Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

I grow tired of the technologically ignorant

Posted by Trixter on February 29, 2012


(This post is overly subjective, more opinionated than my usual efforts, and contains some cussing.  Consider yourself warned.)

I am sick and tired of people who shun technology and progress under the guise of “I’m an old tech veteran, I’ve been working with technology for 30 years, and the new stuff is crap compared to the old stuff.”  People who defend this viewpoint are idiots.  I’m not talking about audiophiles or other self-delusional “prosumers”; I’m talking about people who have worked a tech trade or had hands-on access to technology for many years and think that their perceptions trump reality.  It’s a perverse combination of technology and anti-intellectualism — a form of hipsterism for the over-40 set.

I was prompted to cover this by a recent post on why widescreen monitors are a rip-off (which I will not link to because I truly enjoy the other 99% of this person’s blog, and linking to it would imply that I don’t like him or his site), but the underlying irritation of the entire mindset has been percolating for many years.  Viewpoints that drive me crazy include:

Widescreen monitors don’t make any sense

People think that widescreen monitors are stupid on laptops because most people use laptops for text work, and since text is more comfortable to read in columns, wide columns are harder to read.  This mindset has had the doubly idiotic result of making people think that websites need to be column-limited.  I just love going to a website and having the text squished into a 640-pixel-wide column with 75% of the screen unused.  Don’t like how narrow columns look on a widescreen monitor?  Use the extra space however you want — put up two web pages side by side, or simply don’t look at the unused space.  It’s people like these that also complain that 4:3 video has black bars on either side of it when viewed on a widescreen TV.  It’s called pillarboxing, you idiot, and it’s there to prevent your movie from looking like a funhouse mirror.

Widescreen monitors have made modern laptops better.  A widescreen laptop monitor allows the keyboard to be wider without the depth of the laptop getting too high (to support the height of a 4:3 monitor).  Having a decent keyboard on a laptop used to be impossible without clever wacky engineering tricks; now it is.  Widescreen monitors made ultra-small netbooks possible, so if you’re reading this on a netbook but somehow still disagree with me, you’re a hypocrite.

Analog audio is better than digital

There are entire websites (and wikipedia pages) dedicated to this, usually under the guise of “vinyl is better than CD”.  Most opinions on this subject were formed when analog audio had several decades of mature mastering and production processes, and digital was brand-new (for example vinyl vs. CD in 1983).  Early efforts to put things on CD resulted in some less-than-stellar A/D conversion, which created a type of distortion that most people weren’t used to hearing.  People formed opinions then that have perservered more than 25 years later, even though the technology has gotten much better and all of the early mastering problems have long since been corrected.

People who think vinyl sounds better than CD have nostalgia blinders on.  They bought an album in their youth, played it endlessly, loved it.  Then they buy the same album on CD decades later and condemn the entire format as inferior because it sounds different.  Want to know why it sounds different?  It has a wider frequency range, lacks rumble, lacks hiss, sounds exactly the same after 10+ playbacks, and was remastered with better technology and mixing conditions under the guidance and approval of the original artist when he wasn’t coked or drunk or stoned out of his mind.  People like Pete Townsend, Neil Young and Geddy Lee not only approve of the latest digital technology but are actively utilizing it and going through great pains to remaster their classic albums with it.  People are missing the point that it is the mastering and digital compression that causes issues, not the technology itself.  Neil Young recently spoke at a conference where he damned digital music, but not because it is digital — rather, because it is delivered differently than the artists intended.  Neil Young would like nothing better than for everyone to be able to listen to his music at 24/192.  Can’t do that on vinyl, bitches.

Even people who write about the loudness war get it wrong, despite that it’s an easy concept to understand.  Massive dynamic compression drowns out subtle details and can add distortion, which is horrible — but it is not exclusive to digital audio, nor caused by it.  One author correctly notes that massive dynamic compression butchers mixes, but then subtlety implies that all CDs that “clip” have distorted audio.  Digital audio “clips” only if you drive the signal beyond its digital limits.  If you took an audio waveform and normalized it such that the highest peak reached exactly the highest value, it is “positioned at maximum volume”, not clipped.  Nothing is lost (to be fair, nothing is gained either).

