Tagtech

appropriate musical technology

Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof? Everybody got carried away with technology and slowly they’re swimming back. In classical music, they’re rerecording everything they rerecorded digitally in the ’80s and ’90s because it just doesn’t come up to scratch. I always felt that I was actually fighting technology, that it was no help at all. And that’s why it would take so long to do things. Fraboni has been though all of that, that notion that if you didn’t have fifteen microphones on a drum kit, you didn’t know what you were doing. Then the bass player would be battened off, so they were all in their little pigeonholes and cubicles. And you’re playing this enormous room and not using any of it. This idea of separation is the total antithesis of rock and roll, which is a bunch of guys in a room making a sound and just capturing it. It’s the sound they make together, not separated. This mythical bullshit about stereo and high tech and Dolby, it’s just totally against the whole grain of what music should be.

Nobody had the balls to dismantle it. And I started to think, what was it that turned me on to doing this? It was these guys that made records in one room with three microphones. They weren’t recording every little snitch of the drums or bass. They were recording the room. You can’t get these indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that? The records could have been a lot better in the ’80s if we’d cottoned on to that earlier and not been led by the nose of technology.

— Keith Richards, from Life (I saw a shorter version of the passage in this post by Doug Hill). It’s noteworthy that Keef rails against “technology” but what he’s actually doing is making the case for one kind of technology rather than another. After all, if you’re recording a live performance in a room using three microphones, you’re no less technological than the people with fifteen mikes, Dolby, a giant sound board, etc. The real issue here is appropriate technology. When David Rawlings and company play music before three simple microphones, moving towards and then away from them according to need, they’re using a technology that they think produces a better, cooler sound than multiple mics do. And they have a point:

FastMail update

A quick follow-up to my previous post on ditching FastMail: After telling tech support that I had scheduled my account for deletion — FastMail doesn’t allow instant deletion, reasonably enough — I did hear from someone higher up the chain who looked into what happened. The suggestion from the engineers at FastMail was that, while using their web client, I went into my Archive folder, accidentally selected a message, then accidentally command-selected another message 68,000 conversations further down (which selected all the intervening messages), then accidentally issued the delete command. Later, when (after installing iOS 11) I opened Mail in iPad, either I accidentally emptied the trash of the 68,000 conversations (comprised of 95,000 messages) or the app did it for me.

This does not strike me as a plausible sequence of events.

Now, as I’ve noted, I could restore the deleted items — either from my own backups or (if I caught the problem within a week) from FastMail’s own restore option — and indeed the last person I talked with encouraged me to keep my account open and let them look into the matter further. But at that point I was spooked, and had already moved my mail elsewhere. Maybe if I had gotten a more constructive response early in the process I would have given it another try, and devoted the time to trying to figure out what happened. But I only got that kind of involvement after I had moved my mail and asked them to delete my account.

I truly do appreciate the willingness of the last person I talked to at FastMail to address the problem. But that didn’t make me change my mind about moving on, and I think that’s because our communications technologies today are dependent on trust — trust, above all, that the data you’ve put somewhere will remain where you’ve put it. And because we rely so much on these technologies to get essential work done, when you lose that trust you tend to get anxious, and who needs more anxiety? When I put on my Objectivity Hat, I don’t think that FastMail is any less secure and reliable than other email services I do or might use. But it now feels insecure to me, and that is enough to take me elsewhere.

Goodbye FastMail 

For several years now I’ve enjoyed using FastMail, a paid email service. Email is sufficiently important that I don’t mind paying for it, especially if that delivers me from having my emails scanned and the data therefrom sold. I’ve recommended FastMail to a number of people, but I’m not going to be doing that any more.

