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Varieties of Screens

Elizabeth Technology December 7, 2023

There are many different screens. From gigantic vacuum-tube TVs to the flattest of the flat home theater displays, TVs come in all shapes and sizes.

LCD: Liquid Crystal Display – Big Screen, Little Equipment

LCDs, or liquid crystal displays, are what they sound like: a material that has traits of both liquids and crystals is manipulated with an electric current, using a panel behind the crystal panel. Then, an LED panel behind that lights it up so the colors are visible. LCD displays don’t handle heat well, and they’re fragile. You can’t put them next to or above a fireplace, and you can’t clean them with most regular cleaners as a rule. You especially can’t drop them. Videos of people running into their TVs with an AR headset on or throwing a Wii remote into the TV during a virtual bowling game demonstrate the spiderweb effect even minor impacts can cause on-screen.

But the screens are getting massive. A more delicate device is a tradeoff many people are fine with making, if the trend of larger, sleeker smartphones is any indication. For example, a projection screen TV is probably the closest someone in the 1980’s could get to the modern flat screen TV. At 50 inches, and adjusted for inflation to today, it costed about $3,100.

An 82 inch TV from LG currently costs about $1,500 on Amazon. Technology!

LED: Light-Emitting Diodes

The Sphere in our local Las Vegas is currently the largest LED display in the world! LED displays are a common choice for external signs. They’re cheap and easy to manage outdoors, so they’re a great choice for light-up billboards – here in Las Vegas, most casinos on the Strip have one outside for their advertising. However, since the individual components making up each ‘pixel’ or each little square of colors are pretty large, they’re not usually the first choice for indoor, TV electronics – the gaps between each diode cluster are big enough to be visible, and they put out a lot of light.

OLEDs are becoming more popular as a screen choice because the gaps are eliminated, but if an image is going to be displayed on it long term, they can be prone to ‘burn in’ – where the image becomes permanently etched into the screen. As a result, LCD displays are more popular in cases like digital menus and airport queues.

LEDs don’t have many weaknesses that aren’t also shared by LCD screens – the major one is that screen burning, but for big displays like the Casino signs, that’s not an issue. Panels going out and creating wrong-colored squares in the middle of the board are, but thanks to the modular design of LED panels, minor problems don’t kill the entire screen.

Plasma Screen

A plasma screen TV works by exciting little pockets of ionized gas to create plasma, which makes colors. These were all the rage for a while, but they’re also sensitive to heat – and when LCDs caught up, they were cheaper to make and easier to dispose of, so plasma screens dipped in popularity. They’re still high-definition, they’re still sold in stores, so nowadays it comes down to a matter of preference, not price or size.

Rear Projection TV: Big Screen, Big Equipment

These screens were huge, and the speakers were built in to face the viewer at the bottom of the screen. Rear projection TVs were the intermediate step between CRTs and LCDs, and they worked by beaming light from the source of choice to the screen using a system of lenses, magnifying the image. CRTs had reached their max size, but LCD panels weren’t anywhere near large enough by themselves yet – the rear projection TV smoothed the transition between the two while also providing a larger screen than previous TVs. The one I grew up with was gigantic, even at the time we had it. Scratches in the fabric covering the speaker area were the only worry. The TV itself was nigh indestructible, and impossible to knock over.

Over time, the screen we had became outdated. It didn’t have enough ports for all the adaptors it would have taken to keep it in line with new plugins: VCRs and DVRs had different requirements, and so did the Xbox and the Xbox 360. Eventually a smaller (but much thinner) screen won out. Everything could just be directly plugged into the TV instead of screwing with the jack hydra the rear-projection required. The price of progress.

CRTs and Degaussing

With the development of iron ships, navigators discovered a problem – large quantities of iron could mess with the compass, and other tools relying on the Earth’s magnetic poles to function. Even worse, with WWII on the horizon, the magnetic signature of the ship meant that weapons could be designed around it. Underwater mines, specifically, were geared to detect the field and then go off. Degaussing was invented! De-magnetizing the ship meant mines could no longer rely on it as a trigger.

Cathode Ray Tubes displays (or CRT displays for short) are easily disturbed by magnets. The colors turn funny shades when you hold a magnet too close. The same technology used to protect ships was then used to degauss the CRT display and return it to its former full color glory. Eventually, degaussing coils were included within the device, which causes that “Thunk” and then hum when the screen is flipped on. It resets every time the device is turned on, which keeps the image from gradually degrading if it’s kept near other devices with magnetic fields as well.

That doesn’t mean CRTs are immune to breakage: flicking the switch on and off repeatedly and too quickly may break the mechanism that does the degaussing, and you’re back to using an external degausser.

Sources: https://www.doncio.navy.mil/Chips/ArticleDetails.aspx?ID=3031

https://computer.howstuffworks.com/monitor5.htm

http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/80selectrical.html

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/worlds-largest-single-video-screen-illuminates-fremont-street-experience-with-fully-immersive-content-301017215.html

https://www.pcmag.com/news/led-vs-plasma-which-hdtv-type-is-best

Public Internet Access Terminals

Elizabeth Technology November 21, 2023

In the early days of the internet, the average computer was still bulky and often pretty pricey. Most electronics were! Some people still have the brick phones or old CRT monitor computers they used before the size of transistors and chips shrank, and finding those old models in movies or on eBay isn’t hard.

Bringing the internet out of designated places (colleges, libraries, the home, etc.) into other spots it might be useful was difficult. One of the wackier ideas of the time, the Public Internet Access Terminal, foresaw a world where computers would be like payphones, in 2003.