The problem is the mastering and production process, not the technology.  Which segues nicely into:

“I will never buy Blu-ray”

The only valid argument against Blu-ray is that it is harder to make a backup copy of the content.  It is indeed harder than it is for DVD, or laserdisc, or videotape.  That is it.  All other arguments are beyond moronic.  Even the cheapest possible 1080p HDTV viewing setup has five times the resolution of DVD and lacks signal degradation in the output path.  If you view a Blu-ray and can’t tell the difference between it and DVD, you have either a shitty viewing setup, a shitty Blu-ray, or a shitty visual cortex.

Someone recently tried to argue with me that DVDs have the same or better picture than Blu-ray and used Robocop as an example.  The comparison was weighted, as they were comparing the $9 Blu-ray that MGM belched out when Blu-ray was only a year old to the Criterion DVD treatment.  I own both, so I checked them out and I agree that the DVD has better color tonality throughout the film.  However, the Blu-ray thoroughly stomped the DVD in every single other area, most obviously resolution.  So much picture detail is added by the increase in resolution that I actually prefer it despite the lack of Criterion oversight.

The real problem, as previously stated, is how the mastering and preproduction process was handled.  Even with new 2012 DVD releases, you can still see the “loudness war” video equivalent of digital ringing, which used to be an accident but was later introduced on purpose as part of a misguided “sharpening” step.  Listen up:  Any sharpening filter added to any signal doesn’t make things sharper; it makes them appear sharper by overlaying a high-frequency permutation signal over the original content, which increases the acutance.  Quality is actually lost when you do this, as the high-frequency info obscures actual picture detail.

This is another example of perception vs. reality, which not coincidentally also segues into:

“Computing was better in the old days”

I love retrocomputing as a hobby.  I think about it nearly every day; this blog was partially created to talk about vintage computing.  But even I wouldn’t say that things were better in the old days.  People who say this don’t realize they are really trying to say something else.  For example, people who say that “BBSes were better than web forums are today” are actually referring to the sociological fact that, when you communicated with people on a BBS, you were communicating with people who met a minimum level of technical competence — because, if they hadn’t, they would have been too stupid to access a BBS, let alone be proficient with a computer.  The overall technological quality level of everyone you met on a BBS in the 1980s was higher than other places, like a laundromat or a bar.  What such people fail to consider is that modern web boards, while having a higher quotient of trolls and B1FFs, are open to the entire world.  The massive scale of humanity you can encounter on even a tiny niche topic is levels of magnitude higher than it used to be.  The sheer scale of information and interaction you can now achieve is staggering, and completely outweighs any minor niggle that you have to deal with 3 or 4 more asshats per day now.

Here’s another example:  “Computer games were better back in the old days.”  This is wrong.  The proper thing to say is that “Some computer game genres were better back in the old days.”  I can get behind that.  For example, graphics were so terrible (or non-existent!) at the birth of computer gaming that entire industries sprang up focusing on narrative.  For such genres (mainly adventure games), several times more effort was put into the story than other genres.  As technology and audiences changed over time, such genres morphed and combined until they no longer resembled their origins.  That doesn’t mean modern games are terrible; it just means that you need to shop around to get what you’re looking for your entertainment.  Don’t play Uncharted 2 expecting a fantastic story with engaging narrative.  (Dialog, maybe, not not narrative.)  Heck, some genres are genuinely awesome today compared to 30 years ago.  For example, Portal and Portal 2 are technically puzzle games, but the storytelling in them — despite never interacting directly with a human — is among the very best I’ve ever encountered.

About the only argument that does work involves the complexity of older computers — they were simpler, and you could study them intensely until you could very nearly understand every single circuit of the board, nuance of the video hardware, and opcode of the CPU.  Today, a complete understanding of a computer is no longer possible, which probably explains why Arduino sets and Raspberry Pi are getting so much attention.

