Audiophile humour

I take my music systems somewhat seriously. The average boombox isn’t for me, and though I was initially impressed with my first “serious” system — a pair of Bose bookshelf speakers coupled to a Kenwood amp, which fitted my budget then, and accompanied me for four years abroad — I quickly realised that there is better stuff than Bose at lower prices. I gave away that system before returning to India, and resolved to spend a chunk of my savings on a good system. On moving to Chennai, I spent a few evenings at Pro Musicals‘ listening room, where the affable Sudhin Prabhakar allowed me to listen to various high-quality speakers and amps; I ended up with a pair of Wharfedale floor-standing speakers and a Rotel amp, which cost me a total of about Rs 45000 (US$ 1000).

To an audiophile, this would be about the lowest of the low-end of acceptable gear (Bose is not acceptable, even if more expensive), but I’m happy. Audiophiles tend to witter on about linearity of response, crossover, and whatnot. Most of the music I listen to was recorded in the 1950s or earlier, or in concert, on rather dodgy equipment; I don’t expect any music system to make it sound like “being there”. On more recent, high-quality recordings, I really can’t tell the difference from a live instrument, and can’t see myself spending ten times the amount on “serious” audiophile gear. But I don’t claim to have golden ears. Many people tell me they can’t distinguish the Wharfedales from an average Sony boombox, costing a tenth as much — that’s good for them. And many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference from a system costing ten times as much; I don’t doubt it.

Unfortunately, audiophilia is not always accompanied by sound knowledge of science and engineering; and the human mind is very impressionable. This gives audio manufacturers freedom to charge extra for ridiculous products. The most common are:

  • High-stability, jitter-proof CD players: Apparently, many people think CD players, like LP turntables, need to be balanced delicately, rotate at a constant speed, and so on. Digital electronics is a mystery to them. So of course the manufacturers address that market.
  • Cables: Apparently things like “skin effect”, capacitance/inductance effects, and so on can affect the quality of the audio that your speaker cables deliver to the speakers, so you should pay several hundred dollars per metre of audiophile cable that takes care of these things. Yes, these effects exist, but none of them operate close to audible frequency ranges. But that then leads to
  • Frequency response: even though the human ear can’t hear above 20 kHz, apparently it’s good for your amp or speakers to be able to reproduce much greater frequencies. It mysteriously affects the audio that you do hear. Similarly, the fact that CDs sample at 44.1 kHz, and therefore are limited to 22.05 kHz frequencies, means they’re bad. Nyquist’s theorem is irrelevant, as is the fact that earlier technologies — LPs, tapes — don’t have a prayer of approaching such frequencies.

There are many, many more such audiophile myths. Here is an amusing discussion. Here is another.

And finally, here is a hugely entertaining list of actual voodoo-audio products that people, presumably, have been known to spend money on.

If you plan to spend serious money on an audio system, be sure to read those links before talking to a salesman.

Counting chickens

I’m late to realise this, I admit. But this article from rediff, dated March 5, just passed on to me by my brother, makes hilarious reading.

Apparently, when the ICC’s world cup schedule said “B2 plays D1 on April 15”, this did not mean anything as naive as “the second-placed team in group B plays the top-placed team in group D”. Instead, it meant — or was supposed to mean — “India plays Pakistan”. No matter in what order they finished the group games.

You see, the ICC (did I just recently call them sordid and money-grubbing, even before I knew about this particular scheme of genius?) realised that it would be so much better for TV audiences to schedule that match on a Sunday. (Similarly, to schedule India-Australia and India-SA for Saturdays.) So they came up with the following bright idea: B2 is not the team that finishes second in group 2, but the team in group 2 that, of the two qualifying teams, was ranked lower before the tournament started. Makes sense, right?

To quote that rediff article: “Neat. This way, no way will a surprise result upset the television applecart.”

Almost no way.

But now that the applecart has been (multiply) upset, it appears that the ICC has abandoned this idea of D1 being the “pre-tournament higher-ranked team”: D1 is now Ireland, and the sellout match on April 15 is Bangladesh-Ireland. At least the ICC does its bit to encourage the minnows.

ICC and YouTube

If there is one organisation more sordid and money-grubbing than the BCCI, it’s the ICC. Today’s news is that they are ordering YouTube to take down clips of the cricket world cup. YouTube is complying: under US law (specifically, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) they are bound to.