American Terminal Public Internet Access Portal

Sources on this company are incredibly limited. One Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DASfwrCjICg&t=5s&ab_channel=RicDatzman pops up when the exact name of the kiosk is searched. One very old commercial proves the existence of the internet’s first tendrils encroaching into public space.

The commercial itself is a perfect snapshot of how people viewed the web in its early days. You might need it on the go. It might be like a payphone someday. The computer inside the terminal will make you money and won’t need to be replaced by the next more powerful model anytime soon because it’s good enough as it is (as a reminder, Moore’s Law stated that the number of transistors on a circuit would double about every two years, and up until recently ). People in the comments remember using them to check online game accounts and send last-minute emails before hopping onto planes or busses.

And yet, no other source aside from this commercial seems to exist! Despite their confidence in their product, they weren’t confident enough to build a website for prospective franchisees.

I Just Need To Send An Email

Internet usage at the time was limited – Amazon was still selling primarily books, computers were still pretty large, and while things like email were much more convenient than snail mail or phone calls for their traceable, info-dense nature, not everyone had an email address. For the lighter users of the internet, stopping by the library to check their digital mailboxes was a cheap and easy way of keeping up with the times without committing to a fullblown computer. After all, the dot com crash ruined the internet’s most aggressive investors. If it somehow didn’t pan out, they wouldn’t be out too much money.

The problem was that while that crash was disastrous, the internet still had plenty of use! And people who didn’t want to invest in the equipment were being pulled further and further into it either by work or for recreation.

In the midst of this, a particularly enterprising company thought to put together internet terminals that could be put in places like airports, and controlled by outside franchisees like vending machines often are. To the people trying to sell these products, the age of computers was slowing down post-crash, and  while they may have anticipated that these computers would be fully depreciated by the time the owner paid back the investment and maintenance costs (just like any free money scheme, if this was actually as low risk as they advertise, they would have kept it to themselves), they likely didn’t picture a world where the very thought of one of these things existing freely, unmonitored, in public, paid for by the minute and not the GB, would seem outdated. Like a payphone.

Emulators Make Games Look Worse Than the Original CRT Did

Elizabeth Technology August 29, 2023

Old Nintendo games look very different from what people remembered them as. They’re not crazy, or blinded by nostalgia – the games really did look a lot better.

The secret is the CRT monitor.

The CRT – and Pixels

A pixel is defined as the smallest controllable unit of an image on-screen. This has changed some over time! In old digital clocks, the bars making up the numbers would act as its pixels. In CRTs, it was little cubes where the red, green, blue, and white projection lights lined up to give that cube the right color.

Old-style living-room CRTs usually had a resolution of 480p. When you see a number followed by ‘p’, like 480p, it’s referring to the number of rows of pixels lined up top-to-bottom, so any screen could theoretically be 480p – it’s just more impressive the smaller the screen is. 480p was the standard for many late 90’s/early 2000’s games, because CRTs were widely available. CRTs weren’t bad, for the time! Rear-projection models could get huge, but the kind that blasted the image directly onto the screen was limited to a size of about 30”.

CRTs also had the unique ‘CRT grid’. Because of how CRTs work, the individual pixels didn’t connect to each other neatly like they do on modern screens – a small outline of darkness surrounds each pixel. The pixel inside said outline isn’t perfectly ‘square’, either, like they are on modern displays. If you get up close to a CRT screen (don’t, it’s bad for your eyes) you’d be able to see the three colors being projected onto the glass of said screen, and they form a squarish blob or a series of colored lines, depending on brand. When you back up, it looks like a picture, and your brain automatically fills in the gaps left by the un-connected parts. This is a huge part of why these games don’t look as good as they used to! Current monitors don’t have gaps visible to the naked eye between pixels.

Old Games

Game designers were able to factor this in to give the illusion that the image was much clearer than it was – Pikachu in 480P looked incredible back then, but terrible today in that same 480p. Nostalgia hasn’t clouded vision, Pikachu really did look a lot less blocky. The CRT’s rounded off pixel-corners meant that developers could fill those pixels in right to the edge and still get a polished, rounded appearance – your brain, as mentioned previously, is also filling in gaps for you, as a sort of optical illusion. They couldn’t make a perfectly smooth curve, so they let you do it.

In absolute terms, games looked slightly worse before they got much better. 3-D games especially. Two-dimensional sprites could be fudged – there’s only so many positions for the characters to be in, so animate a jumping sequence, an attacking sequence, etc. and you’re good to go. Those games often still look great on modern monitors. 3-Dimensional games had to build a doll that the player could control and view from every angle, which was a lot for early computers. Their saving grace was that CRT – characters could be flawed and un-specific without being unreadable. With CRTs in the mix, many people didn’t notice that the PS1 games looked very different from PS2 games at the time, unless they were fancy and upgraded their screen without also upgrading to the next console. With the benefit of hindsight, games that were only a few years apart do look really different: Resident Evil 4 doesn’t look too bad on a modern screen, while Resident Evil 2 looks noticeably dated in comparison! But at the time, Resident Evil 3 looked marginally better than 2, and 4 only looked a little better than 3.

Most gamers never noticed that their old games were secretly ugly until many years down the line, in the modern era. Even that’s not a really fair statement – they weren’t ugly when they went in. It’s like trying to watch one of the old-style 3-D movies without the glasses, they were designed to be played on CRTs. We’re just noticing this now because emulators and ROMs for dead or missing games are more available than ever!  

Emulators

Nowadays, with our perfectly square pixels, Pikachu looks much more… square. In fact, everything from old games does. Old games had very limited computer power to work with, so little hacks and tricks like this kept the games running smoothly. Blocky Pikachu is barely noticeable, but leaving him without fine detail frees up enough space to add extra plant textures to the island. Unfortunately, ROMs bring the old game to life without its limitations – the CRT monitor’s grid isn’t easy to recreate in a visually appealing way.

