Not All Right

For some inexplicable reason, every pair of headphones that I've purchased over the last decade has been from Audio Technica. It started shortly after getting an iPod Touch and finding the white earbuds provided by Apple completely unusable outside of a quiet room. An electronics shop near my employer had some decent earphones for about $20, so I picked up a pair. They sounded really good and, as a result, the next pair I bought a year later were $50 Audio Technica earphones. A year later I splurged for the more expensive CKM500s. A year after that I bought the even more expensive ATH-IM03s and loved every decibel.

A pattern can certainly be seen here. A new pair of earphones were acquired on an annual basis, often 15~18 months after the previous purchase. I generally do not replace equipment just because there's something newer out, and this was certainly the case with these headphones. A new pair was only acquired after the previous pair developed a problem. Interestingly, each pair had the exact same problem: sound would no longer emerge from one of the two phones; generally the left side.

The ATH-IM03s were monitoring earphones, though. I bought these not only because of the glowing reviews online, but because the wire leading to the phones was replaceable. When the eventual wear and tear became too much, rather than toss an expensive piece of equipment, I could just grab a replacement cable for a fraction of the price of a new set and be on my way.

This was the theory, anyway.

The ATH-IM03s were generally used for 4 hours a day while I was on the way to work, on the way home from work, or just out and about between classes. I would listen primarily to podcasts, as music is generally best enjoyed when not riding trains or navigating crowded pedestrian spaces. As someone who wore a suit and taught for a living, I wasn't exactly the most physically demanding person and, when I wasn't using the earphones, they'd be put away in the original case with the cable carefully wrapped in such a way that it didn't tangle … because tangled wires upset Morbo. However, 11 months into ownership, the left side of my audio started to cut out. As these were still under warranty, I brought them back to the shop for some warranty service. Two weeks later, the earphones were returned with a new cable.

All was good with the new cable and I could once again enjoy superior sound isolation while out and about with a phone full of podcasts. Unfortunately, the exact same problem happened again just ten months later. Once again, I went to the electronics shop and asked if it was covered under warranty, but this time it wasn't. The shop did have a replacement cable for $65, though, and I stupidly paid the money because I couldn't justify spending more on a whole new set of earphones when one of the reasons I went with the IM03s was the ability to replace cables. There were cheaper replacements available online, but the reviews were mostly negative as these were poor Chinese knock-offs.

The new cable went fourteen months before the left side cut out.

In March of 2018 I had to fly to the other side of the globe for a week of meetings at the corporate headquarters. Flying without a good pair of earphones was not an option, so I went in search of another replacement cable for the IM03s. I found one online for about $150, which is an absurd price, but none of the original cables from Audio Technica. It was almost as if the cables were no longer available. I went to a couple of audio electronics shops in town, but none carried a replacement cable for the IM-series buds. A little bit of digging online revealed that the cables really were no longer available from the manufacturer. Only 3rd-party companies would offer something compatible … for a price.

WES Store

The image above shows the current price of a third-party cable like I had found two years ago1. 31,835円 works out to $291.29 USD with today's exchange rate. Tack on another 10% for sales tax and it's well over $320 American dollars for a cable that makes the earbuds useable while simultaneously looking as cheap as a dollar store neck strap.

I wasn't going to pay this price. Instead, I opted to get a pair of Bluetooth earphones. I did the research, read the reviews, and settled on — yet again — something from Audio Technica. Sony, Philips, and Bose certainly had options, but none had the same sort of positive feedback as the ATH-CKS5500BT. Throwing caution to the wind, I picked these up a couple of days before my trip to the US and gave them a shot.

My initial impressions were mixed. The battery life was horrible, as I couldn't get more than two hours from a charge. To make matters worse, the sound quality was about the same as a phone call. Sure, there are bandwidth limitations when using Bluetooth, but this was a pretty serious downgrade from what I had once enjoyed with a wired set. Things only got worse when I went to Tokyo, as it seems there is simply far too much interference at train stations in Japan's capital, rendering the device little more than an expensive neck accessory. Over time the battery life did improve, but the other issues persist to this day.

Except … there's a new problem with the Bluetooth earphones: the left side no longer works.

I noticed the problem this past weekend while out in the park where I was listening to podcasts. The right side was much clearer than the left. I had thought it might have been just the way the audio was recorded, but no. Everything was balanced more to the right. Today the left side never came on at all, meaning every podcast was all right all the time. A first world problem for sure, and the last straw. I use these headphones only when outside for a walk around the neighbourhood, or the occasional trip to Tokyo. I work from home, which means the device gets used for no more than four or five hours a week.

