Involving

One of the arguments in favor of analog audio, LPs, and vacuum tubes, is that an analog signal is closer to the real continuous acoustic waveform; that analog is a perfectly smooth wave, just like sound in air. Digital, in contrast, is broken up bits. The beautiful, smooth, continuous sound wave has been chopped to pieces and stacked together in jagged blocks. How could that possibly sound natural, or even good? Both of these beliefs rely on certain assumptions.

Assumption number one : Sound waves are smooth and continuous. Well. . , kinda, sorta, maybe. Air, the medium sound travels through, is not smooth and continuous. It’s a myriad of atoms and molecules floating around in space, bumping into each other—hardly smooth or continuous. Converting the sound wave into an electrical wave makes for an excellent analogy. The electrical wave is likewise individual electrons all jostling around interacting with each other in the medium of copper or silicon. It’s not exactly perfectly smooth and continuous either.

Analog reel-to-reel tape is made up of grains of magnetic molecules, rather large ones at that. If you know the basics of tape recording, you’ll know that wider tape, running at a faster speed makes for a higher quality recording. Cassette tapes, 1/8″ wide running at a snail’s pace of 1 7/8 inches per second, can’t hold a candle to a studio deck with 1″ tape running a 15 or 30 inches per second. The simple explanation is resolution, that is, the number of molecules holding the signal is 64 times greater on the 1″ tape. (Given both are four track—1″ is 8 times wider, and 15ips is 8 times faster, 8×8=64.) This allows for a stronger signal, wider dynamic range, wider frequency response, and less distortion in every way distortion can be measured—wow & flutter, harmonic, noise (tape hiss), etc., and yet it’s still not perfectly smooth.

Vinyl is subject to much of the same, plus more issues to deal with—groove depth and width, cutter and stylus size and shape, chemical makeup of the vinyl, friction, and variables associated with the shrinking radius from outside to inside grove. Add to this the mechanical elements—turntable, tonearm, cartridge—and you’ve got a chain of discontinuity, changes in medium and method of carrying the wave. Every change, every point of contact, entails a loss of information, loss of accuracy, loss of fidelity.

But the real deception comes from how we’ve constructed our conceptual models of analog and digital. The model of a continuous waveform is a way for us to describe and understand what’s happening in the air acoustically, or in a wire electrically. Discreet bits, 1 or 0, on or off, is how we understand digital. Neither is an exact picture. Both are only models of reality.

Assumption number two : Digital bits appear to be disconnected chunks—jagged pieces of the wave that are missing huge portions of information in between the sampled bits. It may seem that a mere forty-four-thousand-one-hundred bits per second is inadequate to represent an apparently infinitely smooth waveform, however forty-four-thousand samples per second is all that’s needed to encode a waveform up to 22kHz, frequencies beyond human hearing. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly smooth representation, because all the audible information is there. But the biggest deception of digital is that the playback is in bits. No, no one listens to digital bits. We listen to the analog reconstruction of the digitally encoded original analog waveform. Digital is simply a different way of representing (recording and storing) a sound wave. And because the sound is being encoded without mechanics imparting its grunge, or grains of magnetic oxides adding their own noise, or diamond styluses grinding across vinyl, digital is able to save the wave as clean and pure as the original signal fed to the analog-digital converter. And that digital code can be manipulated, controlled, copied, and recopied without adding noise or distortion as happens invariably at every step with analog processing. Digital is an audio (and video) miracle.

So, why are so many a’philes in love with LPs and tubes? Why do they categorically state that analog “blows digital out of the water, man? In a single word : involvement.

A couple of taps on a touch screen to cue up a digital file doesn’t compare to the ceremony of LP playback—pulling the 12″ album from the shelf, extracting the sleeved LP, carefully removing it from its inner liner, touching only on the outer edge and the label, placing it tenderly on the turntable’s platter, cleaning the surface, and gently, gently setting the tonearm on the spinning spiral. Oh, and the big album cover with artwork and text you can read by moonlight. One is involved, invested, even before a sound is heard. And don’t underestimate the investment, not only in ritual and time, but in the monetary resources required—analog costs more, much, much more. Then. . , there’s the sound.

There is something special about the sound of vinyl. It is not sterile. It’s full and rich. Full of resonances and rumble; rich in harmonics, surface noises, and crosstalk. It takes extra concentration to listen through the encompassing steamy warmth of LP colorations. Those extras hide details that our mind’s ear needs to fill in. The extra engagement, extra effort, makes LP listening more demanding, more involving. And when we fill in the missing pieces with our imagination, aaahhh, there’s a rainbow world of blooming, blushing beauty to behold. This brings us to valves. Vacuum tubes add an additional layer of harmonic and resonant color to the sound—and time, and effort, and cost. It’s no wonder why some people are so enamored with these quaint, antiquated technologies, and swear by them. Consequently, analog lovers are unable to get their ears around the clean, unembellished sound of digital. Digital requires no extra effort, no engagement, no imagination. It presents us with the complete, clear, crystalline details flat out—direct and raw—straight, no chaser.