The original games with this art style weren’t meant for modern screens. The consoles are producing the same images now as they did back then, it’s just much clearer. I’m sure when we get to a point where projection or VR games are common, these old “3-D” games will look like trash compared to real 3-D, and it won’t be an accurate representation of the way we played those games.

Right now, the best option to get those nice-looking characters back is to recreate the CRT’s grid over top of the image, which many ROM creators are reluctant to do – many players would rather have a slightly uglier game in high-res than a more attractive game in low-res.

As a result, players are unintentionally led to believe the game really was that ugly. It just wasn’t.

At least the audio still sounds the same!

Sources:

History of TV Pixels: From CRT to 8K

https://www.electronicworldtv.co.uk/blog/history-of-pixels/embed#?secret=0Ok24mgTrB

https://animoto.com/blog/news/hd-video-creation-sharing

https://discover.therookies.co/2019/05/09/a-brief-history-of-3d-texturing-in-video-games/

https://tekdeeps.com/why-it-was-better-on-crt-tv/embed/#?secret=JmakTPoYFy

What’s Up With VHS Tapes?

Elizabeth Technology August 17, 2023

Yeah, CDs are impressive or whatever, but have you ever seen the inside of a VCR?

What makes a VHS different from other options?

Many things! It’s entertainment predecessor, film, was dropped for a couple of reasons. Film is composed of individual images on thin, photosensitive tape, where magnetic tape is the image’s information translated into computer language. A reel film projector is shining a light behind the reel to show the image. If you shined a light behind a VHS’s tape, you’d see nothing but brown! Plus, you can pause VHS tapes. Pause a reel film on the projector without moving the tape, and you risk burning it.

Betamax, VHS’s primary competitor, is arguably superior in every way. Betamax had better resolution, better sound quality, etc. and it came out at the same time as the original VHSs. What separated the two was cost: a Betamax tape was more expensive than VHS, and since VHS was only marginally worse, companies picked it up. Secondly, VHS tapes could record more, but since most movies were under three hours anyway that didn’t do as much for it as pricing did. CED tapes, Hi8 tapes, better, smaller reel tapes, and the rest were also vying for the ‘primary choice’ crown – and the VHS beat them all with durability.

From the beginning, VHSs were kind of an underdog. Radically new tech was always coming and going, VHSs could be another flash in the pan and disappear the next day, like CEDs did. The first company to launch VHS tapes set up standards to prevent VHSs from dying out due to quality issues, but widespread adoption would be up to marketing and luck. Plenty of good ideas on paper died once they were actually put into manufacturing.

How does the tape itself work?

Where CDs and DVDs have no moving parts, VHS tapes are full of them. The tape itself moves on spools, and that forces VCRs to read the data linearly (instead of randomly). All that means is that that the VCR had to read the rest of the tape before it can get to the part you’re looking for, where something like a hard drive can pick a file without reading other files first.

Additionally, the tape is not a loop, it’s a strip. Many media types got caught up in trying to make a self-rewinding form of media, but the tech simply wasn’t there yet to do that cheaply. if you got to go to a Blockbuster before they switched away from tapes, they would kindly remind you to rewind the tape after you were done watching it so the next person to rent the movie doesn’t have to rewind it first. Since the reader works on the tape in both directions, having to do that can spoil the movie.

The information is encoded onto the tape in a couple of areas: there’s a control track, an audio track, and a visual track. The reader can’t read the tape without the audio or control track – trimming either off will cause the tape to fail. A reader head is actively looking for the control track to synchronize with the other tracks, which will ‘pulse’ in sync with each other to ensure correct alignment. If it can’t find it, it doesn’t have a backup plan!

Visual information is encoded onto the tape using two separate writing heads held at a slight angle. The data is magnetized into the tape in an almost herringbone-like pattern, which the VHS can read fast enough to generate smooth images on-screen. This has the added benefit of ‘self-correcting’ – each reader head only reads the data slots that are at its angle, so there’s no weird flashing or jumping between frames. Given the end-user is not doing something strange to the tape, VHSs run pretty smoothly as a result.

How does the reader work?

The reader is composed of a motor, some internal mechanisms to control the speed of the tape, and a couple of reading and writing heads. To play content, the VCR pulls the tape in front of it’s readers, which then decode the information written on the magnetic tape into video. The tape itself is divided into separate areas for audio and video, as well as a timing track. Different heads along the inside of the VCR read the tape as it’s pulled by, and rollers keep it taut between them to prevent tangling.

If one wants to write to a VHS tape, their VCR should be capable – all but the cheapest usually are. VCRs completely revolutionized the entertainment industry by enabling the consumer to record particular episodes or events cheaply. Suddenly, a TV show didn’t need to re-run an episode five or six times to be sure their fans saw it. Their other revolutionary trait was being able to do this when the user wasn’t home – again, all but the cheapest of VCRs were able to record at a set time, with minimal user interference.

VCRs are specially adapted to reuse VHS tapes. It’s possible to tape over other tapes because the VCR, while in writing mode, erases the tape as it goes by so that the writing head has a clean surface to write to. “Taping Over” something persists to this day, even though very few consumer devices use tape anymore!

Durability

 VHS tapes are pretty durable – but they aren’t invincible. No form of media is! VHS tapes are vulnerable to many of the same things hard drives are: excessive heat may cause warping and a loss of quality, cold and radiation exposure can ruin the information on the tape. Unlike reel film, however, VHSs don’t become worthless when exposed to light. The tape shouldn’t be out of the container, but it’s not ruined if it somehow gets stuck outside the casing for a little while.

