Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Incomprehensible implies Boring?

Lawrence Downes writes a New York Times opinion Edison, Unplugged talking about the beauty of listening to music recorded in the 20's and 30's on a cylinder.
And there is another pleasure, too. It's the warmth of the technology. There are surely downloadable versions of "True Blue Lou." But unlike the MP3, whose magic is incomprehensible and thus boring, the wax cylinder is viscerally miraculous. It's staggering to think that lungs and plucked strings could vibrate the air, wiggle a stylus and capture a song for 100 years on a fragile thing that looks like a toilet paper roll. Compared with the iPod, it's a lot more human, a lot more accessible, a lot easier to love.
Downes has it backwards. The cylinder technology is very simple and provides a mediocre reproduction of the original music. Meanwhile the MP3 and other compression schemes use beautiful computer science ideas to make a strong digital copy, easily produced and portable, superior to cylinders in every way.

Luckily Downes is the outlier. He can enjoy scratchy music on his "toilet paper roll" while the rest of us enjoy music that sounds like the original on devices we can carry in our pocket, even if most people don't understand the details of technology involved.


  1. Given the title, I thought this post would be about conference talks.

  2. As much as I love toilet paper, one has to admit that there's no substitute for the real thing. Yet toilet paper remains among the top ten greatest inventions of all time.

    The problem with i-Pod is not the clever technology; it's the convenience. The experience of hearing a sound has everything to do with the context in which it's heard. People often listen to i-Pods while they are completely distracted with other activities. If all music was heard live (or through special recording exhibtitions), we would be forced to listen carefully. This would strengethen our listening ability. Instead, musicians are generating watered down i-Pod music to suit people who aren't even listening to it.

    Secondly, it's impossible to capture the context of an original or unique sound source, regardless of sound quality. No matter how good the sound is, for example, you'll never convince yourself that you're sitting is a cathedral for a choir concert while you're riding in a subway car. Dramatic aspects of music are seldom captured by even the highest quality recordings. Furthermore, higher quality recordings always distort the natural accoustic settings which they purport to capture.

    For similar reasons, you won't learn as much from watching a lecture on a high-quality video screen as you will from actually attending.

  3. It is so easy to forget that the mass reproductioin cylinder technology is very similar to the way they make the IPOD.

  4. He can enjoy scratchy music on his "toilet paper roll" while the rest of us enjoy music that sounds like the original...

    Wow. That was kind of harsh. I doubt Downes was saying that he would like to replace all MP3s with cylinder recordings; just that there is (to him) something "missing" in the former. Do you not see any truth to what he is saying? Would you experience no difference between reading a manuscript hand-written by Einstein (or pick your favorite figure...) and reading a pdf?

  5. man, the ignorance displayed here is taken to new levels. your ph.d. in computer science qualifies you as nothing musically, dumbass.

    ever heard of dynamic range? go look it up.

    bye now, you've said far too many stupid ignorant things for me to bother reading your drivel any longer.

  6. Would you experience no difference between reading a manuscript hand-written by Einstein (or pick your favorite figure...) and reading a pdf?

    For me, a pdf with the tex fonts that my brain is used to interpreting is much easier to read than human scrawlings.

  7. I can certainly tell the difference between an iPod and live music; I'll happily listen to almost anything live while I'm a lot pickier about what I put on my iPod. The improved listening experience of live music generally makes up for the mismatch in taste between the musicians and myself.

    That said, re teutsch's comment, I fail to see why convenience is a problem, nor why being forced to listen carefully is a virtue. And for most situations in which I listen to my iPod, the choice isn't live vs recorded music, it's recorded music vs none.

  8. Most almost incomprehentable proofs are boring.

  9. >>ever heard of dynamic range? go look it up.<<

    Once they release you from the loony bin you should go join your other tone-deaf brethren at one of the many "audiophile" forums on the internet celebrating toilet paper, absolute polarity, shunt regulators, 5U4G rectifier tubes, Jensen RP-302A super tweets, their dynamic ranges and so on and so forsooth.

    Good bye.

  10. if you wanna listen to cylinders you can online