With all that added color, there’s no way that analog, in any form, can deliver a more perfect waveform of the original music than digital can no matter how we model it, no matter how we hear it. It matters little that analog appears to be more akin to acoustic waves when sounds waves are in themselves granular. They don’t, in reality, exist as an infinitely continuous wave. And it doesn’t matter that digital is made of discreet bits because we don’t listen to bits. After all the processing a sound recording goes through, whether analog or digital, the final result, what we hear, is only the sound reproduced by the speakers.

Ultimately, one could argue, digital is, in realityquantum reality—closer to reality. At some point everything reduces to a quantum unit—energy, matter, gravity, space, and time.

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Excerpts – part 1

KANZI IS ONE REMARKABLE APE—BONOBO, TO BE precise. He was adopted—kidnapped actually—by the dominant female, named Matata, of a captive colony at the Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia, who, as it happened, was being taught to communicate with humans through lexigraphs, graphic symbols of single words. Matata was not a great student, a bit too old for that sort of thing, but Kanzi proved extraordinarily apt. He had been just sort of hanging around during Matata’s sessions, not paying much attention, seemingly. It soon became obvious, though, that he had observed and learned much, out of the corner of his eye, as it were. When his training became more explicit, he soon learned the meaning of well over 300 symbols, by means of which he could express his desires to his human companions. He also understood spoken English—thousands of words, in fact—which he could translate into lexigraphic symbols by pressing the images on a screen. Even more impressive, Kanzi could communicate verbally, in his normal Chimpansese, with his late stepsister, Panbanisha, over the phone. They had been known to gossip.

There are actually two species of chimpanzees. The one usually displayed in zoos—Pan troglodytes—is by far the most common and the one for which the term “chimpanzee” is usually reserved. Kanzi belongs to the other, far less common species (Pan paniscus), called bonobos, which have a restricted range in the Congo forests. Bonobos were formerly called “pygmy chimpanzees,” though they are no shorter than common chimpanzees. (The name may derive from the fact that they share their forest habitat with small-statured humans formerly known as “pygmies.”) Bonobos are significantly leaner than chimpanzees and have longer legs; their necks are thinner, their shoulders more narrow, and their chests less deep. Bonobos are altogether less robust than chimpanzees, less physically imposing. The bonobo head is also significantly smaller than that of the chimpanzee, with a less protruding snout and smaller brow ridges. On top of the head is a distinctive mop of long hair that tends to form a natural part down the middle.

But it is the behavioral differences between chimpanzees and bonobos that have received the most attention of late. These behavioral differences are much more pronounced than the physical differences and have engendered much discussion for their implications regarding human evolution.

Before bonobos took center stage, chimpanzees were thought to be the best models for extrapolating human behavioral evolution, especially once it was discovered that chimpanzees routinely hunt other primates in an organized and premeditated manner. This finding fit in nicely with a man-the-hunter narrative and certain sociobiological elaborations of its implications, especially regarding putative sex differences in behavior. Also conforming nicely to this narrative is the fact that chimpanzee males are violent, not just individually but often in groups, raiding the territories of adjacent groups. These group conflicts can be quite grizzly and have been touted as the wellspring of human warfare.

Enter the bonobo, the hippy ape. Actually, bonobos embrace the hippy ideal far more than any human hippies ever did, for bonobos are not only pacifist; they also engage in more sex than the most nymphomaniac members of our own species. Rarely do a couple of hours pass without at least some serious foreplay. This rampant sex is also quite promiscuous—partners are ever changing—and indiscriminate with respect to gender. Bonobo lesbian sex is especially rife, and many believe it is the behavior around which bonobo society is organized. For bonobos, in stark contrast to the macho patriarchal chimpanzees, live in a female-dominated society. Male bonobos, like Kanzi, are larger and stronger than female bonobos, but not as much larger and stronger as are male chimpanzees in relation to female chimpanzees. Put another way, bonobos are less sexually dimorphic than chimpanzees. Moreover, whatever size advantage a male bonobo enjoys is outweighed by genitally cemented female bonobo solidarity.

Inspired by the farm fox experiments, Brian Hare and coworkers proposed an overarching explanation for the physical and behavioral differences of chimpanzees and bonobos: that bonobos are, in essence, self-domesticated. They hypothesize that bonobos have experienced natural selection for tameness, from a more chimp-like starting point. Hare equates tameness with lower levels of aggression, but, as we saw with the fox domestication project, a reduction in fear is at least as important an element in tameness as lowered aggression is. Indeed, lowered aggression may be largely a by-product of the nonaggressive.

Richard Francis’s book, Domesticated, is not simply about domestication. It’s a cross disciplinary look at human evolution, biology, culture, psychology and sociology. Over the next few months I’ll be featuring a few tantalizing extended excerpts from this engaging book.

Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, Richard C. Francis, W. W. Norton, 2015

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