Archive for the 'People' category

It's easy to not harass women

Oct 16 2013 Published by under People, Personal, sexism

For many of us in the science blogging scene, yesterday was a pretty lousy day. We learned that a guy who many of us had known for a long time, who we'd trusted, who we considered a friend, had been using his job to sexually harass women with sleezy propositions.

This led to a lot of discussion and debate in twitter. I spoke up to say that what bothered me about the whole thing was that it's easy to not harass people.

This has led to rather a lot of hate mail. But it's also led to some genuine questions and discussions. Since it can be hard to have detailed discussions on twitter, I thought that I'd take a moment here, expand on what I meant, and answer some of the questions.

To start: it really is extremely easy to not be a harasser. Really. The key thing to consider is: when is it appropriate to discuss sex? In general, it's downright trivial: if you're not in a not in private with a person with whom you're in a sexual relationship, then don't. But in particular, here are a couple of specific examples of this principle:

  • Is there any way in which you are part of a supervisor/supervisee or mentor/mentee relationship? Then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors of any kind.
  • In a social situation, are you explicitly on a date or other romantic encounter? Do both people agree that it's a romantic thing? If not, then do not discuss or engage in sexual behaviors.
  • In a mutually understood romantic situation, has your partner expressed any discomfort? If so, then immediately stop discussing or engaging in sexual behaviors.
  • In any social situation, if a participant expresses discomfort, stop engaging in what is causing the discomfort.

Like I said: this is not hard.

To touch on specifics of various recent incidents:

  • You do not meet with someone to discuss work, and tell them about your sex drive.
  • You do not touch a students ass.
  • You do not talk to coworkers about your dick.
  • You don't proposition your coworkers.
  • You don't try to sneak a glance down your coworkers shirt.
  • You don't comment on how hot your officemate looks in that sweater.
  • You do not tell your students that you thought about them while you were masturbating.

Seriously! Is any of this difficult? Should this require any explanation to anyone with two brain cells to rub together?

But, many of my correspondants asked, what about grey areas?

I don't believe that there are significant grey areas here. If you're not in an explicit sexual relationship with someone, then don't talk to them about sex. In fact, if you're in any work related situation at all, no matter who you're with, it's not appropriate to discuss sex.

But what about cases where you didn't mean anything sexual, like when you complimented your coworker on her outfit, and she accused you of harassing her?

This scenario is, largely, a fraud.

Lots of people legitimately worry about it, because they've heard so much about this in the media, in politics, in news. The thing is, the reason that you hear all of this is because of people who are deliberately promoting it as part of a socio-political agenda. People who want to excuse or normalize this kind of behavior want to create the illusion of blurred lines.

In reality, harassers know that they're harassing. They know that they're making inappropriate sexual gestures. But they don't want to pay the consequences. So they pretend that they didn't know that what they were doing wrong. And they try to convince other folks that you're at risk too! You don't actually have to be doing anything wrong, and you could have your life wrecked by some crazy bitch!.

Consider for a moment, a few examples of how a scenario could play out.

Scenario one: woman officemate comes to work, dressed much fancier than usual. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, why are you all dressed up today?". Anyone really think that this is going to get the male coworker into trouble?

Scenario two: woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit". Woman looks uncomfortable. Man sees this, and either apologizes, or makes note not to do this again, because it made her uncomfortable. Does anyone really honestly believe that this, occurring once, will lead to a formal accusation of harassment with consequences?

Scenario three: woman officemate comes to work dressed fancier than usual. Male coworker says nice outfit. Woman acts uncomfortable. Man keeps commenting on her clothes. Woman asks him to stop. Next day, woman comes to work, man comments that she's not dressed so hot today. Anyone think that it's not clear that the guy is behaving inappropriately?

Scenario four woman worker wears a nice outfit to work. Male coworker says "Nice outfit, wrowr", makes motions like he's pawing at her. Anyone really think that there's anything ambiguous here, or is it clear that the guy is harassing her? And does anyone really, honestly believe that if the woman complains, this harasser will not say "But I just complimented her outfit, she's being oversensitive!"?