The DMCA is one of the most loathed pieces of legislation in recent years. It is why I cannot legally play a legally-purchased DVD on my Linux computer in the US, and why a manufacturer cannot legally sell me a “region-free” DVD player in the US, capable of playing movies bought in Europe or Asia.

But in this case, it has a flip side. Recognising that content-hosting companies like YouTube cannot be held responsible for every piece of material users post on them, it does not hold them liable for infringement in pirated clips — as long as they promptly honour requests to take such clips down.

But what if the clips aren’t really infringing — for example, what if they are “fair use“? In that case, the DMCA stipulates that the person who posted the clip may file a counter-notification stating that it is fair use. Then YouTube is free to put the clip back up, and any further litigation must be between the copyright owner and the user who put the clip up.

Moreover, misrepresentation by a copyright owner of the status of such content is liable for damages. Recently Viacom (the parent company of Comedy Central, MTV and others), who have sent many take-down notices and have even sued YouTube/Google, have themselves been sued under the misrepresentation provision by MoveOn.org, over parody clips that they demanded taken down. MoveOn claims that Viacom “should have known” that these were fair use, and thus misrepresented their copyright status.

Back to the ICC case. (WARNING – I am not a lawyer and not based in the US. If you want to do anything along the following lines, consult a lawyer.) It seems to me that posting long excerpts of matches would be a copyright violation, but posting short clips (such as a single delivery) ought to be “fair use”. So, if someone who posted a clip cares, they can file a counter-notification, which costs nothing unless the ICC decides to take it up. And if someone really cares, and believes that the ICC “should have known” that short clips are fair use, they can follow MoveOn’s lead in suing the ICC.

I don’t suppose anyone will think it’s worth the trouble though. What’s happening, and is likely to continue happening (as with Viacom), is that new clips are being put up faster than the old ones are being taken down. The ICC will just have to spend a lot of time sending takedown notices.

Google, don’t be evil; leave that to blogger

This comment on dcubed, by someone apparently replying to himself, flummoxed me momentarily: “Can you please stop using my id. I thought you had stopped after my last appeal, but you have showed up agin.”

Had this poster given out his password to an unpleasant character? Why didn’t he just change it? Or is blogger trivially crackable? Can I log in as anyone I like?

Then I realised that while I can’t do that, I can impersonate anyone I like, and the results are indistinguishable from genuine comments. (I’m not telling how, but it’s trivial.) While one can forge email headers, the results can be detected by the savvy; here, there seems no way to do so, unless one has access to Google’s internal logs. There seems, also, no way to disable this “feature”, short of disabling anonymous comments totally.

Blogger sucks. It sucks in many, many ways (one of these days I shall count the ways), but this one is the most egregious I’ve seen so far.

Translation with a clamp on its jaws

Here’s an interesting article (spotted on kitabkhana) on Vladimir Nabokov as a translator. Nabokov, of course, was a rare example of an eminent writer in two languages, Russian and English (and achieved greater fame in English, which was not his native tongue), and translated several of his own works. There are two schools of translation, the literal style and the free style. A literal translation often sounds absurd, because the nuances of each language are different. A free translation, that seeks to convey nuances rather than literal meanings, is criticised for not being what the original author intended. The article discusses Nabokov’s efforts in both styles: he translated “Alice in Wonderland” freely, his motive being to convey to a Russian child the same sort of light-hearted absurdity that an English child would read in the original, while he translated “Eugene Onegin” literally, sacrificing metre and structure in the verse for literal meaning (which was liberally footnoted for the benefit of non-Russians who would not get the nuances).

With “Alice”, a major difficulty is translating the wordplay and verbal humour. Nabokov didn’t even try, for the most part — he replaced the parodic poems (“Father William”, “‘Tis the voice of the sluggard”, etc) with his own parodies of Russian poems. (Incidentally, the original versions of these preachy English poems have long since been forgotten in favour of Carroll’s versions — so an English-speaking child today does not get the same flavour of the book that Carroll’s original audience got. Much of the wordplay, too, may be lost on the non-English: Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice” is a useful guide to many hidden gems in the book.) In contrast, with “Eugene Onegin”, Nabokov was probably writing for scholars (according to the article), and preferred a literalist translation.

