Friday, May 29, 2015

Flash FIction Friday - The Haunted

I love social media. I love selfies, I love instagrammed food pictures, I love all the ways in which we share tiny slices of our lives. It's a new art form, a new form of self expression.

It's Flash Fiction Friday - enjoy this meditation on social media.


"I envy you the sunlight".

It wasn't the creepiest comment in response a bikini pic, but it's about what you've come to expect. The sad price of being a girl on the internet willing to post selfies in anything more reavealing than an afghan. Sometimes you click to see who they are, sometimes you'll report or even troll back, but mostly it's the whackamole game of blocking one anonymous lech and waiting for six more to take his place. This one is another egg with no history. Block, rinse repeat.

"Describe to me the taste".

 A blue-head commenting on a repost of last night's salad pic. Yes, you instragram your food. No, you're not ashamed of it and yes, your parents' generation never took pictures of food. Because pictures were on film and film was fucking expensive. If you use today's tech like an extension of yesterday's you'll never get anywhere. Some science writer said that, or maybe a science-fiction writer. Or a character in a book. You just know it makes sense, OK? Anyway, the salad was gorgeous and colorful - crumbly white goat-cheese, deep red beetrooot, bright orange sprinkle of shredded carrot. It tasted OK, but colorwise it's a work of art. So you took a picture.

Anyway, it's weird to see an anonymous on your food pic; it's usually the selfies that bring out the creeps. Is this just a clueless n00b why didn't bother with a profile pic yet? You answer.

"It tasted good."

"Tell me more. Sweet? Tangy? Sour? How did it feel on your tongue? AGainst your teeth? Tell me."

"The dressing was a grapefruit vinagrette, so a bit sour. The lettuce was still crunchy, and the cheese was soft. The beets were nicely firm.

"You must really like salad."

"I wish I could eat salad."

"Why can't you?"

"The Dead don't eat."

Great. Another weirdo. He seemed like just a normal guy with a salad fetish, but that took a creepy turn really fast.

The next day a completely anonymous "like" on one of your workout pics. Yeah, workout pics is a thing too. It can be inspirational.

Maybe you start to wonder, maybe you'll start to figure it out.

So many discarded accounts on social media, so many half-formed empty husks.

So much space for us.

And - with your selfies and your foodpics and the like - so much of what we miss.

As you'd said about that one bedroom studio apartment, it isn't much, but it's a home. 

There are more empty spaces, and more being made every day. The eggs, the blue-heads, all empty husks. 

Like I said, maybe you'll figure it out. 

Maybe someday, after your body is interred, you'll join us here.

Until then, remind me about the sun, and lunch, and fresh air.

Until then, give me life, or some facsimile. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pixels and Erasable Ink - Could I be wrong?

Those of you who follow my musings on the world of professional AV know that I can be skeptical at times. I'm skeptical about AVB. I was skeptical about video over IP. I'm skeptical about the continued value of HDBaseT. What I try not to be is cynical; it's good to start off questioning new assumptions, but it's equally important to balance those questions with an open mind. Technology, after all, is not a static thing. What made sense yesterday might be pure folly tomorrow. With that in mind, I'd like to tell you about two points on which I might be wrong.

AVB - Is it dead yet?
This is a question one of my colleagues asked me last year at the Infocomm trade show. The question had a pleading tone, as if wishing for what increasingly looks like a zombie technology to be put out of its misery. We'd all seen the same proof-of-concept video-over-AVB streaming demo two years running at that point. We saw one major DSP manufacturer choose an audio transport system based on AVB while nearly everyone else chose Audinate's Dante protocol. We saw the major manufacturers of network switches decline to support AVB year after year. In short, we saw a very promising technology losing a format war.

Or did we?

After years wandering down the same dead-end path, the AVNu alliance (the people behind the creation of the AVB standard) finally realized their biggest problem. It's a problem unrelated to bandwidth requirements of low-latency AV transport, unrelated to network traffic shaping, unrelated to questions of layer 2 or layer 3 protocols. It's so simple a problem that we can all understand it, and we all should have seen it sooner.

