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.

In Praise of Unnecessary Devices

How I’ve begrudgingly fallen in love with the Kindle Oasis, in a world that’s making it harder and harder to feel good about consumer technology

My attitude towards dedicated e-readers has always been best summed up as Oooo, get a load of JL Gotrocks here, too good for paperbacks, too delicate to read books on his phone, can’t read on his iPad on account of the glare from his monocle!

And that’s after owning one for several years. Six or seven years ago, Amazon was so aggressively promoting the Kindle during some Prime Day or Black Friday or Bezos Yacht Christening Day that it somehow worked out that it would cost me more not to buy one. So I begrudgingly bought a Kindle Paperwhite, and I begrudgingly grew to like it a lot.

I honestly don’t know how much I believe the claim that reading E-ink reduces eye strain, but it certainly does feel more like reading paper than like reading paper after being pulled over in a traffic stop. The biggest appeal for me:

  • Weight: It’s much lighter than a tablet, and lighter that most phones while still having a tablet-sized screen.
  • Battery: It goes weeks without needing to be recharged.
  • Cost: The discounted Paperwhite I got is expensive in the sense that I didn’t actually need to own one, but cheap in the sense that it was a tech gadget holding every e-book I ever bought from Amazon and cost around 75 bucks. That meant I could be a lot less careful with it than I’d have to be with an iPad or phone.
  • Nerdery: I still think E-ink displays are just plain neat, almost straddling the line between analog and digital.

The most practical downside of the Paperwhite is that it’s just an awkwardly-designed device. I could never quite find a good place to hold it: I was always either inadvertently turning the page, or highlighting a section, and before I could undo it, it’d already sent a random collection of letters to Goodreads as one of my favorite passages in the book.

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They… they ASSURED me there was PEANUT BRITTLE in that can!

Get a load of the whiny sons o’ bitches at The Verge!

I have it on very good authority that this is the new mascot for the Volkswagen Group. Image from D23.com.

Given all the genuine stuff to get stressed out or worried about, I’ve got to thank The Verge for giving me something completely inconsequential to be irrationally annoyed by.

The story in brief was that Volkswagen did a beginning-of-April marketing stunt announcing that they were changing their US branding to “Voltswagen,” to reaffirm their commitment to electric vehicles. The Verge chomped on that like a starving bass, running it as a top story on the site. Now, after finding out that the obvious marketing stunt was, in fact, a marketing stunt, they edited their story from press release regurgitation into a long-form tantrum.

Normally, I’d do the Nelson Muntz point-and-laugh and then move on, but the Verge writers’ histrionics have actually made me kind of angry. First, instead of being good-natured — or even the wet blanket but appropriately skeptical approach that Ars Technica took — they changed the headline to say that Volkswagen lied about their rebranding! Here showing the same understanding of “lying” as the aliens in Galaxy Quest.

Worse, they made repeated references — in the byline of the rewritten article, and on Twitter — to “Dieselgate.” Because, obviously, fooling a couple of gullible and clickbait-seeking internet writers is equivalent to a multi-billion dollar, years-long, massive environmental scandal.

But now we know the rebrand was nothing more than another lie from a company that’s become known for something else: lying.

A butt-hurt, insufferably whiny baby

The reason this makes me so irrationally angry — apart from putting me in a position where I’m not just defending Volkswagen, but defending an April Fools prank — is that it’s another reminder of how embarrassingly low journalistic standards are in 2021. Actually, that’s a third strike against it: it makes me want to put “journalist” in sarcastic quotes, but I can’t do that, because that’s the province of all the knuckle-dragging losers on the internet complaining about Brie Larson and Kathleen Kennedy.

The writers can clutch their pearls and stand aghast at VW all they want, but the truth is that they simply didn’t do due diligence for their non-story. They valued page views over newsworthiness. “They published a press release!” insists the article, ignoring the obvious fact that you’re not obliged to run every press release as front-page news.

