Space (I’m Somewhat Skeptical About)

Some observations about Apple Music’s push for spatial audio

(Image of a Brazilian lion who wants more space from Nick Park’s brilliant Creature Comforts short)

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you’ve already been bombarded with invitations to try out their new support for Dolby Atmos/spatial audio. It’s been available for about a month at this point, but I’m only just now investing the time to put on some headphones and check it out.

My take so far is that it’s not nearly as earth-shattering as Apple’s making it out to be, but when it does work, it’s pretty neat. One thing that I’ve heard people say repeatedly is that it’s hit or miss: on some songs, it sounds great, but it can actually make others worse. I’d agree with that somewhat. I don’t dislike it enough to turn off the feature, but I do think that on some tracks, it lets vocals get lost in the mix and can make some other parts have less impact than on the stereo version.

My hearing isn’t all that great, but I’d still say that I can tell that there’s enough difference to make a difference on more tracks than not. Also: it’s one of my pet peeves that whenever anyone on the internet is reviewing a feature like this, or some piece of audio equipment, they always make sure to qualify their review by saying that they’re not an audiophile. They do it because they know somebody is going to barge onto the comment sections making themselves out to be an expert, pointing out some extremely esoteric thing that the manufacturers or the engineers or whoever got horribly, embarrassingly, devastatingly wrong. We all need to stop entertaining those opinions, because those people are not the target market for 99% of this consumer-grade audio equipment.

Anyway, tangential pet peeve aside, my hearing tends to be pretty lousy. But I felt like these tracks (mostly from Apple’s suggested “Made for Spatial Audio” playlist) stood out:

  • “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
    Michael’s vocals are a little muted compared to the stereo version, but it felt more like being in the middle of a live performance, and I’m sold on the opening piano & bass riff alone.
  • “Don’t Know Why” and “Seven Years” by Norah Jones
    Consensus seems to be that jazz does particularly well under Dolby Atmos, and both of these feel like being at a live performance. (I already said “Seven Years” is my favorite track from that album, but “Don’t Know Why” is the famous one).
  • “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    “Song for my Father” by Horace Silver
    I’m not a big fan of jazz in general, but these are two of my favorite songs, and I think you can tell the clearer separation of the different parts, and it helps everything feel more “present.”
  • “Mystery Lady” by Masego & Don Toliver
    I’d never heard of this artist, but he must be on Apple’s list of Artists To Promote. I don’t have a non-Atmos version to compare it to, but I really like this song and the rest of the album.
  • “BOOM” by Tiesto & Sevenn
    Never heard of them, either, and this feels like a novelty song. Like a “Where’s Your Head At?” for today’s generation. But it’s pretty great as a loud, dumb demo of the spatial audio.
  • “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow
    I’ve liked this song (and the rest of the album) ever since it came out, and I don’t care who knows it. The remix feels kind of unnecessary, but it’s pretty neat how it separates the percussion and hand-claps from everything else. The other, non-Atmos tracks from the same greatest hits album illustrate the difference in the mix, since in those it does sound like the entire band was crammed together around one of two microphones.
  • “Not Dead Yet” by Lord Huron
    This is kind of a boring track from their most recent album, to be honest, but it’s a good example of what a sound engineer can do if they get creative with the mix. Parts seem to move around in 3D space, coming to the center to take prominence, and then fading out to the back left or back right. It’s a little like the Ghost Host in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion, if he were an alt-country musician.
  • “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
    I think the effect is a little subtle compared to the stereo, but it’s noticeable — everything seems to be positioned more like an actual orchestra, so the woodwinds sound to me distinctly separated from the french horns, which are separated from the trumpets, etc.
  • “Jessica” by The Allman Brothers Band
    Honestly, I don’t know if the spatial audio makes a bit of difference on this track, but I like this song and I liked getting another chance to hear it on headphones.

And that last bit is key: honestly, if somebody told me that this was all just a psychological experiment, and there wasn’t actually a remix involved, but just a placebo effect combined with listening to audio on better headphones, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s been an invitation to listen closely to music again, instead of just having it on in the background.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bold new future for music, but it’s a good excuse to enjoy some music, and all it takes is a pair of headphones.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: A Complete Bee

This Tuesday Tune Two-Fer’s all about whatever makes you happy

There’s a new song out by the Go! Team, from their upcoming album Get Up Sequences Part One. It’s called “A Bee Without Its Sting,” and it’s joyful.