The problem is the name.

The problem is that the name leads to comparisons like the one I just made with Dante which is, to be honest, a poor comparison.

We've all known for years that AVB is not a streaming technology; it is a suite of IEEE 802.1xx standards for bandwidth reservation and time synchonization over networks. Solving the "lip sync" problem for separate audio and video streams is one application of this technology. It is also of vital importance, for example, in syncing control and sensor signals for electronically controlled manufacturing processes. Whatever transport technologies we use today can be enhanced by access to the tools within AVB, not replaced by them. The debate between AVB and Dante is a bit like saying that you don't believe that a series of new high-speed carpool lanes  would make a difference because you're driving a Prius. It's a non-comparison.

The problem is that the name "AVB" for "Audio Video Bridging" sounds like a transport technology and has been, to a very large extent, marketed as one. What does AVB do? It creates a bridge over which one sends audio and video signals.  Audio manufacturers with AVB compliant products don't help this when they describe "audio over AVB" not "network audio taking advantage of AVB's timing protocols".  I know that AVB is a suite of 802.1xx standards, but when I hear the words "Audio Video Bridging" my brain sees a transport protocol. As is often the case, language informs thought.

To solve this problem, AVB has picked up a new name; TSN or "Time Synchronized Networking". This divorces AVB from the "A" and the "V", aligning the language with what the standard actually is.

So will our future AV over IP systems take advantage of these new protocols? Perhaps - if those are the systems we build. Or perhaps there won't be a large enough volume of networks requiring time synchronization for these tools ever to be widely adopted. Time will tell.

For AV transport, there is another option.

HDBaseT - A Bridge to Itself?
I, and many others, have described HDBaseT as a "bridge technology" between yesterday's point-to-point systems and tomorrow's video over IP systems. In an earlier post I spoke about the value of HDBaseT and what advantages and disadvantages it has over IP video. Most of that is absolutely correct today. It might be the opposite of correct tomorrow.
The bridge is a metaphor

I had the pleasure of a terrific conversation with Micha Risling, marketting director of the HDBaseT alliance. Mr. Risling pointed me to part of the HDBaseT 2.0 specifation I'd admittedly payed too little attention to at the time. Take a moment to look at this image from the HDBaseT alliance website, comparing 1.0 to 2.0.

Does that look familiar to you? It should; it's quite similar to the OSI stack. For years we've thought of HDBaseT as something that looks like an IP network but isn't; it's a point to point transport technology using the same physical topology - but no the same logical topology - as IP.

Or is it?
This layercake looks familiar
(image from

There is, as of the release of the 2.0 spec, no reason that HDBaseT cannot exist in a packet-switched environment similar to any other network, using "HDBaseT switches" more akin to the network switches we know and love than the AV matrix switches of today. Such switches would use an internal addressing scheme, signals would be routable between switches, and the overall scalability problems of current HDBaseT systems would be a thing of the past. The HDBaseT alliance sees their dedicated video network as a better solution than a "converged" network for AV transport. Bandwidth requirements for uncompressed video - especially at resolutions of 4K or beyond - could be, at the very least, challenging to implement on a larger network. HDBaseT is purpose-built for video transport with, they claim, better cross-network optimization than the IP we know and love.

Will all of this come to fruition? I don't know; what I DO know is that the chipset for such an "HDBaseT switch" is in development today, and that we might not be that far from seeing HDBaseT as a packet-switched technology rather than point-to-point as is currently the case.

If HDBaseT has a "language problem", it's the opposite of the problem AVB has; as HDBaseT sounds enough like "100BaseT" (fast ethernet) and "1000BaseT" (gigabit ethernet) to cause confusion, we've all worked very hard to remind ourselves that it is a very different thing with a different logical topology. That it might not be so different after all is, to say the least, jarring.