The undeniable fact of all this is that this stunt was not news. Even if it had been 100% real. Even for a company gigantic as the Volkswagen Group. It was so obviously as much a non-story as the results of the Puppy Bowl or the war between Left Twix and Right Twix. It’s depressing that they think the problem is a company fooling them with a lame (and clearly publicity-grabbing) stunt, instead of how eager they were to “report” on the stunt in the first place.

EV Pondering

I’m still comparison-shopping EVs, and I’ve got some questions.

I’ve been “researching” (read: watching YouTube videos about) electric vehicles for several weeks now, and a lot of the same ideas keep recurring: tips to speed up fast-charging time, maximizing battery life, maximizing range, etc. But never having owned an EV or spent a long time looking into them, there are a few things I can’t figure out.

I’ve had an entirely too charitable impression of car reviewers
One thing I’ve learned from watching lots of car reviews is that car reviewers mostly suck. There are obvious exceptions, but as someone who’s never been particularly interested in cars, I’ve always just assumed that reviewers are well familiar with all the myriad details about cars that are lost on me. But I’ve been surprised by how many reviews get the basic details wrong, ignore aspects of the car that are obviously specific to a review situation, or go on about aspects of the car that are irrelevant to drivers that aren’t reviewers. Is it all Top Gear‘s fault?

What’s the deal with the front trunk?
Speaking of terrible reviews: what the hell is this garbage review of the ID.4? The reviewer was biased against the car from the start, but that’s okay because I was biased against the review for being from a Gawker site. (Yes, I know that Gawker Media doesn’t exist anymore, but the taint is inescapable). What’s odd to me, though, is that this isn’t the only review I’ve seen to waste so much time talking about the lack of a front trunk.

It’s an absurd complaint. The closest I’ve seen to a reasonable explanation is that it’s convenient to keep the charging cable in there, but I’m not buying it. Is this supposed to be a real complaint?

How do Elon Musk’s fanboys justify a proprietary super charger network?
I’ve been in the SF Bay Area enough to see a depressing number of men go glassy-eyed and speak in reverent tones about how Musk’s visionary work is going to save our fragile planet. I’ve been so eager to get into a situation of no longer talking to them, that I never got to ask them the obvious question: how do they justify making the super charger network proprietary and exclusive to Tesla owners? Obviously, the ubiquity of the network is a selling point for the cars, but wouldn’t it be best for everyone to encourage more EV purchases in the US, while at the same time charging non-Tesla drivers for the convenience?

Are crossover SUVs really as popular as people keep saying?
The thing I found most surprising when I started comparing cars: there are almost no affordable options for 200+ mile range in a sedan, coupe, or hatchback. As far as I can tell, there’s just the Chevy Bolt or the Tesla Model 3. I understand that bigger batteries give better range, but I’m stunned that more manufacturers haven’t gone the ID.3 route, and that Volkswagen hasn’t made the ID.3 available in the US. The explanation was “Americans want SUVs.” I can’t tell if that’s a real thing or just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This News Will Throw This Car Into Chaos!

An update on the search for an electric car, with the surprising introduction of a new contender.

(For the record: the title of this post is a reference to Randy Candy’s part in this Saturday Night Live sketch, which I disappointingly found out recently was actual product placement).

When last we checked into my car search, I’d decided to forget the fun mid-life crisis convertible I’d been coveting, in favor of something that felt more environmentally responsible. I’ve been reading articles and watching tons of videos about the current state of electric vehicles, and I’ve been getting myself comfortable with the idea of a crossover SUV, since that’s apparently the body style America has declared it wants.

So far, the front-runner has been the Volkswagen ID.4, which seems unlikely to blow anybody away, but which strikes me as comfortable. I like their tech system, I like the sunroof, I like the interior lighting, I like the estimated range, I like the “free” charging, and it seems like they’ve filled it with just enough conveniences to hit their target: a comfortable, moderately-priced electric vehicle.

It might not be “fun,” exactly, but I can at least geek out over the technology while patting myself on the back for “zero emissions.” (In quotes because I think Alex Dykes makes a reasonable argument in this video that it’s disingenuous not to include the emissions it takes to charge the car’s battery).

