Thursday, April 30, 2015

Flash Fiction: Witch's Duel at High Noon

There's not been much fiction here as of late. This one is a trifle, entirely inspired by a single image. My sympathies are usually with the witch (witches get an undeserved bad reputation), but sometimes a young witch isn't very nice, and sometimes those with more traditional faith deserve our respect and love.


Sister Amanda had little against witches. Perhaps it's because - before she came here to the city -  she'd grown up in the country, among the empty places between moonlit crossroads. The kind of place where if you had a baby to be born or a sick sheep or a pain in your bowels you'd best be friends with the old, wise woman living by herself. The one who grew the herbs with magickal-sounding names, the one who always kept an open bowl of salt near her windowsill, for reasons unknown. Even before she'd taken her orders, before the hours spent in prayer and meditation, Amanda had the trick of mindfulness. She saw the sprig of mistletoe crushed between gnarled fingers, heard the whispers in a tongue older than the very hills in which she lived. Was the old woman whispering the names of demons, or a secret name of God? Amanda had never asked her but, years later she looked back at the well-birthed babies and easing of little pains she knew that the crone had done God's work.

No, Sister Amanda had little against witches.

Most of the time.

There was little question that this witch - the one who called herself Perdita - didn't care for the Lord's work. She'd seemed at first like so many other disaffected youth - all black leather, badly died hair, cheap tattoos.  An inverted crucifix clearly meant to shock, but evoking nothing but pity. She'd be another lost soul for whom to say prayer if not for the words Sister Amanda overheard. Gutteral, primitive speech from the back of her throat, a language older than the hills on which the city was built. On a bright spring day, she heard the girl whisper, saw the blood-red petals on the season's first tulips  whither and fall to the ground.

Sister Amanda had little against witches, but she'd not let this vile creature leech from  her city its beauty.

She'd grown up in the country, where one learned to respect and listen to the old wise-women. Grown up with old stories about old rules. She prayed long and hard on the matter, but with little doubt as to how the spirit would guide her. Following old customs, the challenge was made, the challenge accepted. How this was done - or how so many spectators found out about the coming duel - mattered not.

At high noon, Sister Amanda arrived at the park, her weapons rattling comfortably against eachother in the worn canvas backpack. Before her stood the young witch, in battered black and bad tattoos, a yew branch in one hand, a silver knife in the other.

Shoulders hunched forward, Perdita muttered the ancient words it had cost her so much to learn, felt the vibrance of the young spring day flow into her body, felt color fading from the flowering plants around her.

Sister Amanda drew her weapons - three bright-painted clubs, red green and blue, their handles worn smooth by decades of use. They flashed in the sunlight as she threw and caught, threw and caught criss-crossing in the ancient cascade pattern. Reflected sunlight blinkflashed the eyes of spectators and tourists with their cameraphones and smiling faces and laughing eyes.

Perdita's chanting faded behind the noise of an increasingly attentive crowd as, all around them, the flowers returned to bloom.
Image by Karen Buryiak


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Unwinding the STEM - why a career in tech is not my dream for my children

As Infocomm time grows nearer (for my non-professional connections,   Infocomm is the annual tradeshow for professional audiovisual industry) I think back towards a conversation I had at the Women in AV dinner with Kristin Rector of ListenTech. We'd been talking about family and, at the moment, about my then-seven year old daughter (in a development which is both predictable and a complete wonder to me, she's now eight. Parents will understand). Recker asked, as was fitting for the occasion, if I'd encourage her to go into the audiovisual or other technical field.  It's n obvious question with an obvious answer - STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields are, after all, the engine of the modern technology-centric economy. In an increasingly connected and tech-dependent world, we need people who understand science and tech just as much as future generations need to understand the technology which fuels their lives. So my answer was, of course, a completely equivocal "maybe. It depends."

Why? Three thoughts: reflections on what I value, the limits of technology, and the potential of the arts.

The Limits of Technology
I studied computer programming in high school and my early college years. After taking off the training-wheels of BASIC, we learned  FORTRAN and Pascal because those, of course, were the programming tools one needed in a science-based curriculum. I learned to navigate through directory trees in DOS. On the hardware side, I built some terrific High School Science projects utilizing individual logic gates on purpose-built integrated circuits - a toy car that redirects itself after collisions and a digital speech recorder with variable sample rates and playback speeds (the latter of which increased or decreased speed without changing frequency by repeating or cutting some data). Even if I hadn't forgotten more of my early programming than I have of my High School French lessons, these are specific skills which are, at this time,  quite obsolete.  