It takes a little bit of hunting to find working VCRs, but luckily they’re so simple that even broken ones can be used again. Replacement parts are still sold in specialty stores and online!

Assuming digital content really is the future forever and physical media declines, there are things you can do to convert tapes if you’re worried your home movies aren’t storing well in the attic. VHS-to-digital converters are available for purchase, for example, and places that do photo-printing also frequently offer mail-out services for conversion.

Sources:

http://repairfaq.cis.upenn.edu/sam/icets/vcr.htm

https://www.zimmermantv.com/tv/how-a-vcr-works/

http://aperture.stanford.edu/lab/video/Tutorials/vhsvhsdub.html

https://southtree.com/blogs/artifact/what-came-before-vhs

Parallel ports: A Brief History

Elizabeth Technology August 15, 2023

Parallel and serial ports used to be everywhere, and now they’re more or less limited to ancient printers and old iPads. What happened to them?

Serial

Serial ports came first, but just barely. Serial in this context means that the information is processed one stream at a time, which the receiving device will then have to stack up to read. For example, printers: a serial connection on a printer would give the printer the ASCII data one bit at a time, and it’s up to the printer to stack up the bits to make the words.

But if the data’s being transferred one bit at a time, why does it need so many pins?

On a computer, each pin on a serial port does something different – some regulate the out- and in-put speed, some are purely for grounding the connection, and some are responsible for transferring the requests for data between the computer and the peripheral it’s connected to. And each peripheral has different needs! A mouse or a CNC is going to need more information about the data than a printer or a bar code scanner. There might also be a parity pin, which ensures the data sent is correct. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from circular 7-pins to trapezoidal 25-pins for motherboards.

Serial ports are actually faster (now) than parallel ports because the data’s transferring one bit at a time. If you can make the bit transfer faster, then the entire serial port speeds up with it, because data transfer speeds are basically arbitrary! Serial ports could keep up with computers as they improved. Parallel ports have to be sure that their data’s being received all at the same time: if one pin can’t be optimized any more than it already is, then that pin holds back the speed of the data for the other data-transferring pins. If the data doesn’t make it at the same time, then the computer doesn’t know how to interpret it. Imagine receiving parts for an IKEA chair out-of-order and being told you had to start assembling it now even though you don’t have the legs or screws yet.

Parallel

Parallel ports actually appeared at about the same time as serial ports, and allowed for multiple streams of bits (the ‘parallel’ part) instead of just one. The port was feasible in the 1970s, but the first commercial parallel port appeared on IBM printers, in the early 1980s. Printers were where they found most of their use. The pins sped up printing by presenting the ASCII (a character library that uses sets of binary characters to represent letters) to the printer all at once, instead of serially.

However, parallel ports came with a couple of problems. They couldn’t match a serial port’s speed, once bit-cycle-times shot down, and the three major companies attempting to use them for their printers came up with different protocols for each operating system, so everything had to be double checked for compatibility.

Where’d They Go?

As said before, the USB has taken over much of the parallel port’s turf, and where USB is inconvenient, network printing rules supreme. There’s not much space left for these parallel pin plugs out in the wild. They’re still around – people still need access to legacy machines no matter the industry or time – but they’re not usually on regular, consumer electronics anymore.

And yet, they aren’t extinct. Serial ports still exist on old or simple tech that can’t take high speeds and still function, things like scientific equipment, or stenotype machines. Because the transfer’s tightly regulated, serial ports avoid overloading the tiny computers inside these several-thousand-dollar instruments.

Universal Serial Bus (or USB) plugs use similar tech, just highly compressed and much faster. USBs are also transmitting data serially, hence the ‘serial’ in the name. Parallel ports may have been left behind, but serial’s sticking around. If you look at the inside of the actual connecting piece, you’ll still see pins, albeit different ones than the kind serial connectors used to use.

 Serial ports represent a major breakthrough in data transfer tech, and they’ve stuck around to this day!

Sources:

https://www.howtogeek.com/171947/why-is-serial-data-transmission-faster-than-parallel-data-transmission/

https://computer.howstuffworks.com/serial-port.htm

Tetris

Elizabeth Technology July 18, 2023

Tetris, released in the 1980’s (the first version was released in 1985, but other countries received it from 1986-1988) is one of the most viral games ever. It’s simple enough that children can play it, but complex enough to keep players of all ages entertained for hours. It doesn’t require that the player speak any one language – the mechanics are simple enough to not need instructions. And, most importantly, it’s fun. Winning is satisfying. It gets harder the longer you play, so you’re never bored with the difficulty.

Versions of Tetris exist everywhere now. The game itself is as endlessly versatile as eggs. Physics-based. Efficiency based. Tetris games that want you to fill the board completely, like a puzzle. Tetris games that allow you to squeeze pieces in between gaps that are too small, and Tetris games that don’t. Tetris games that troll you. Competitive Tetris, where discarded lines are given to your enemies. Tetris games where the Tetriminos have 5 blocks, instead of four. The game is endlessly updateable, and the original remains the most ported game in all of video game history. Difficult, but fair, the standard games have chased since day one.

Tetris Effect

Some players develop what’s known as the Tetris Effect – they’ve played the game so long that it begins to seep into their dreams, and they unconsciously wait for blocks to start descending from somewhere whenever they aren’t occupied with another task. The Tetris Effect technically refers to any time a person is devoting so much time to an activity it starts to bleed into places it wouldn’t normally be – Rubix Cube speed-solvers sometimes unwillingly run through their algorithms in their head, and chess players may find themselves trying to identify what piece a traffic bollard would be and how it could move on the board.