Here's the hard truths about the reality of sexual harassment:

  • Do you know a professional woman? If so, she's been sexually harassed at one time or another. Probably way more than once.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her knew that he was harassing her.
  • The guy(s) who harassed her doesn't think that he really did anything wrong.
  • There are a lot of people out there who believe that men are entitled to behave this way.
  • In order to avoid consequences for their behavior, many men will go to amazing lengths to deny responsibility.

The reality is: this isn't hard. There's nothing difficult about not harassing people. Men who harass women know that they're harassing women. The only hard part of any of this is that the rest of us - especially the men who don't harass women - need to acknowledge this, stop ignoring it, stop making excuses for the harassers, and stand up and speak up when we see it happening. That's the only way that things will ever change.

We can't make exceptions for our friends. I'm really upset about the trouble that my friend is in. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I'm sad that he's probably going to lose his job over this. But the fact is, he did something reprehensible, and he needs to face the consequences for that. The fact that I've known him for a long time, liked him, considered him a friend? That just makes it more important that I be willing to stand up, and say: This was wrong. This was inexcusable. This cannot stand without consequences..

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A White Boy's Observations of Sexism and the Adria Richards Fiasco

Mar 28 2013 Published by under People, sexism

I've been watching the whole Adria Richards fiasco with a sense of horror and disgust. I'm finally going to say something, but for the most part, it's going to be indirect.

See, I'm a white guy, born as a member of an upper middle class white family. That means that I'm awfully lucky. I'm part of the group that is, effectively, treated as the normal, default person in most settings. I'm also a guy who's married to a chinese woman, and who's learned a bit about how utterly clueless I am.

Here's the fundamental issue that underlies all of this, and many similar stories: our society is deeply sexist and racist. We are all raised in an environment in which mens voices are more important than womens. It's so deeply ingrained in us that we don't even notice it.

What this means is that we are all to some degree, sexist, and racist. When I point this out, people get angry. We also have learned that sexism is a bad thing. So when I say to someone that you are sexist, it's really easy to interpret that as me saying that you're a bad person: sexism is bad, if I'm sexist, them I'm bad.

But we really can't get away from this reality. We are sexists. For many of us, we're not deliberately sexist, we're not consciously sexist. But we are sexist.

Here's a really interesting experiment to try, if you have the opportunity. Visit an elementary school classroom. First, just watch the teacher interact with the students while they're teaching. Don't try to count interactions. Just watch. See if you think that any group of kids is getting more attention than any other. Most of the time, you probably will get a feeling that they're paying roughly equal attention to the boys and the girls, or to the white students and the black students. Then, come back on a different day, and count the number of times that they call on boys versus calling on girls. I've done this, after having the idea suggested by a friend. The result was amazing. I really, honestly believed that the teacher was treating her students (the teacher I did this with was a woman) equally. But when I counted?She was calling on boys twice as often as girls.

This isn't an unusual outcome. Do some looking online for studies of classroom gender dynamics, and you'll find lots of structured observations that come to the same conclusion.

My own awakening about these kinds of things came from my time working at IBM. I've told this first story before, but it's really worth repeating.

One year, I managed the summer intership programs for my department. The previous summer, IBM research had wound up with an intership class consisting of 99% men. (That's not an estimate: that's a real number. That year, IBM research hired 198 summer interns, of whom 2 were women.) For a company like IBM, numbers like that are scary. Ignoring all of the social issues of excluding potentially great candidates, numbers like that can open the company up to gender discrimination lawsuits!

So my year, they decided to encourage the hiring of more diverse candidates. The way that they did that was by allocating each department a budget for summer interns. They could only hire up to their budgeted number of interns. Only women and minority candidates didn't count against the budget.

When the summer program hiring opened, my department was allocated a budget of six students. All six slots were gone within the first day. Every single one of them went to a white, american, male student.

The second day, the guy across the hall from me came with a resume for a student he wanted to hire. This was a guy who I really liked, and really respected greatly. He was not, by any reasonable measure, a bad guy - he was a really good person. Anyway, he had this resume, for yet another guy. I told him the budget was gone, but if he could find a good candidate who was either a woman or minority, that we could hire them. He exploded, ranting about how we were being sexist, discriminating against men. He just wanted to hire the best candidate for the job! We were demanding that he couldn't hire the best candidate, he had to hire someone less qualified, in order to satisfy some politically correct bureaucrat! There was nothing I could do, so eventually he stormed out.

