Monday, April 7, 2014

A more interesting anti-Pono screed

Yeah, I'm talking about Pono, the silly $400 audiophile music player that makes the typical silly audiophile claims about why it's better. I could write a typical anti-audiophile screed and denounce their marketing copy as pseudoscience. I already did this on a G+ post and feel sort of silly about that, not because what I wrote wasn't true but because it wasn't very interesting. I have much more interesting things to say about the Pono than, Your claims are silly and you should feel silly!. Here they are:

  • Pono might actually sound better than your phone. But less due to the expensive hardware in the Pono than the expensive hardware in your phone. The worst audio fidelity problems encountered in the real world are much more prosaic than those Pono talks about in its ad copy. One of my old computers, the dearly departed talkingcookie, suffered from noisy interference in audio I/O during hard drive, mouse, and keyboard activity. This sort of thing is caused by simple board layout and shielding problems that could just as easily occur on a phone. If I had to guess, though, iPhones have probably never had this problem.
  • Pono is Prius-shaped. Some people have commented on Pono's weird triangle shape, speculating that it wouldn't fit well in your pocket. They weren't buying one anyway. Driving a Pontiac Aztek sets you apart as someone that bought an ugly car. Driving a Toyota Prius sets you apart as someone that bought a green car, at least to people soft-headed enough to think the environmental difference between a Prius and a typical car is anything but incremental --- fortunately for Toyota Americans are notoriously soft-headed about cars. To those that are soft-headed about audio fidelity the Pono's wacky shape sets them apart as discerning, and fortunately for Pono Americans are notoriously soft-headed about music.
  • Pono isn't straight-up elitism, but it's sideways elitism. Neil Young said something about wanting to take the experience of listening to music back to his beloved 1970s. In the 1970s the parts of the audio chain the Pono represents really made a difference. They were the quality and condition of the vinyl disc and of your turntable. Today the other parts of the audio chain vary as much as ever: the mixing and mastering of the music on one end, and on the other the amplifiers, speakers or headphones, and listening environments. But the fidelity of the record from the master copy to the DAC is solid for everyone. This must gall the elitist, who subconsciously sees ubiquitous access to high-fidelity audio as desacralizing it somehow. If there's a case to be made that recorded audio quality is worse today, it's about the loudness war, and how the listening environments of loud cars, buses, and trains have contributed to it. Of course the Pono doesn't try to elevate the living room as the preferred environment to entice tomorrow's engineers to master for nice, quiet spaces. It instead promises flat frequency response (hmmmmmm...) no matter what kind of lousy headphones you're using (their ad copy elsewhere dares to utter the word earbuds, so... hmmmmmmmmmmm...) by virtue of its... low output impedance? Well, I said I wasn't going to harp on the pseudoscience, so...

/micdrop

(EDIT: formatting derps)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do you believe in conspiracies?

So there's a poll about conspiracy theories that is asked of Americans, by Public Policy Polling, with at least the veneer of procedural propriety. Among the questions: was the moon landing faked, is global warming a hoax, is Obama the damn Antichrist, and... “Do you believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq War, or not?”

We-e-e-e-lllllllll... one of these things is not like the other, right?

How do I answer this question? Am I a lefty conspiracy nut or a sane moderate adult? Was I a lefty conspiracy nut in college (when this all went down, for me), and a sane moderate adult now that I'm almost 30 (WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT)? Was Bush involved in some sort of plot that led people off to die just to enrich its profiteering members pockets? Probably not. But I think something happened sort of like what happened with the (currently stuck) Deep Bore Tunnel in Seattle.

Tunnel supporters (oh, geez, here Al goes on another tunnel rant) decided they wanted a deep-bore tunnel built before they set out to make a case for it. They knew the existing viaduct wasn't seismically sound and needed to be replaced. They knew it couldn't be rebuilt in similar form because it wouldn't meet building codes or highway design standards. These are near-indisputable facts, and no amount of future-nostalgia for the viaduct will make them go away. They believed they needed a full limited-access freeway in that corridor; that's an opinion I disagree with (at the very least, I think it's a bad assumption to go in with), and I think it's really the crux of the matter. All the rest of the questions flow forth from there. They believed a surface-level freeway or a cut-and-cover tunnel would be too temporarily disruptive to public waterfront access and existing businesses; these are widely popular opinions and I agree with both. At that point, the only option is to build a tunnel, and the task ahead is to sell it.

