The low end of the high end

Recently, Techmoan posted a video about his daily driver Walkman. This sort of pushed me to go back and finish this post that I had a half-hearted outline of regarding my daily driver Walkman. I don’t really have an exotic collection; my interesting pieces are along the lines of a My First Sony1 and the WM-EX999, notable for its two playback heads, allowing for precise azimuth settings for both directions of play. I also don’t really take my Walkmans out much; they just hang out near me as I do my day job. What I want out of a ‘daily driver,’ therefore, isn’t something that stands out by being the most compact or affordable. Rather, it’s just reliable, pleasant to use, sounds good, and has the tape select options I need (Dolby B and I/II formulation).

The deck that I’ve ended up on to fill this role is the WM-DD11. Readers familiar with Walkman nomenclature will recognize ‘DD’ as indicative that the deck uses Sony’s Disc Drive mechanism. These mechanisms use a servo-controlled motor that butts up against the capstan via a disc, leaving the sole belt path for the takeup hub. They provide good speed accuracy, largely impervious to rotation and movement of the deck. They’re mechanically simple and quite reliable, with the exception of an infamously fragile piece – the center gear. Made of a deterioration-prone plastic, this gear has failed on essentially every DD Walkman out there. While the decks continue working for some time after the gear cracks, a horrid clicking sound is emitted with every rotation. Some folks fill the inevitable crack with epoxy, buying the gear some time. Replacements are also available. But every DD deck out there either doesn’t work, clicks, or has been repaired in some way or another.

My WM-DD11 does not have any center-gear-related issues, nor has the gear been replaced or repaired. Unlike most DD models2, the WM-DD11 has no center gear. DD models were high-end models, and the WM-DD11 sat in the strange middle-ground of a stripped down, low-end version of a high-end design. This is, to me, what makes the WM-DD11 special. It’s what makes it an interesting conversation piece, and it’s also what makes it a great daily driver. Like most DD models3, it only plays unidirectionally. This is, perhaps, inconvenient for a daily driver, but it also removes the b-side azimuth issue that affects bidirectional models4. Like most DD models, it has manual controls for a couple of tape settings – Dolby B on/off and Type I/Types II & IV. And while it lacks the quartz-lock that some DD models5 had implemented by this point, the standard servo-driven disc drive system is still more accurate and stable than other low-end models of the era.

The similarities largely stop there, though. Pressing ‘play’ on the deck immediately reveals the primary difference – lacking the soft-touch logic controls of most DD models, the WM-DD11 has a mechanical ‘piano-keys’ type transport. Unlike most piano keys, Sony did premium the buttons up a bit by keeping them in the standard DD position, on the face opposite the door. This means there’s a larger mechanical path than if they were positioned directly above the head, though I doubt this complexity really affects reliability much. People often malign mechanical transports, but I rather like the physical connection between button and mechanism. They tend to feel more reliable to me as well; soft-touch mechanisms still have mechanical bits, they just have to be controlled by the integration of some motor.

With the DD models, specifically, this tracks. The cursed gear facilitates things like tape-end detection in the soft-touch DD models. I certainly don’t think Sony knew this plastic was going to deteriorate; I don’t think they knew all the capacitors they were buying in the ‘80s were going to leak after a couple of decades either. But, despite the fact that there are only a handful more internal bits in the soft-touch transport, one of these has a critical fault. The gear itself is odd – a large, donut-shaped thing that goes around a metal core. It wouldn’t surprise me if this design led to the use of a plastic that wasn’t so thoroughly time-tested.

Costs were cut in some other places – the tape head stays with the body and not the door, there are some plasticky bits that certainly don’t have the premium feel of other DD models. But the WM-DD11 fits in a market segment that seems underappreciated to me. It’s high-end in the ways that matter, while being stripped down elsewhere. That middle-ground rarely seems to exist these days, with performance going hand-in-hand with luxury and the low-end solely existing at the bottom of the barrel. It’s a false binary presumably created by the need to sexy up anything decent enough to market.It’s hard to sell half the features, but I wish companies would try. I want the low end of the high-end market to exist. I want products like my reliable, simple, yet still very performant WM-DD11 to exist.