Not two years have passed since I bought these things.

So enough is enough. No more Audio Technica for me. I should have learned my lesson when I couldn't easily replace a cable. I should have just stuck to the cheaper pairs that are pretty much a dime a dozen. I should have spotted the pattern sooner.

For the time being, as I'm not going very far anymore, Apple's EarPods will have to suffice when I leave the house.


  1. Fortunately there are some cheaper alternatives on Amazon now. People can find mediocre replacement cables for about $20, though most are closer to $65.

Power-Napping

Power naps have become an important part of the day over the last couple of years, as keeping up with the boy requires a steady supply of energy and patience and I'm stupidly working just about every hour of the day1. Generally a five-to-ten minute deep sleep somewhere in the afternoon has made it possible to remain alert and functional up until half-past midnight. However, this month I've found that getting two power naps in during the day pretty much eliminates the desire for sleep until sometime around 3am … which is slightly terrifying.

The sleeping schedule generally looks like this now:

  • 10-minute power nap at my desk between 2pm and 4pm
  • 10-minute power nap after the boy is in bed around 9pm
  • 4 hours of sleep

A polyphasic cycle.

While this is an unorthodox means of resting, history shows that some of the world's most creative people got their sleep in smaller blocks of time than a standard 8-hour monophasic cycle. Leonardo da Vinci and Nokla Tesla were rather extreme in their habits, sleeping for 20 minutes every four hours. I'm nowhere near as creative or in demand as these two geniuses were, and I'm not going to try to replicate their cycle. Instead, I'm going to see whether it's feasible to add one or two more power naps in the day and measure the results.

Will I be less patient? Will I lose my appetite? Will my health degrade? There's only one way to find out.

What I would ultimately like to accomplish is freeing up enough time in the day to properly take care of all my responsibilities while also leaving a block of time for my own endeavours, be it studying, reading, of software development. So much of the last three years have involved jumping from one "must do" to another to another to another from the time I wake up until the end of the night. What I really seek right now is time; a non-renewable commodity that so few of us seem to have after the age of 30.

The day job will continue to receive about 10 hours of my time every day. The family will have anywhere between four and six, depending on the day of the week2. When the weather cooperates, I try to go out for a one-hour walk in the afternoon. Tack on three hours of more "creative time" and that works out to 18 ~ 20 hours, which leaves between four and six hours for a polyphasic sleep cycle.

Is this tenable?

With the Christmas holidays coming up, there's a good opportunity to test this out. If it doesn't work, then I go back to sleeping for six hours straight every night. If a polyphasic cycle proves to be beneficial, then I'll keep it up into the near year.

We're all given the same number of minutes per day. I'd really like to enjoy a few more of mine.


  1. Fortunately it's not all for the day job. Quite a bit of time is being invested into personal projects and learning as well.

  2. When Reiko works, I spend more time with the family because nobody leaves a toddler unattended for more than a handful of minutes. Weekends I spend a great deal more time with the family, of course, as there is no day job stuff to do unless a server goes down.

In Search of Duckman

Back in the mid-90s there was an animated show like nothing else on TV called Duckman. It featured a foul-mouthed duck voiced by Jason Alexander who was perpetually angry at the world, and often for good reason. Duckman was edgy, pushing boundaries that were generally reserved for comedians on stages in clubs where the youngest people in attendance had to be old enough to drink.

Duckman

The show was very much a social commentary and never afraid to let emotion or melodrama cut through the comedy. It covered topics such as loneliness, moroseness, family, and nihilism in an intelligent way, often encouraging people to think about a topic for a while after each episode. I wasn't yet 20 when the show aired. Duckman showed me a side of existence I'd yet to experience. It wasn't pretty, but it was real. Few TV shows in the 90s offered much of a cognitive challenge.

Over the years I've looked for the show in digital form, as I'd really like to watch the show and see how much more I can understand given the 20+ years of real life experience that's been gained since the last time I saw the vulgar duck in action. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on Netflix, Apple's stores, or Amazon. The complete series was put out on DVD about a decade ago, but I'd rather not have yet another box in the house that doesn't get touched after the videos are encoded and stored on the NAS for easier streaming later. It's a "first world problem" for sure, but one that I choose to stick to1. Hopefully this can be resolved at some point in the future, as there's likely a good-sized market. Given the number of other 90s-era shows that are making an appearance on the various streaming services, maybe someone will pick this one up.