On a professional level, I had a terrific discussion about this very issue with one of my colleagues at SMW. His contention is that, while it's important for us to understand the capabilities of current technology, our greatest service is in "big picture" conceptual planning. It's nice to know exactly which product goes where, but what we excel at as consultants is creating an overall vision - and that is a much broader less narrowly technical skill.  My early AV education included learning the difference between component, composite, RGBHV, and S-video encoding. Two years ago we all learned about HDBaseT, another technology which is rapidly fading from the heard of AV system design to a side-note.  What is today indispensable will rapidly become legacy knowledge, little of which will be of any use.

Does that mean technology education is useless? Far from it. A solid education with an emphasis on theory and process can be portable, but I find it very easy to lose the forest for the trees. This is especially true for those who see the purpose of education - and this is more prevalent in STEM education - as a road to a better job. We trade the intrinsic reward of self-improvement for the extrinsic reward of a better living through application of new skill-sets. I fear - especially in the "T" and "E" facets of "STEM" - that this puts too much weight on learning to do "stuff", and not enough on understanding ideas and process. If my children are to pursue science or technology careers, I want it to be out of passion for learning how things work, not as some kind of glorified tradeschool.

Yes, we need to learn about technology. But more than that, we need to know how to think - and why.

The Power of the Arts
Two years ago I referenced a discussion I had with SMW's Rob Badenoch about IP-based transport systems. It's an interesting thought worth repeating here:

I'd said that an IP-based system allows us to create a "virtual" matrix to replace a physical one. His answer:
"no. It's not a matrix. It's making video sources available as a tool for a PC or other application. I'm sorry, that might be mere semantics."

A notebook is more valuable than a sliderule
No, it wasn't mere semantics. It was modifying the language used to describe a thing in order to better think about it in different ways. That is one practical value of a liberal arts education - we learn how to think, how to use words to shape our ideas and how to use ideas to shape the world. The ability to think about something in a different way is not only technology-agnostic, but portable to areas beyond technology.

Then, of course, there is the power and beauty in literature and philosophy. The ability to understand other cultures. The context to understand our own culture. Formal structures around which to base ethical discussions on the new quandaries technology brings us. The ability to answer "Why should we...?" as well as "How should we....?"

I've said before that, while it is the rocket scientist who gets us to the moon, it is the poet who gives us the dream of getting there.

My daughter has, as I said above, shown an aptitude for math. She's also shown an aptitude for poetry. Is one MORE worth nurturing than the other? Do we want to live in a world which is all function and no form, all practicality and no beauty? I do not. And I see the creation of beauty, even if for nothing more than its own sake, to be of great value.

What do we Value?
Another online discussion comes to mind. In the wake of baseball's annual celebration of Jackie Robinson, a commenter on New York Mets-related blog Amazin Avenue said this:

(by Ford it was later confirmed that he meant Henry, not Gerald or Betty). Bending AA's "no politics" rule until it nearly snapped, I pointed out that this is an odd, narrow, and parochial view of "most important". One major point is that it included nobody who contributed to culture; no composers, no writers, no thinkers. It also raises the question of what "important" means. Does one have to be nice to be important? One could argue that Mao has deeper footprints in history than many others listed. Yes, Ford changed the world of manufacturing. Did not people like, say, Marcel Duchamp change the direction of culture by making us question what art is? Was Kurt Vonnegut "important"? If you're a certain type of horror fan, can you escape the influence of HP Lovecraft?

In technology fields in general and the AV field in particular we create tools. Tools that can bring people together, that can make the world smaller, that can broadcast numerous visions and ideas to new audiences. Without content and without vision, all of those tools amount to deserted highways and empty containers.

We need more. We need thinkers and dreamers to guide us and to bring value to that which we do.

Would I encourage my children to enter a technology field? Again, perhaps. If for the right reasons.

But if they do, I'd encourage them to study and learn more than technology. I'd encourage them to be human first, and technologists second.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Instant Replay, Microphones, and when it's wrong to be right

How is instant replay like a gooseneck microphone?

As some of you might know, I'm a dedicated baseball fan - specifically of the New York Mets. In recent years, Major League Baseball has added an  instant replay system in which a dedicated team in a remote location are available to review close plays if a manager challenges them. Today, however, we're not talking about the technical aspects of replay, but about how a play reviewed yesterday made me think of discussions I've had about gooseneck, ceiling, and boundary microphones.