When you look at it that way, sea legs are part of the Tetris effect. The Periodic Table in it’s solved state is as well! Tetris first put a name to the phenomenon because it is so genuinely interesting that people who weren’t accustomed to having it were experiencing the effect for the first time.

Repetitive Games and PTSD

Simple puzzle games have benefit beyond just immediate entertainment. Studies seem to suggest that repetitive games like Tetris or word games, something easy enough to be attention-absorbant, can help curb the effects of PTSD after a traumatic event, like a car crash. Specifically, games like Tetris help combat involuntary flashbacks. Treating PTSD after it develops with CBT shows promise, but intervening before it has a chance to really take root would be better. The study size in the initial research was small, but it shows promise: https://www.psych.ox.ac.uk/news/tetris-used-to-prevent-post-traumatic-stress-symptoms .

Podcasts Aren’t Actually so Easy

Elizabeth Technology June 27, 2023

There was a time when podcasts were an obscure form of entertainment. After all, in the early days of the internet, storage space for mobile devices was precious.

The Before Times

Podcasts used to be pretty rare, back when CDs were the main method of data storage. You could get okay-ish radio recordings of professionals who had advice to dispense on a CD, or you could listen to an entire album instead on that same CD.

Podcasts as a format just didn’t make sense. It’s like a radio show, but never aired live? It’s like a TV talk show, but with no footage? It’s… sort of like an audio book… but without premade content? What is it bringing to the table that’s new, exactly? The podcast’s first form was as audio-blogs, and audio blogs existed, but the people making them had to be pretty darn interesting to compete with the other entertainment available.

Especially with what a hassle it was to even get the things and store them!

It took til downloadable files could be accessed by anyone for podcasts to start growing in popularity, in the 2000’s. In the peak era of talk shows, sitting down to watch an interview was more convenient, and easier to parse. The format was tried and true! The interviewees were always interesting, and always previously vetted. Recording those off of TV could be like a podcast, but recording it from there meant recording the entire thing, not just the audio, so stripping the video just didn’t make sense if it was all already there. The same went for radio shows, which were already doing plenty for that niche. Format transfers were a pain for the average person with an average desktop.

Speaking of average desktops, recording equipment and studio space were also prohibitively expensive. If someone in 2004 wanted to record something, they’d have to either go to a specialty shop or settle for consumer grade microphones from Best Buy. Their ‘free’ recording space, their house, wasn’t soundproofed unless they went out of their way to do so. Echoes, interruptions, editing, distributing – this is all studio-level stuff at that point in time, and studios just weren’t interested. Talk shows were live, on the radio, and sometimes available for download on the radio’s website if the radio’s host company wanted to go through the effort. That was a very powerful if. As a result, the best of the best is what most people got, classic Abbott and Costello bits and tips from self-help guides who were actually professionally trained and licensed to help people. The difficulty of starting a show was both a blessing and a curse.

The Now

Now that high-quality microphones are cheaper than they used to be, and many people have the internet speeds necessary to upload hour-long segments, nearly anybody can start a podcast. Audacity, a sound-editing program, is free to download! OBS will let you record yourself for free. A decent-quality mic with a pop filter no longer costs as much as a gaming console. Of course people are going to try and get into the business.

The problems begin to arise when things like soundproofing or room noise or echo aren’t considered. Inexperienced beginners set out in echo-y rooms with audible distractions popping in every now and again, and an entire ocean of them are competing for the attention of their listeners. If they have the right set-up and a quiet place, they still have to jump the hurdles of adjusting their own mix, making an intro or scripting one, cutting out dead space and breathing noises, editing the final file, and finally, uploading it. It sounds so simple to just ‘make a podcast’, but the hidden work is beginning to cost more effort than it’s worth.

Not to mention the marketing and ads, which is why so many people try to jump into podcasts in the first place. Many people misinterpret ‘audio-only’ as ‘easy-money’ but it’s really not. The effort to produce something as cleanly made as any of the top podcasts on Spotify is a full-time job in and of itself – and with so many new podcasts, content consumers aren’t going to settle for poor-quality ones anymore. This is bad news for hopefuls aiming at ad money and sponsorships.

The Money

Ad-reads took over Youtube after what is termed the ‘adpocalypse’. Essentially, Youtubers with good records and decent subscriber counts could be solicited to read an ad directly within the video, bypassing the Google Ads system altogether, as the Ads system was much less profitable once advertisers pulled away en masse. The format, however, was tried and true long before in early podcast break-ins. Many podcasts from the 2010’s contained ad reads as their standard, the same way radio shows did.

Ad-reads are a very good source of money. Incredibly good. Unlike Google Ads, the ads can never be pulled from the video or audio by a third party, which is good for the creator. The ad is also always tied to the content, unlike Google’s rotating reel of pre-roll ads, which is good for the advertiser! The ad’s perpetually advertising for them, even if relationships with the creator crumble. They’re worth more money because of this stability, and as a result, they’re more difficult to attain than the standard Youtube Partnership.

The bigger the podcast, the more likely it is to be approached by an advertiser, and the more potential money one could earn. Unfortunately, because so many podcasts are so opaque about their total listener counts, it’s much harder to gauge how big a channel needs to get before they can start pitching their show to the advertisers. There’s also a sort of wariness around new and upcoming shows because followers and download counts can be purchased from shady folks who specialize in bots. 5,000 subscribers might not be 5,000 sets of ears ready for advertisement – the efforts to cheat the system have made the people with money more wary, and made the bar higher for new entrants along the way.

Longevity

Of course, the only consistent way to get those necessary followers is to produce consistently good content on a schedule. Not every podcast that does that succeeds, but all of the successful podcasts do that. One good episode? Easy! Two good episodes? Maybe! Three, or four, and then five when you really don’t feel like recording? Episode 6, when you’ve gotten a total of three listeners? It’s tough to find the motivation to continue. The NY Times says that between March and May of last year, only a fifth of existing podcasts released a new episode. That’s abysmal.

