Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Weekly Watch: Welcome To Night Vale

Not really a Weekly Watch so much as a Weekly Listen -- the popular podcast Welcome To Night Vale has conveniently put their archives up on YouTube, in case you don't feel like using a podcast app to pull just the audio. Linked here is Year One; the other seasons are up as well, plus a list of extras for the fans.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I learn new things every time I volunteer for a research study. Today, I learned that neuroimaging researchers have no idea how the fMRI works.

Oh, they're aware that there's a very large magnet in it, and that the people who paid for the very large magnet said NO METAL IN THE MRI ROOM in equally large block capitals. Beyond that they don't really have any idea. They know they're measuring brain activity, and I think some of them know what marker they're using (blood flow), but they don't appear to know by what arcane sorcery big magnet + blood = animated GIF of the brain.

[Hemoglobin is magnetically susceptible. Only very, very faintly, hence the mad scientist-grade 4T magnet in the MRI scanner. Hemoglobin that's carrying oxygen has a slightly different response than hemoglobin that's already dropped it off, and brain regions that are active get an influx of the oxygenated stuff. Awesomely powerful, but also awesomely picky, and if you don't do the stats right you can accidentally get results out of dead fish.]

They absolutely definitely don't know how anything else in the room works, especially if it has magnets in. They almost didn't let me into the scanner, as their little hand-scanning magnetic wand kept going off at the back of my head. If I have a plate in my skull, it's news to me. Maybe aliens?

Further experimentation showed that it wasn't going off on me, but at that spot in the room. Also a number of other spots in the room with nothing in them. I pointed out that we were under a bunch of fluorescent lights, which have electromagnetic ballasts. Two highly-educated neuroscientists gave me blank looks.

I also asked how, if there were no metal or magnetic objects allowed in the MRI chamber, they got the earphone/speaker things to work. This had apparently never occurred to them. A brief explanation of electromagnetic speaker drivers got the same blank look as the ballast comment.

I hope their baseline scan of my brain looked interesting. I mainly spent those eight minutes trying to work out how they got the sound piped in. I still don't know what they actually use, but I came up with hydraulics -- you could transmit the compression and rarification of the waveform in pretty much the same way they used to make delay line computer memory, and use it to move a speaker membrane at the end. Any liquid would do. Turing infamously suggested gin.

The second thing I learned is that you can get the attention of every neuroscientist in the room by telling one of them that you have synesthesia, and the MRI noises have a color. There are actually two sources of noise in the tube; the low tone thumping is the motor moving the scanner components back and forth, but the higher buzz is the adjustment magnet ramping up and down. The field requires a lot of rapid adjustments to get a picture, so essentially the thing is a gargantuan electromagnetic buzzer that gives off a sort of a nasty poky diode-y waveform. Goes right through the earplugs. Synthetic noises with lots of hard corners like that come out very bright and flat, and as it happened, the fMRI was a high enough tone that it was pretty much a very rapidly-dashed bright white line.

They did show me pictures of my own brain at the end, which was nice. The last time I did one of these, they wouldn't let me see the scan. The researcher even claimed my brain looked normal, although he may have just been polite.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday Mystery: PCM Adapters

This week is merely a minor personal mystery, whose solution I have recently run across by accident.

I am plagued with endless mental snippets and snapshots of... cruft, really. Data that I encountered at some point and inexplicably decided to store forever. Most people have this to some extent, I think; mine are just occasionally vivid enough for me to analyze consciously. Sometimes that helps me figure out where to look to ID the image, sometimes it doesn't.

I am particularly attuned to things that look 'wrong'. Again, a thing that most people experience -- human brains are great at patterns and even more great at being annoyed when a pattern doesn't complete correctly. My sense of 'wrong' can be subtle sometimes, and half the time I have to dig it out by working backwards from what the wrongness reminds me of and then figuring out what other things remind me of that. It works not unlike my various synesthesias, which means it's probably technically another short-circuit that isn't supposed to be doing that. But I digress.

One place it comes in handy is in analyzing the provenance of media, especially video. Every different video format looks distinctive to me, mainly because each one fails in a different way. Scratches on a 2" Quad tape cause different blemishes on the picture than crinkles in a VHS tape; different kinds of film stock have different kinds of film grain; a crap VCD has different motion block issues than a crap DVD. I have so much of this crammed into my head that I once answered a question about it on the Straight Dope Message Board and was promptly mistaken for a Corporation S.Tel.E.

I've had for many years an image stuck in my head of a screen full of analog television static, that wasn't. That is, there was a lot of 'snow', but also some areas of the screen tracking from top to bottom that weren't random, and therefore weren't static. The snapshot I have is of that image on a television ('80s style, wood grain) within the frame of what I was watching, so I presume it was in a TV show or a movie somewhere. I have no attached air of creepiness or wrongness, so in situ it was either something unremarkable, or some sort of context-free tableau. There's a decent chance it was in a music video, for reasons that will become apparent later.

