Crazy Idea

Knowledge is special. Yet, nothing I know is uniquely my own. Not a thought in my head hasn’t passed through the heads of millions. I haven’t a single bit of knowledge that isn’t also known by countless others. Nor do I know one person who has knowledge that isn’t shared by many. It’s a good thing too. If there were knowledge held in the head of a single person, it’d be useless. Knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum. Without sharing knowledge—freely sharing it, spreading it far and wide, allowing it to flourish, develop, evolve—there’d be no progress.

Knowledge is simultaneously worthless, because there’s so much of it accessible to everyone; and priceless, because without it we’d all be monkeys. Yet knowledge alone is insufficient. It’s only half of the equation. The other half lies in communication. Passing knowledge from person to person, learning from others so that no one needs to reinvent the wheel is equally important. The free flow of knowledge is critical for human development. But it’s in danger of being commoditized.

In the last few hundred years, the great progression of modern social organization has been built upon three powerful ideas : human rights, personal freedom, social equality.

These lofty ideas, that all humans be granted certain basic non violable rights; that all may live in personal freedom limited only by reciprocal respect for the rights and freedom of others; and that all people are essentially equal regardless of their origins or culture, are inarguable. But collectively the execution of these ideals is failing.

One of the most glaring examples of failure is in the attitudes and treatment of knowledge. For some reason knowledge has been separated into two categories, public and private. And even in the case of public knowledge, there’s an ugly habit of withholding it for the highest bidder. A good education costs more today than ever—a lot more. For example, in the mid 1970s a year of state university tuition cost in the neighborhood of $1000—yes, for a full year of full time enrollment. Today that’s barely enough for three credit hours. Private school can easily run forty to fifty times more. To put this into perspective, adjusted for inflation, $1k in 1975 has the buying power of about $4500 now. Even state schools cost three to four times more than that inflation adjusted figure. What’s going on? If you can’t afford to pay for knowledge, you ain’t gittin’ any. As a result, you won’t get the social parity, personal freedom, nor equal rights.

Why is knowledge being withheld from free distribution to all who want and need it? Supply and demand does not apply to knowledge. There is no using it up; there are no shortages. It’s a non-rival good. Plus, worldwide we’re experiencing a glut of knowledge. The more research and experimentation, the more new knowledge is generated. There’s so much knowledge in circulation, so much known by so many people, and so much of it freely available in books, libraries, and online sources that charging for it is a form of extortion. It’s a commensurate denial of human rights, personal freedom, and equality. Then why is education being held ransom? Why have we commoditized the intellect? Why do we treating knowledge as rare and special? And why aren’t we screaming for access?

Everyone deserves an education. All deserve to go as far with their education as their desire and ability can take them. Not only does the individual student benefit, every one of us benefits from a well educated, well informed public. We owe it to ourselves.

But this can’t be accomplished if we keep education from those who don’t have the ransom money. When education is available only to the privileged few who have the resources, we are telling the rest of the population that they don’t deserve knowledge, they haven’t the right to knowledge, and they aren’t worth it. The U.S. hasn’t been tops in education (primary and secondary) since the 1960s. We keep slipping. In part, because we refuse to fund public education, and partly because we’ve given up on public schools. Private schools are syphoning off the good students from families who can pay the ransom. This creates the illusion that our public schools are going downhill. Parents have actually created the problem by abandoning public schools. Private schools are better because they have better students, not because they have more resources or better teachers. If we’d reinvest our efforts in our public education, we’d have great public schools. Instead, we have privatized segregation.

This trend has even deeper consequences for higher education. Borrowing money becomes another form of extortion. Millions have been overburdened by student debt. Student loans and medical debt are the top causes of bankruptcy. The return on investment of higher education has diminished as the cost has escalated beyond reason, and the value of a degree has grossly depreciated. And it’s insane for students. Medical students for example, can rack upwards of half a million in debt. We’re talking medical training, that is, a basic, everyday service that everybody needs and should, for public health reasons, only require the time and energy to become a proficient physician. Yes, you’ve got the drift. Me, you and every citizen should pay for the education of our physicians. Not only that, we should all share the cost for everyone’s education through 100% publicly funded schools from preschool through post-graduate.

Yup, crazy idea.

For more on this topic listen to [Re-Thinking Education]

Watch for part II which takes another look at information hoarding.

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And I Start Fidgeting

The question was asked on an online forum, “When is your HiFi good enough?” Here was one of the answers.