Will the benefits of HDBaseT switching balance the challenges of deploying and maintaining parallel but separate networks? Will the demands of video on converged networks push us to separate networks anyway? Many questions remain and the devils are, as always, in the details.

Whatever may come, we'll talk about it when it gets here. You can expect to hear me question it, but with an open mind and open eyes.
Time will tell if my initial guesses are proven right or wrong.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday - Community, Hashtags, and The Future of AV!

This will be one of two upcoming Flash Fiction Fridays dealing with the moon, and more science-fictional than my usual fare. As readers of this blog know, I not only work in the audiovisual field, but also have a somewhat active presence in the AV online community, including occasional appearance on AV-related podcasts, this blog, and the AV twitterati. AV twitter peeps (referring to ourselves with the hashtag #AVTweeps).

A massive #AVSelfie
One thing at which some AVTweeps have done an excellent job is the creation of community through shared experiences - often trivial ones. Last year at Infocomm (the annual AV tradeshow) Chris Neto came up with the idea for the "#AVSelfie" hashtag; people were encouraged to take selfies either at the show or with AV equipment. There was even, believe it or not, a music video. If you don't blink you'll see your favorite pixel-and-inkstained wretch, taking a selfie at the moment the song premiered (on the AVWeek podcast).

More recently, there's a weekly #AVHashtags game; a weekly joke hashtag with which we AVTweeps play. We've had AVTVshows, we've ReplacedAVWithFruit, and other silliness.

This year's game was #Infocomm2099 - imagining the AV industry through a trade show nearly 75 years in the future. I love the future, and like the idea of using small details from press-releases, foot-notes, and what would be other "found" writing to sketch a picture of future worlds. This is too much to cram into 140 characters on Twitter, so I give to you the following Two Excerpts from the Infocomm2099 Program.



"Two Excerpts from the Infocomm2099 program"

Training, Day 1
Tuesday, 9AM
Vid127 (Video, Intermediate), Instructor: Glenn Yorreazz. Use of standing tachyon waves to achieve lip-sync in non-deterministic video systems
    • For as long as video streaming has been with us, so too have lip-sync issues. Explore the use of time itself to solve the conumdrum!
Net103 (Network, Basic), Instructor: Jarash Gosou. Mystifying Time-Aware Networks.
    • Explore the metaphysics behind this newest incarnation of the soon-to-be-adopted TAW suite of IEEE protocols. Originally introduced as audiovideo bridging, this is a technology whose time has come. Learn why you'll expect to start seeing TAW products next year.
Aud322 (Audio, Advanced), Instructor Glenn Yorreazz. Catching the retro "wave" - the use of air pressure waves as an audio transport tool
    • Discuss the opportunities and challenges inherent in this age-old alternative to subcutaneous speaker implants or direct neural transmission.
Vid127 (Video, Basic): Instructor Marco Knox. Quantum Entanglement and HDCP7.2
    • Understand the physics behind the newest digital content protection standard, including a discussion of the continuing issues we have with the HDMI9.7 standard which still lacks a locking connector.
Gen133 (General, intermediate): Instructor, Glenn Yorreazz: Time Management Techniques
    • Learn how the instructor is using temporal fugue to teach three simultaneous courses while walking the show-floor and visiting the nearby theme park.

Special Event: Lunar Projection Mapping
Congratulations to the Infocomm member known as AVSunrise, of NewBoston. In a first, her winning design will be projected onto the moon itself using multiple banks  Sircthie Digital's new advanced TurboLaser projectors, placed throughout the hemisphere. See the following Q&A with Sirchtie spokesman Dick Bowlerton.

Q: Tell us about this project
A: The TurboLASER projector is a first in its class. Centuries-out-of-date regulations limit use of LASER light in earth-based projection, but sending light to the moon is safe and effective.