It looked, in fact, a lot like this. It transpires that this is PCM-encoded audio recorded onto a VHS tape. Ran into it completely by accident while jamming another entire category page on Wikipedia into my brains. I knew that you could record high-quality analog stereo audio onto an S-VHS tape using a Hi-Fi VCR; in that case, however, you either have to supply the deck with some random video signal or let it self-generate a black/blue screen, because the timing pulses on VHS are all recorded with the TV signal in the vertical blanking interval. No picture, no tick marks, no audio sync. (You don't get anything fun out of the VCR. They generally just refuse to play the tape.) In that picture up there, the video signal is the audio -- it's encoding bits and bytes as 'picture' in the same way Commodore computers used to encode bits and bytes as 'sound' on cassette tapes.

PCM stands for pulse code modulation, and is probably beyond the scope of a Monday Mystery write-up. The important part here is that it's an inherently digital way to capture music -- it's also used on CDs -- which is why the signal up there is a lot of hard-edged blocks, instead of the softer flickers of actual static. The deck is using absolute video black for zeroes and absolute video white for ones.

[Analog television static tends to look like flyspecks or little horizontal lines because the picture on an analog TV is basically made of horizontal lines, stacked one atop another. The electron gun that draws the picture traces from left to right, top to bottom. Fun fact: About 1% of analog TV static is due to leftover cosmic radiation from the Big Bang. The rest of it is stray signal from other EM sources and the components inside the set.

Second fun fact: I was going to post a picture of real TV static for you to compare this to, but I can't fucking find one -- all the clip art I can find is of mock static done in various Adobe products.]

I am not entirely sure what the individual bands represent, although I could probably figure it out if I stared long enough. The solid lines down the left are guard bands of some kind, probably data frame delimiters. I can't say the running stripes are the best visual equalizer I've ever seen, but they're clearly responding to the same thing; they flicker faster when either the dominant frequency gets higher or when the signal gets busier with a mess of instruments, which means it's tracking waveform peaks. They all get flickery at roughly the same time, which means they're not tracking individual equalization bands. (If they were, then you'd see the low frequencies respond to the bass drum, and the high one or two respond to high notes, etc., mostly independent of one another.) I assume the L and R samples are interleaved, but VHS tape has at best about 480 lines of vertical resolution and it's running at 60 fields a second, so it's probably too fine in detail and goes by too quickly for the pattern to be obvious.

I suspect I saw it in a video or documentary or something else to do with music, because this sort of thing would've been ubiquitous in a recording studio. Before DAT or full-digital production, "digital" masters were done via PCM converters on VHS tapes. We're all used to them being less than brilliant when compared to film, but the reels in VHS cassettes were high-quality mylar tape with metal coating, essentially the same stuff that huge corporations stored their vital mainframe records on -- the recording medium wasn't the bottleneck there. As a general rule of thumb, when working with digital media, video will suck up at least ten times the disk space of audio; if you flipped that, and gave an audio stream the space normally allotted to video, you get a really robust, high-quality, error-corrected signal.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Weekly Watch: Techmoan's Retro Tech

Techmoan is sort of a general tech channel on YouTube, but the host has a charming obsession with weird lost audio and video formats. He's even managed to get hold of some I hadn't heard of before, which is impressive, considering I've loaded the Dead Media Project Archive into my head a few times now. He goes to the trouble of recording bits off of YouTube's free use music archive to demo a lot of the formats, which is nice, although YouTube encoding itself sort of smashes the brilliance of a lot of high-resolution formats.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Monday Mystery: The Vanished Prodigy

Barbara Newhall Follett was writing poetry before most children would even be enrolled in kindergarten. By twelve, she was a published novelist. By twenty-two, she was a bride. And by twenty-six, she had vanished completely.

Follett was awash in the written word before most children even knew their ABCs. Her father, Wilson Follett, was eventually the author of the posthumously-published descriptivist tome Modern American Usage. (The manuscript was largely in draft stage upon his death, but friends who read it thought it was too wonderful to go unreleased.) At eight she was hard at work on her first novel, The House Without Windows; after its publication, at the tender age of twelve, she went on to write The Voyage of the Norman D, released when she was sixteen. Both books were critically-acclaimed, and Follett became a celebrated prodigy of the literary world.

Outside the world in her novels, however, all was not well. In 1928, when Follett was 14, her beloved father announced he would be leaving the family for another woman. Follett was devastated. She busied herself writing Lost Island and Travels Without A Donkey, but with the onset of the Great Depression the next year, the situation only got worse. Follett, celebrated novelist, was forced to take a job as a lowly secretary to support herself and her mother. In 1934, hoping for a better life, she married a man named Nickerson Rodgers, and moved to Brookline, Massachusetts.

