is arguing that blade grinders are fundamentally better for coffee taste than burr grinders.

That’s a presentation issue and Seth’s audience is an informed one. What about the result? We can agree that in his tested brewing method, grinding via blade vs burr doesn’t make a mind blowing difference. That conclusion is solid. But let’s take a closer look at the assay and see what else might have been going on. The assumption was that a burr grinder is going to produce better coffee grounds. I’d argue that’s not the primary purpose of a burr grinder. It’s really there to produce more consistent grinds. When tasting coffee the most striking feature is the overall strength. Plenty of other features matter, but that’s the one out front. It’s a little like the loudness of music. One set of speakers might be better than another, but a quick listen will always tend to favor the louder of the two. Moving beyond that takes much more careful testing.

Coffee strength depends on many factors, but one of the most important is the size of the grounds. Smaller grounds give better access of the coffee to the water (it’s a classic surface area to volume deal) so all other factors being equal more coffee will end up in the water in a shorter period of time if the particles of coffee are smaller. By grinding with a burr grinder, you are likely to reliably hit a narrow range of particle sizes. Using a blade grinder will produce a much wider range with some very fine powder and some coarser fragments. It will also be very difficult to get the same average grind size between repetitions.

So if we assume that the grind size produced by the burr grinder is the midpoint, the blade grinder would be pretty likely to fluctuate randomly between producing larger on average vs smaller on average particles, and therefore half the time the coffee produced by the blade grinder might come out stronger than the burr grinder and half the time weaker. Whether that is better or worse depends on the preference of the taster, but either way, what could easily be the most dominant factor in taste is going to flip randomly between the two cups. As long as strength is a more important factor than any other differences produced between the two, this would be enough to drive a 50% result right there, even if the less important factor would otherwise have been noticeable in the assay. So the conclusion might be that the difference between burr and blade grinders is very subtle… or it might be that it is simply more subtle than coffee strength, a rather expected result when you phrase it like that, given how important a factor strength is.

It’s hard to say whether this is what was really going on here or not. It’s quite possible that the differences in strength were too subtle to measure as well or that the blade grinder always produced stronger or weaker coffee. But I thought this was a lovely example of how the results of an experiment can sometimes be telling you as much about what is going on in the assay and in your assumptions as they can about the thing you’re trying to test. So it’s important, even when trying to talk to a lay audience to try to talk about these factors and avoid the temptation to oversimplify them away, even though that’s usually what the general public wants.

So do I think Seth was wrong? Absolutely not! He concludes that you can make a fantastic cup of coffee with a blade grinder and an Aeropress. That you can. In fact, it’s one of the reasons an Aeropress is such a popular brewing method. It’s very flexible and very tolerant to different brewing situations. Unlike a french press, you don’t have to worry about the super fine grinds that may be produced as a part of the blade grinding process. And unlike drip brewing you can (to some varying extents depending on the technique you use) immerse the grounds for as long as you need, giving the larger particles the time they need to soak.

But I still think a burr grinder is a good investment for a coffee lover. Not all brewing methods are so forgiving. I’ve made halfway decent espresso with a blade grinder. It’s possible, but it is hit or miss at the very best and is never great. Even more importantly, I see a burr grinder much like a kitchen scale. You wouldn’t expect a kitchen scale to improve the quality of the coffee you weigh out. But it makes measuring out a specific amount of coffee much easier. Similarly a burr grinder lets you dial in a specific setting and just let it go, giving you just what you ordered every time. That may not directly lead to a striking difference in coffee taste, but it leads to a much better overall experience and certainly reduces the potential for making a bad cup of coffee because you screwed up.


On “The Cool Kids”

Sep 27, 2013 ∞

The other night I was marveling over the connections between people I follow (but don’t know personally)1 on Twitter. The details aren’t really important, but it was a scene repeated all the time. Musician links to a work of art made by someone I follow due to their work in games who is connected to a cartoonist who’s work I love and also via another connection to someone who makes software I love. Et cetera.

