Essays on Technology and Culture

Caught in the Middle

Know this. We are books. We are united. We think Amazon and publishers of all shapes and sizes have done good things, and also because you are made of humans, some really stupid things. We are books. We are incapable of doing stupid things, because we are Great Art and our mere presence in the world makes you, humans, better.

An Important Message From Your Books

In the battle between Amazon and Hachette, it’s important to know what’s in the balance. Beyond authors and distribution, it’s about access to books. Books that make out lives better, through art and knowledge alike.

Inertia By Default

The truth of this was revealed to some Microsoft researchers, who in the early days of Microsoft Word asked lots of people to send them their configuration files. These were anonymous, because the researchers just wanted to find out what people actually preferred, so they could have those set as the defaults. To their amazement, they discovered that less than 5% had made any changes. At all. Even though there was a fantastically useful autosave feature but it was off by default. Why? Because a programmer inside Microsoft had set the configuration file to all zeroes for simplicity. And “zero” in the config file meant “no autosave”.

Why the default settings on your device should be right first time | Technology | The Observer

Changing settings for an application or a piece of hardware is a power user move. Just another example to add to the growing pile of proof that technology companies don’t understand how ordinary people use technology.

The Second Pop-Up War

What we’re witnessing here is the first wave of the second world pop-up war. Those of us who lived through the first one can only describe the horrors to our disbelieving children. This time though, the pop-ups are winning because we don’t yet have the tools to fight back. The web has seemingly evolved into something that actively antagonises people — why would anyone in their right mind hide the content that visitors are there to see?

The Value of Content — I. M. H. O. — Medium

Andy Beaumont just launched Tab Closed; Didn’t Read, a blog collecting the worst abuses of obscuring content with newsletter subscription forms, app promotions, or any other awful crap that gets in the way between the reader and what they came to see. Naturally, some people are confused and angry, because those tools “work.” They get “conversions,” measured in signups, follows, or whatever miserable metric they’re trying to juice.

This behavior shows a complete disrespect for your audience. It’s the digital equivalent of a store having people shove coupons and flyers in your face as you enter. The difference is that in real life, it’s easy to avoid them, or just trash what they hand you. Online, most people don’t know how to escape, short of capitulation. And it’s ruining how we use the web.

Cheap Shots on an Easy Target

Miles Raymer at Esquire doesn’t like iTunes.

Once a simple MP3 player, it’s become the center of the Mac ecosphere, the location where our computers interface with the sprawling multimedia iTunes Store, the launch pad for Apple’s increasingly important iTV gambit, and the place where we, our media libraries, and our computers, iPhones, iPads, and iPods all link up. And in the process it has become a terrible MP3 player.

iTunes has issues, yes, but the ones singled out in Raymer’s short piece, save one, are cheap shots and not Apple’s fault. If your “legally acquired music” doesn’t have proper metadata, it’s not Apple’s fault, and iTunes doesn’t need to help you fix it. I have a massive media library in iTunes, with 183 GB of music, and another 22 GB of video, plus apps. I haven’t had any slowdown issues with iTunes 11, even on my old white MacBook with 4GB of RAM. And Visualizers? Who cares.

While there’s plenty of bugs to squash, including the annoying Album Artist bug that can lead to two instances of an album in your library with different track listings, I’ve found each version of iTunes to be a dramatic improvement over its predecessor. Including iTunes 11 after I changed the search back to the previous functionality. iTunes for Mac is easily one of the best music players I’ve used, and I go back to the WinAmp days myself. (Rest in peace.)

If you want valid criticisms of iTunes, you can’t do better than John Siracusa on Hypercritical episode 98 and episode 99. John at least knows what he’s talking about, and won’t make a mistake of calling Apple’s TV product “iTV.”

Pono: The Latest in Audio Woo

Pono is 24-bit, 192,000-sample-per-second digital audio, as often used in recording studios. The only really new thing about it is that there’ll be a portable Pono player, which can play back that high-data-rate audio as well as more common formats…

The big deal about Pono is, of course, that 24/192 audio is meant to sound better even than CD, let alone lossily-compressed MP3s or AACs. According to Neil Young, digital-music listeners today, who are almost all listening to music data-reduced via MP3 or some other lossy codec, are as a result enduring sound worse than that from a 78-RPM shellac record…

Problem one, which is a bit of a biggie, is that 24/192 doesn’t actually sound better than CD audio…

Dan Rutter – “Righteous bits”

Daniel Rutter makes some great points about the Pono format, but the most damning one happens after the last pull-quote. Time after time, tests have shown that beyond a certain level, even if you have perfect hearing, you’re not going to make things sound better. My hearing is damaged from years of loud earphones and louder concerts without earplugs, and for the life of me, I can’t tell the difference between a well-encoded v0 MP3, an iTunes M4A file, or a FLAC. I probably couldn’t tell the difference between any of those and Pono, either.

Pono strikes me as just the latest form of audio woo. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s priced accordingly, too. You have to cover the cost of digitally recording and remastering all those master tapes at high resolution, after all. Speaking as a Neil Young fan, I hope he’s not being taken for a ride because he has money in the bank.