  1. These aren’t particularly interesting, but the notion of the My First Sony line fascinates me. On the one hand, it’s just a way to get a brand name cemented into potential customers while they’re quite young and impressionable. On the other, Sony put far more design considerations into these products than my jaded mind would trust nearly any other company to. I’d like to write about these products some day. ↩︎
  2. Predating the DD nomenclature (and also being a professional model), my understanding is that the TC-D5 series of field recorders uses a similar mechanism to the DD11. ↩︎
  3. The white whale model WM-DD9 is the only DD model to do bidirectional playback. It uses a different mechanism from most DD models to accomplish this, and by my understanding this mechanism does not have the fragile center gear either. ↩︎
  4. “Just flip the tape on a bidirectional model!” Yes, except (on portable decks, at least) the option to only play a single side generally does not exist. So you’re probably going to catch this after the deck has already done a bunch of clickety-clacking to get to side B. It’s perfectly acceptable to use a bidirectional model this way, but it’s also incredibly annoying. ↩︎
  5. I, personally, have mixed feelings on quartz-lock. I think the standard DD mechanism sounds great, and the quartz-lock consumes noticeable battery. But, the WM-DD22 exists as well, essentially a (center-gearless) WM-DD11 with quartz lock. I don’t need one, but it is a bit of a beige whale. ↩︎

Commercial music media, a tier list

I’ve owned a lot of audio equipment over the years. Radio receivers, (pre)amplifiers, and equalizers of course, but more importantly the devices required for listening to… many different forms of media. I was late to the party for plenty of them, never an early-adopter and often only dipping my toes into a media after it was entirely out of production. At some point, streaming happened, and new physical formats just kinda… stopped. Existing ones seemed to be fading out; the death of the CD was a big deal. It never really died, though. Pressing plants never ceased to exist, there is no ‘last CD player ever produced.’ It’s hard to say, then, that it’s making a comeback, but alongside the vinyl and compact cassette revivals, the demise of the CD has certainly been delayed. Even more obscure formats like MiniDisc and wax cylinder are getting some niche love.

Given all of this, given my re-entry into the cassette scene, I’ve been thinking a lot about the merits and demerits of all of the media I’ve used over the years. So, here are some thoughts, in a sort of slipshod tier-list format, presented worst-to-best for the sake of suspense. While I’m going to give some historical context regarding why these were all incredible achievements at their time of introduction1, I’m ranking these as a format that I would value for any purpose beyond novelty or nostalgia today. I’m also only including formats that I’ve owned and listened to commercially available recordings on. I could make honorable mentions for ADAT and RDAT, but I’ve only used those for recording (they’re both good at what they set out to do, they’re fine). This is also just for music, despite my extensive LaserDisc collection and the fact that I’m actively digitizing VHS cassettes. Maybe that’s a post for another day. For now:

D-tier: 8-track tape (Stereo 8)

An easy medium to rank. The Stereo 8 Cartridge and the earlier 4-track Stereo-Pak had a problem to solve – get people to buy music to listen to in their cars. In solving this problem, Earl Muntz took inspiration from broadcast tape cartridges, which solve a very different set of problems. Herein lies the biggest failure of the format – the loop. 8-tracks rely on a continuous loop of tape spliced together with sensing foil, the album split across four stereo tracks. Because the audio has to switch between four programs on the same length of tape, and because rewinding doesn’t really exist on the format, gaps aren’t introduced between programs like you might have on a Compact Cassette. Instead, the gap is often the length of the sensing foil in the middle of a song. This alone relegates the format to D-tier for me. But there also just isn’t really any advantage to it today when compared with the Compact Cassette. In theory, they should be better at audio reproduction in comparison to a Compact Cassette, as their speed runs double that of the latter. In practice, I’ve never seen a high-enough end 8-track deck to think that it could’ve made a difference. They don’t feel particularly nice to handle, either. I’m glad that I’ve owned and used them before as a novelty, but I would never invest in a working one for any other reason.