Conclusion

I have no conclusion.  Stop being an old-fogey anti-intellectual technophobe, you ignorant hipster fuck.

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10 Responses to “I grow tired of the technologically ignorant”

  1. cb said

    Wow, you are epically wrong and kind of a jerk.

    1. Widescreen laptops. Are you seriously saying that a 1920×1080 screen is as good as a 1920×1200 screen for a programmer / productivity user? If so, you are wrong. 4:3 may be more square than necessary but 16:9 is too wide. Sure for the very small segment where you want a tiny laptop but still a wide keyboard, you are right, but the rest of the time, you are massively wrong.

    2. Vinyl. Of course everyone reasonable knows that digital is theoretically superior to old analog. However, the fact is that the average old vinyl still sounds much better than the average modern digital recording. The reasons for this are almost entirely due to the horrible way modern audio is mixed. Go to a music store and grab a record at random, then grab a CD at random; I bet the record sounds better, in the sense of having more dynamic range, more separation, less clipping and flattening and horrible over-production.

    3. Blu-Ray. Actually there’s a great thing about old videotape. You can put it in your player and just walk away and it will BE PLAYING! Not trying to connect to the internet, not stopped at some horrible menu, but just playing the movie like you wanted it to. Technical superiority often makes things *worse* because it allows designers to do tasteless things. Furthermore, there are in fact still plenty of scenes where DVD and Blu-Ray show horrible video compression artifacts (very dark areas and high motion are generally the worst), where a non-digital-compressed medium will actually be less offensive to the eye.

    • Trixter said

      Am I “especially” wrong or “epicly” wrong?

      1. I used to program on a 1600×1200 4:3 monitor. I now program on a 1920×1200 16:9 monitor. Want to know the difference? I don’t stretch the IDE to fill both sides of the monitor. You don’t have to use the extra real-estate. Better yet, put something else there like a shell window. Hey, now I don’t need to run a dual-monitor system to program and run shell code at the same time.

      2. You’re agreeing with me. Did you not read what I wrote?

      3. I am willing to deal with an additional minute of inconvenience to experience nearly 13x better picture quality that Blu-ray has over a VHS tape (more than 13x if you consider analog noise, tape degradation, helical judder, etc.). And if you think there is a single VHS that has a single scene that looks better than DVD (I’ll give you the mulligan on Blu-ray), you find it and you tell me and I will purchase both and compare them on this blog. You’re making the claim; you provide the proof. I’ll even give the VHS the best possible chance by capturing it with my calibrated broadcast hardware (several thousand dollars more than what a consumer would have) and applying sophisticated noise reduction to it in post. (Don’t worry, I’ll compare against the non-noise-reduced raw capture too.)

      Update: I just realized who I was talking to. Well, I still love your work (LZP is one of my favorite reads) and your blog posts, so hopefully we can agree to disagree on this. But my offer for #3 still stands.

    • Chris said

      1. The worst thing about HDTV is that monitors, no matter the size, are stuck at 1920×1080 when the resolution could be higher. There are only a few 1920×1200 (16:10 ratio) displays out there, and very few above that.

      2. People like the “warmth” of vinyl, but very few of them realize that the medium itself is processed. All vinyl goes through the RIAA equalization curve before cutting, and is then reversed by the preamp. Even modern vinyl albums suffer from clipping since they go through the same loudness boosting as CDs. I listen to a lot of EDM. A ton of it still comes on vinyl for DJing and I can hear no difference between the vinyl and CD version of a track (besides the fact that the CD version has no pops, clicks, or surface noise).

      3. When I do home movie transfers to DVD for people, I usually master them to auto play with chapter marks every 5 mins. Menus are optional since they require the person to point out events and I have to manually mark them. No complaints on the menu free discs though, works just like a VHS tape…except they don’t have to rewind! The bigger problem I’ve seen with digital video is banding of colors. Where the analog version had a nice smooth gradient, the digitized version has noticeable banding, even before compression.