I’ve got to admit that it feels a little bit like Go! Team videos are being generated by a neural network at this point: they’re a mish-mash of Cooper Black, video and photocopier artifacts, film footage of bodegas and other city scenes, and people playing instruments in front of a green screen. But I don’t care a bit, since it’s all such a positive energy that I don’t even feel self-conscious using phrases like “positive energy.”

The only thing that could improve it, of course, is replacing the Sting. Here’s the Tantric Dad himself singing “Little Something” with Melody “What If Eartha Kitt but Super-White?” Gardot. I wish I could get past my snobbery about music like this, because I am almost-50-enough and white enough to genuinely like it, but I still can’t jettison the idea that I’m supposed to be at least a little bit embarrassed for liking it. This seems like music that affluent straight white people in their mid-50s have sex to. Like right after the end of the Cialis commercial, they get out of the tubs, open the doors of their Lexus parked nearby, and just crank this shit out while they start doin’ it. Happy Tuesday!

Literacy 2021: Book 11: Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World

I wanted a light book about Disney World history, and I chose poorly.

Book
Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World: The World That Disappeared by Jim Korkis

Pros
Mentioned a couple of things that I’d either forgotten about, or had never known about on account of my “missing” teen years not going to Florida. Includes some snippets from first-hand interviews.

Cons
Badly written and sloppily edited to the point of distraction. Typos and run-on sentences which are worse because of lack of punctuation and misspellings or the infamous misused words or outright made-up words that I tried to ignore until each one dug directly into the base of my spine like an irritant. Just copies lists from somewhere; a lot of it reads like marketing material and park maps (which Korkis might have written or helped write?) Jumps between hand-waving descriptions and then weirdly specific details, as if the author were copy/pasting from a news article. Weird omissions, like If You Had Wings and Dreamflight. No photos or, in many cases, even a synopsis of the show or attraction, so people who never saw the original will be unable to get a clear picture of it, and people who did see the original will find little of nostalgic value in such a cursory description.

Why Bother Reviewing It?
After a couple dozen pages, I thought I’d just finish this one quietly and move on without comment. What could possibly be gained by trashing a low-cost, small-press, light book that in Kindle form, isn’t even that expensive? But the more I read, the more it annoyed me, because I felt like I’d paid to grade a high school paper from a student who’d written the whole thing the night before. There are lots of people who’ve been doing diligent work collecting documentation, interviews, and ephemera from the history of the parks, and you can tell it’s done as a labor of love. This just felt opportunistic, like the tourist trap shops selling knock-off Mickey Mouse T-shirts along International Drive.

Summary
Even if, like me, you’re desperate to read anything about Walt Disney World, pass on this one.

One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

Friday’s All Right for Even More Crankin’

Friday link post featuring Panic! at the Bluetooth Speaker

I imagine that most of the people reading this blog will have already seen it, but just in case: Panic put out a video with lots more info about their upcoming Playdate handheld videogame machine, with pre-orders starting in July. Mentioned in the “Season One Games” section of that video is my own game, “Sasquatchers,” which makes sense because it’s one of the Season One games. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it on here as it gets closer to release, because for such a small game, it’s taken up a surprising amount of my life over the past several years.

Congrats to Christa Mrgan and the rest of the team there at Panic for managing to get across so much of (what I think is) the personality and core appeal of the project. I’m a fan of the company and just the whole notion of wanting to do something weird and different, and to do it well and responsibly. Now I have to find out how to get one of those audio docks for it, because the Poolsuite FM screen with 2-color dithered video of a plane running in the Mac classic interface as a music player triggered intense feelings of need I wasn’t aware I even had.

If you don’t have patience for the whole update but would rather see an extremely Portlandish 2-minute ad describing what it is, that’s available separately. (It’s at the end of that update video as well).

The company’s been adamant about encouraging development on the device to anyone who wants to make something for it, a philosophy underscored by this video. On top of releasing a lowest-possible-barrier-to-entry development system called Pulp, they’ve pledged to make the SDK public and already released a 50-minute video with Steven Frank demonstrating how to use the SDK to make an app that runs on the device.