D-tier: Shellac records (78s, &c.)

Before vinyl, records were made in a variety of sizes, in a variety of speeds, out of a variety of materials. But the sort of generally-settled-upon record was a 10″ or 12″ shellac disc, spinning at 78 RPM. These held about 5 minutes of music tops per side, and if you dropped them, big chunks would chip off, rendering a significant portion of the disc unplayable. The advent of the vinyl record solved both of these problems – the grooves were thinner and more accurately reproduced, allowing for a slower playback speed and more groove per side. Dropping vinyl isn’t a great idea, but it’s a much softer material, unlikely to shatter or chip. Much like the Compact Cassette being analogous-to-but-better-than the 8-track in every way, vinyl records are just all-around better than shellac. The low-tech beauty of an acoustic reproducer is about the only reason I, personally, would acquire 78s today. That 5-minute limit really kills any other appeal.

C-Tier: DVD-Audio and High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)

These two formats are not really similar to one another in any way, but I’m lumping them together because they are both equally boring. DVD-Audio is just… audio on a DVD. There’s a lot more space there, so you can fit much higher resolution audio, or much more audio, or audio with more channels. But it’s part of DVD, so it’s encumbered with a bunch of copy protection and encryption nonsense. It never saw a lot of commercial support, and despite how much this probably would have helped adoption, most DVD-Video players were not also DVD-Audio players. It’s a boring format.

HDCD is barely a format, but it is technologically interesting, at least. It uses (among other things) peak soft-limiting to extract a claimed 20-bits out of an otherwise normal 16-bit CD data stream. All HDCDs were, thus, backward-compatible with normal CD players, albeit with peak distortion. It was made by a company that is only known for making this one thing, a company that was then bought up by Microsoft for the sake of acquiring said thing. Perhaps HDCD would have taken off a bit more if Microsoft didn’t own it… though perhaps they did a perfectly good job managing it, who am I to say? At the end of the day, though, the interesting qualities of the format fade quickly. It’s more analogous to Compact Cassette’s Dolby noise reduction systems than anything – circuitry and a process to squeeze a little bit extra out of an existing medium.

The only thing saving these two from D-tier is the fact that they’re perfectly acceptable ways of reproducing audio.

C-tier: Digital Compact Cassette

The Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) is a genuinely neat format. And I may very well acquire a few more classical recordings on it. I have a portable player; don’t tell any of the DCC-heads, but I use it as a playback unit for analog Compact Cassettes with its incredible head. This is a big part of why I think the format was and is so neat – Philips managed to get an album’s worth of digital audio into the same physical format as their old analog Compact Cassette. Physically, the cassettes are made of a more rigid plastic than analog cassettes, more along the lines of a Zip disk. They also have a Zip-(or floppy-)esque spring-loaded shutter to cover what would be exposed tape on their analog predecessor. Tapes can’t be manually flipped – the top side has album art instead of sprocket holes. All of this leads to a very retro-future feel, the latest and greatest in digital technology.

When Sony made RDAT, they were really hoping to make SDAT, a compact digital cassette format with a cheap stationary head. This wasn’t really doable at the time, and when Philips achieved it with DCC, they did it via compression. Lossy MPEG compression. DCCs sound quite good; I think even the 12-bit tapes handily beat the first version of ATRAC compression used on Sony’s competing MiniDisc. But, like MiniDisc, it feels a bit undesirable when the Compact Disc’s pure PCM bitstream is right there. Unlike MiniDisc, DCC has all the usual trappings of a tape format. It can only seek slowly, by winding through tape, and despite the physical cassette only being insertable label-side up, it’s still a double-sided format. Every DCC deck must have an auto-reverse mechanism, because every DCC tape will stop halfway through and need to be reversed.