Q: Tell us a bit about the technology
A: Light engines are located at various generation hubs (ie, Pacific tidal generators, Hoover Dam), with light pumped to transmission units via fiber optics. We'd planned a field-trip to the Southwest Windfarms, but the prototype wasn't read last year and this, as you know, is an Orlando year.

Q: How do you answe concerns that the focused energy would be any danger to the newly active Lunar tectonics, and the lawsuits threatening to shut the project down?
A: This is very, very highly unlikely. Our engineers are confident that the moon will survive! If it doesn't survive, out multi-body algorithm will be quite well suited for projecting images on the ensuing dust cloud. Just kidding about that last part. But it really would work.

Q: What else is new from Sirchtie?  

A: Inerplanetary mapping is a big thing. More of this will be detailed in the free interactive neural upload "Book of Explorations", including a new plan to "paint" canals on the surface of Mars, several major advertising initiatives, and a few surprises. At last, we can see the world as we see it in our imaginations. Expect new wonders, new miracles. The world is our canvas.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Wire Management, Flyball pitchers, and an awkward-looking shortstop

I recall a mathematics professor using an HL Mencken quote to describe a particularly intractable physics puzzle:

"Explanations exist. They have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."

(I'm certain that the abovementioned professor paraphrased Mencken, but thanks to the power of the internet we can get the quote right).

Three discussions I had over the past week brought this idea to mind, and have me reflecting on the limits of intuition and of statistics, both professionally and recreationally:
  1. A discussion of the defensive ability of New York Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores
  2. Predictions on future success of Mets pitcher Carlos Torres
  3. A discussion on the AV Installation Nightmares Facebook group on the merits of plastic cable ties as opposed to hook-and-loop straps to bundle category cable.

What do the above have in common? All are, to some of us, important questions. None are within our ability to intuitively answer. What it comes down to, in the end, is almost a question of epistemology: how does one know that an assertion is true?

A Data Driven World - When Statistics are the Answer
We know things today. Gathering data is a skill at which we have become quite adept. One high-profile example of this is in election predictions: there has always been a great deal of polling and data gathering before elections. In recent years it's become possible - even easy - to gather data from wide areas over years, make comparisons, and see which correlations appear stable over time. This lead, for example, to several statistics-based analysts (ie, Nate Silver of "538" and Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium) to predict the last Presidential and midterm election with nearly frightening accuracy. More traditional pundits relying on fewer numbers but more experience and intuition ran into one of Mencken's neat, plausible, and wrong explanations.
Warmups at CitiField, Queens NY

The key is in knowing what one knows and how to leverage that knowledge. This brings us to the discussion of Carlos Torres, relief pitcher for the New York Mets. In a discussion on the Amazing Avenue blog, one commenter asserted that based on statistical analysis, Torres' early success was based largely on luck. A more "traditional" view would be to look at simple statitics such as "earned run average" - the number of runs allowed per nine innings - or "batting average against" - how often opposing batters hit safely. Looking more deeply, Torres had a greater number of walks per nine innings pitched than expected, and possibly a lower "batting average for balls in play"; looking at these statistics, it appears more apparent that his success is a bit of a statistical anomaly.

What fascinated me is that that didn't end the discussion. Another poster - a young man going by the handle "noahmets" who is about to begin an internship with baseball analysis website Harball Times. Noah's contention is that one can look at a set of statistics called  "Pitch f(x)" which give details of the exact location, result (ie, swing and miss, put in play, pitch taken) and even spin-rate of each thrown ball. This data is available via sensors which have been installed in every major league ballpark since 2006. Having this extra data lets us see more and, hopefully, derive stats which are more stable over time. He was able to add a dizzying alphabet soup of pitching statistics which control for ballpark and other variables. What was once conjecture can now become predictive.

A similar discussion about shortstop Wilmer Flores eventually went nowhere; to the more "visually oriented" fans he looks awkward and appears to have limited range. To the statistically-oriented fans his numbers look just fine. The problem with the statistical argument is that he's played very few games at shortstop thus far, and those numbers have fluctuated wildly over this time. Statistics can only give an answer with a workable statistical model and sufficient data; in the case of defensive range, I'm not convinced that we have either.