This happens all the time. I’m regularly amazed by how people who appear to have little direct connection (besides being connected through my own interest in their work) seem inevitably to find each other. It’s easy to imagine some big playhouse where they all hang out and the app makers are playing a board game with the independent journalists while some game developers are hanging out across the room with a musician discussing books whose authors are off playing their video games.

The image is at once aspirational and jealousy-inspiring. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, an hour later, I saw a discussion unfold about whether the just-completed XOXO-fest was nothing more than a cool-kids club.

XOXO-fest, as best I can tell, is, more or less, a conference designed to make my playhouse a reality for a few days. I know nothing about it beyond the fact that a significant fraction of the people I follow seem to be somehow involved with (or at least paying attention to) it. It brings together a cross-section of people who make things in a largely—scare quotes—indie fashion to talk to each other about how they make things. And having watched some other festivals and conferences devolve as they grew,2 they appear to be trying to respond to their success without growing too fast beyond the intimacy that defines them.

I’m not so terribly interested in the good or bad behavior of the conference organizers. It’s a tough problem to solve, keeping the atmosphere of your conference intimate and engaging without appearing to be (or flat out being) elitist assholes. What is more interesting to me is how we react to the notion of all those cool kids out there living the life.

Most of us weren’t popular in high school, or at least didn’t think we were, and we don’t think of ourselves as cool kids now. One of the most simultaneously encouraging and depressing notions I’ve encountered is the fact that few people whoa are successful in their fields don’t feel that they are faking it. It’s natural to transfer the feelings of resentment we may have had toward the popular kids in high school on those connected, successful creators in their playhouse. And further, to wonder, if our desire to be among them is as empty, and pathetic, as a high school outsider trying to get an invite to the jock’s table.

And that’s where the comparison breaks down. In high school, for the most part, popularity wasn’t based on achievement. Not really. Not even achievement in the sports most schools seem set up to reward. For one, high school students simply haven’t had much time to achieve. Mostly, popularity was based on proximity to the popular. How you got the nod didn’t matter so much, whether it was wealth, a team affiliation, beauty, or even honest friendship, what mattered was that you were in. And if you weren’t, you wanted to be.

But when I look toward those indies in their imaginary playhouse, I’m not looking for friends, or an invite to a party. Sure those things would be nice. They seem like great people, for the most part, and I bet their parties have great decorations. What I really want is to have made something good enough that people who make things I respect notice. That I could meet the a developer who worked on one of my favorite games and have them tell me, “Oh, hey, you wrote X. I loved that.”

The desire to be a part of that kind of club seems, to me anyway, a much healthier aspiration. And to be clear it isn’t the only, or primary, reason I’m driven to make things. I’m not looking for the things I make to be a ticket to some insider’s club. And I’m sure that no matter how successful I ever get, I, too, will always feel I’m faking it. Also, to be sure, there’s plenty of cronyism, cliques, and discrimination in the adult world. But it’s important to separate true admiration of role models from sycophantic admiration of the popular for popularity’s sake, even when they can be a little hard to tell apart at times.

  1. A word about how I use Twitter: When it came out I saw, almost right away, right promise for a “distributed water cooler,” especially since I was living three thousand miles away from most of my friends at the time. I bugged my friends to join. No one did. They’re all on Facebook now, but most rarely post due to general concerns with, for lack of a better word, Facebook’s creepiness. Sigh.

    Now I use Twitter almost exclusively as a means to follow people whose work I admire. Writers, musicians, journalists, designers, podcasters, and occasionally people who are just really good at posting funny or interesting things on Twitter. That has its own creepiness factor, since I occasionally feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation, but once you get over it, it becomes a fascinating way to be exposed to the smaller thoughts of people not worth making into or off topic from the larger works you discovered them for as well as the things they find interesting and would like to link to.

  2. See the problems faced by such ventures as SXSW or even WWDC.