There are moments . . . when my heart/head tells me, ‘There ain’t no better than this.’ But then the next music starts to play and I start thinking, ‘This would sound so much better if. . ,’ and I start fidgeting.

Bingo! Can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me, but there’s a big difference between my reaction and the quoted person’s reaction. Whereas the above blames his equipment, and it may be equipment related, I ask questions. What is the fault? What is the cause? Where is it coming from?

“This would sound so much better if. . ,” gets us nowhere if we only guess at the problem and blame the first thing that comes to mind. A’philes fall into the mire of marketing, reviews, and all sorts of weird inexplicable electromagnetic effects. What if I had a better Digital-Analog Converter? What if I had a better amplifier? Better speakers? Better wires? Or maybe it’s the preamp? The power, the weather, who knows? We start chasing our own tails, swapping out this for that, and never really get to grips with the problem, or even if there is a problem. The merry-go-round of stabbing in the dark and escalating cost never stops until we run out of money or dreams.

A big part of the problem comes from not knowing the basics on the technical side of audio. That’s okay. You don’t need a PhD in electrical engineering to have a basic understanding. But some use their own ignorance to dismiss the technical, and rely simply on their ears. “I know it when I hear it.” That’s true, uh, to a degree. Yet, as far back as the 4th b.c.e., about 2400 years ago, Anaxagoras understood, “Through the weakness of the sense perceptions, we cannot judge truth.” Your ears won’t lie, but your perceptions will. If we could use our ears without their signals getting mixed up with our brains’ interpretation of the signals, and without the signals from our other senses crisscrossing, it might be another story. Consequently, we need reliable, repeatable, objective measures to confirm what we believe we hear. We need those measures to set us in the right direction. You’ll never fix a problem until it’s been correctly diagnosed. Blaming the power, the weather, or who knows, is useless.

But this still misses the first question that needs to be asked. How can this music sound so good, “but then the next music starts. . .” and now it’s not so? What has changed?

Bingo! The only change was the recording. Too often we blame the equipment, the immediate source, instead of the real source : the recording. We’ve been conditioned by marketing to do this. There’s no way, no matter how great your audio system, that you can have excellent sound if the recording you’re playing is inferior. And mind you, that’s coming from someone who has a financial interest in selling better equipment.

I know what my system can do, and what it can’t. I know from measuring it. I know from listening. I know because great recordings sound great, and lesser recordings not so much in proportion to the quality of the recording. I know this because I hear it every time I listen to music, not only on my system, but others’ too.

Stop fidgeting. Get real. Listen and measure. Then you’ll know.

Here’s another thing to stop fidgeting over, formats. I recently had a chance to hear the same recording played back in three different formats, LP, reel-to-reel tape, and CD. I was pumped for this. All three are commercial copies made from the original master tape, a Mercury Living Presence recording. The Living Presence recordings are still considered some of the best ever made. That may be too generous, but for the time period, they were outstanding, and even today they hold up well. My host played the LP first. For an LP it sounded pretty good. Had a few minor snap-crackles, but given the LP wasn’t pristine, quite listenable. Then he played the tape. Suddenly there it was, the whole orchestra. It was like heavy velvet curtains were pulled open from the stage. You could hear the vibrancy of the violins, the warmth of the cellos, the ambience of the concert hall. For a 50+ year old recording, it is remarkably good. Then came the CD. I expected it to be indistinguishable from the tape. Not even close. It was better than the LP, but still hadn’t the openness, liveliness of the tape. Whaah? There’s no excuse for this. My only suspicion is that it was equalized to take out some of the tape hiss. A questionable choice considering how good, and relatively quiet, the tape copy is. Let me stress that the tape I heard is a commercial copy, probably a high-speed dub, and therefore has more tape hiss than the original master. Each format had its distinct sound quality. The contrasts needed no A/B listening. The LP, by the nature of dragging a diamond chip in a vinyl groove, has severe limitations that explain the loss of fidelity from the tape. The tape, by the nature of its noise floor, a consequence of the size of magnetic particle relative the area the signal is recorded, has ever present hiss. Digital, although not perfect, has neither of these highly audible problems. Had they simply digitized straight from the master, the CD should have sounded better than the tape.

Comparing formats is an interesting game. Unfortunately, it’s riddle with variables that can easily confound making absolute judgements. In the example above, there are other variables, of which I’ll only throw out a few—the turntable, its arm, cartridge, phono stage, the analog output stage of the tube-modded DAC, and of course, the unknowns of the mastering for the different formats that can take an excellent recording from one format and spoil it in another.

Read more about [comparing formats].

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