Follett's relationship with Rodgers was tempestuous. They fought frequently, and in her letters, Follett spoke often of depression and dependence on sleeping medication. In 1939, she had had enough. Barbara Newhall Follett Rodgers walked out of her Brookline apartment with $30 cash and was never seen again.

Though the case is officially unsolved and without leads, many believe that Rodgers did her in. He was the last person to see her alive, and we have only his word that she walked out after their last fight under her own power. It took him two weeks to report her missing -- although, to be fair, her mother didn't report it either -- and four months to request that the police issue a bulletin about it, under her married name, rather than the name she was known for. It wasn't until 1966 that someone in the media realized "Barbara Rodgers" was also "Barbara Newhall Follett" and set up a hue and cry. Thirteen years after Follett's disappearance, her mother Helen went to police and insisted upon an investigation, claiming she had always been suspicious of Nickerson Rodgers.

No body or trace of Barbara Newhall Follett has ever been found.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Curiosity got the better of me again, and I went out to try to investigate why the hell people are so fascinated by television shows about 600 lb humans.

I should know better than to do this. I always just end up wondering how people get into such goddamn stupid arguments.

Body image issues are always something I have to approach like an alien anthropologist. I have plenty of problems, but hating the mirror is not one of them. I ran into a picture of Mae West when I was maybe eleven or twelve and thought to myself, "I want to look like that when I grow up." And lo, for it came to pass. I am wasp-waisted and hourglassy. It's not necessarily the fashionable shape of the day, but neither does anyone complain at me about it. Nothing fits quite right when I buy it, but when your problem is "I always have to take the waist in several inches," you don't get a lot of sympathy.

Worrying about weight is especially weird to me. I don't normally know exactly what I weigh, mainly because I don't give a shit, but the urgent care stuck me on a scale so they could figure out my drug dosages. As of my trip to the clinic I was 131.8 lbs. (Just about bang on 60 kg, if you speak metric.) I've been about that, plus or minus maybe ten pounds, my entire adult life. I don't do anything about it, it just happens. American clothing sizes are so fucked you'd have better luck in some stores if you went through the rack blindfolded, but if we're pretending standard size charts bear any relation to the dimensions of our clothes, I've never been smaller than about a 4, or bigger than about an 8. I eat basically whatever, usually not quite enough of it, and then drop a multivitamin on top to ward off scurvy.

So all of this spot-reduction magic fat burner cleansing nonsense, and all of this radical political defense of having jiggly bits, have blown right past me at about equal velocities.

Having now gone out and read blogs by people on both sides of the shouting, I now wish they had passed me by as well.

Obesity is a statistically a risk factor for a bunch of stuff. Lots of things are risk factors. Some of those things are controllable. Some are not. You, a human with free will and full ownership of your own body, are still free to make the decision to take those controllable risks, once you know what they are. That is, as long as you give informed consent. As far as I can tell, the "fat acceptance" crowd is doing their damndest to make sure nobody is informed, and the "obesity epidemic" people are determined to make people change regardless of whether they consent.

The main issue I have with the FA movement is the same as the one I have with a lot of other social movements, which can be summed up as 'the average temperament of the people in it'. Because it's a movement that aims to eliminate injustices perpetrated on people by other people, it has attracted a disproportionate number of people who believe that everything wrong with their lives is an injustice perpetrated on them by other people. Psychologically, it's known as having an external locus of control. When this is your mindset, 'I'm having bad feelings' is isomorphic with 'other people are forcing me to feel bad', and facts fall by the wayside as you set about defending yourself from what you feel is perpetual attack.

I don't think it's fair to say this is representative of the reasons the fat acceptance movement began. From what I can find, it started as an offshoot of the feminist movement, with the general idea that fat people are still people and being dicks to them is just not on. I do unfortunately think, though, that it is fair to say that this mindless flailing is pretty representative of the experience most people have with the FA movement today, especially online where relative anonymity and the ease of finding yourself a nice little echo chamber to settle into make for vicious cliques. A lot of the loudest (self-appointed) spokespeople jam their fingers into their ears right up to the second knuckle when confronted with actual science. I absolutely agree that you are under no obligation to adhere to anybody's beauty standards, sit there and listen to anyone's crap advice on what you should look like or how to change your body mass, or to prioritize health, athleticism, or weight loss, but if your response to "statistically, you're at greater risk of these specific problems" is SOD OFF YOU DON'T KNOW MY LIFE I'M PERFECT, then there is something wrong.