Plus, they’ve been running a developer preview, to expand the number of people testing out the SDK beyond just the devs in Season One. There’s been some really imaginative stuff already hinted at; you can get a good sample from Arisa’s Twitter feed, since she’s been handling developer relations for the Playdate project. One of my favorites from seeing screenshots and previews is Dustin Mierau’s “Playmaker,” which seems to nail the whole aesthetic of the Playdate and its philosophy of creative exploration.

Literacy 2021: Book 10: Moonwalking With Einstein

I’ve already forgotten what this one was about, yuk yuk!

Book
Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Synopsis
After covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist, Foer spends a year learning about the history of memory-training techniques, our understanding of how memory works, and training with some of the other competitors, before competing in the championships himself.

Pros
It’s difficult to imagine being more committed to a story about memory competitions. Does a good job of balancing personal memoir, coverage of the events and their competitors, and deep dives into the history of mnemonics and the current neurological and psychological studies. Gives an overview of techniques like memory palaces and mnemonic systems, along with explanations of why the location- and imagery-based techniques are more effective than rote memorization. Includes interviews with people with remarkable memories — either positive or negative — that are conducted with as much compassion as objective interest. Maintains an appropriate level of skepticism about his interview subjects and the entire endeavor as a whole.

Cons
Reads more like a collection of magazine articles than a cohesive book, which is great for spending time with a topic but not so great for pacing. Little practical information for learning the techniques yourself. Hints at larger practical benefits for all of the exercises that keep them from being just a stunt, but those passages are a little more vaguely hand-waving than the rest. Reading the book has made me less encouraged to try out any of the systems, since the thought of having to think of elaborate imagery to remember the name of a person I’ve just met, while they’re still talking to me and expecting me to respond, sounds more stressful than just admitting I’ve already forgotten their name.

Verdict
Emphasizes some interesting ideas: that memory is more about indexing information than simply storing it, and the ways in which memory and intelligence are interconnected. (Remembering isn’t the same as learning, but it helps learning because it gives us more frames of reference to make incoming information more “sticky.”) But I was left feeling a little disappointed that none of it seems to have much real-world practical benefit.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die

Re-thinking some of my own condescending opinions about Ray Bradbury’s work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and its surprisingly nuanced take on censorship. The kerosene-filled salamander trucks are the most dramatic, but not the most unsettlingly relevant image in the book. Instead, it’s the society that slowly and gradually gives in to our own fears and assumptions to the point where we think the firemen are a good idea in the first place.

I already wrote about Ray Bradbury’s Coda, which was included as an afterword to a 1979 edition of the book. Searching for the full text of his essay online, I could only find the occasional personal blog post, and then a full copy of it included in an obituary of Bradbury on the Cato Institute’s website. Which I won’t link to, because F the Cato Institute.

I don’t know what Bradbury’s specific and personal politics were, because I get the impression he was adamant about letting his work speak for itself. (An idea that seems forcefully underlined by his Coda). I only just started reading Bradbury’s work for the first time in the past couple of years — going roughly in order of “famousness” — and I’ve been struck by how he has a clear and undeniably specific voice, which he uses to describe concepts that are universal.

It’s that combination of universal concepts plus early-to-mid-20th-century-American mindset which initially left me with the overall impression that his works are “brilliant, but dated.” To me, they’ve seemed to communicate ideas that are immediately and crucially relevant to 21st century liberal progressives, despite their being shaped by the mindset of a period in American history that so many of us are now recognizing needs to be dismantled and un-learned.

I imagine it’s that same universality that lets people at a well-funded libertarian “think tank” interpret it as a “got ’em!” dismissal of social progressivism and inclusivity as assaults on free speech driven by frivolous special interests.

Bradbury’s Coda to Fahrenheit 451 suggests — insists, really — that neither of those takes is the right one. Except I’m a little bit more right than they are, and here’s why.

Continue reading “Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die”

Friday Night’s All Right For Crankin’

A pre-update for a new videogame console! A maybe-BDSM-cult-driven series of computer games! A new land at Disneyland!

Panic has been working for quite some time on making the Playdate, a handheld videogame device that I think you should all be interested in, for reasons. Today they made a pre-announcement that a video update is coming next Tuesday, with some more news about the device, the games, and how you can pre-order it later on.

Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series is just going to be a constant fixture of my link posts, since they’ve all been fascinating. This week’s is about an adventure game called Silverwolf and really, the bonkers story about the people who may or may not have developed it, and why.