How does any of this relate to AV? In the abovementioned install nightmares group, somebody posted a picture of an AV rack mid-wiring. In what was meant to be playful teasing, I "tsk tsk'd" him for using plastic cable ties on category cable. What followed was a discussion on why one should use hook-and-eye (ie, velcro) straps instead of cable ties, IF one should do so, if it even makes a difference. My arguments against plastic ties:
  1. Ties fastened too tightly can deform the precisely-manufactured cable, increasing crosstalk between pairs
  2. It's very easy to accidentally overtighten, especially if fastening many of them
  3. BICCSI standards recomment against using nylon or plastic cable ties
  4. A white paper from Valens Semiconductor (maker of the chipset at the heart of HDBaseT transport systems) recommends hook-and-eye straps.

AV professional William Bloomquist had what looked like a data-driven argument against. His point:
  1. Many people use nylon ties without a problem.
  2. There are no failure statistics detailing how many failures are caused by compression caused by overtightened cable ties.

Do you see the key difference between this analysis and the above discussion on relief pitchers? We can very precisely analyze pitching because we have very precise data; Pitch f(x) is in all major league ballparks and measures every single pitch in every major league game. THis is not so for cable failures; if video doesn't pass on one cable it gets re-terminated, re-re-terminated, and perhaps replaced without anybody performing a post-mortem or a root-cause analysis on the failure. There's no pitch f(x) database listing all of the cable failures  across the industry on which we can perform analysis, no decades of polling.
Hook-and-eye cable straps, detail.

What we're left with are best practices designed to minimize failure. When I write  a bid specification, I'll include hook-and-eye fasteners for category cable because I know that that will eliminate one potential source of technician error and, ultimately, failure. Absent statistical proof, we're with the scouts evaluating shortstops based on experience and hands-on analysis. In short, with no real-world statistics and without my own laboratory, I'm left with what other experts have measured and presented. Whitepaper from Valens. Whitepapers from cable manufacturers. Best practices from those organizations in the IT industry whose job it is to know what they're talking about. 

I applaud people like Bloomquist for being prudent and insisting on statistics to back up our choices. Sometimes one needs to take a step back to understand which data is available and the limits of real-world statistical analysis. This has given me food for thought, but at the end of the day I'll still be requesting hook-and-eye straps to bundle category cable

Monday, May 18, 2015

OLED! LED! Plasma(RIP)! On display technologies

OLED! LED!  Plasma(RIP)!  There are, today, quite a few technologies for video displays. What does it mean? What's best? Today we'll talk about video displays. This is an AV post, but if you're a "regular" user and curious about some of the buzzwords stick around.

Last week I stopped by at the Sapphire Marketing Roadshow as it  traveled to my city of New York. Sapphire, as my AV friends know, is the rep firm for Crestron, Digital Projection, Vaddio, RPVisual, and Silicon Core. The latter was the brand I was most interested in seeing face-to-face. They might not be a household name outside the AV industry, but they have the most eye-catching product at this show: direct-view LED displays.

Plasma and LCD
Display technology has gotten confusing since the days when televisions were big and the only choice was a CRT screen. I'll assume you know that a video image is made up of tiny dots called pixels, and that a high-definition image measures 1920 pixels across by 1080 down. A "4K - UHD" display doubles each dimension, to 3840x2160 (the purists in the industry don't consider this "true" 4K as the horizontal pixel count is less than  4000 pixels. Aspect ratios are another topic). Today's question is what those pixels are, and how we light them up.
Comparison of plasma display
to a fluorescent lightbulb
(from my personal notes taken during
Jonathan Brawn's Advanced Display

You can, without being too far wrong, think of a plasma display as an array of very tiny fluorescent lights (this is a metaphor. You'll remember that I like metaphors). Each element contains a phosphour which, when hit by an electron will admit a certain wavelength  of light. Red, green, and blue phosphours will be combined to create the full range of color; when they're lit they're on, and when they're off they're off - more on this tautology later. Plasma is considered an emissive display technology because each elements emits light.