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I Sing the (Car) Body Electric

I’ve been thinking about electric vehicles, and I want the internet to check my work

I’m turning 50 this year,1Whether I want to or not and I had big plans for a year-long banger of a mid-life crisis. Grow a wiry, dingy-graying ponytail. Get more age-inappropriate earrings. Pick up a new, ridiculous hobby. And pointedly: get a convertible.

Not a muscle-car convertible, because I may be a soon-to-be-50-year-old man, but I’ve got the heart of a sophomore sorority pledge. I wanted a convertible VW Beetle. I’m a big fan of the 2011 redesign, and I rented a convertible in Florida for a work trip, and it was a ton of fun. Plus I’ve spent the last 20+ years driving practical, fuel-efficient sedans — two of them hybrids — and I just wanted something dumb, fun, and completely impractical.

But getting an internal combustion engine in 2021 just feels a little too irresponsible. Assuming you’re in a position to do otherwise, of course: a lot of very rich people have spent an awful long time and an awful lot of money making sure that electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive for most people. Even now, they’re eye-wateringly expensive. But when even fuel-efficient cars are putting out tons of emissions per year, it feels gross to keep doing it just for fun.

So I’ve got the extremely privileged “problem” of having to decide what car I want to get when my current lease runs out. Some requirements:

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Raspberry Pi 400

Raspberry Pi has announced a new $100 computer that I hope can be as significant for 21st century kids as the Commodore 64 was for me

The Raspberry Pi 400 (link is to a review on Ars Technica) is a faster version of the famously affordable computer, now embedded in a keyboard with a suite of USB and display ports. The computer on its own is only $70, but a kit for $100 makes it an affordable desktop PC with everything you need except for the monitor.

For those of us who grew up in the 80s (or 90s, probably), I can’t imagine seeing this and not getting excited about the potential. I can still remember my mom taking me to K-Mart to get my first computer, a Commodore 64. More vividly than most things I can still remember from the 80s: I remember the dim fluorescent lighting, I remember the stacks of boxes and the excitement of getting to take one off the shelf, I remember getting a spiral-bound introduction to BASIC programming book to go with it, and I remember sitting in the kitchen, hooking it up to a TV to try it out and get our first ?SYNTAX ERROR.

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Neo-Tokyo is about to extrude

Adventures in 3D Printing tokens for the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Edit: I’ve posted the model files for these tokens to the Tokyo Clash game page on Board Game Geek, where they’re free to download and print for your own games.

Two unexpected side-effects of this extended shelter-in-place order: there’s more time for playing board games, and 3D printing is more practical since I’ve been at home to keep an eye long-running prints. Taken together, it’s been the perfect opportunity for a project to re-learn Blender and get more experience with 3D printing. (Which up until now, has seemed like more of a time investment than it was worth, unless it was for a very special project).

One pleasant surprise of the past couple of months has been discovering the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, published by Funko and designed by Prospero Hall. We first heard about it via a Watch It Played video, and before we even got to the ending, we’d already decided it was a must-buy. After some initial confusion over the rules — almost entirely the result of my assuming the game was more complicated than it actually is — we were able to enjoy it as a light-to-medium-weight beat-em-up game of kaiju flinging tanks and buildings into each other, and flinging each other into buildings. Giving each kaiju a mostly-individualized deck of cards with special powers adds just enough complexity and varies the pacing. A game really does play out like the last 20 minutes of a Godzilla movie, with monsters maneuvering into place and then unleashing a barrage of wrestling moves combined with atomic breath and then clubbing their opponent with a train car.

(Incidentally: Prospero Hall has been killing it with board game designs lately. They’re a Seattle-based design house that seems to focus on making licensed games that don’t feel like uninspired cash grabs. Disney Villainous is more interesting than a Disney-licensed game needs to be, their Choose Your Own Adventure games are a nostalgic take on escape room games, and the result is a ton of light-to-medium-weight games that are mass market enough to sell at Target, but interesting enough to actually get more people into the hobby. Plus their graphic design is flawless throughout. Anybody still just publishing yet another re-skinned version of Clue or Monopoly should be embarrassed).