The question is if a new show can keep it going in spite of the work, or in spite of a rocky start, and many just can’t. Luck doesn’t strike every attempt at a show, and podcasts are not as fun and easy as hosts make them seem. It’s easy to talk with friends for an hour, for some people. It may be easy to spend an entire night together gabbing about whatever the current events are. It’s not easy to guide the conversation using pre-written topics, day after day, week after week. How often did you spend two solid hours just talking to people before the pandemic struck? No breaks. Very little dead space. Long stretches of listening and no pauses once it’s your turn to respond.

I would wager most people overestimate the time they can talk about something before repeating themselves, which is why so many podcasts also feature friends and interviews, a niche that’s become overdone. Having another person to bounce info off of is a great idea, but so many podcasters treat interviews as a marketing method instead of an actual interview that sorting out interesting interviews is like finding a needle in a haystack.

And then there’s the ‘friend group’ podcasts, which have the same core members, week after week. Every issue with scheduling recording time, having a quiet studio, and finding relatable talking points is magnified by however many people are in the group. That being said, they are much easier to run (and more appealing to listeners) than single-person podcasts, or rotating interview podcasts if the host is mediocre. Most radio shows have two or three people for that exact reason. Even then, running out of content is still a very real threat, and if one of the members leave? The show is as good as over.

Shows like My Brother, My Brother, and Me rely on Yahoo Answers as well as audience send-ins to build out content. Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet does the same, but with reviews of various locations. Other podcasts with similar formats have all but consumed the niche, and now others trying to get their own podcast off the ground are having to do “X – But With a Twist!” style content. The number of dead shows with premises like the Youtuber Markiplier’s Distractable podcast, or the Joe Rogan Experience, is in the hundreds, because it’s so incredibly easy to make one episode and then bail. People starting podcasts now might only be able to get a reliable viewer base if they have their own built in off of other projects. Distractables, Very Really Good, Schmanners, etc. all come from people who have successful channels somewhere else.

Sources: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/18/style/why-are-there-so-many-podcasts.html

It’s Summer for Computers, Too

Elizabeth Technology June 22, 2023

Listen, sometimes machines get old, and they work too hard, and then you don’t want to burn yourself by watching Netflix, so you resort to other methods of cooling your computer. There are right ways, and there are wrong ways.

DON’T: Put Your Machine in the Freezer or Fridge

It sounds like a good idea, but it’s really not. Condensation can form on the inside of the machine, which can then permanently break things as said condensation re-melts and drips onto other components inside your device. Plus, if it’s a systemic issue like a broken fan or overworked CPU, this isn’t actually fixing the issue. You’re going to be taking your machine in and out of the freezer forever!

Cold screws up glues over time, too, meaning internal elements can gradually wiggle their way loose.

As an unrelated hack, freezing gum can usually get it off the bottom of your shoe.

DON’T: Put Ice Packs, Popsicles, or Bags of Ice on or in the Machine

Condensation, once again, can ruin your machine if it drips into the wrong spot. However, ice bags have the added danger of leaking! Ice sometimes has sharp enough points to pierce its own bag. Popsicles, while usually sealed for safety, are not worth the risk of some sharp component in your machine piercing the bag full of sugary dyed liquid. If that doesn’t kill the machine, it will make you wish it had when the keyboard is too sticky to type on quickly.

DON’T: Run Every Program at Once

You shouldn’t be running high-distance Minecraft alongside high-render Overwatch while also running your internet browser for a live Youtube stream in 4K unless you’ve got a super-computer. If it even lets you get those programs open and running, but you notice your computer is unusually, abysmally hot, those programs might be contributing. You can overload your CPU! If you can’t identify which program specifically is eating up all your CPU’s power, check the task manager. Windows devices have a task manager that allows them to see how much of the RAM, the hard drive, and the CPU a program is using. Just hit (Ctrl + Alt +Delete) and you’ll reach a menu with Task Manager at the bottom. If you can’t narrow your issue down to a specific program, then restarting the computer may fix whatever background program has gotten stuck in the RAM. It’s a good idea to reboot regularly anyway!

Now that we’re past the don’ts, what should you do? You obviously can’t let it stay hot, that will slowly fry the hard drive. Excessive heat is worse for electronics than cold is, especially the kinds with batteries in them. You should take steps to cool off your machine if it’s getting ridiculously hot.

DO: Use a Fan

There’s a small fan inside of your computer already. If it’s not cutting it, then the next best step is to use a real fan, and just position the intake for your device in front of it. The extra air flow is just doing what the fan inside the device was already doing, but on a bigger scale! You might find that repositioning your computer so the fan will fit by the intake can help cool it down, too – computers in front of windows might be absorbing more heat than you realize.

DO: Use a Specially Designed Cooling Pad

Some companies sell cooling pads, pads that cool the device down externally. These are specially designed to avoid generating condensation inside the device, while still wicking away heat safely. If you can’t get a fan into the area it needs to be, a cooling pad is a solid second option. Unfortunately, due to the shape and size of PC towers, this is generally only feasible for laptops.

DO: Make Sure the Vents Are Clear

If the machine’s pretty young, and the programs on it aren’t too intense for its specs, the reason may be external. Check where it’s vents are! Especially for PCs. If the tower is pushed right up against the wall, it might not be able to generate the airflow it needs. Also, don’t put stickers or decorations over vents. That’s also bad for the vent’s venting power.

Speaking of vents, make sure the vents are cleared of dust, too! Cleaning them improves efficiency.