An LCD tv works differently. An LCD screen is a sort of glass sandwhich; the "bread" is a polarizing filter on the inside (facing the light source) and the liquid crystal on the outside (facing the viewer). In between are colored filters which give us our red, green, and blue pixels. An electrical charge applied to the liquid-crystal element would twist the crystal to align its polarization with the inner layer, letting light through. LCD displays are transmissive in that each element allows light to be transmitted from a white source.

Which is better? This is a question I've heard a great many times before the slow death of plasma. For viewing experience, emissive technologies are better. Remember when I said that an element that was "off" is off? That means that "black" on a plasma display is truly black - no light. "Black" on an LCD will always have some leakage; it's a darkish-grey masquerading as black.

So why did plasma die? Plasma displays are very heavy. They use a great  deal of energy. And they are susceptible to "burn in". Phosphours degrade as they emit light. This not only means that the entire image dims over time, but that displaying a static image may degrade one group of elements more than the rest, leaving a persistent "ghost image" on the display.
Edge-lit vs backlit (source as above)

Did I hear someone ask, "What about my LED TV"? LED TVs (not OLED or direct-view LED walls which we'll talk about later) are a special case of LCD display. Remember that "light source" I was talking about earlier? In older models that was a compact fluorescent bulb. IN newer ones, it's white LEDs, placed either at the perimeter of the viewing area (edge-lit) or behind it (back-lit). Back-lighting creates a brighter, more evenly lit image, while edge-lighting allows flat panels to be made almost absurdly thin.

Organic light-emitting diodes (or OLED) is an emissive technology, involving organic molecules which behave as LEDs. As with a plasma display, each color is directly emitted. Also as is the case with plasma, these elements will degrade with use. Your ten year old television? That would be functioning at less than half the brightness as when it was new if it used OLED. It's a great technology (in my opinion) for cell-phones. By the time your phone display has noticeably degraded you're very likely to have replaced it with a newer model for other reasons (processor speed, screen size, amount of memory, etc). You're even more likely to have dropped it and shattered the screen in the first place.

Direct-view LED
This brings us back to the Silicon Core display at the Sapphire roadshow; Silicon Core is one of several manufacturers of large-format emissive displays which use individual LEDs for each pixel. The challenge with those has always been "pixel pitch" or the distance between elements. Older LED displays, with a pixel-pitch over 2mm, are only well-suited for applications in which the viewer is very far away; closer, one sees "dots". We now can pack them in much closer; Silicon Core's "Lavender" display has a pixel pitch of 1.2mm. It's one of the prettiest displays I've seen, with two clear drawbacks:

Photos don't do this justice
First, there's cost. Not only are they expensive to purchase, they are expensive and difficult to mount. A large LED display of this type is made of many smaller (about a foot and a half square) blocks, each of which needs to be placed within a very tight tolerance to give a seamless-looking image. Because maintenance and connectivity is at the rear, this often involves a complicated "scissors" type mount with moving parts allowing for some kind of front-access. 

Secondly, there's a manufacturer-specific issue with Silicon Core: their current "top of the line" model is called Lavender. Previous models, with larger pixel pitches, include Magnolia, Peony, Orchid, Sunflower, and Tulip. I'm afraid that before too long they'll run out of recognizable and pleasant flower-names, and we'll be stuck with "Stinkweed" or "Corpse Plant". 

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Story of the Battle with the Faeries, Told Twice

Here's a very quick sketch; another take on last week's "Fairy House" story. I'm not sure how I feel about this one; it's a little bit too "on the nose", but I like the idea of looking at myth from different perspectives.