The description of Nabokov’s “Alice” reminds me of a translation I’m much more familiar with: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s English versions of Goscinny and Uderzo’s “Asterix”. I read the English versions extensively as a child, but read some of the French originals only as an adult. (My French is certainly not good enough to “get” everything, but this site was a big help.) It is interesting how the translations differ from the originals: again, individual jokes, and sometimes entire themes (like the jokes on the Arvernian/Auvergnian accent in “The Chieftain’s Shield”) are replaced in translation. This article by Bell goes into more details. The most striking example is “Asterix in Britain”, where she and Hockridge discussed the matter with Goscinny (who spoke excellent English); he paid them the ultimate compliment of saying he wished he’d thought of some of their jokes himself.

But what about “serious” literature? A literal translation may have unintended consequences: turns of phrase that seem natural in one language seem odd in the other. When I read translations of Jorge Luis Borges, for example, I wonder whether a phrase like “innumerable contrition” or “the unanimous night” is an odd-sounding literal translation of something natural-sounding in Spanish, or a literal translation that sounds just as strange in Spanish, or a free translation that evokes the flavour of the original.

Stanislaw Lem’s “Cyberiad”, translated by Michael Kandel, contains some astonishing poems such as “Love and Tensor Algebra” (“Cancel me not – for what then shall remain? / Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes, / A root or two, a torus and a node: / The inverse of my verse, a null domain.”)
Surely these can’t be literal translations.

For the most part, I prefer free translations, especially with poetry but also with prose. It seems to me that literal translations require scholarliness, while free translations require artistry; and the artistry pays off.

Here is one example where, knowing the free translation, I went looking for a literal one and was severely disappointed. The poem is Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz”, a literal translation by Greg Simon and Steven White is here, and a free translation by Leonard Cohen here. Here are the first stanzas.

Literal (Simon and White):
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of tomorrow
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.
Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this close-mouthed waltz.

Free (Cohen):
Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

The literal translation says nothing to me. However, clearly the Spanish original spoke to Cohen, and Cohen’s version speaks to me (sort of — I still don’t really understand it but I like the imagery). So Cohen did his job correctly, as far as I’m concerned. He recorded it in 1988 on his album “I’m your man”; an audio excerpt is in the link above and also on Amazon’s page.

Tiddlywinks

In a Dorothy L. Sayers novel that I re-read recently, “Murder must advertise”, a spectator at a cricket match is all excited about an opposing batsman (whom he recognises, from his “exceedingly characteristic late-cut” that he remembers from twenty years earlier, as Lord Peter Wimsey of Balliol College). When someone commiserates with the spectator about his team losing, he is dismissive about his own team, saying (I quote from memory): “I want to see cricket played, not tiddlywinks.”

Are Indians actually cricket lovers, or tiddlywinks lovers? We like to see India win, that’s all. There is no particular interest in seeing good performances in neutral games, let alone in the opposition against India. I predict that the viewership for the cricket world cup in India will now be less than for last year’s football world cup. (Always assuming that Bangladesh don’t contrive to lose to Bermuda and allow India to sneak through.) And there is not even the slightest interest in domestic tournaments like the Ranji Trophy. So the supposed passion for cricket, and the associated marketing power and financial clout, are all a sham. The masses have been brainwashed by the advertisers, playing on misplaced instincts of patriotism.

Sambit Bal wrote a few days ago that “Cricket needs a reality check. It has an unhealthy, and unsustainable, business model that relies primarily on an increasingly delusional and one-dimensional fan-base. The bubble has to burst for a semblance of sanity to be restored.” Welcome to the reality check.

I’m cynical about professional sports in general. I grew up watching the Soviet bloc (particularly the East Germans) sweep the Olympic medals; it turns out they all did it on performance-enhancing drugs. (For a long time the Olympics pretended to be amateur, but they gave up that charade a while ago.) The western countries do it too: The Tour de France has been mired in scandal. And even players who don’t abuse their bodies with drugs suffer lifelong stress injuries. Our top tennis player, Sania Mirza, seems to be injured all the time. What is sport about? Achievement and human spirit? No, professional sport is about the money, and screw one’s own long-term health and fitness, never mind such minor considerations as ethics and morality.

And — to get back to cricket — the money-driven nature of the game has a very ugly side that we have all preferred to ignore: even after the match-fixing scandal we pretended that the problem was solved with Cronje, Malik and Azharuddin out of the game. The murder of a coach means we can’t ignore it anymore. Hopefully the early world cup exit of the money-making powerhouse will restore some sanity to the whole thing.