The Play 
This was a close play at home plate - one of the more exciting moments in a ballgame. The Mets were leading by a single run when Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki tried to score from third base on a sharp ground ball. A quick throw to the play just beat him, and he was tagged out by Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud, preserving the Mets lead.

Or was he?

The Marlins challenged the call, and the TV audience got to watch almost six minutes of the officiating crew listening for an answer on the phone while we watched the same replay over and over and over again. Five minutes and 45 seconds later, the officials gave the final answer: d'Arnaud's tag had just missed Ichiro on his way to the plate, and the second tag attempt was a heartbeat too late. He was safe, the score was tied (don't worry - there is a happy ending. The Mets scored again and went on to win).

There was some anger from Mets fans over what might be a bad call, some relief that "we" won anyway. What do I think? ANd what does this have to do with a gooseneck microphone? Before I answer, watch the play at full speed. Don't watch the replays. Forget what I just said.

Was he safe or out? The truth is that in real-time it happened so quickly that you could tell me either and I'd believe you. Watch five minutes of instant replays -- and we can still debated it. Perhaps we're a bit more likely to have the right answer.  Either way, however, it is not so egregious an error as to hurt my enjoyment of the game. I'd argue that my enjoyment was hurt more by having to wait for the results. Replay made the game more "fair" but less "fun".

Microphones and Microphones and Microphones
We AV professionals are often in conflict with the interiors part of design teams regarding microphones, speakers, and any other AV elements which might have to be more visible than would be ideal for aesthetics. What makes matters worse is that the best solutions from an audio perspective are often the most problematic aesthetically.  Recently I had a discussion with the manufacturer of a "delegate system" consisting of free-standing little boxes with gooseneck microphones and some simple controls. Their argument is that it made a better solution than a boundary mic or a ceiling mic. I agreed, but pointed out that whenever I propose such a thing in a high-profile boardroom with expensive furniture the architect would most certainly complain. The response:

"I hope you set them straight."

This is a problem some of us in the industry have. Like the well-meaning baseball executives who insist on making sure the calls are right, we can become obsessed with finding the best solutions. At best, this leads to excellent performance. At worst, it creates a kind of tunnel vision in which the enjoyment of a space is harmed by a lack of attention to overall experience (which includes how a space looks).

The truth is that for simple conferencing applications boundary or even ceiling microphones are adequate. They're the experienced umpire's best judgement at game-speed. A 12-inch gooseneck? That's a team in a control room with five minutes to view super-slow-motion from multiple angles.

Last year I posted about a mad-science experiment in which several mics were compared for use with a soft-codec. This is something about which I've been thinking more - especially as expectations have shifted.

Sliding Expectations
Not many years ago, if you said "videoconference" to an executive, they would think of a dedicated conference room, with integrated microphones, a DSP capable of being tuned for the specific room conditions, and possibly acoustic treatments to maximize performance. The idea would be a space built and designed for that function.

Now if you say "videoconfernce" most people will think of the Google Hangouts or Apple Facetime app on their phone. Does a room system need to be better than this to accommodate a dozen or more people? Absolutely. Is the expectation an immersive experience with the best-quality audio and video? Only in the most specialized spaces.

I'm no longer in the business of setting anybody straight; I do educated, I do try to guide clients to the right answer.

What I've learned is that sometimes the right answer is to let the call on the field stand to preserve the flow and experience of the game, even at the expense of some measure of accuracy.

IT's good to be right, but sometimes being right is not enough.

Sometimes it's even wrong. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Clean Reader, Blasphemy, and the Value of Culture

I wasn't going to say anything about the Clean Reader app. Honestly, I wasn't. Anything that needs saying on the topic has been said, and quite well. Then I ran into this piece, in which Cory Doctorow makes a free-speech argument in favor. To be fair to Doctorow, he does agree with pretty much everybody sane in that he sees Clean Reader as a terrible idea; where he and I part ways is his insistence that the use of such an app doesn't violate authors' rights and that creating tools for creating derivative works by bowldlerizing their work - often in a clumsy and ham-handed manner.

For those who've not heard, Clean Reader is a filtering app for those who like to read books but fear that their heads might explode if they are exposed to profanity. You read that correctly: there are people so afraid of seeing naughty words that they will filter them out of their books. Many authors, of course, are incensed  by what they see as editing of their work without authorization; Clean Reader claims to get around this by not actually altering the stored text but merely filtering what appears on screen. This, to me, is a distinction without a difference; if what appears on-screen is an alteration of the original text, then the app has, in effect, created a derivative work. Living authors holding copyright do have both the legal and moral right to choose how their work is distributed and viewed.  (Doctorow has always taken an extreme and, to my eyes, silly anti-copyright stance. That's a topic for a later discussion).