I wonder what stories the fey folk tell about the humans.


There's a story we tell around the campfire. You heard it from your father who heard it from his father. It's the men's story. It's your story.

The first hero was born ... many generations ago now. Nobody knows how long, but they know that it was a different time. The very woods were different then. Closer. There were fewer paths, denser brambles. More space for them to hide. They'd come right to your land, sometimes steal a sheep, sometimes dig up your crops.  They'd steal children, leaving behind strange changelings who would grow into strange manners. Sometimes you'd see a flash of irridescent wings fluttering off to the wood, but that was it. Nobody got a close look. Until the hero.

Sometimes the stories start with fire, sometimes with trickery. You've always liked those better; always loved imagining the hero dressed in uncured sheepskin, half-buried in a vegetable patch, posed on a stake like a scarecrow. Ever alert for the flutter of irridescent wings.

The ones with fire are good too. You can sit around a smoky campfire with too-damp wood and imagine the brambles burning, imagine the little winged creatures staggerfluttering out of them. THe smoke stings your eyes.

The stories always end with iron. The iron of the axe, the iron of blood.

Those were the oldest stories. Later ones the heroes were bolder, trecking deeper into the woods, in hidden places beyond the sight of men. They tell stories of the times we still would see irridescent wings, still worry about a stolen sheep or a child swapped for a changeling.

There's a story we tell around the campfire.  Your heard it from your mother who heard it from hers. It's a women's story. It's one we don't speak of to the men.

It started, you must understand, with a great shame. Men are fragile, men hate to see a child who doesn't act like them, doesn't swagger like them, can't swing an axe like them. They hate to see a weak child, hate to know they sired it. So, it was - at one time - easier to tell a story. That the weak boy wasn't of their seed or our bodies, but a changeling, a made-thing switched by the fey folk so they might steal a bit of our power.

A woman who births a weak boychild is beaten. A woman whose child is stolen is pitied. That's a lesson we learned early.

The boys' stories tell what happens next. It isn't meant for our ears, but we know. It always ends in flame and blood.

So... leave a saucer of cream by the back door. Say it's for the stray cats, and the boys will dismiss you as a weak and sentimental.

When you're cleaning, build a little nest in  the empty spot under the steps. Put fresh water, put something soft for them to sleep on.

And, late at night, when your child sleeps - keep the crib close by.

Just in case.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Meatsuits and the Limits of Metaphor - On Gender Identity UI, and How to Think

Today's post is seems to be about disparate topics, but at its heart regards something quite important to me as a writer and, perhaps surprisingly, as an AV designer. Today we're talking about metaphor.

Last week I came across this drawing by British artist Alice Hershel, drawing under the name Glytxh (the drawings are quire charming and cleverly done. If you want to see more, you can follow her on Google Plus or even venture to her GoFundMe for a chance to own your very own ink-and-paper hardcopy of the collection, delightfully titled "Whim").

From Whim, by Glytxh

Many people (myself included) reshared he image as a clever statement of support for those whose expressed gender doesn't match that of their birth. Then someone gave this reply:

...I was never trapped in the wrong body. It's my body, so it's a woman's body - it just had some medical issues. Being raised as a boy is part of who I am, and I can't truly be part of myself if I fight to discard that. So put the meatsuit back on, sharpie that O--> to a O+ (or a smileyface) and fight to be yourself, whoever and whatever that awesome person is".

What followed was a discussion about how "trapped in the wrong body" is a metaphor - and one which can be uncomfortable for those who either don't want to or do not have the means to change their bodies. On the positive, for those who have body issues this thinking creates a division between the essential "self" within and the physical shell. As CS Lewis once said, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."

"But Leonard," I hear you saying, "You're an atheist. You don't believe in souls. Why are you quoting a Christian apologist?" My answer is simple: I don't believe in souls as a literal thing, but I DO believe in metaphor and even, to an extent, in myth. I also believe that something can be "true" (that I what defines my "self" is more than my physical body" without being literally true.