Not cricket

While I’m still not excited about the cricket, the aftermath of the Pakistan-Ireland match I mentioned in my last post was beyond anything one could have imagined. Poor Bob. Sympathies to his family. Hopefully it was random Jamaica violence and not cricket-related, but that would seem too odd a coincidence. I wonder who will next volunteer to coach Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Gavaskar finally apologised this week for speaking ill of a dead man. Will that stop him shooting his mouth off again? The spat also earned him a veiled swipe from Sobers, who is presumably one of the gentlemanly West Indians that he was talking about.

Cricket

As I type, India is 162/9 against Bangladesh, and Pakistan is 100/6 against Ireland. And I don’t care.

I always thought I was a cricket fan and not a football fan, but I enjoyed last year’s football World Cup and I find it difficult to give a toss about the ongoing cricket cup. It doesn’t help that my two least favourite teams are the top two seeds and ranked far ahead of everyone else.

If they do meet in the final, I hope Ricky Ponting head-butts Andre Nel at a crucial stage because Nel insulted Ponting’s sister. That may redeem things a bit.

A cheaper blackberry

BlackBerries seem everywhere now. They’re an oversized mobile phone, that AirTel introduced some time back, and Hutch is now advertising them too. Rediff is currently singing their praises. Their main selling point seems to be that they let you access your email and the web. Your email provider needs to support it, or you need to use the email service of your phone provider. And the machine is unwieldy and expensive.

Lately I’ve been using a much cheaper solution, which only requires that your provider supplies GPRS (Airtel does, at Rs 20/day or 375/month, unlimited use) and that your phone supports GPRS and Java (many phones under Rs 5000 now do). For web browsing, I use Opera Mini. It’s a really clever solution to the problem of browsing standard webpages on a small phone: it pipes your requests via Opera’s dedicated servers, which reformat and compress the webpage to make it mobile-friendly, and shrink the images. For email, I forward my mail to a gmail account and use Google’s GMail app (point your phone to http://gmail.com/app — for some reason with a computer-based browser it doesn’t show the same page). You could also use any other webmail via Opera Mini, but that’s a bit unwieldy, and the GMail app is as easy as SMS. Really.

And as a bonus, I can even dial-up from my laptop, via bluetooth, if I want to. So basically I can get my laptop online, wherever there’s a cell phone signal, for Rs 20 a day. Typically I get 30-40 kilobits/s (4-5 kilobytes/sec), comparable to dial-up: not great but gets the job done when I’m travelling. (For web browsing, Opera Mini generally feels faster, because of the compression. For email the GMail app feels faster, probably because it’s stripped down. But in both cases the laptop’s big screen and keyboard are nicer, plus I can do other things, like ssh to my work machine.)

Scott Adams boasted the other day of how he one-upped a friend who insisted that drains swirl the other way in the summer hemisphere, allegedly because of the Coriolis force: he whipped out his BlackBerry and looked it up on snopes.com. Just for fun, I tried opening Opera Mini and typing “coriolis snopes” into the Yahoo searchbar, and got the page in seconds.

Unlimited data transfer costs Rs 900 a month on the BlackBerry (according to the above rediff article) and Rs 375 on Airtel GPRS. I would hope the BlackBerry offers a better speed (EDGE?) for the money. On the other hand, I’ve been unable to find out whether you can use one as a modem and connect your computer, as I can with GPRS.

With all this, and with the small form factor of my current phone, I wonder why I would pay four times more for a BlackBerry. Any BlackBerry fans out there to enlighten me?

Another Millennium problem down?

After Grigori Perelman‘s proof of the PoincarĂ© conjecture and Penny Smith’s failed attempt at the Navier-Stokes equation comes another claim that a Millennium problem of the Clay Mathematics Institute has been solved. This time it’s the Riemann hypothesis — and it’s a disproof.

Here is the arxiv submission by Tribikram Pati, a respected mathematician from Allahabad. I certainly can’t evaluate the paper, but from what I have heard of the author, this must be at least a very serious attempt. According to the Clay Institute rules, even if Prof Pati’s attempt is correct, it will need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and then evaluated by the community over two years (so Perelman, too, needs to wait — if he’s interested at all.)

The Riemann hypothesis was also one of David Hilbert’s problems for the twentieth century, and the only one to appear both on his list and on the Clay Institute’s.