Three days later, he came back to my office with another resume. He was practically bouncing off the walls he was so happy. "I found another student to hire. She's even better than the guy I originally came to you with! She's absolutely perfect for the job!". We hired her.

I asked him why he didn't find her before. He had no answer - he didn't know why he didn't find her resume of his first search.

This was a pattern that I observed multiple times that year. Looking through a stack of resumes, without deliberately excluding women, somehow, all of the candidates with female names wound up back in the slushpile. I don't think that anyone was deliberately saying "Hmm, Jane, that's a woman's name, I don't want to hire a woman". But I do think that in the process of looking through a file containing 5000 resumes, trying to select which ones to look at, on an unconscious level, they were more likely to look carefully at a candidate with a male name, because we all learn, from a young age, that men are smarter than women, men are more serious than women, men are better workers than women, men are more likely to be technically skilled than women. Those attitudes may not be part of our conscious thought, but they are part of the cultural background that gets drummed into us by school, by books, by movies, by television, by commercials.

As I said, that was a real awakening for me.

I was talking about this with my next-door office neighbor, who happened to be one of the only two women in my department (about 60 people) at the time. She was shocked that I hadn't noticed this before. So she pointed out to me that in meetings, she could say things, and everyone would ignore it, but if a guy said the same thing, they'd get listened to. We'd been in many meetings together, and I'd never noticed this!

So I started paying attention, and she was absolutely right.

What happened next is my second big awakening.

I started watching this in meetings, and when people brushed over something she'd said, I'd raise my voice and say "X just suggested blah, which I think is a really good idea. What about it?". I wanted to help get her voice listened to.

She was furious at me. This just blew my mind. I was really upset at her at first. Dammit, I was trying to help, and this asshole was yelling at me for it! She'd complained about how people didn't listen to her, and now when I was trying to help get her listened to, she was complaining again!

What I realized after I calmed down and listened to her was that I was wrong. I hadn't spoken to her about doing it. I didn't understand what it meant. But the problem was, people didn't take her seriously because she was a woman. People might listen to me, because I'm also a white guy. But when I spoke for her, I wasn't helping. When a man speaks on behalf of a woman, we're reinforcing the idea that a woman's voice isn't supposed to be heard. I was substituting my man's voice for her woman's, and by doing that, I was not just not helping her, but I was actively hurting, because the social interpretation of my action was that "X can't speak for herself". And more, I learned that by taking offense at her, for pointing out that I had screwed up, I was definitely in the wrong - that I had an instinct for reacting wrong.

What I learned, gradually, from watching things like this, from becoming more sensitive and aware, and by listening to what women said, was that this kind of thing is that I was completely clueless.

The fact is, I constantly benefit from a very strong social preference. I don't notice that. Unless I'm really trying hard to pay attention, I'm not aware of all of the benefits that I get from that. I don't notice all of the times when I'm getting a benefit. Worse, I don't notice all of the times when my behavior is asserting that social preference as my right.

It's very easy for a member of an empowered majority to just take things for granted. We see the way that we are treated as a default, and assume that everyone is treated the same way. We don't perceive that we are being treated preferentially. We don't notice that the things that offend us are absolutely off limits to everyone, but that things that we do to offend others are accepted as part of normal behavior. Most importantly, we don't notice when our behavior is harmful to people who aren't part of our empowered group. And when we do offend someone who isn't part of the empowered majority, we take offense at the fact that they're offended. Because they're saying that we did something bad, and we know that we aren't bad people!

The way that this comes back to the whole Adria Richards fiasco is very simple. Many people have looked at what happened at PyCon, and said something like "She shouldn't have tweeted their picture", or "She shouldn't have been offended, they didn't do anything wrong", or "She should have just politely spoken to them".

I don't know whether what she did was right or not. I wasn't there. I didn't hear the joke that the guys in question allegedly told. What I do know is that for a member of the minority out-group, there is frequently no action that will be accepted as "right" if it includes the assertion that the majority did something offensive.