Quite a few classical recordings were released on the format through premiere labels like Erato, Decca, and Deutsche Grammophon. This is a definite plus for me, as I can have one deck that plays some classical music on DCC and some queer bedroom pop on analog Compact Cassette. But generally speaking, the format kind of flopped. There are nowhere near as many commercial recordings as MiniDisc. It’s not an easy format for me to get excited about collecting for. I doubt I’d touch it at all if the deck wasn’t such a good deck for analog as well. Even this is contentious, though. DCC fans basically forbid you from listening to analog tapes — the formulation of which is potentially more abrasive, and the exposed tape of which is likely dirty — on DCC decks. Only a few portable deck models were made, and if you want one, your best bet is to import it from Holland. The deck I have is pretty standard – a Philips DCC170. It’s chunky, heavy, covered in deteriorating soft-touch rubber, slow to start-up, and runs off of a bare 18650 cell in a 3d-printed adaptor. It’s a mess of a situation. All told, backward compatibility with analog Compact Cassettes is what’s saving this format from D tier.

B-Tier: MiniDisc

MiniDisc is just all around neat. It’s the first mainstream physical compressed digital medium that I can think of. It was recordable from the get-go, unlike CD, because of its magneto-optical design. Because of its fragmented recording design and its intent for portable use, all players have an audio buffer, allowing for things like gapless shuffle. I don’t really think early versions of the ATRAC lossy compression used by the format sound great, but they do sound fine, and later versions are quite good.

Here in the United States, MiniDisc never really took off. We just sort of dealt with chunky portable CD players that had like three seconds of anti-shock buffer. Perhaps this is good, the secondhand market for CDs and CD equipment is great. But I wish I could’ve experienced MiniDisc in a place and time where it was popular. It deserved it; it accomplished its goal of being a really good digital alternative to the old humble Compact Cassette. It made some compromises (ATRAC), but it looked and felt cool doing it. I don’t really have a desire to get back into MiniDiscs; I’m perfectly happy with my phone, MP3 player, or a cassette Walkman for music on the go. MiniDisc doesn’t really have an advantage over any of those (okay, it has advantages over tape, but that’s not the point with tape), so its appeal to me is purely from admiring its technological solutions to the problems of size and recording. And even though I, personally, am less likely to collect MiniDiscs in 2022 than DCCs, I do think its design decisions make it a much more practical format.

B-Tier: Reel-to-reel tape

Reel-to-reel tape is a decent home listening format. It sounds spectacular. As an artifact, it’s even more ritualistic to handle than vinyl. The tape must be threaded into the machine in just the right way – over this spindle, under that. It’s hardly plug-and-play, but something about loading the reels just sets you up for a satisfying listening experience. I have to knock a few points for the complexity of playback, and a few more for the wide variety of tape speeds, sizes, and track configurations that mean a serious collector needs multiple decks. I have a couple of decks in storage, but would really like to acquire a compact unit like the Akai X-V. Even then, it would likely be for my own transfers rather than seeking out collectible commercially-produced reels. Solid B-tier format.

B-Tier: Super Audio CD (SACD)

SACD makes it up to B-tier for exactly one reason: Direct Stream Digital (DSD). I find the Compact Disc to be a (spoiler alert) neat format because it’s a raw PCM bitstream. SACD isn’t quite raw; its DSD data is losslessly compressed and the discs are unfortunately encumbered by encryption. But DSD itself is still very neat – while a Red Book CD takes the relatively slow, relatively high-bitrate approach, DSD is instead a 1-bit, 2.8224MHz pulse-density modulated signal. The concept of fast 1-bit digital audio is often touted as being ‘more analog.’ This is debatable, and I don’t have any desire to engage in that debate here. I do think that a non-PCM approach to digital audio is interesting, and I find tech that explores this area fascinating. SACD wasn’t a great commercial success, but some good recordings are out there; all the discs I’ve heard sound great. I would really only collect these for the sake of ripping to DSD Over PCM, but unfortunately the process for that involves having a very specific firmware on a PlayStation of some sort. If I had a ripping solution, I’d be very into collecting these.

