Being Open to Unsettling Changes

My post about watching movies at double-speed elicited strong reactions. Some folks seem convinced that giving people the ability to watch movies faster will diminish the viewing experience, and not just for them — for everyone. Why? Because such changes inevitably influence the medium itself.

Consider the way sound changed movies. “Talking” pictures did away with title cards. That was a significant change to the medium, which was wrought by advances in technology. Once it was possible to synchronize sound and pictures, irreversible changes to the medium were inevitable.

Are movies with sound better or worse than what came before? That’s a judgment call. It depends on your point of view. You and I grew up in a world of talking pictures; the silent ones with their title cards seem old and clunky. But they have merits too. Silent films had literate value. Many featured live musical performances, which made them into more of an event than pre-recorded movies. I can imagine somebody who grew up with silent movies could become attached to the way they were.

Continue reading

Binge Faster

According to a report on The Verge, Netflix is testing a way for its users to watch shows and movies at double-speed. Some people associated with the movie industry are pushing back. The report includes a quote from director Brad Bird that captures the sentiment:

Why support and finance filmmakers visions on one hand and then work to destroy the presentation of those films on the other?

“Destroy the presentation” sounds like an exaggeration. But in cinema, timing is critical. Directors, actors, and editors obsess over getting the pacing of scenes and dialog just right. Giving users the ability to speed everything up can ruin the intended effect. So why would Netflix do this? Per the report, “it’s a heavily requested feature from subscribers.”

I’m not surprised. In our era of binge-watching (driven in part by Netflix) and shortening attention spans, speeding up shows would allow users to watch more. I can relate to the sentiment. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and often I’ll do so at 2x or sometimes even 2.5x the regular speed. As a result, I can read more in less time.

Not all books work well when sped up; some I can only listen to at 1x. Mostly, the “slow” ones are books I want to savor — either because the story is gripping, or I’m enjoying the narrator’s performance. Case in point: I’m currently listening to the Sherlock Holmes stories read by Stephen Fry. The audiobook is almost 63 hours long, and I’ve read all of it at 1x; anything else would ruin Mr. Fry’s terrific performance.

Books that work well when sped up are the ones I read “for work” instead of “for pleasure.” (In quotes because this isn’t a hard distinction for me.) The main challenge with these is taking notes whenever something interesting comes up. This is harder to do when listening fast. But in these cases, I’m looking for information, not performance. So faster speeds work for me.

Now, you could argue that people watch shows on Netflix (and other streaming services) mostly “for pleasure.” But why not leave it up to them to determine how they want to listen? It’s not like everyone would be forced to watch at higher speeds; it’s just a new choice.

Netflix wants to let people watch things at twice the speed, but Hollywood is pushing pack

The Informed Life With Thomas Dose

My guest in the latest episode of The Informed Life podcast is Thomas Dose. Thomas is the Head of Music Services for DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. In this role, he works with a large collection of music:

The department I’m working in has been systematically collecting music since 1949, and the physical archives that they consist of roughly about 900,000 physical units, that is records, which are shellacs, vinyl, CDs, and so on. But obviously for the last decade or so, we haven’t really added much to the physical archive. Only on those instances where a release is purely on physical, we will acquire that such. What else it’s all digital now. But we’re still very happy with the physical archive. It’s not collecting dust because the editorial units in DR are basically ordering digitization of older materials every day, and we handle those. And we digitize those from from vinyl and from shellac. And you would be surprised of the volume of music that is still not available on the mainstream streaming services. You think that it’s interesting that every piece of music recorded ever is on Spotify. It’s not nearly the case. So we’re still recording from from our physical archives.

Such massive amounts of music require mindful organization, and in this conversation we delved into how such a thing can be structured to make particular pieces of music easier to find.

In our case, our data model basically supports two types of composition. And one is, you could say, the normal type of composition where you have a title for the composition and then you would have composers and lyricists related to that. And the other type of composition would support sub-compositions, which is basically in one of the obvious example is you have a symphony which would have four movements and then and so those are the sub-compositions. And we are then able to relate each of these sub-compositions or movements to all the different recordings of this movement and this work.