  1. The less physical stuff I own the better.

Price's Law in Action

Price's Law is a harsh pattern to see in action. One of the many ideas that my parents tried to impress onto my siblings and I was that a person who worked hard could accomplish just about anything they set their mind to. The "just about" part has certainly proven to be an understatement over the years but, generally speaking, they were right. When a person — or group of people — set their sights on an objective and dedicate the requisite amount of time and effort, worthwhile goals can be met. However, anyone who has worked in groups will agree that the accomplished workload is rarely distributed evenly across each team member. Price's Law outlines this concept with mathematical simplicity:

The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work.

So in a group of 10 people, it can be safe to say that 3 people will do 50% of the work and seven will do the other half. This can scale and remain relatively accurate, too. So, in an organisation with 100 people, fewer than a dozen employees will do 50% of the work while the other 90 perform the remaining 50%. There are always exceptions to the rule but, more often than not, this pattern can be observed around the world in a myriad of situations where there is a creative output.

A person can belong to multiple groups and have different levels of involvement in the various endeavours at any given time. So, with this in mind, I started thinking about the different teams that I'm a part of at the day job and where I might find myself in the equation. It's no secret that I will bully myself to get things done, particularly when the task involves a high degree of complexity. However, I will also be the first to admit that I do not put 100% of myself into every project. Some will receive 70%. Others might receive far more than 100%.

Of the 9 teams I belong to, there are two that would not notice if I ceased to exist. My contributions to these teams have tapered off as the social structures of the groups solidified around one or two key members. While I continue to avail myself to these groups in the event they need information or something done quickly, I cannot take credit for any fruits of the labour. The other seven projects, however, have a great deal of my attention; primarily because I own the creative direction. Colleagues have ideas, goals, objectives, and ambitions, but it's me to turns all of that into something actionable that people can see and interact with. It's all about vested interest.

This raises a question, though: Is Price's Law primarily dependent on ego or passion?

The two are not mutually exclusive, though one may be better suited for problem-solving than the other.

Static

Jeff Cobb, one of the founders of the [email protected] project, recently put out an update that talks up the incredibly complex Nebula software suite, the FAST radio telescope in China, and a rare repeating Fast Radio Burst. I first joined the [email protected] project in 1999 to contribute processing time and have continued to do so on an almost continuous basis for two decades. However, as my hardware continues to degrade with age and sustained CPU loads, I am questioning whether it's worth sticking with the project. People with newer computers and greater resources are able to churn through a great deal more data than I can process and, after two decades of processing static, it's hard to maintain any semblance of enthusiasm for the endeavour. If there is extraterrestrial intelligence within listening distance of our radio telescopes, they're clearly not interested in broadcasting their existence in a manner we can predict using a medium that is bound by the speed of light.

China's FAST Radio Telescope

Back in the 1960s, Frank Drake developed a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilisations in our Milky Way galaxy. Known as "The Drake equation", it looks like this:

N = R∗ ∙ fp ∙ ne ∙ fl ∙ fi ∙ fc ∙ L
Source Wikipedia1

Using this, the results show a minimum value of 20 and a maximum of 50-million. So, even if there are just 20 intelligent civilisations within our home galaxy, it should be feasible to see signs of their existence when we look into space. Yet we're met with background static. I'm aware of the various theories that try to answer the follow-up question to this equation, which is simply "Where is everyone?", but theories are little better than a science fiction book at this point. We don't know what we don't know.

The longer I let my processors work on the problem of extracting meaning from the cosmic background radiation, the more I wonder if it's genuinely the best way forward.


  1. The meaning of each variable is as follows:

    N = the number of civilisations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);

    and

    R∗ = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
    fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
    ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
    fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
    fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilisations)
    fc = the fraction of civilisations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
    L = the length of time for which such civilisations release detectable signals into space

Spotify Says ...

A running theme for this week seems to be statistics as Spotify has recently shared some numbers with their subscribers via their annual "Wrapped" feature1. The main takeaways for me is that I listen to an awful lot of Faithless and seem to listen to a lot more Canadian music and rock than expected.

Genre Fluid

None of this is really a surprise, though, as Faithless remains one of my favourite groups of all time2 and there is a lot of creative talent in Canada. One element that did surprise me, however, was the amount of time I've spent listening to music through Spotify despite having well over 200GB of audio on my home NAS.

Time Together

Roughly two weeks of the year has been spent listening to music through the service. This is a good deal more than in the previous two years and it made me stop to think about why this might be. There are thousands of hours worth of legally acquired music sitting on a server upstairs in my home, and I generally spend 22 hours a day within 25 metres of that computer. Why in the world would I need a Spotify account, and what reason could possibly explain why I would choose to re-download or stream music that I've already paid for in the past?

As with so many conveniences, the reason comes down to ease.