A-Tier: Compact Cassette

Compact cassettes were my childhood. I got into Tangerine Dream, Björk, the Twin Peaks OST because I inherited a bunch of tapes my cool sister was getting rid of. They sounded good enough, and compared to the somewhat-fragile record player and vinyl, they were a reliable plug-and-play solution for a kid. Eventually CDs and CD players dropped in price, though. They sounded great, offered quick random access, and were even more reliable. With the CD’s prominence, who needed tapes? They started disappearing from music stores, and for years I basically felt like they were fully in my past.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for one reason or another I decided to get a Walkman and I figured I’d get like… ten or so tapes. I’m easily over fifty now2, with three well-stickered hot pink Clik Cases full of synthesizers and angry queers. They’re still quite compact. They sound better than my memory would’ve led me to believe. And, unlike a CD, they’re artifacts that I want to handle. I want to look at the cassette and see that it’s rewound. I want to flip it partway through. I want to marvel at the colorful and glittery shells modern tape labels are using. I buy CDs these days to immediately rip to ALAC files, storing the discs as a backup medium only. Since I turn them into files, I often pick-and-choose songs instead of listening to albums in their entirety. Cassettes are an album format to me, a mindset. I’m only putting them in A-tier instead of S-tier because of things like wind times, noise floor, azimuth issues, wow/flutter… all of these things are pretty minor, but I definitely get why the Compact Cassette renaissance isn’t for everyone.

S-Tier: Compact Disc (specifically, Compact Disc Digital Audio)

Once they became affordable, CDs were a huge part of my life. I didn’t know anything about the technical side of how they worked3, but I knew they were shiny and cool. They sounded great on the cheapest of machines, and unlike tape, those machines couldn’t really eat the discs. All manner of changers existed, I had several machines that used 6-disc caddies, I had a 60-disc direct-access Technics machine, and a 300-disc Sony unit with a rotating tray. Everything about the CD was effortless and convenient. Eventually, I got a burner for my hi-fi stack, which largely supplanted my MiniDisc deck. Even when I got my first iPod4, I preferred my own high-bitrate rips over anything the iTunes store offered at the time. Now, I often buy used CDs on eBay, as this is a cheaper solution than getting a lossless download (if such a thing is even available). The disc itself then serves as a backup.

I think part of the CD’s staying power has to do with this ability to rip. CDs are fascinating to me as a pretty unique format. It’s completely unencumbered by encryption or other DRM. It’s not files on a data (CD-ROM) disc, it’s an uncompressed raw PCM bitstream with a table of contents that lays out the tracks. I imagine this lack of encumbrances also helped the format’s broad adoption. Users like things that just work, and part of ‘just working’ is being able to take advantage of one of digital data’s fundamental truths: its ability to be infinitely duplicated.

S-Tier: Vinyl record

Compared to shellac, vinyl is great. Play time is long enough to not be obnoxious, and the discs are pretty easy to keep in a single piece. Compared to reel-to-reel tape, the format is much more standardized5 and playback is much less involved. And more than any of the compact formats mentioned, a 12×12″ full-bleed jacket housing a bright colorful slab of vinyl (as many current-day releases are) makes for an incredibly pleasant artifact.

Vinyl sounds good. Digital formats obviously have no inherent noise floor, and can perfectly reproduce signals within the bounds of human hearing. Digital formats are incredibly good, and a lot of the things people like about analog formats tend to be because they perceive digital formats to be too good. But conceding that analog formats have technical limitations that digital formats solve, vinyl still sounds really good. Like the Compact Cassette, it’s a format for albums that I want to listen to start-to-finish. It’s a mindset. Cassettes are more portable, but the ritual involved in dropping the needle, the feeling of handling the record as an artifact… it all sets the mindset perfectly. I don’t think the ritual is quite as engaging as that of reel-to-reel, but the practicality of the format makes it truly S-tier.

I started really collecting vinyl when I was in high school, and while life changes made me take a few breaks, I never really stopped. My current collection is much different from what I scrounged up at secondhand shops when I was young, and much more personal. It’s a format that feels good, sounds good, and above all is just kind of magical.