The way they sold the tunnel is through studies. Good leaders involved in a sound decision making process would have started the study by determining goals and needs. This process would have identified many important needs that really will be met well by the planned work in the Highway 99 corridor: providing vehicular access to the Port of Seattle and industrial district from the city at large, reconnecting the local street network across the highway between Lower Queen Anne and rapidly-growing South Lake Union (the tunnel wasn't necessary for this, but it's kinda part of the plan), providing a legible route for Highway 99. It also would have identified needs our plan doesn't readily meet: ensuring fast, reliable, and direct mass transit access between downtown Seattle and southern and western corners of the city, maintaining the pedestrian network of Pioneer Square, managing surface traffic in downtown and SODO, providing a bypass of downtown Seattle congestion for long-haul traffic in the corridor that actually carries such traffic (I-5, the reasons for which could fill a whole blog post), addressing all our environmental goals, and being fiscally responsible. Phew, that's a lot of stuff the tunnel sucks at — and I only really disagree with supporters on one thing!

But the studies weren't designed to find how to meet our needs, they were designed to sell a freeway. The metric placed above all others was vehicular travel time between Green Lake and the Port of Seattle, a race designed to be won by a freeway tunnel with few exits between these points and none between Mercer and Yesler. The necessity of a pure limited-access freeway seemed self-evident without examination to most people, and was never effectively challenged. Studies and arguments showing that a non-freeway alternative met our full slate of needs better than the tunnel, for less money, were dismissed without official acknowledgement, in ways that stifled discussion. Cascadia prides itself on open government, but what we saw was a farce of that: advisory votes on confusing measures without any real discussion of what we needed and why. I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike.

Similarly, the Bush administration determined it wanted to invade Iraq before building a justification based on WMD. It had a number of reasons it wanted to go, but the WMD case was considered likely to gain support in the media, so the administration assembled what evidence it could find (including the erratic and evasive behavior of Hussein's regime when pressed) and presented it widely. It wasn't a back-room conspiracy; it was put together by people whose various earnest reasons for wanting to replace Saddam Hussein were no secret. The public case was disingenuous and held together by wishful thinking. I'd say wishful thinking for a war is pretty perverse on the face of it, but if you believed in the rest of the case for invasion (as many Americans did and continue to do) you'd continue to support it (as many Americans did and continue to do).

So when the WMD evidence turned out flimsy this didn't change the opinion of many on the war (though the experience of being a country at war did, which could fill another blog post... by someone else). In Seattle, when new traffic and tolling revenue projections showed the tunnel in a worse light, this didn't change a lot of people's views on it. WMDs were never really the leaders' reason for war, why should they determine the people's acceptance of it? Because the media ran with that narrative and wanted to hold the administration's feet to the fire? Even that didn't matter much; people that opposed the war all along simply had a loud new ally, and people that supported it got to exercise their well-earned skepticism at the media. In this age of polarization few were left in the middle aside from that very media, trying desperately to hold together a common narrative, being duped badly, acting as stupid as it looked (that could fill another blog post).

Back on topic... I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike. Do I believe the Bush administration intentionally misled us? To Public Policy Polling, as I read the question, you can put me in with those that believe in the New World Order and Reptilians: a true conspiracy believer. And not as crazy as all that, either.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Amazon review culture and Google endorsements

Years ago I rage-quit Facebook largely primarily I objected to proposed programs that would portray people in ads for products they merely used. Just now Google, the company I work for (I didn't then), is creating a “shared endorsement” program, and it's uncomfortable to me for similar reasons. The actions that might get your face in an ad are more explicit, positive reviews and “+1”s, like Facebook's “Likes” today. That's clearly less objectionable...

Still, there's a step between providing information on a business and endorsing it that I believe is truly significant. A difference between offering information about your positive experience at Menards and driving a car that looks like this:

... or appearing on TV like this:

(Also, the architecture on that... paging Dr. Kunstler...)