Yes, I could get by with a free Spotify account and listen to a maximum of 12 hours of advertisement-supported music per month in an effort to "try before I buy", then go back to using the files on the NAS, but this requires dedicated blocks of time and purpose, which is not how I generally enjoy music. This isn't even an issue with streaming to my phone or tablet when outside the house, as much of the music I've acquired over the last decade has come from the iTunes Store, which means I can download it anywhere so long as the device is connected to the internet. The primary reason for choosing Spotify over arguably higher-bitrate audio on a server that does not track my listening habits, as far as I can tell, is the same reason I gave for why I don't use  Music: the playlists.

Spotify does playlists right. Apple does not. There's also the convenience that comes with being able to easily have those playlists on all of my devices, be it the phone, the tablet, or the notebook. Apple's music applications have never done this well, which is bizarre given the company's proclivity to put as much into iCloud as they possibly can.

Another reason likely has to do with how rare it is to take out the good headphones and just listen to music anymore. Since the boy has come along, I need to keep my ears open in order to be a "responsible parent". It's certainly possible to block out the world and listen to music, as the 17,937 minute statistic is not comprised of only listening via the home stereo, but it must be done in moderation.

One of the better takeaways from Spotify Wrapped is the playlist they assemble of the top 100 songs a person enjoyed for the year. Each one of these songs might already be in a playlist — and most likely in one called "On Repeat" — but having an annual list is a fun way to see how musical tastes have changed over the years.

Spotify Says


  1. From what I understand, people started sharing their summaries and playlists about two weeks ago. I've only just seen the summary notification today and thought it interesting for a couple of reasons.

  2. Sister Bliss's "In Session" podcast will forever be the highlight of my Friday. She puts out the best mixes.

Blockage

While it may not seem like it, a pretty severe case of writer's block has made the daily effort to create a new post incredibly difficult. Various methods learned over the years has made it possible for me to continue putting something out every day, such as falling back on the running topics list that I generally update whenever incomplete inspiration strikes, but every article has required a great deal more effort than the one published before it. When I reached for the topic list tonight a couple of ideas seemed like safe bets. Unfortunately, none of them made it past the first paragraph.

Fortunately this one has.

There are a plethora of ways to overcome a creative drought. Some people use music. Others might reach for some alcohol or a narcotic. A few might even head outside for a walk. Any one of these might help a person generate just enough creativity to accomplish their goal. What I've found is that more than any of these possible solutions, sleep is the necessary element for creativity. Without a good amount of sleep every night there is just no way a person can maintain any creative endeavour.

We need our sleep. Otherwise, bad things begin to happen.

Cold Coffee

With the winter solstice just a couple of weeks away it is probably no surprise to find that coffee gets cold much, much faster than expected. This has certainly been the case in my house recently. Fortunately a person can get used to drinking lukewarm and "desk-temperature"1 coffee relatively quickly.

A Coffee Refill

Despite the preamble, I'm not really thinking about the temperature of my coffee beyond the immediate circumstance. The mug was mostly empty when I picked it up and the remaining liquid had been left standing for at least an hour. Of course it's going to be cold. The reason it was left idle for so long is the unfortunate reality that comes with working late at night: it is really easy to lose track of time.

That said, while I was putting the finishing touches on some work-related project updates, a temperature-related question crossed my mind that could be answered with a series of numbers I recently acquired. The local community centre made their weather data available to the public a couple of weeks ago and I jumped at the chance to build a queryable database2 showing the temperature, wind, and precipitation data for the last century from the weather station 450m north of my house. A lot of the data from before the 40s is really hit and miss with gaps all over the place, but from 1943 the numbers became far more consistent and specific. So, just for fun, I wanted to know how the general temperature in this tiny corner of Japan has changed.

Looking at just the minimum and maximum temperatures for each year from 1950 to 2019, this is what we can see:

Temperature

The coldest winter saw the mercury drop to -14.9˚C in 1950 while the warmest winter couldn't even freeze water with 1.557˚C in 2013. The hottest summer hit 45.702˚C in 2018 while the coolest was 32.074˚C in 1976. Just these four figures can be misconstrued, so what if we take a look at what the chart can show really well; the variance in a given year.

The smallest temperature variance was 32.102˚C in 1976, with a winter low of -0.028˚C and a summer peak of 32.074˚C. The largest variance was 53.578˚C in 1964, when winter temperatures never went below -11.758˚C and summer hit 41.81˚C. Since 2014 there has consistently been a temperature variance of greater than 40˚ between summer and winter.