      On the topic of Blu-Ray vs. DVD: The average person honestly doesn’t notice the difference. From a normal viewing distance, many of our DVDs look close to HD with the built in upscaler in our Blu-ray player. This is one reason why Blu-Ray adoption has been fairly slow compared to DVD. Unlike VHS to DVD which was a gigantic leap in quality, many people just aren’t interested in the improved picture quality or added cost. Keep in mind, this is the same population who feels that compressed MP3 or AAC music is “good enough”.

  2. crank yanker said

    My commodore 64 powered record player with my analog amp beats the shit out of your newfangled widescreen blu ray audio techno-wonder. And it uses less energy too!

  3. Monitors: The more pixels the better. However, all else being equal I do prefer a 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:10 or 16:9. If I was mostly watching modern TV shows or movies full screen then widescreen makes more sense but for coding I like to have as many vertical pixels as possible. I also do most of my work with an 8-pixel high font so I realize I am weird. It’s unfortunate that a side effect of TVs moving to LCD technology is that all the LCD manufacturers moved to widescreen to get into the TV market, so now all the laptops are made widescreen as well (though I suppose the counterargument is that laptops got much cheaper by the same process). I think that’s the major driving factor rather than allowing for wider keyboards. The Thinkpad T60p I’m typing this on has a 1600×1200 screen and I like both the screen and keyboard much better than those on the Dell Precision M6600 I have downstairs, which has a 1920×1080 screen.

    Audio: I completely agree. Though I do suspect that more than 16 bits per sample per channel and more than 44KHz is probably overkill from theoretical audibility considerations – I haven’t read the latest research on this though so I’m prepared to be proved wrong.

    Blu-ray: I’m almost ashamed to say – I’m still limping along at standard def. Partly because I’m a big Free Software freak and hate all how DRM-encumbered it all is. I’ve been waiting for it to be as utterly cracked and easy to rip and play across regions as DVDs were when I bought my first DVD player (which was not until 2003 – so I was behind the curve then too). Actually they probably are by now. But I also don’t watch much “foreground” TV – what TV I do watch I usually have on in the background while doing something else, and in any case I am nearsighted so the extra resolution doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me at normal viewing distances (at least without an obscenely large screen that I don’t really have space or money for at the moment).

    Computers and gaming: I completely agree, though I do have one minor quibble with what you wrote: unfortunately it’s unlikely that the Raspberry Pi will be possible to understand as completely as the Arduino, at least in the near future. Large parts of the SoC are undocumented except under NDA and the GPU drivers are provided as a proprietary blob. Still, I think it’s a very cool piece of hardware, the educational aspect is awesome and I think it’ll be very interesting as a demo platform if enough of them get out there, and especially if the SoC gets thoroughly reverse-engineered.

  4. Dan Chisarick said

    1) Monitors: I’ll take all the real estate I can get, but how I make use of the space varies by content. For reading books and documentation, I tend to keep the window narrow so I can read text with the minimum of eye movement. For software development I’ll fill up the entire screen since I usually skip around to various places to achieve a given task.

    2) Audio: I’m more interested in the content than the medium, within reason. Ignoring the other benefits of digital audio as a format and focusing strictly on sound quality, I love digital. Someone trying to convince me that I might better enjoy a vinyl recording of a piece of music better than a digital version would be about as successful trying to convince me that something like Pear Anjou speaker cables are worth the money ($7,000 cables anyone)? Audio was recorded on vinyl because that’s what they had at the time. Done. Do artists still make limited vinyl releases of modern recordings? Sure, because there’s a niche market for it. Because it makes someone happy and someone will pay for it.

    Aside, one of the most significant advantages of digital audio is that it allows independent artists to share their music with the world in a cost-effective manner. Vinyl could never do that.