Tokyo Clash has a 1960s Japanese movie poster aesthetic that is just perfect, and it comes with detailed well-painted miniatures of the four playable kaiju. There are also some simple but well-themed miniatures for the “large buildings” you can fling your opponents into. However, the game uses cardboard tokens for everything else. They’re fine, but they kind of undercut the atmosphere of seeing these monsters marching around a city, tossing things at each other. I decided to use it as an excuse to re-re-re-learn Blender — every time I dive back into the software to model something, I forget everything about how to use it within a month — and make 3D-printed replacements.

Continue reading “Neo-Tokyo is about to extrude”

Virtual Reality Check

I bought an Oculus Rift S, and now you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Back in 2016, I became a convert and likely insufferable evangelist for virtual reality after someone let me try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. At the time, I was completely enamored with Valve’s The Lab and the seemingly endless potential for immersive experiences made possible by dropping you into a world that completely surrounds you. I wasn’t one of those super-early adopters who bought the Rift development kits, but what I lacked in timing, I made up for in enthusiasm.

I took to VR headsets like Mr. Toad took to motor cars. Which means that over the last few years, I’ve tried all of the major commercially-available ones, and I’ve wasted disposable income on several of them. So I’ve got opinions, and I think they’re reasonably well-informed. Here’s my take on the current state of things:

  • VR isn’t just a fad that’s already gone the way of 3D Televisions. For about as long as I’ve been interested in VR, people have been declaring that VR was “dead” or at best, that it had no future in gaming and entertainment. The most common comparison that people made was to 3D televisions, which TV manufacturers tried to convince us were an essential part of the home theater of the future, but which just about completely disappeared within a few years. Even though interest has cooled a lot, I think it’s impossible for home VR to go away completely, simply because it still suggests so much potential for new experiences every time you put on a headset.
  • VR will remain a niche entertainment platform. That said, home VR as we know it today is never going to take over as The Next Big Thing, either. A few years ago, a lot of people were suggesting that VR headsets would become the new video game consoles, and therefore the bar for success would be an HMD to achieve PS4 or Xbox-level sales. That’s not going to happen. I’ve been pretty disappointed in the PSVR overall, but I think in terms of market positioning and ease of use and overall philosophy, it’s the one that most got it right — it’s an easy to use accessory for specialized experiences.
  • VR needs experiences designed for VR, and not just different presentation of existing games. For a while, I was starting to become convinced that VR had “flopped” since I almost never went through the effort of setting up and putting on the Vive or PSVR again, so they just sat collecting dust. When I was in the mood to play a game, I almost always went to the Switch, suggesting that The Future of Games Is Mobile and Accessible. But I think the real conclusion is that there are different experiences for different platforms, and the one-size-fits-all mentality of video games is a relic of the “console wars.” Not every type of game is going to work well in VR, and IMO the ones that do work exceptionally well in VR can only work well in VR. The comparison to 3D TVs is apt, since it shows that people thought of VR as a different way of presenting familiar content, but it’s actually an entirely new type of content. Altogether.
  • Stop trying to make “epic” VR happen. Related to that, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed that the tipping point for VR adoption would come as soon as one of the big publishers made the VR equivalent of Skyrim or Halo: the huge, big-budget game that will incontrovertibly prove the viability of VR as an entertainment platform. But actually playing Skyrim or Fallout in VR turns out to be a drag, in some part because you can’t just lose hours to a game in VR without noticing. The fact that most VR experiences have been brief isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The success of Beat Saber doesn’t mean that VR is a baby platform for stupid casuals, unless you’re a teenager on a message board. Instead, it means that we’re getting closer to finding out what kinds of short, dense experiences work inside a VR headset.
  • The biggest obstacle to VR is that it’s isolating and anti-social. I think it’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest investors in VR — and in fact the greatest chance for VR to reach wide adoption — is a social media company, since putting on a VR headset is about as anti-social as you can get. Sony had the right approach with their initial PSVR push, emphasizing it as the center of a social experience, but I think it ultimately came across as gimmicky and limited, like Wii Sports. Sometimes you want to shut the rest of the world out — I was surprised to see so many people touting the Oculus Go as perfect for media consumption, since I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less than watch a movie with my sweaty face stuck against a computer screen. But I think the real key to longevity and wider adoption with VR will be a way to have that sense of immersion and isolation but still have a lifeline to the outside.
  • Ease of use and convenience are always preferable to “better” technology. Back in 2016, I was 100% on Team Vive, because it had the better tracking technology, and better technology meant better immersion, right? I’ve done an almost complete reversal on that. In practice, an easier experience beats a “better” experience every single time. I think the PSVR tracking is throw-the-controllers-across-the-room-in-frustration abysmal, and the display is disappointingly fuzzy and pixelated, but it still ended up getting more overall use than the HTC Vive, simply because it was more comfortable and easier to jump into. And I suspect I played more with the Oculus Quest in the first week after I owned it, than I’d spent over the entire past year with the Vive. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a huge difference being able to set up a play space in seconds as opposed to minutes, but just that one change made VR something I looked forward to again, instead of feeling like a burden. All the videos about haptic gloves or force feedback vests or two-way treadmills to guarantee a more immersive experience seem not just silly now, but almost counter-productive in how much they miss the point.
  • At the moment, the best headset is the Oculus Quest. It’s still a mobile processor, so it sacrifices a lot of the graphical flourishes that can make even “smaller” VR experiences cool. But being able to just pick the thing up and be playing a game within a minute is more significant than any other development. I have to say that Facebook/Oculus’s efforts to make it easier to jump in and more social when you are in, are just more appealing to me than anything else happening in VR.