I've seen this phenomena very directly myself, not in the context of sexism, but in terms of antisemitism. There's an expression that I've heard multiple times in the northeast US, to talk about bartering a price for a car: "jewing the salesman down". I absolutely find that extremely offensive. And I've called people out on it. There is no response that's actually acceptable.

If I politely say "You know, that's relying on a stereotype of me and my ancestors that's really hurtful", the response is: "Oh, come on, it's just harmless. I'm not talking about you, it's just a word. You're being oversensitive". If I get angry, the response is "You Jews are so strident". If I go to an authority figure in the setting, "You Jews are so passive aggressive, why couldn't you just talk to me?". No matter what I do, I'm wrong. Women deal with this every day, only they're in a situation where the power dynamic is even less in their favor.

That's the situation that women - particularly women in tech - find themselves in every day. We are sexist. We do mistreat women in tech every day, without even knowing that we're doing it. And we're very likely to take offense if they mention that we did something wrong. Because we know that we're good people, and since we aren't deliberately doing something bad, they must be wrong.

For someone in Adria Richards' situation at PyCon, there is no course of action that can't be taken wrong. As a woman hearing the joke in question, she certainly knew whether or not it was offensive to her. But once she'd heard something offensive, there was nothing she could do that someone couldn't turn into a controversy.

Was the joke offensive? We don't know what, specifically, he said. The only fact that we're certain of is that in her judgement, it was offensive; that the authorities at PyCon agreed, and asked the gentleman in question to apologize.

Did the guy who made the joke deserve to be fired? I don't know. If this stupid joke were the first time he'd ever done something wrong, then he didn't deserve to be fired. But we don't know what his history is like. I know how hard it is to hire skilled engineers, so I'm very skeptical that any company would fire someone over one minor offense. It's possible that his company has a crazy hair-trigger HR department. But it's also possible that there's background that we don't know about. That he's done stuff before, and been warned. If that's the case, then his company could have decided that this was the last straw.

Did Adria Richards deserve to be fired? Almost certainly not. We know more about her case than we do about the guy who told the joke. We know that her company fired her over this specific incident, because in their announcement of her firing, they told us the reason. They didn't cite any past behavior - they just specifically cited this incident and its aftermath as the reason for firing her. It's possible that there's a history here that we don't know about, that she'd soured relations with customers of her company in incidents other than this, and that this was a last straw. But it doesn't seem likely, based on the facts that we're aware of.

Did either of them deserve to be threatened? Absolutely not.

127 responses so far

Depression and Geeks

Jan 15 2013 Published by under People, Personal, Society

Since this weekend, when the news of Aaron Swartz's suicide, there's been a lot of discussion of the goverments ridiculous pursuit of him, and of the fact that he suffered from depression. I can't contribute anything new about his prosecution. It was despicable, ridiculous, and sadly, all too typical of how our government works.

But on the topic of depression, I want to chime in. A good friend of mine wrote a post on his own blog about depression in the tech/geek community., which I feel like I have to respond to.

Benjy, who wrote the post, is a great guy who I have a lot of respect for. I don't intend this to be an attack on him. But I've seen a lot of similar comments, and I think that they're built on a very serious mistake.

Benjy argues that the mathematical/scientific/logical mindset of a geek (my word, not his) makes us more prone to depression:

Someone whose toolkit for dealing with the world consists of logic and reason, ideals and abstractions, may have particularly weak defenses against this trickster disease.

You realize that it’s lying to you, that there are treatments, that that things aren’t objectively as bad as they feel. But you know, on some level deeper than logic, that there is no point, no hope and no future. And to encounter, maybe for the first time, the hard limits of rationality, to realize that there’s a part of your mind that can override the logical world view that is the core of your identity, may leave you feeling particularly helpless and hopeless.

You can’t rationalize depression away, a fact that people who’ve never suffered from it find hard to comprehend. But if someone you care about is struggling with it, and it’s likely that someone is, you can help them find a new way to access their mind.