A few days ago I took a look in my Archive mailbox, which is where I stash almost every email I’ve dealt with (I’m a search-rather-than-sort person), and noticed, to my great surprise, that it only had seven messages in it. I refreshed the mailbox a couple of times: still just seven messages. I use the FastMail web interface, because it’s very quick and has excellent keyboard shortcuts, and hadn’t opened an email client in at last a week — maybe considerably longer. So I decided to check my email client to see what things looked like there – but first, I turned off my wi-fi. When I opened the email client I discovered that the Archive mailbox had 68,000 messages in it. Which was what it should have had.

Now perhaps you will see why I turned off the wi-fi – I didn’t want to give the email client a opportunity to synchronize the mailboxes, or I could have lost everything from my hard drive as well. To be sure, I’m an obsessive backer-up, and I have plenty of earlier versions that I could have restored from … but still: the sudden disappearance of 68,000 messages is discomfiting.

When I contacted FastMail I had the kind of exchange you might expect: they told me that I must have deleted them without knowing about it — though how I would have done that, since it would have involved moving them to the trash and then deleting the trash, while carefully preserving seven messages, I have no idea — or that my mail client must have done it — though I explained (several times) that I wasn’t using a mail client.

In the end they basically just shrugged and said they didn’t know what happened. And  I get that: the great majority of the time the client is at fault for this kind of thing, and any attempt to figure out what happened probably would be time-consuming and unlikely to yield a clear result. But in the absence of any effort to find out what went wrong, and in the absence of 68,000 messages, I don’t have a great deal of trust in the service. And under the circumstances, paying for it doesn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, though, I have paid for the next 18 months of service. FastMail won’t give me a pro-rated refund, or any refund at all, but I’m deleting my account anyway — it’s not worth the uncertainty.

The System

A friend recently asked me what word processor I use. I was preparing to link him to a couple of posts I’ve written about that in the past and then realized that I hadn’t updated my account of The System since I discovered pandoc. So I wrote a new description for him that I’m posting here.


I do not use word processing software. I write in a text editor, using a simple syntax called Markdown (or the variant called MultiMarkdown). I do this in conjunction with a truly amazing command-line program called pandoc, which is basically a series of Haskell scripts to convert from one file type to another. So all of my writing is in a series of plain text files, which can be opened on any computer and are as future-proof as anything can be.

When I’m writing a blog post I run pandoc to convert it to HTML, which I can then post.

When I’m preparing a handout I run pandoc to convert it to LaTeX, which I can then print out. (Once you have seen what LaTeX does with typesetting, word processing apps seem impossibly crude.)

When I’m writing an article or a book — anything that needs to go to an editor who oversees printed things — I run pandoc to convert it to a Word file.

So I get to stay in the same text editor all the time, for every kind of writing except email, and just convert when it’s time for someone else to see it.

My favorite text editor is BBEdit, but one of the best things about this system is that it works with any text editor, and you can try as many different ones as you want losslessly.

Kurzweilian Whiggery

Tim Urban writes,

The movie Back to the Future came out in 1985, and “the past” took place in 1955. In the movie, when Michael J. Fox went back to 1955, he was caught off-guard by the newness of TVs, the prices of soda, the lack of love for shrill electric guitar, and the variation in slang. It was a different world, yes — but if the movie were made today and the past took place in 1985, the movie could have had much more fun with much bigger differences. The character would be in a time before personal computers, internet, or cell phones — today’s Marty McFly, a teenager born in the late 90s, would be much more out of place in 1985 than the movie’s Marty McFly was in 1955.

This is for the same reason we just discussed — the Law of Accelerating Returns. The average rate of advancement between 1985 and 2015 was higher than the rate between 1955 and 1985 — because the former was a more advanced world — so much more change happened in the most recent 30 years than in the prior 30.

See, Accelerating Returns is a law. A LAW. That’s how we know progress happens faster and faster, because LAWS do that.

Still … the facts are pretty thin on the ground here, aren’t they? And then there’s Urban’s assumption that 1985 was “a time before personal computers,” which suggests that he hasn’t really thought about this. As it happens, around this time in 1985 I was typing on my Macintosh while listening to a recent U2 record and pausing from time to time to find out what Chris Berman has to say about the Super Bowl. So from some points of view nothing has changed in the past three decades.