Facebook has been holding its Oculus Connect event this week, and in my opinion the biggest announcement by far was that the Oculus Quest —their wireless, standalone headset with a mobile processor — would soon be able to connect to a PC via a USB-C cable. That would essentially turn it into an Oculus Rift S, their wired, PC-based headset.

Full disclosure: I have to say that I was instrumental in bringing this change that made the Oculus Rift S functionally obsolete, since about a month ago, I bought an Oculus Rift S. I never expected Facebook to add a feature to one of its hardware platforms that would invalidate another of its hardware platforms, but then I’ve never really understood Facebook’s business model. And honestly, I’m kind of happy that I don’t.

But the end result is that if the technology works as described, it’ll be the best of both worlds for the Oculus Quest. You’ll still be able to have the just-pick-up-the-headset-and-start-playing experience for a lot of games. But on the occasions where you want to play a larger-scale game like No Man’s Sky, or if you’re just playing Moss and are sad at how bad the downgraded water looks when it’s so evocative on the PSVR, you can sacrifice mobility and ease of setup for higher fidelity and a bigger library.

And the other announcements — in particular, hand recognition so that there are some experiences that won’t require controllers at all; and the “Horizon” social platform that may finally make VR feel less isolating, if they get it right — are encouraging to me. I feel like the way towards wide adoption isn’t going to come from taking the most advanced technology and gradually making it more accessible, but from taking the most accessible technology and gradually making it more advanced.

And while I’m predicting the future (almost certainly incorrectly, since I think I was completely off in my predictions just three years ago): I think all the efforts that see AR and VR as competing or even different-but-complementary technologies are missing the point. I believe that the future isn’t going to look like VR or AR as they’re pitched today — putting on a headset that blinds you and has you start swinging wildly at imaginary monsters only you can see, or just projecting an existing type of mobile game onto a real-world table or showing a Pokemon on your living room table — but is going to be more like the immersive AR shown in the movie Her. People will need to be able to treat it as a continuum that goes from private to social, where they can shut out as much or as little of the outside world as they choose to at any given moment. And whether that’s an isolating dystopian future, or a magical one-world-united future, depends less on the technology itself and more on how we decide to use it.

Is the Mailman Watching Me?