We also discussed a problem I’ve had with my own music collection: how to organize pieces that originated before the era of recording technologies, and which don’t fit neatly into album-length containers. The show is worth your time — especially if you manage a lot of music.

The Informed Life Episode 18: Thomas Dose on Music Collections

Facebook’s Reverse Halo

Last month I pondered whether it’s time to leave Facebook. Things have only gotten worse for the social network since then. It seems every week now we learn of new ways in which the company has mishandled the personal information we’ve entrusted it. A couple of days ago, The New York Times published a report that alleges the company shared their users’ private information with various other large tech companies. Just yesterday, the District of Columbia sued Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica incident. Wired has a running list of all the scandals thus far this year.

Still, results from a new study from Tufts University​ suggest it would take a thousand dollars for a typical Facebook user to leave. That sounds high for the way I use Facebook. Many other information environments have more value to me. Since I wrote my “is it time to leave?” post, I’ve significantly reduced my interactions in Facebook; I haven’t missed being there as much as I thought I would.

Facebook owns other properties that I’d find much harder to give up. One in particular — WhatsApp — would be worth a lot more than a thousand dollars to me, since that’s where I stay in touch with my family and friends in Panama. (I’d love to get them all to chat with me on Messages.app, but that isn’t likely to happen since many of them are Android users.)

The stuff I share in WhatsApp is much more sensitive to me than anything I’ve ever shared through Facebook. When I read stories like the one in the NY Times, I worry. I wonder how much sway Facebook (the company) has over the way WhatsApp handles personal data. It would be a real loss to me if I had to leave this environment where I meet my loved ones. That said, the constant stream of news regarding Facebook’s cavalier attitude to privacy is eroding my trust in WhatsApp as well.

Uses for YouTube

YouTube has long been in the “guilty pleasure” category for me: a source of vacuous entertainment. There’s the hit of nostalgia upon discovering old episodes of a show you enjoyed as a child, vicarious consumption through unboxing videos, the mildly voyeuristic thrill of peeking down other people’s rabbit holes. While enjoyable, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about these uses for YouTube; it’s been a (mostly) pleasant, if not entirely harmless, waste of time.

But something has changed recently: I’ve found myself getting real value from YouTube. Instead of (or rather, in addition to) turning to the platform for mindless distraction, I’m coming to it more for task-specific training. For example, yesterday I learned how to mend a pair of jeans that had a hole in them. I’ve also used YouTube to learn about the characteristics of different types of fountain pen inks, the proper form for a yoga pose I find particularly challenging, how to play one of my favorite songs (Rush’s Subdivisions) on the piano, and critical information that helped me with various work projects.

Which is to say, I’m increasingly using YouTube not just for entertainment, but also for education. Learning these things in video format has been much more efficient than doing so by other means. I can see what the other person is showing me, rewind, pause, replay to go at my own pace. There are often several options to choose from, with varying levels of skill. (Skill at both the activity I’m trying to learn and capability of the presenter as an instructor.)

Most of these educational videos aren’t slickly produced by professional educators, but by individuals who are sharing their passions. They often make up for their lack of professionalism and structure with charm and passion. In short, they’re educational and entertaining. But it’s a new type of entertainment, very different from the prime time TV programming of old.

YouTube offers an ad-free tier called YouTube Premium. I’ve long resisted paying for it given how many other streaming entertainment channels I’m already paying for. But thinking about how I’m using these things, I’ve decided to give it a go. If I had to choose between two paid streaming services, should I go with the one that only shows me slickly produced movies and TV shows, or should I go with the one where I’ll be learning useful life skills?

(One complaint I have about YouTube Premium right now is that it seems to aspire to become another “just entertainment” medium. Rather than foist second-tier movies on me, I wish it’d be better at helping me discover new things to learn.)