I would never rule out the possibility that I'd endorse some business, if that business approached me and we came to an agreement! Probably that agreement would involve me being paid — I am, after all, American — but there would be an actual agreement that my name, words, and image be used in a specific way at a specific time.

Anyway, this stuff is all old hat, and (as REM might have had it) withdrawl in disgust from Facebook may as well have been apathy for all its effectiveness. A boycott with no compelling social underpinning might as well not exist; a solitary boycott that undermined what limited social influence I had was, if anything, counterproductive. Actions that draw on and strengthen social connections are the only ones that have a chance.

So that's where Amazon review culture comes in. My knowledge of Amazon review culture is limited, but, this is pretty much what I'm talking about. Amazon celebrates its funny reviews a little, but no company would ever want a random sampling of positive Amazon reviews shown with its paid advertisements. Could funny, subversive reviews be a response to shared endorsements? Social networks provide exactly the sort of feedback mechanisms to allow these sorts of things to take off, and the message would be reinforced and the community strengthened by engagement with the technology rather than withdrawl. To the snark machines! For great justice!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hash Tag Pacific Rim

There's some sort of pithy quotation about the great stories being retold, over and over again, every generation, but I can't seem to find it right now...

Also it would be silly to even start on the ridiculousness of practically every element of the movie, so here's a bunny with a pancake on its head:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mayoral forum on livable streets that happened TONITE...

I went to it, and learned who not to vote for. That would be Charlie Staadecker, who before he made his pitch not to get involved in divisiveness between cyclists and drivers decided to explicitly call out younger generations as being less attentive drivers than his generation. I went to this event in part to be seen as a person under 30, because so many politicians get the idea that young people don't vote or don't turn out for local politics, so that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

As for the other candidates, from right to left:

  • Peter Steinbrueck has never appealed to me very much. He's not running as a technical or administrative expert, but as a vision guy; at that, his vision is unclear. His platform seems to be, "Trees are pretty and change is bad." He didn't do anything to change my mind tonight.
  • I'm not that concerned when people call McGinn divisive; his willingness to stand up against things he opposes is one of his best qualities, and the really divisive rhetoric has come from his opponents and the media. I'm not that concerned when people say he pushes patchy and incremental fixes for transit or cycling, because his patchy fixes are opportunistic, and he's being incremental when everyone else in power wants to stand still. I'm somewhat more concerned with challenges of his effectiveness, leadership ability, and grasp of the city. I think he performed OK today; with this crowd, on this subject, he can actually point to his record instead of confronting his critics, and that's basically what he did. He could get away with telling easy lies instead of hard truths, and he did that a few times, too.
  • Mary Martin appropriately rejected the framework of every question asked. I sympathize with someone of her stripes finding the subject matter trivial, but she had ample opportunities to tie in her rhetoric to that subject matter and did not do so.
  • Staadecker mentioned above. He came off as a crumudgeon.
  • If Joey Gray is as good an administrator as she boasts she'll do fine work in the private sector, non-profits, or appointed office. If she aspires to elected office she'll have to improve as a politician and probably aim lower to start.
  • I don't know what Ed Murray is doing here. Is mayor of Seattle a step between the state senate and governor's office? He's polished enough but are his issues city issues?
  • Kate Martin sometimes sounds a little spacey and unpolished online. She sounds surprisingly plausible in person. Maybe she's a natural in-person politician and activist that badly needs an editor and strategist.
  • Bruce Harrell is pretty intriguing; he's a good speaker, has a grasp of issues and finances, and in contrast to someone like Murray he just sounds like someone that belongs in city politics. He honestly addressed the pedestrian master plan question (asked how long it would take to implement top priority items, he gave the longest time frame and actually defended his answer, while the other candidates mostly seemed to make up numbers based on nothing), and I imagine his answer to similar questions about the bike master plan would be similarly sobering.
  • Deb Salls and Tom Fucoloro are definitely the front-runners... oh, wait, they were the moderators. OK. They might have been able to get candidates to differentiate themselves more by asking questions about specific places and proposals. If they were trying to get candidates to promise things they could be held to later, or trying to demonstrate general support for cycling and walking among Seattle politicians, they did a ton of that. Maybe that's as important as anything; I'd hardly claim to have a better idea what they should be doing than they have...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

King Street What?