But let’s not be quite so anecdotal. We could try a thought experiment, in the form of a few questions.

  • Did automobiles change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
  • Did television change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
  • Did household appliances change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? (Think for instance about the prevalence of air conditioning.)
  • Did space exploration change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
  • Did military weaponry change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
  • Did cancer treatment change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?

If you’re not already a True Believer in Ray Kurzweil’s LAW — or even if you are a true believer but are thoughtful enough to realize that 30 years is a really short period and unlikely to demonstrate evenly-paced and universally-distributed development — questions like these will complicate the Whiggishness of your narrative.

Repeatedly (but not often enough)

Zoe Corbyn in the Guardian on Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage:

Not everyone buys Carr’s gloomy argument. People have always lamented the loss of skills due to technology: think about the calculator displacing the slide rule, says Andrew McAfee, a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management. But on balance, he says, the world is better off because of automation.

Ah, the perils of writing about a book you clearly haven’t read – either that, or the perils of a journalistic model that requires you to set up simplistic oppositions. By contrast, from my review of The Glass Cage:

It cannot be stressed too strongly that resistance does not entail rejection. Carr makes this point repeatedly. “Computer automation makes our lives easier, our chores less burdensome. We’re often able to accomplish more in less time—or to do things we simply couldn’t do before.” And: “Automation and its precursor, mechanization, have been marching forward for centuries, and by and large our circumstances have improved greatly as a result. Deployed wisely, automation can relieve us of drudge work and spur us on to more challenging and fulfilling endeavors.”

Carr could have said something like that on every single page of his book and people would still say, “I don’t agree with Carr that we should eliminate automation.”

A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.

Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.

Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?

Andrew Piper, who has written elsewhere about the comfort people take in “eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.”

a small trick

Here’s something I do in my research sometimes when I don’t own the books I’m looking into:

  • If the book has a preview of relevant passages in Google Books …
  • I take a screenshot of the passage;
  • Open the screenshot in Preview;
  • Export as PDF;
  • Open in PDFpen to OCR it;
  • Copy and paste the passage into my document.

When I’m working with many such passages I save them into a single folder, and then use an Automator workflow to process them all (though I still have to copy and paste individually).

There may be a more elegant way to do this, and if so, please let me know on Twitter. (For instance, I know Evernote will automatically OCR your images if you have a Premium account, but I like to own my data.)

I’ve long suspected, based on observations of myself as well as observations of society, that, beyond the psychological and cognitive strains produced by what we call information overload, there is a point in intellectual inquiry when adding more information decreases understanding rather than increasing it. Taleb’s observation that as the frequency of information sampling increases, the amount of noise we take in expands more quickly than the amount of signal might help to explain the phenomenon, particularly if human understanding hinges as much or more on the noise-to-signal ratio of the information we take in as on the absolute amount of signal we’re exposed to. Because we humans seem to be natural-born signal hunters, we’re terrible at regulating our intake of information. We’ll consume a ton of noise if we sense we may discover an added ounce of signal. So our instinct is at war with our capacity for making sense.

Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

Now, I can tell you that, deep down, you don’t really believe that last sentence. I certainly didn’t when I first heard it. How could a 300-person company not have any formal management? My observation is that it takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group (the desks are on wheels, with computers attached) and start in on the new thing. (Obviously they should choose a good point at which to do this, and coordinate with both groups, but that’s common sense, not a rule, and isn’t enforced in any way.) That everyone on a project team is an individual contributor, doing coding, artwork, level design, music, and so on, including the leads; there is no such thing as a pure management or architect or designer role. That any part of the company can change direction instantly at any time, because there are no managers to cling to their people and their territory, no reorgs to plan, no budgets to work around. That there are things that Gabe badly wants the company to do that aren’t happening, because no one has signed up to do them.