DO: Restart Every Once in a While

Your computer is doing a lot of things in the background for you. Many programs are still doing things after you close them! Steam, a popular gaming platform, is almost always also connected to the internet when users aren’t looking. It does this at start up, and it keeps an eye on it’s own connection to let you know if you lost internet. As such, it’s important to occasionally restart, so these programs don’t ‘get stuck’ eating processing power for their own little functions.

DO: Consider a Shop

If the computer’s hot enough to fry eggs, the odds are pretty good that something’s up with the CPU, the fan, or it’s own internal thermometer, depending on the age of the machine. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to cool it off, or keep it from getting so hot in the first place, it might be time to visit a shop. At the very least, you should be keeping backups of your files. If the heat eventually kills the machine, a backup saves you a lot of money on very expensive data recovery.

Sources: https://www.crucial.com/support/system-maintenance-cooling

Outfits for the Met Gala

Elizabeth Technology June 20, 2023

Opulence and Impossible Styles

The Met Gala is primarily a place for the rich and famous to come together in support of the arts. Actors, influencers, singers, fashion designers, heads of makeup brands, anyone who faces the public and isn’t too controversial is welcomed. The organization who throws the event, the Met, is actually a museum dedicated to the preservation of clothing, and the documentation of history through fashion. What better way to do that than to ask celebrity stylists to come up with new styles riffing on themes?

The Met Gala always has a theme. That theme is not always successfully met, but when it is, it’s incredible. “Heavenly Bodies”, the theme a few years ago, was both broad and specific enough that nearly everybody in attendance (everyone who modeled a look at least) understood the assignment, and most nailed it without accidentally copying other looks. “Guilded Age”, the theme a little while after, was not so successful, but still full of plenty of great looks. The lack of cohesion came from a mixup of “Golden Age” and “Guilded Age” by the people styling the attendees; the Golden Age of Hollywood was from the early fifties to somewhere in the sixties, the heyday of stars like Marilyn Monroe, while the Guilded Age refers to the last twenty years or so of the 19th century. Obviously wildly different, but still mostly a good showing. The year “camp” was the theme revealed that nobody who showed up knew what camp was, and many of the attendees only managed to hit it ironically. ‘Camp’ is difficult to define and even harder to achieve on purpose without stumbling into ‘tacky’, but it’s more than bright colors or strange silhouettes.

In recent years, the Met Gala has attracted some controversy in spite of a growing love online for runway-style fashion – why?

Goofy

Karl Lagerfeld was a designer for Chanel, and the subject of this year’s Met Gala. He’s famous for both his impact on Chanel’s silhouettes and his somewhat unsupportive attitude after the #MeToo movement unearthed a lot of mistreatment in Hollywood. He also famously had a cat. Three separate mainstream celebrities (Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and Jared Leto) went as his cat.

Lagerfeld is not an ideal choice in many ways. Critics on TikTok point out that Virginie Viard, a longtime collaborator at Chanel, was still around and might be a better choice. Additionally, the Met Gala already had a Chanel-themed gala while Karl was the head of Chanel about eighteen years ago, effectively giving him two theme years. He brought Chanel back from serious decline, yes, but he wasn’t the only big designer at Chanel in all that time between galas. Other, more serious controversies included several comments about women he considered overweight or ugly, and xenophobia relating to Muslims in Germany. He said in an interview that his persona was an act… was it? Nobody knows for sure which opinions he actually held and which ones were exaggerations or poorly received jokes.

Attempts to rebel without rebelling against the Met itself included wearing pink, which Karl famously criticized… but then also featured repeatedly in his shows, because his remarks about the color were not made seriously. How does one navigate this situation without sparking controversy? There’s no way out of it – either an attendee is on-theme and implicitly supporting Lagerfeld, or they’re not on theme and criticized by people who liked his style. The three people who showed up as cats were taking the theme as seriously as Karl himself took anything. Maybe that’s the only real way to win.

#TaxTheRich

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a beloved figure among young New York voters. She understands computers and worked retail, both of which are uncommon amongst her coworkers. Famously, she wore holes straight through her shoes going door-to-door campaigning. So, when she showed up to the Met Gala wearing a nice dress saying ‘Tax The Rich’ splashed in red down the back, some people were confused. Others got angry.

Unfortunately, the muddying of the waters between ‘Big on Twitter’ and ‘Big, and Posts to Twitter’ left many people uncertain of what role she was trying to fill by showing up wearing that dress – for an influencer, this whole debacle really would have been about hollow messaging, but for an actual real-life politician, that dress reflects her bringing her job with her. An influencer can’t show up to New York’s legislature and draft a bill about taxation, but AOC could. Twitter, where the worst of the fighting was happening, could not separate these ideas. The Met was caught in the crossfire, unable to quench the fire in 120 characters or less: New York politicians are invited to attend because some of them get a say in the Met’s funding, and the design house gave her the dress to wear for free because they supported her goals. She was there for fairly cheap, but Twitter did not care. Twitter got a picture of her in the dress with limited captioning and ran with it.

Letting Twitter and social media become such a critical part of their publicity during this event means giving a direct line of access to the general public, many of whom have no context for the Met, the Gala, or AOC herself. A combination of confusing symbols like AOC at an expensive party (but for free!) wearing a quality dress that asked the other attendees to pay more in taxes may as well have been a press release in Klingon to people who only go to Twitter for their news.

The Monroe Dress

The Met Gala may be beloved, but every organization dedicated to preserving history has an opportunity to do it wrong. They may record history with conscious bias, perhaps believing their home country’s culture to be superior, or they fail to return artifacts to the living relatives of people who never wanted their stuff in a museum. They mistreat their collection, fail to provide context, or don’t investigate their sources as thoroughly as they should. Every museum has to contend their collection with their idea of the culture that collection comes from. Anthropology especially is prone to bias. Things have gotten better, but not linearly, and not completely. Marilyn Monroe’s famous raindrop dress serves as a warning.