In what I see as his misguided defense of Clean Reader, Doctorow says something extraordinary: Free Speech isn't just the right to express yourself, it's the right not to listen. To "not listen" in this context is not to simply not read a book which you might find offensive; it's to purchase a tool to alter your perception of the text so as to expunge those things which offend your sensibilities. It violates authorial intent to the point that, should I ever get around to finish writing something, I'd rather my work not be read at all than twisted in such a manner.

The bigger issue lies in the impulse to do things like this in the first place, an impulse which has two troubling aspects: The Right to Not Be Offended and the drive to Protect the Children.

Protecting the Children
My fellow godless New York liberals may laugh at the Clean Reader brigade, especially
Hawthorn's Nursery rhyme book,
edited for content
when it comes to the censoring of body parts ("vagina" is apparently a bad work in CleanReaderland). How many of us, however, would hand our kids a copy of the Chronicles of Narnia rather than, say Pullman's His Dark Materials? How many of us would have our children read from a Bible or Torah or Koran (and I mean read it with an open mind, not as a pretext for mockery or attacks)? How many would seek out - for ourselves or our children - intelligently written work with a viewpoint different than ours?

Make no mistake -Clean Reader is not only very, very easy to mock, but those mocking it are right. That doesn't mean that mockery is the only correct response or that we shouldn't look into a mirror. I'll make a confession myself; I've edited books for content as I read them to my young children. Chloe was a very sensitive small girl, so I'd gloss over really scary parts. There was also one scene - in The Berenstein Bears Bedtime Battle, in which our ursine family was saying prayers before bed. As we discussed before, my family is atheist; we don't do prayers, particularly the sort of explicitly Christian prayer the bears say before bed. So... I would skip the page. It's something one can get away with if before ones kids learn how to read. I'm not in bad company with this; Nathaniel Hawthorne (who may or may not have been the inspiration for our Nate's name, depending on which day you ask me) marked up some stories in a book of fairy-tales as "not to be read to [his daughter] Uma", and excised the worst bits. True story.

How do I feel about that today? I've grown more likely to share things that don't exactly fit our worldview - to an extent. Chloe did read the Narnia books, Christian allegory and all. Today I'm less likely to skip a "say your prayers" part of a story. Why? Because cultures or ideas different than mine shouldn't be painted as "scary" or "other" or as a big mystery. It should just be part of life - albeing different lives than ours.

Not Being Offended - Blasphemy and Trigger Warnings
This is something that's flitted in and out of the news over the past months, particularly with events like the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in France, Draw Mohammed Day and other such events. My position on this one is complicated; I see no value in deliberately causing offense for its own sake. Cruelty is not fun, nor is it useful social commentary. To deliberately attack for no other reason is not only cruel, it paradoxically cedes control of the conversation to those fundamentalists most focused on avoiding such imagery; drawing Mohammed just because someone told you not to do so is as much putting them in control of your expression as would doing the opposite.

More complicated is the idea of "trigger warnings" for contents which might hurt those who are trauma victims. This is something which certain online communities take quite seriously. Is it wise, or kind to censor - or at least label - depictions of rape, for example, in deference to rape victims who might not be in a proper headspace to view such things? I'd answer "perhaps", but it's clearly more complicated than that. There's plenty of great and quite important art and literature - from the very oldest writings through today - which depict quite painful topics. Should we slap trigger warnings on Shakespeare for violence, sex, and suicide, or - worse - create bowdlerized versions without uncomfortable themes (Disney Shakespeare, perhaps)? I'd say no to both,  as I see more value in art which contains some measure of darkness and of complexity. Yes, I believe in the cultural commons and in the right to create derivative works; in this respect I'm likely with Doctorow in saying that such a thing shouldn't be illegal. I'm also with him in thinking it without serious merit.

Is this smart?
I'll add that simple "search and replace" toys like the CleanReader app are pretty much useless for this; they'll miss, for example, the heavily-implied rape scene in AStreetcar Named Desire. Editting for content is problematic enough; if we must, we should do so mindfully.

The conclusion is the same regardless; creation of little islands within the greater culture in which not only are we not looking at the same thing, we look at ONLY those things which reinforce our worldview. The larger purpose of art - to inform, to challenge, to communicate new ideas - is replaced by literary comfort food, reinforcing the ideas with which we're already comfortable. While that might not be terrible - we all need comfort at times - I'd say that it is not enough. We should seek out ideas which challenge us, even those which offend us.