I have a shitload of problems with the "obesity epidemic! RUN! SAVE YOURSELVES!" crowd as well. Science is not a bludgeon you can use to make everyone do what you say. That is no better than waving around your very recent English translation of your very old book of myths and demanding that everyone follow the moral code you have somehow mysteriously derived from it. You can tell people, "You're at greater risk of heart conditions!" but they are totally allowed to tell you to fuck off. It's their life. They don't have to care if they're courting health problems, if they worry you, or if they make your boner sad. They are allowed to decide they are okay eating more pie than they burn off with exercise. Shut up and stop trying to outlaw soda refills. It's not going to work. You might note that heroin didn't vanish as soon as it was made illegal, and you can't seriously try to stem the flow of food.

There is some sort of fundamental lack of empathy going on with people who insist that everyone has a duty to force themselves to a "healthy" weight. I don't know how people get to be 400 lbs any more than I know how people get to be religious -- there is obviously some sort of reward pathway in operation here that doesn't work that way for me. But I do know that hunger is incredibly stressful. I tried a generic form of that no-periods-ever birth control once that utterly broke my hunger cues. It wasn't that I wanted to eat more often, or wanted to eat more overall; it was that no matter what I ate, how much, or when, I was still just a little bit hungry. All the goddamn time. It drove me insane. I had to quit taking it, because that feeling of constantly being just a little bit hungry was so uncomfortable I had trouble sleeping. It doesn't matter where you start out on the scale; if someone's already hanging onto life by their fingernails, asking them to walk around just a little bit hungry 24/7 is not tenable.

Humans make me so damn tired sometimes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Weekly Watch: The Oddity Archive

The Oddity Archive is a running YouTube show spotlighting weird old media tech, with bonus snark and bad puns. This show isn't specifically about video games; the host talks more about obsolete video and audio formats, past trends in television programming and services, incidents and failures of the medium, and the occasional side trip into things like talking board games. There are about 200 videos, including his minisodes and various digressions into commentary that didn't make it into finished episodes, so you can binge for quite a while.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Monday Mystery: Lyle Stevik

On September 14, 2001, a young man checked into a nondescript motel in Amanda Park, Washington. He signed the register as Lyle Stevik. He had no credit card, but the clerk decided he looked harmless enough, and allowed him to rent the room without one. The desk heard from him only once more, when he asked to change rooms to escape the noise from a nearby trailer park. On the 15th, he was seen pacing up and down the nearby highway, perhaps agitated. On the 16th, the hotel maid offered to clean his room; he declined, although he did ask for more towels.

On the 17th, the maid knocked and received no response. She entered the room and found him, hanged from the closet rod with his own belt. On the nightstand, he left $160 with a note that said "for the room". In the wastebasket was a copy of the Sunday paper, and another note that simply said "SUICIDE". The investigators described it as looking somehow experimental, as if he were trying to remember how to spell it.

He hanged himself on a closet rod that was far too short, and was found nearly on his knees in the closet. Towels padded the walls; he might have been afraid he'd flail and alert the neighbors.

There is no record of a Lyle Stevik anywhere. The prevailing theory is that he took the name after a character in a Joyce Carol Oates novel, Lyle Stevick, but no one knows why, and given the handwriting in the register, some aren't sure that "Stevik" was actually what he wrote. The address he gave at check-in is that of another motel in Idaho, where nobody remembers him. He turned up at the Amanda Park motel around the time the regular bus from the nearest big city arrives, but no one recalls seeing him on the bus. No matching fingerprint records could be found by state or federal law enforcement, the military, or any other organization. He had no ID, no luggage, and only a small handful of items (toothpaste, loose change, etc) were found in the room.

A few of the autopsy findings are interesting, if not very dramatic. The ME noted "scrapes" on the knuckles and that the clothing he was wearing was far too big for him -- the belt, in particular, had wear marks that indicated it had been worn by someone of a significantly higher weight in the past. The reddit crew who have taken up the case think he might have been bulimic. (I realize that "reddit investigates!" makes people wince these days, but this group appears pretty sane. They have ongoing contact with the lead investigator and so far no one seems to have doxxed anybody, intentionally or otherwise.) "Lyle" was on the tall side, 6'2", and although his ethnicity is listed as "white", it's not out of the question that he might have been Hispanic/Latino or Native American.

The possibility has also been floated that the reason no one has reported a missing person who matches his description is that either his family died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, or they were led to believe he did. The latter is less likely, unless his family had whoppingly wrong information; the redditors paid for radioisotope testing (yes, really) which showed he wasn't anywhere near New York in the months leading up to is death.

Websleuths, which is an even more terrifying pile of desperate, shouting, wiggling "helpfulness" than reddit, drew a tentative connection between "Lyle" and someone calling themselves "Steven" who wrote a reference on hanging oneself on I don't think I'll link to it here, but it's easy enough to find. I don't see it, except insofar as "Lyle" managed to hang himself, but it apparently debuted right before "Lyle" was found, and Websleuths is like a giant case of mass pareidolia as explained by Labrador retriever puppies, so they think it's relevant.