The Met doesn’t actually have the Monroe dress – Ripley’s Believe it or Not does. They should have never let the dress out of the case. Kim Kardashian requested the item for wear at the Guilded Age themed gala (once again, Guilded, not Golden!) and posed in it for pictures after an obviously difficult time getting into it on the carpet. This isn’t to dunk on Kim Kardashian or the shape she was in, but modern beauty standards are an exaggeration of what was in style back when Monroe was everywhere, and Kim had already been on an extreme diet to try and match Monroe’s measurements. It was an impossible ask. The dress was made for Monroe – she was sewn into it on the day she most famously wore it. It would have been a miraculous coincidence if Kim fit into it simply because it wasn’t made for her.

Everything about this dress, down to the choice of fabric itself, was made for Monroe. It wouldn’t have fit 99.5% of the population as a result.

So why even try? Why not pay an homage with the replica, and leave it at that? Kim wore a replica the rest of the night, also owned by the same company that had the original, and looked identical. In fact, the replica fit better – the museum only let her try on the original because the replica fit so well, and the original did not fit at all the first time Kardashian tried it on. Worse, the effort of getting her into and out of the dress on the big day put strain on the stitches, and caused some of the gems to detach from the fabric. This event has permanently altered the way the original looks, even now that it’s back in storage.

The entire thing was an ego-trip-slash-publicity-stunt that backfired badly on an organization that swore it was dedicated to preserving fashion history, especially now that people online are beginning to recognize what a tragically used figure Monroe was.

Is fashion inextricably tied to controversy? Can the Met get through a gala without tripping itself? Next year, we’ll see.  

Can There Be Another Billy Mays?

Elizabeth Technology May 30, 2023

Or are they all doomed to MilkShake Duck, Crash, and Burn?

Billy Mays Here

I’m sure you’ve seen his ads at least once. Billy Mays was one of the most famous salesmen for everyday household products like the Shamwow and bathtub-ring remover, an amazing salesman famous for both his delivery of his lines and the variety of stuff he’d promoted during his career.

He sold everything. He did it while yelling. His consistently cheery demeanor and intro became a trademark unto himself, a trustworthy salesman in an era where companies weren’t sure they needed a face. He was a staple of phone-order TV products in the period right before everyone had a website they could pitch instead, filling a transient niche. He sadly passed away due to a heart attack in 2009, and nobody has ever been able to take his place.

The Milkshake Duck

A Milkshake Duck refers to a tweet where the poster is presenting a fictional duck that drinks milkshakes, a duck that everybody on the internet loves. The second part of the tweet implies that the tweeter found out the duck is racist only after that duck became famous. Milkshake Ducks are people who become famous for something cute or funny, only for the spotlight to show things from their past they may not have wanted the entire public to see. An unfortunately large number of SNL performers have done blackface, for example, but nobody ever knows until they’re in front of the camera and people want to find out every little detail about them.

Billy Mays appeared during an incredibly unique time in TV history, a time when Twitter was new and celebrities had to really screw up before they’d get called on it. Obviously, this has now changed – while it’s still possible for celebrities to suppress bad news about themselves, it’s much harder to do that when the reporting is crowdsourced by people at varying levels of anonymity.

The question of could we get another Billy Mays is complicated tremendously by this problem.

You have to be a little insane to keep up the constant pep and showmanship Billy Mays had for his commercial. You have to be willing you put your name behind things wholeheartedly, like he did – he claimed he used every product he showed, and many of those products are genuinely good. If they’re not, they’re not poorly made – they’re just not made for everybody. You have to be a ‘Type A’ personality. All of this combines into a person that, simply put, is likely to have gotten into some trouble at some point in their life.

For close comparison, look at the people we saw get big in similar ways after his untimely passing: the Shamwow guy had complaints of domestic violence against him. The MyPillow guy is a notorious conspiracy theorist, but in the racist way, not the fun way. Commercials for products like the Scrub Daddy sponge and other assorted ‘As Seen On TV’ stuff have, instead, gone back to using actors who don’t speak to demonstrate their product with a narrator over the top.

Milkshake Ducks are more common than ever, and the kind of product still using infomercials can’t make it work if they pick the wrong person. It may actually tank all of their marketing to be associated with the wrong person.

Flex Tape

The only man who’s come sort of close to him in recent memory is the Flex Seal guy, Phil Swift. Flex Seal is essentially spray rubber, which has existed, but wasn’t well known outside of construction and underwater sports markets.

All that stuff earlier still applies – he’s a little unhinged. Billy Mays was always shouting, but he always maintained a professional demeanor underneath it. The Flex Seal guy will sometimes pull out a chainsaw and look a little too eager to use it, which is to say – exactly eager enough for people to remember. Nobody could replace Billy Mays because his delivery was unique for the time and imitators have cropped up in his absence, but Phil Swift takes his presentation and tweaks it just enough.

However, while Phil Swift is a close match in this one regard, he doesn’t do the same cross-product stuff that Billy Mays did. Mays had a marketing company that other companies would reach out to, but Phil is employed by Flex Seal specifically. He only does Flex Seal. Finding someone who hits all of the critical points has been difficult at best and impossible at worst. Even when they do find someone, a la Phil Swift, they’re often not willing to go beyond one company like Mays had been. Mays was truly rare – I don’t expect we’ll see another one as technology continues to isolate advertising, both online and on traditional TV.

Sources:

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/613382/billy-mays-conquered-infomercial-world