My take on Walt Disney World’s “magic bands,” which will probably be misinterpreted as a defense of the NSA.


My friend Michael sent me a link to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race,” an article by John Foreman on GigaOm, and made the mistake of asking my opinion on it. I think it’s a somewhat shallow essay, frankly, but it raises some interesting topics, so in the interest of spreading my private data everywhere on the internet, I’m copy-and-pasting my response from Facebook. Overall, it seems like one of those shallow mass-market-newspaper-talks-about-technology pieces, the kind that breathlessly describes video games as “virtual worlds” in which your “avatar” has the freedom to do “anything he or she chooses.”

For starters, I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who says something like “Never will we take our children to Disney World.” (Assuming they can afford it, of course; considering that the author had just talked about vacationing in Europe and enjoying the stunningly blue waters off crumbling-economy Greece, that’s a safe assumption). Granted, I’m both childless and Disney theme park-obsessed, so my opinion will be instantly and summarily dismissed. But all the paranoia about Disney in general and princesses in particular strikes me less as conscientious parenting and more as fear-based pop-cultural Skinner-boxing. It seems a lot healthier to encourage kids to be smarter than marketing, than to assume that they’re inescapably helpless victims of it. Peaceful co-existence with the multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerate.

Which is both none of my business and a digression, except for one thing: I really do think that that mindset is what causes a lot of shallow takes on the Disney phenomenon, which are based in the assumption that people can’t see past the artificiality and enforced whimsy, so an edgier, “counter-culture” take on Disney is showing them something they haven’t seen before. It also causes the kind of paranoia about Disney that describes it as if it were an oppressive government, and not a corporation whose survival depends on mutually beneficial business transactions.

There’s no doubt that Disney wants to get more data on park guests, but that essay’s extrapolations of what they’ll actually DO with that data are implausibly silly. They’re all based on the idea that Disney would spend a ton of money to more efficiently collect a ton of data aggregated for weeks across tens of thousands of customers, and then devote all that money and effort to develop creepily specific experiences for individuals.

It’s telling that Foreman compares Disney’s magic bands to the NSA, since I think the complaints miss the point in the same way. People freak out that the government has all kinds of data on them, when the reality is that the government has all kinds of data on millions of people. The value of your anonymity isn’t that your information is private; it’s that your information is boring. All your private stuff is out there, but it’s still a burden to collate all of it into something meaningful to anyone.

This absolutely is not an attempt to excuse the NSA, by any stretch. The NSA’s breaches are a gross violation, but the violation isn’t that they’re collecting the data, so much as that they’re collecting the data against our will and without our knowledge.

Anything Disney does with the Magic Band data, at least in the next ten years or so, is going to be 1) trend-based instead of individual based, and 2) opt-in. For instance, they’ve already announced that characters can know your name and about special events like birthdays, but they’re only going to use something like that at a character meet-and-greet. For example, you’ve specifically gone to see Mickey Mouse, and he’ll be able to greet you by name and wish you a Happy Anniversary or whatever. Characters seeking you out specifically is just impractical; the park has already had enough trouble figuring out how to manage the fact that tens of thousands of people all want to get some individual time with the characters. The same goes for the bit about “modifying” a billion-dollar roller coaster based on the data they get from magic bands; it’s just as silly as assuming that you could remove floors from a skyscraper that weren’t getting frequented enough by the elevators.

It’s absolutely going to be marketing driven; anybody who says otherwise doesn’t get how Disney works. But I think it’s going to be more benign. Walt Disney World as a whole just doesn’t care about a single guest or a single family when they’ve got millions of people to worry about every day. So they can make more detailed correlations like “people who stay at the All Star resorts don’t spend time at the water parks” and adjust their advertising campaigns accordingly, or “adults 25-40 with no children spend x amount of time in Epcot.” But the most custom-tailored experience — at least, without your opting in by spending extra — is going to be something like, at most, coming back to your hotel room to find a birthday card waiting for you.

The creepier and more intrusive ideas aren’t going to happen. Not because the company’s averse to profiting from them, but because they’re too impractical to make a profit.