Tell them that you care about them and appreciate them and are glad to have them in your life. Show them that you enjoy being around them and that you love them. And above all, spend time with them. Give them glimpses of an alternate future, one in which they are secure, happy and loved, tear away the lies that depression needs in order to survive, and in that sunlight it will wither.

Most of what Benjy wrote, I agree with completely. The problem that I have with it is that I think that parts of it are built on the assumption that our conscious reasoning is a part of the cause of depression. If geeks are more prone to suffering from depression because the way that our minds work, that means that the way that we make decisions and interpret the world is a part of why we suffer from this disease. The implication that too many people will draw from that is that we just need to decide to make different decisions, and the disease will go away. But it won't - because depression isn't a choice.

The thing that you always need to remember about depression - and which Benjy mentions - is that depression is not something which you can reason with. Depression isn't a feeling. It's not a way of thinking, or a way of viewing the world. It's not something that you can choose not to suffer from. It's a part of how your brain works.

The thing that anyone who suffers from depression needs to know is that it's a disease, and that it's treatable. It doesn't matter if your friends are nice to you. It doesn't matter if you know that they love you. That kind of thinking - that kind of reasoning about depression - is part of the fundamental trap of depression.

Depression is a disease of the brain, and it affects your mind - it affects your self in a terrible way. No amount of support from your friends and family, no amount of positive reinforcement can change that. Believing that emotional support can help a depressed person is part of the problem, because it's tied to the all-too-common stigma of mental illness: that you're only suffering because you're too weak or too helpless to get over it.

You don't just get over a mental illness like depression, any more than you get over diabetes. As a friend or loved one of a person with diabetes, being kind, showing your love for them doesn't help unless you get them to get treatment.

I'm speakaing from experience. I've been there. I spent years being miserable. It nearly wrecked my marriage. My wife was as supportive and loving as anyone could dream of. But I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything.

The experience of depression in different for different people. But for me, it was like the world had gone flat. I wasn't sad - I was just dead inside. Nothing could have any impact on me. It's a hard thing to explain, but looking back, it's like the world had gone two-dimensional and black-and-white. Eventually, I was reading something in some magazine about depression, and it talked about that flat feeling, and I realized that maybe, maybe that was what was wrong with me.

When I started taking antidepressants, it was almost frightening, because it changed the world so much. ANtidepressants didn't make me happy. In fact, for a while, they made me very sad, because I was realizing how awful I'd been treating my wife and daughter. But they made me feel things again. A few weeks after I started taking them, I realized that I was noticing colors. I hadn't done that for years. It wasn't that I couldn't see colors when I was depressed, but they didn't mean anything.

Antidepressants aren't a panacaea. They don't work for everyone. But there are treatments that can help. The way to defeat depression is to do something that changes the way the brain is functioning. For some people, the exercise of therapy can do that. For others, it's medication. For still others, exercise. The key is to get to someone who understands the disease, and who can help you find what will work for your brain.

My point here is that when we're talking about depression, we need to realize that most of the time, no one is at fault. People don't suffer from depression because they did something wrong, or because they're weak, or because they're flawed. People don't suffer from depression because their friends and family are inadequate. Depression is a disease - a treatable, chronic disease. It needs to be recognized, and it needs to be treated.

In my case, my depression wasn't caused by my wife and daughter. It wasn't their fault, and it wasn't my fault. No amount of support, love, and appreciation could have helped, because the nature of my depression meant that I couldn't see those things. The only thing that anyone could have done for me is recognized that I was suffering from depression, and pushed me to get treatment sooner.

If someone you know is suffering from depression, then they need help. But the help they need isn't any amount of love or appreciation. It isn't instilling any kind of hope, because depression kills hope in your brain. The thing that you can do to help is to help them get the treatment that they need.

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Audiophiles and the Need to be Special

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Bad Physics, People, woo

I love laughing at audiophiles.

If you're not familiar with the term, audiophiles are people who are really into top-end audio equipment. In itself, that's fine. But there's a very active and vocal subset of the audiophile community that's built up their self-image around the idea that they're special. They don't just have better audio equipment than you do, but they have better appreciation of sound quality than you do. In fact, their hearing is better than yours. They can hear nuances in sound quality that you can't, because they're so very, very special. They've developed this ability, you see, because they care more about music than you do.