    3) Blu-ray: The jump between DVD and Blu-Ray is not as significant as the jump between VHS and DVD in terms of quality and capability. Streaming HD seems to be in between Blu-ray and DVD. Do I love Blu-ray and HD video in general? Sure. Do I somehow better enjoy a good movie in Blu-ray more than the same movie in DVD? Marginally so. Given the choice I’ll take higher resolution but right now Blu-ray commands a premium over DVD in cost. Unless I’m in love with the movie (meaning I might watch it more than 1x in 10 years) I’ll take either one. I watched Avatar in Blu-ray and it was a technological marvel. This weekend I watched Sanjuro on Netflix and was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Wasn’t even color. Technology is great and I’ll take the best I can get within reason but it’s the content that’s in the driver’s seat.

    By the way, 3D in movies should be banned.

    4) Retro-computing: Technical limitations forced game creators to push the medium in ways that aren’t as common today (unique genres), and that’s what I miss most about older games. The first line of most modern game reviews goes for the quality of the graphics. Game play is somewhere around paragraph 4 or 5.

    Cost-effective game development platforms (PC + Steam, iOS, possibly Android) that provide the tools, the hardware and a payment / distribution mechanism for negligible cost are producing more of the types of games I miss from decades ago. Retro technology is great for nostalgia, but a creative and original game is thoroughly enjoyable in 4 colors and crummy resolution as well as HD with millions of colors.

    Same comments as above for modern games: Enables more indie developers, content is more important than bling. Nostalgia aside, classic and modern games can be equally enjoyable.

  5. Optimus said

    It was so funny and interesting to read such an article from a supposedly Retroking :)

    But yeah, makes sense. People in the retrocommunities like to brag how great things where in the older times. I mostly laugh at these things nowadays and simple sit back and enjoy the conversations. Most of us used to do it too in youth (Dos vs Windows, software vs hardware rendering). Personally I can appreciate and enjoy both the modern and ancient stuff. I have noticed the opposite phenomenon where some people are snobbing everything that is even old by 2 years (What? It doesn’t have HDR? No motion blur, ambient occlusion, realistic physics? I don’t want to play!). I am not sure how this happens because I honestly don’t get blinded up even by 8bit graphics. I happily play games both with the most oldschool graphics and don’t feel nausated by the visual quality or something. Sometimes I think it’s just snobbing or the feeling of being a greater person by adoring the latest gimmick of technology and dissing anything that is slightly older. Some people argue why I play old games that have outdated graphics (and it may even be a 2005 PC game that dazzles them) and don’t try the latest fuzz in gaming (sometimes I do if I find the time to try every latest game that might or might not keep me interested). It’s like they are playing games just for the feeling that they are part of the latest technology, they belong to the more sophisticated human beings. It’s the same story, it’s snobbing from the other side of view.

    p.s. To add in the list of VS on visual quality, I remembered my favorite one, nearest pixel versus texture filtering. I still enjoy playing doom in Zdoom port where things are rendered in software with nearest pixel and the graphics look more crispy (I still play with highest resolution possible though). With texture filtering things look too blurry and I especially don’t like this on the 2d sprites. Some people on the doom community agree on this but there is a dichotomy with other parts of the doom scene mocking us. It’s really a practical part for me, no just clincking to the retro, though others might prefer the accelerated ports of Doom. Anyway, though I play modern games with texture filtering on of course. I also don’t get HDR in games (too extraordinary or confusing most of the times) and yes 3D in movies can be confusing for some people (I know a friend who for some reason cannot distinct depth in 3D movies) and I am not quite fond also. Anyway, just rants, but I don’t keep to any of these preferences with hard feelings or fanaticism anymore. Have fun!

  6. Matthew K said

    LOL! Kinda reminds me of the rants that were common in the early days of web pages. I agree with all you say here. I would even add the prejudice against mp3’s that people had in the early days of the format. There were stereo magazine that reported how inferior the sound quality of mp3 was. What they didn’t say was that they had used an old, inferior codec to make the mp3s, even when a newer superior codec was available! That magazine is out of business today, and digital music files are now the norm.
    What is it about some tech people that at a certain age they stop taking an interest in new tech?