A YouTuber named Kelsea Dyer made a video exploring the new Dragon Quest Island in Japan, and it looks like an interesting attempt to translate as much of the experience of the JRPGs to a real-world setting as they could. It looks more screen-heavy than I would’ve liked, personally, but the twist of traveling to random encounters along the path, then back to the village for shopping and treasure-hunting, seems like it would add some fun interactivity to it. The official site has more info, assuming you can either read Japanese or are better at finding language settings than I am.

The Avengers Campus opens at California Adventure this weekend, and Nerdist’s video is a pretty good overview. My unsolicited take: the available space and the mostly-real-world setting both make it seem a little, well, underwhelming when seen on video, but it’d be stupid to pass judgment until I’ve spent more time in the land. Even Galaxy’s Edge was unimpressive at first, until I got to spend more time there and get a sense for how all the place-making works together. The rides themselves are just a small part of it; I’ve already seen that from riding Mission: Breakout and having a dance party break out outside the queue, which made the whole experience seem 10x more fun. I get a sense that the emphasis on characters and smaller details are going to do the heavy lifting of making the place feel exciting.

My favorite touch that I’ve seen so far: the homage to Adventure Thru Inner Space inside the Pym’s Test Kitchen, using pretzels instead of Omnimovers. And I can’t imagine ever getting tired of seeing that acrobatic Spider-Man being flung over a building.

Nuggets of Responsibility

Why I’m finally giving up on the campaign to give Chick-fil-a the benefit of the doubt

For a decade now — you can tell how old posts are when the images didn’t survive a change in web hosts — I’ve been writing posts about Chick-fil-a‘s role as The Heel in the fight against marriage equality, stupid attempts to drum up outrage, and my own clumsy attempts to explain how I don’t think we should fall for it.

For all this time, though, there’s been one thing I’ve never been quite able to settle on: how much am I willing to make this a hill I’m going to die on?

I mean, if people want to feel better by boycotting a fast food restaurant, what’s the problem? If there’s one thing I’ve felt consistently adamant about, it’s that people should be free to choose how to spend their money, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all.

And I certainly don’t have any sympathy for the Cathy family, especially Dan Cathy, and it’s nonsense to even hint that their freedom of speech or religious freedom might be at risk. Cathy is the epitome of the rich white guy who refuses to keep his mouth shut. He and the company that made him super-wealthy have had over a decade of opportunities to make things right. People have even tried to spin him as a case study for how we can all get along despite our differences. But instead, he and the company have made the barest of non-committal statements, and then the moment the heat’s off of them, they go right back to their same old bullshit. Screw that guy, and his whole damn family, who’ve made billions of dollars off of peanut oil and neoconservatism.

Ultimately, the problem I’ve had but have been unable to articulate is that I hate seeing smart people get sucked into a stupid, manufactured culture war. If I think it’s idiotic for Mike Huckabee to stage the most American South version of a protest, where people buy chicken sandwiches to stand up for freedom and stick it to the homos, then it seems hypocritical to cheer on anyone acting like their decision not to buy chicken sandwiches is some kind of bold statement.

Continue reading “Nuggets of Responsibility”

The Old Normal

Starting Pride month with some well-meaning complaints about some popular symbols of inclusivity

It’s the beginning of Pride month — it’s always seemed odd that Pride is in mid-summer, since we all know that Pride goes before the Fall — and I’m choosing to complain about two symbols of inclusiveness and acceptance: the new Pride flags, and indicating pronouns in online profiles.

This may seem at best unnecessary, and that’s because it is. Everything I’m talking about has been done with the best of intentions, and it is short-term help for a real problem. The equality movement has progressed to the point where people like me — white, middle class, comfortably conforming to the binary gender I was assigned at birth — can feel relatively safe and welcomed in most of the places we’d want to live and travel. But those benefits haven’t been distributed equally, and there are too many people who are still marginalized within an already-marginalized community.

Also, I don’t have any illusions that my opinions are going to change what other people are doing, and I don’t want it to. But as symbols become more ubiquitous, I think it’s important to keep in mind what exactly they mean and why they’re necessary. It feels like more people — and opportunistic companies — are treating them as completely positive, to the point where it’s becoming as innocuous as the “Have a Nice Day” smiley face. Innocuous quickly becomes meaningless, and hides the fact that these are short-term patches over a more systemic problem that we’re not doing a good job of addressing.

Continue reading “The Old Normal”