It's a very human thing. We all really want to be special. And when there's something that's really important to us - like music is for many people - there's a very natural desire to want to be able to appreciate it on a deep level, a special level reserved only for people who really value it. But what happens when you take that desire, and convince yourself that it's not just a desire? You wind up turning into a sucker who's easy to fleece for huge quantities of money on useless equipment that can't possibly work.

I first learned about these people from my old friend John Vlissides. John died of brain cancer about 5 years ago, which was incredibly sad. But back in the day, when we both worked at IBM Research, he and I were part of a group that ate lunch together every day. John was a reformed audiophile, and used to love talking about the crazy stuff he used to do.

Audiophiles get really nutty about things like cables. For example, John used to have the cables linking his speakers to his amp suspended from the ceiling using non-conductive cord. The idea behind that is that electrical signals are carried, primarily, on the outer surface of the wire. If the cable was sitting on the ground, it would deform slighly, and that would degrade the signal. Now, of course, there's no perceptible difference, but a dedicated audiophile can convince themselves that they can hear it. In fact, this is what convinced John that it was all craziness: he was trained as an electrical engineer, and he sat down and worked out how much the signal should change as a result of the deformation of the copper wire-core, and seeing the real numbers, realized that there was no way in hell that he was actually hearing that tiny difference. Right there, that's an example of the math aspect of this silliness: when you actually do the math, and see what's going on, even when there's a plausible explanation, the real magnitude of the supposed effect is so small that there's absolutely no way that it's perceptible. In the case of wire deformation, the magnitude of the effect on the sound produced by the signal carried by the wire is so small that it's essentially zero - we're talking about something smaller than the deformation of the sound waves caused by the motion of a mosquito's wings somewhere in the room.

John's epiphany was something like 20 years ago. But the crazy part of the audiophile community hasn't changed. I encountered two instances of it this week that reminded me of this silliness and inspired me to write this post. One was purely accidental: I just noticed it while going about my business. The other, I noticed on boing-boing because the first example was already in my mind.

First, I was looking for an HDMI video cable for my TV. At the moment, we've got both an AppleTV and a cable box hooked up to our TV set. We recently found out that under our cable contract, we could get a free upgrade of the cable box, and the new box has HDMI output - so we'd need a new cable to use it.

HDMI is a relatively new standard video cable for carrying digital signals. Instead of old-fashioned analog signals that emulate the signal recieved by a good-old TV antenna like we used to use, HDMI uses a digital stream for both audio and video. Compared to old-fashioned analog, the quality of both audio and video on a TV using HDMI is dramatically improved. Analog signals were designed way, way back in the '50s and '60s for the televisions that they were producing then - they're very low fidelity signals, which are designed to produce images on old TVs, which had exceedingly low resolution by modern standards.

The other really great thing about a digital system like HDMI is that digital signals don't degrade. A digital system takes a signal, and reduces it to a series of bits - signals that can be interpreted as 1s and 0s. That series of bits is divided into bundles called packets. Each packet is transmitted with a checksum - an additional number that allows the receiver to check that it received the packet correctly. So for a given packet of information, you've either received it correctly, or you didn't. If you didn't, you request the sender to re-send it. So you either got it, or you didn't. There's no in-between. In terms of video quality, what that means is that the cable really doesn't matter very much. It's either getting the signal there, or it isn't. If the cable is really terrible, then it just won't work - you'll get gaps in the signal where the bad packets dropped out - which will produce a gap in the audio or video.

In analog systems, you can have a lot of fuzz. The amplitude of the signal at any time is the signal - so noise effects that change the amplitude are changing the signal. There's a very real possibility that interference will create real changes in the signal, and that those changes will produce a perceptible result when the signal is turned into sound or video. For example, if you listen to AM radio during a thunderstorm, you'll hear a burst of noise whenever there's a bolt of lightning nearby.

But digital systems like HDMI don't have varying degrees of degradation. Because the signal is reduced to 1s and 0s - if you change the amplitude of a 1, it's still pretty much going to look like a one. And if the noise is severe enough to make a 1 look like a 0, the error will be detected because the checksum will be wrong. There's no gradual degradation.