So King Street Station looks really nice. Good for it.

All works, artistic or otherwise, say something about their creators. Train stations like this were monuments to the wealth and power of long-dead rail barons and their once-proud companies, statements (perhaps aspirational) of cities' positions among their peers. When they're restored this projects cities' commitment to preservation and restoration of their histories and become monuments to that. Preserving a city's history. Put that way, almost anyone will support it, and so urbanists and NIMBYs alike marched hand-in-hand to protest Madison Square Garden.

Train stations like this are just not that interesting to me because they tell the same story in every city. If people still traveled by rail they could go coast to coast walking through the same opulently overdecorated halls in every major city. They're as banal as airports and freeways in that way. Airports and freeways give the awful impression that nobody cares about this place... or if someone does, maybe you wish they didn't (LOL? Actually Denver is a pretty rad place to change planes as these things go). American train stations in the year 2013 give the impression that nobody cares whether or not they work. They just need to preserve something about the city's history... its history, its history, its history, its history...

But at least someone cares about the inside space of the place. In a country where we aggressively don't care (you may not want to listen to Kunstler rant bitterly for 20 minutes, but stay on through the intro muzak and listen to the first bitter, ranty sentence) about our public spaces. So... I guess when we have a space like this, even if it's in a sense generic, we should make it a place people can pass through as much as possible. Yeah. I wasn't quite sure where I was going to go with this post, but I think I'll go there. It should at least be a place people can use to exit the Sounder if it's on their way (or if they feel like detouring) like Chicago's Union Station, or can cut through during lousy weather like the Merch Mart.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Best-kept cycling secrets of Seattle

The first one is temporary, so ride it while you can. The Mercer project is going to make everything better for cyclists trying to get around SLU/Cascade/LQA/Seattle Center/Uptown/insert other names here. But until then getting across Aurora is still a pain, right? Actually there's a great route under Aurora until the cruel gods of construction take away the glorious bounty they've given us: two open lanes of Broad cutting right under Mercer and Aurora.

I don't know of any overhead images or maps that illustrate the current situation correctly; Google Earth images are out of date and SDOT's construction maps show the whole Broad Street underpass taken up by westbound car traffic. But on the ground right now the northern half of the underpass is blocked off entirely from car traffic. From the northwest corner of 9th and Mercer, ride west down the curving northern sidewalk until you're past the barrier, then hop off the curb into the empty street for a traffic-free ride straight to Taylor and Harrison. From there it's two blocks to Seattle's famous Bike Squid (I know that's what you came to town for)... and several decent bike routes to Belltown and downtown.

The second one is a permanent bridge over the Interbay rail yard that people just don't know about. Someone recently commented on Seattle Bike Blog that he'd been asked for directions from the Elliott Bay Trail to the Interbay Whole Foods and was stumped for a route across the tracks; you can't really get to the Magnolia Bridge, the Dravus Street Bridge is out of the way and not much fun to ride, the Amgen Bridge is out of the way to the south and requires hauling your bike up and down stairs.

But there's another bridge, just south of the Magnolia Bridge, that gets you over the tracks and, optionally, Elliott Ave/15th Ave. It seems the road it carries is called Galer Street (Galer has to be the most disjointed street designation in Seattle), but what's distinctive about it is that it's shaped like a big S, so I call it the S-Curve Bridge. I imagine it gets lots of traffic certain times of day (it looks like the main motor vehicle access to Amgen and Piers 90 and 91) but much of the time it's almost eerily empty. On the eastbound side of the road there's a shoulder you can use as a bike lane if there's traffic trying to pass you; the westbound side has both a shoulder and a protected sidewalk leading to/from a winding ramp down to the west side of Elliott. If there was lots of bike and pedestrian traffic on the bridge the sidewalk and ramp would get pretty crowded... but then again, it probably wouldn't be any worse than the Fremont Bridge, which the City of Seattle seems to think is showcase bike infrastructure.