A common refrain that I've heard every summer from people is that "the temperature was never this high while growing up". This might certainly be the case given the number of times this area had a string of cool summers, but seven decades of data shows that this part of the country most certainly had July and August temperatures go past 40˚C in six years before 1970. One trend that is clear, though, is the warmer winters. Only twice has the temperature dipped below -10˚C since 2000.

Examined in isolation, this data cannot reveal common patterns across the country. That said, as more public offices across the prefecture make their historical data available in a semi-workable digital format3, it will be interesting to build some models that look for patterns despite the noise.


  1. I would posit that "desk-temperature" coffee is several degrees colder than room-temperature … despite the desk being in the room.

  2. And, maybe later, an API for the community to use.

  3. I could only get the data in a giant CSV file that needed some pre-processing to handle all the unescaped strings that contained commas. Fun!

Waiting for the Sandman

Two weeks ago the boy's bed was "upgraded" from the one he's been using almost since birth to a mattress like the one that Reiko and I use, and it has not been an easy transition at all. As one would expect when the walls are removed from a toddler's sleeping area, adjustments need to be made. There's more room to explore. More room to make a mess. More room to play. This comes as no surprise to anybody. However, as his father, it falls to me to ensure he stays in his bed and drifts off to sleep. For the moment, that means sitting next to — or relatively close to — him while his youthful energy is expended so that the sandman can pay a visit.

As there's no denying he'd probably bounce around on the bed until he fell off and broke a limb if left alone, it has fallen to me to allocate as many as 90 minutes of my evening to ensure he falls asleep. Selfish as it may sound, I have grown to dislike this enforced downtime as there's just about nothing for me to do aside from tell the kid it's time to settle down and get some sleep. Glowing screens, whether from a notebook or phone, will distract him and result in constant visits to see what's happening. The same holds true when listening to a podcast on low volume. A paper book seemed like a logical alternative to a light-emitting piece of technology, but having the room lit enough to read results in a boy who doesn't know it's bed time. The only way to really get him to sleep is to let him tire himself out after reading a couple of books1 and ensuring he doesn't have any reason to move around too much. This means sitting next to him and doing … nothing.

Well … not nothing nothing. But very little of value can be done while he's winding down and getting ready to sleep. So I generally have to sit in the dark with him until he's mostly still. This should be a time of quiet enjoyment, but I find the enforced downtime to be incredibly frustrating. One of the reasons I wind up crawling into bed after 1:00am on weekdays is because I generally have three hours of work to do in the evenings. Starting just 60 minutes earlier would — theoretically — allow me to finish the day at midnight and get an extra hour of sleep2.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'll look back on these days of innocence and miss the opportunities I had with the boy as he was growing up just for the sake of staying on top of the bills, the mortgage, and the education fund. There's a lot more to life than money. We all know this. Given the choice, we would all (probably) prefer to fall asleep next to our toddler and enjoy a good night's sleep rather than trudge back downstairs and sit in front of a terminal window as the rest of the neighbourhood gets ready for bed.

Responsibility can be a heavy burden, and the weight can sometimes cause a person to put too much emphasis on a set of priorities with the lowest return on investment.


  1. We read a lot of Mr. Men together. I've not yet found any Little Miss books in the shop.

  2. This really is a theoretical statement, as I'm not particularly keen on wasting an opportunity. Given that the body is already accustomed to being awake until 1:30 ~ 2:00 every morning, some extra time could be spent on personal projects or, better still, reading.

Taking Two

If everything goes according to plan, some time around 11:00pm on December 20th I will disconnect from the work VPN and remain disconnected until the morning of January 6th, 2020. This is technically two weeks off work that equates to a full seventeen days — 395 hours — away from the day job. An astonishing amount of time given all the priorities and deadlines that seem to be coalescing in the first month of the coming year. Barring any catastrophic system failure, it should be an excellent time to sit back, relax with the family, and make some progress on the recent spate of Udemy courses I've picked up.

Online learning is something that I've not been particularly good at over the years, but some of the recent courses that have been put together on subjects such as iOS development, DSLR photography, and professional writing are rather captivating. This isn't limited just to Udemy, either, but a number of platforms. The videos are well-edited, with clear content and supporting resources, the fundamentals are generally taught in context of a larger problem, and people can take what they've learned from a short course and apply it immediately. What started out as a relaxing pastime to learn how to properly use a camera has become an opportunity to develop a whole host of incomplete and unrefined skillsets.

There's just one little problem, though: time.

With just 24 hours in any given day, there is seldom enough time to really sit down and absorb a lesson. Fortunately online content can be revisited any number of times, and this is exactly what I plan on doing with some of the 395 hours that will be available during this Christmas holiday season.