And when you think Google, think… well, think long-term. I feel like Facebook is probably an easier place to work than Google these days. Facebook is all huge numbers going up, up, up everyday—everything except the share price, but that will come in time. Google, on the other hand, is Google+ and its undead shambling… but damn, it’s also Project Glass, and those cars that can drive themselves! Google is getting good, really good, at building things that see the world around them and actually understand what they’re seeing.

In this context, Google+ is not the company’s most strategic project. That distinction goes to Glass, to the self-driving cars, and to Google Maps, Street View, and Earth: Google’s detailed model of the real, physical world.

In November 2003, Skrbina mailed a letter to Kaczynski, then as now in a supermax prison in Colorado, asking those and other questions designed “to challenge him on his views, to press him.”

So began a correspondence that has spanned more than 150 letters and has led Skrbina to help compile a book of Kaczynski’s writings, called Technological Slavery, released in 2010. The book is a kind of complete works of this violent tech skeptic, including the original manifesto, letters to Skrbina answering the professor’s questions, and other essays written from the Unabomber’s prison cell.

Today, Skrbina is something like a friend to Kaczynski. And he’s more than that. The philosophy lecturer from Dearborn serves as the Unabomber’s intellectual sparring partner, a distributor of his writings to a private e-mail list of contacts, and at times even an advocate for his anti-tech message.

The author suggests Tesla, not Edison, is the “father of the electric age” and buoys this claim by pointing out that alternating current (Tesla’s invention) “powers the world” and not direct current (Edison’s invention).
The irony here is that the computer that the author used to draw this graphic runs on DC power. The author’s cell phone also runs on DC power. In fact, if the author went around their house and looked at all the electronic devices (coffee maker, microwave oven, clock, television, laptop, stereo, etc.), they would notice that almost every single one requires a conversion from AC power to DC power before it can be used. This is because while alternating current is indeed great for long distance transmission of power…it’s shit for powering electronics. So perhaps I could suggest a compromise: if Tesla is the Father of the Electric Age, then Edison is the Father of the Electronic Age.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

What makes Facebook such an important company is that it forces us to acknowledge the frivolity of our entire way of life, by showing us that much of it can be delivered digitally into our lives without a lot of “ serious” old economy industrial foundations, and at a fraction of the cost, using far less by way of resources.

To those who argue programming is an essential skill we should be teaching our children, right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic: can you explain to me how Michael Bloomberg would be better at his day to day job of leading the largest city in the USA if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder? It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a politician. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding variables and functions, pointers and recursion? I can’t see it.

To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.

Brogrammer culture celebrates frat house values, youth over experience and men over women. In the war for hiring great talent, the companies that embrace this culture rather than reject it will lose. That’s a good thing.

Yet “iDisorder” is a pleasant surprise — lean, thoughtful, clearly written and full of ideas and data you’ll want to throw into dinner-party conversation. Did you know that psychologists divide Twitter users into “informers,” those who pass along interesting facts, and “meformers,” those who pass along interesting facts about only themselves? Or that 70 percent of those who report heavily using mobile devices experience “phantom vibration syndrome,” which is what happens when your pocket buzzes and there’s no phone in your pocket? (I thought I was the only one.) Or that heavy use of Facebook has been linked to mood swings among some teenagers? Researchers are calling this “Facebook depression.” (And I thought that my children were just having a lot of bad days.)

Before the Internet, news orgs had a natural paywall, the distribution system. If you wanted to read the paper you had to buy the paper. And the ink, and the gasoline it took to get it to where you are. In fact, everything that determined the structure of the news activity, that made it a business, was organized around the distribution system.

But that’s been over now for quite some time. And paywalls express a desperate wish to go back to a time when there was a reason to pay. Now news, if it wants to continue, must find a new reason.