  7. Anthony "Airon" Oetzmann said

    Hello again Jim.

    Nice to see you still kicking about in the same realms as the time I made you that wedding’tro music :).

    First off, I mix, master and edit sound for a living now, so I’d like to offer a small bit of insight on the vinyl vs digital audio debate.

    Almost all the audio you get is specifically mastered for its target medium, CD or vinyl. Nothing is mixed for a specific medium though. So the digital mixing that another person here thought might contribute to the bad sound of many CDs is of no consequence

    Vinyl is mastered differently because of the capabilities of the delivery medium, and while that present limitations, those limitations actually prevent the mastering engineer from doing to things to the audio, that still technically and to some degree sonically still work for CD audio.

    A lot of CD audio is clipped, and quite on purpose as well to get an extra bit of level. The loudness-war folks, of which I am certainly one, are quite right to demonize such practices, as do all mastering engineers.

    That era is slowly coming to a close now. Peak limiting as it has been used in the last 10-15 years for CD masters is beginning to be shunned by artists, producers and engineers. One of the reasons is the proliferation of loudness normalization. Loudness normalization comes in many forms, all the same goal, which is to measure loudness across the entire program/song/advertisement and change the level of the overall program/song/advertisement accordingely. The basis for almost all of these techniques are the ITU-R BS.1770-2 loudness measurement standard.

    The EBU R128 and ATSC A/85 standards in broadcasting use it, Sound Check which is a part of Mastered For Itunes probably uses it or something very similar. The Replaygain scanner of Foobar2000 uses the EBU R128 standard (+5 dB). Sound Check’s reference level is 1-2 dB higher than that of Replaygain, but there you have it.

    From an engineering perspective, analog audio is cumbersome and expensive. Digital audio converters are now cheap enough and perform well enough to be transparent to the consumer, and with relatively low cost(sub-$1000) transparent to us engineers. Being able to tell a difference between a Lavry Gold DA converter and the converters of an RME interface (high-grade audio interfaces) is a job for professional mastering engineers with monitors they know very well and rooms that they know and are excellent accoustically.

    Bluerays. You need a non-shitty TV to tell the difference, and those are so cheap these days that I see no reason to choose DVD over Blueray, except when price and features come in to play. Bluerays are more expensive, and sometimes you don’t need all the stuff they put on there.

    I always buy the Blueray of the Pixar movies, of which I now have two, because I only just recently bought a standalone Blueray player which I play all my DVDs on as well. HDMI is cool.

    Btw, 24p playback of movies is the biggest reason I like Bluerays. In PAL countries (everywhere except NA and Japan) the DVDs play at 25 fps, which speeds up the sound, and since i’m a re-recording mixer, I don’t like that. 24p rules.

    Monitors.
    Whether it’s 16:10 (at 1920×1200 that’s your ratio Jim :) or 16:9 makes little difference. You’ll probably learn to live with either in a very short time. 4:3 monitors are in the past.

    If anyone wants to read text extensively, get an NVidia gfx card(good drivers for this kind of thing) and a monitor you can turn 90 degrees. Instant text fun.

    And now I shall anticipate the arrival of the Mind Candy 3 Blueray.Damn fine stuff I hear.

    Thanks for the effort Jim. It will be played many times in many places.

    Btw I mix a little demo-like show of Team Fortress 2 plays here on the YOutube channel in my free time : http://youtube.com/commft . Top10 is the name. I’ve edited and mixed them since Augst last year. Hope you can check it out and enjoy it.

    Take care
    Tony ( Airon )

    • Trixter said

      Tony!! Great to hear from you again. And yes, we’re still married :-)

      Thanks very much for clarifying some points above.

      As for MindCandy 3, it’s out now (www.mindcandydvd.com/3) so feel free to order from someone on your side of the pond for faster shipping (like Maz). As a professional, I’m sure you’ll not only love the video quality, but find some of the encoding “funny” (look at the bitrate in a stream analyzer; it comes within a few 100k of exceeding the limit ;-)

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