So is a soul trapped in the wrong body a good metaphor for gender transition? (For a high-profile example, think of Jenner - an individual whose crowning accomplishments were of the body. How does saying that someone like Jenner is "trapped in the wrong body" inform how we - and they - see the work they put into having success with that body?)   Or a caterpillar metamorphizing into a butterfly? Or, as the above commenter noted, a person using the raw materials of themselves to create something new? It likely depends on the situation and on  the person. What I'm most glad of is that we're reaching for metaphors other than a model of "disease". To no longer look at a trans man as a broken woman or a trans woman as a broken man is a step forward. The next step is to listen to our trans friends and better learn the different ways in which we can think about this matter.

Metaphor and UI

Are my AV friends still here? I've not forgotten you! I DO have a point about AV system design, which is this: even in an increasingly connected world technology - especially the kind of bespoke technology for specific environments we in the AV industry have come to know and love - is not something with which the human race has the centuries of experience to be able to conceptualize instinctively. We can describe form, we can describe function. We can also, as we create new technologies and interfaces, rely on metaphor.

One route - perhaps the simplest - is to use a technology with which most people are familiar in order to describe something new. I'm reminded especially of a discussion with SMW's Associate Principal Robert Badenoch. Badenoch is quite an accomplished AV designer with a great measure of knowledge and experience about audio systems, especially the acoustic requirements for performance spaces. What I find even more valuable - the skill which is very hard to teach - is that he knows how to think and how to help other people think constructively. One thinks with metaphor.

The discussion about which I am thinking took place perhaps a year and a half ago while we were working on the control specification for a fairly complicated system including three cameras, five video displays (two of which are annotative), two dedicated PCs, a wireless video input appliance, a recording appliance, and more laptop inputs than you can shake a (USB) stick at. To create something user-friendly for such an environment is a challenge.

In one early bit of discussion he said that the control system could be like either the CATV remote you have in your home or like ones shopping cart. In the former case, each interaction with the control creates an action on the settop box; it will change the channel, change the volume, or move the STP to "Menu" mode. The interface - your handheld remote - remains static. The Amazon shopping card is different; the interface will change to display various bits of product information as you select items, and those items will queue in your virtual shopping cart (another metaphor!). The actual action - moving funds from your bank to Amazon - doesn't happen until you've made all of the selections and hit the "checkout" button. It's also the way a technician-oriented "routing" control would work (Source, source, source, destination, take).

The brilliance of such an approach is that we can take something which is, by nature, unfamiliar and describe it in terms with which our audience has an instinctive understanding. The drawback and danger is the same as with Glyxth's "Meatsuit" - if one carries  the metaphor too far, it can inform your thinking in ways you may not want. If I look at the UI in a conference room as a handheld remote, for example, it's easy to get locked into a "single buttonpress/single action" form of thinking. There may be some times when one wants a keypress to do more than one thing, or be context-specific. Or when one wants to react to something other than a keypress. At best, metaphor gives us the ability to both direct our thoughts and communicate with both end-users and fellow professionals. At worst, we're the well-meaning ally inadvertently telling our trans friends to hate their bodies and - by extension - parts of themselves.

No way to treat specialized AV cabling.
Will this be your HDMI cable tomorrow?
This question - of how to think and communicate - is the one constant in an ever-changing AV industry. I'll close with another metaphor: Last week I needed a tie-down for the trunk of my car and didn't have any bungee-cords at the ready. What I did have was a scrap of cable which must have been lying there for years; after I finished tying  it up I realized that the cable was low-skew UTP with equal  wire-lengths to preserve sync between colors when extending analog RGBHV video. I realized that it's a cable I would never again use for anything as the equal twist rates make it useless for actually carrying data. It's a specialized bit of AV cable from yesteryear, now only useful as a rope. This is what happens to yesterday's technical knowledge, while the bigger lessons of how to think endure.