Scripting News: Paywalls are backward-looking. Paywalls are indeed backward-looking, but the idea that “distribution systems” are “over” is obviously silly. I don’t need a gassed-up car to get my copy of the Times, but I sure need electricity, and wired or wireless internet access, and an internet-capale device, and an enormous and enormously complex routing system to get data from its source to my device. We’re more dependent on “distribution systems” than we ever have been; they’re just different systems than they used to be.

Better WiFi security could soon be just a few rolls of wallpaper away. French researchers at Institut Polytechnique de Grenoble, in cooperation with the Centre Technique du Papier, have developed a wallpaper that can block WiFi signals, preventing them from being broadcast beyond the confines of an office or apartment. But unlike other signal-blocking technologies based on the Faraday cage (which block all electromagnetic radiation), the wallpaper only blocks a select set of frequencies used by wireless LANs, and allows cellular phones and other radio waves through. L’Informatcien reports that researchers claim the price of the wallpaper, which is being licensed to a Finnish manufacturer for production, would be “equivalent to a traditional mid-range wallpaper.” It should be available for sale in 2013.

So when digital evangelists prognosticate about the future of publishing, as they love to do, and about what “needs” to go away, serious nonfiction is now one of the first things I think about. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and want to read more of it and notice twentysomethings have little perceived patience for weighty tomes. Maybe it’s because I’d rather have pragmatic conversations about what categories are best suited to digital — genre fiction obviously, certain commercial strains of literary fiction, basically any book that needs to have a completed manuscript done before it’s shopped around, or can be finished very quickly post-proposal — and which ones won’t be. Maybe it’s because the very institutions that support serious nonfiction are themselves in more financial trouble than they used to be.

Strangely, and somewhat unexpectedly, James Bridle unilaterally closed the New Aesthetic Tumblr blog today, 6 May 2012, announcing ‘The New Aesthetic tumblr is now closed’, with some particular and general thanks and very little information about future plans. Perhaps this was always Bridle’s intention as a private project, but one can’t help wonder if the large amount of attention, the move to a public and contested concept, and the loss of control that this entailed may have encouraged a re-assertion of control. If so, this is a great pity and perhaps even an act of vandalism.

stunlaw: Taking Care of the New Aesthetic. Seriously? Bridle has no right to shut down his own tumblelog? Sure, he posted user submissions, but those users still have the files they submitted, don’t they? (Ever heard of digital reproducibility?) And anyone who wants to can freely copy Bridle’s entire tumblelog right now. Won’t take long either.

I’m always amazed when I come across a person who thinks that others have a moral obligation to do what he would prefer them to do. But I come across those people quite often.

Jeff Bezos once famously declared that, in the service of innovation and its long-term success, Amazon is “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” He was being a bit modest there; Amazon is not merely “willing” to be misunderstood, it often tries to actively sow widespread misunderstanding. This works it its advantage; if competitors don’t know what Amazon is up to, if they can’t even figure out where and how it aims to make money, they’ll have a harder time beating it.

But all this misunderstanding can’t be an unalloyed good. Amazon is so opaque, with so many mysterious businesses and revenue streams, that you’ve got to wonder whether the people who work there even understand what it’s up to. In business, simplicity often wins. Selling me a device to get me to buy a membership in order to get a book for free. Is Bezos crazy like a fox? Or is he just plain crazy? We have no idea.

If the type and volume of criticism we find online were experienced in person, we’d probably think we were witnessing some kind of est/Maoist reeducation session designed to break down the psyche so it could be rebuilt from scratch. The only way not to find this overwhelming and demoralized over any protracted period of time is to adopt a reflexive attitude that these are not real people whose opinions matter in any way. Which, indeed, seems to be a pretty widespread attitude. Scan the comments at one of the more partisan political blogs and you get a clear sense that the “other side” consists not so much of people with different ideas, but an inscrutable alien species. I think it’s self-evident that this is an unhealthy development in a democracy, but it may be a coping strategy that our media ecosystem is forcing on us—at least until we find a better one.

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