But audiophiles... ah, audiophiles.

I was looking at these cables. A basic six-foot-long HDMI cable sells for between 15 and 25 dollars. But on the best-buy website, there's a clearance cable for just $12. Great! And right next to it, there's another cable. Also six feet long. For $240 dollars! 20-times higher, for a friggin' digital cable! I've heard, on various websites, the rants about these crazies, but I hadn't actually paid any attention. But now, I got to see it for myself, and I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

To prolong the entertainment, I went and looked at the reviews of this oh-so-amazing cable.

People who say there is NO difference between HDMI cables are just trying to justify to themselves to go cheap. Now it does depend on what you are connecting the cable between. If you put this Carbon HDMI on a Cable or Satellite box, you probably won't see that much of a difference compared to some middle grade cables.

I connected this cable from my PS3 to my Samsung to first test it, then to my receiver. It was a nice upgrade from my previous Cinnamon cable, which is already a great cable in it's own right. The picture's motion was a bit smoother with gaming and faster action. I also noticed that film grain looked a little cleaner, not sure why though.

The biggest upgrade was with my audio though. Everything sounded a little crisper with more detail. I also noticed that the sound fields were more distinct. Again not sure exactly why, but I will take the upgrade.

All and all if you want the best quality, go Audio Quest and specifically a Carbon HDMI. You never have to upgrade your HDMI again with one of these guys. Downfall though is that it is a little pricey.

What's great about it: Smooth motion and a little more definition in the picture

What's not so great: Price

It's a digital cable. The signal that it delivers to your TV and stereo is not the slightest bit different from the signal delivered by the $12 clearance cable. It's been reduced by the signal producing system to a string of 1s and 0s - the identical string of 1s and 0s on both cables - and that string of bits is getting interpreted by exactly the same equipment on the receiver, producing exactly the same audio and video. There's no difference. It has nothing to do with how good your ears are, or how perceptive you are. There is no difference.

But that's nothing. The same brand sells a $700 cable. From the reviews:

I really just bought 3 of these. So if you would like an honest review, here it is. Compared to other Audio Quest cables, like the Vodka, you do not see a difference unless you know what to look for and have the equipment that can actually show the difference. Everyone can see the difference in a standard HDMI to an HDMI with Silver in it if you compare, but the difference between higher level cables is more subtle. Audio is the night and day difference with these cables. My bluray has 2 HDMI outs and I put one directly to the TV and one to my processor. My cable box also goes directly to my TV and I use Optical out of the TV because broadcast audio is aweful. The DBS systems keeps the cable ready for anything and I can tell that my audio is clean instantly and my picture is always flawless. They are not cheap cables, they are 100% needed if you want the best quality. I am considering stepping up to Diamond cables for my theater room when I update it. Hope this helps!

And they even have a "professional quality" HDMI cable that sells for well over $1000. And the audiophiles are all going crazy, swearing that it really makes a difference.

Around the time I started writing this, I also saw a post on BoingBoing about another audiophile fraud. See, when you're dealing with this breed of twit who's so convinced of their own great superiority, you can sell them almost anything if you can cobble together a pseudoscientific explanation for why it will make things sound better.

This post talks about a very similar shtick to the superexpensive cable: it's a magic box which... well, let's let the manufacturer explain.

The Blackbody ambient field conditioner enhances audio playback quality by modifying the interaction of your gear’s circuitry with the ambient electromagnetic field. The Blackbody eliminates sonic smearing of high frequencies and lowers the noise floor, thus clarifying the stereo image.

This thing is particularly fascinating because it doesn't even pretend to hook in to your audio system. You just position it close to your system, and it magically knows what equipment it's close to and "harmonizes" everything. It's just... magic! But if you're really special, you'll be able to tell that it works!

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Sad News: John Backus has died.

Mar 20 2007 Published by under People

I just heard that John Backus died last saturday.

John Backus was one of the most influential people in the development of what we now know as software engineering. In the early days of his career, there was no such thing as a programming language: there was just the raw machine language of the hardware. Backus was the first person
to come up with the idea of designing a different language, one which was easier for
humans to read and write than machine code, and having the machine do the translation.

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