Ultimately this is what my modern listening habits boil down to. My phone or DAP/MP3 player are a practical, functional day-to-day, carry-everywhere solution for listening to a lot of music accurately. CDs facilitate that. Vinyl and cassettes capture something else that’s still incredibly valuable to me on a day-to-day basis. More obscure formats like DCC and MiniDisc remain fascinating examples of cutting-edge digital technology. And while I never want to replace the foam on another 8-track again, even that format — miserable by modern standards — has a story to tell.

  1. I genuinely believe this, even for the D-tier choice. ↩︎
  2. …don’t ask how many Walkmans. ↩︎
  3. Beyond, you know, ‘pew! pew! laser!’ ↩︎
  4. My first iPod was not my first MP3 player. Many years before, I had a Diamond Rio. It was not particularly viable. ↩︎
  5. Plenty of obscure formats did come up, of course, like quadrophonic solutions and records that play backward, but for the most part your only real concern is 33.3 or 45 RPM. ↩︎

On Wordle and Fragmentation

So, the New York Times bought the word game phenomenon Wordle for ‘low seven figures,’ or expressed in more human terms, ‘upward of a million dollars.’ I’m happy that Josh Wardle got his bag, though I despise the NYT for things like rampant copaganda, warmongering, transphobic editorial practices, and puzzlingly enough, boot-licking anti-labor covid jokes. It seems logical that Wordle will eventually get wrapped in with the other games that they NYT bundles alongside its crossword section, itself mired in controversy. Needless to say, I’ll be opting out of the game as soon as opting in means the NYT gets any ad revenue or mined data. A cursory glance at the replies on the NYT’s awkwardly third-person-voiced tweet shows that I’m not the only one who is unhappy with the news.

Wordle’s viral success was pretty clearly due to a combination of only a handful of factors. It’s a quick game and it’s difficult to lose. There’s only one puzzle every day, and everyone in the world has the same one. Upon completion, a share card generates the ubiquitous and iconic emoji-based teaser. These things combine to make a game where everyone is on the same page, generally feels a sense of accomplishment, and can readily share a captivating glance of their progress with everyone else who is in the know. It’s an ideal model of a viral design, even if the creator just made it on a lark for his partner to enjoy. I don’t think this was crucial to its success, but it didn’t hurt that it was self-contained, a single HTML file calling a single JS1 file with the only unnecessary fluff being Google Tag Manager. Even if people didn’t realize this, it certainly had an impact as far as being reliably quick to load. Grossly, the NYT writing about it prior to buying it almost certainly helped as well.

In my mind, the acquisition news immediately and irreparably fragmented what felt like the most important aspect of the game – the fact that folks across the globe were all working on the same challenge over the course of the same 24 hours2. Debates over which clone(s) – of which there are many – we should all migrate to flooded the replies to NYT’s tweet, Discord servers I’m in, and text messages from my friends. Almost as quickly, conversations about the game seemed to dry up significantly. When there’s one clear canonical version of a thing that everyone enjoys, it’s easy to stay in sync. When enough people suddenly hate that version of the thing, we’re now plagued by the paradox of choice. Assuming we all collectively get over that hump, the best-case scenario is that those of us who fled Official Wordle all collectively agree on the One Canonical Clone. This won’t happen, of course; attempts at unifying on this cause are already comically fraught. But let’s pretend it does.

The New York Times is going to succeed with its acquisition; there are plenty of NYT subscribers, plenty of folks who subscribe solely to the crossword, and plenty of players who simply won’t care unless and until it disappears behind a paywall. In this best-case scenario, we’re still going to have two distinct groups. How this plays out depends on the hypothetical One Canonical Clone.

Wordle clones are a dime a dozen. As mentioned, the game has no inaccessible dependencies. It’s entirely contained in an HTML file and a JS file. You can go download these now and play a local copy forever3. As such, plenty of the clones out there are exact clones, or nearly-so, just changing a name or colorscheme. I know of several of these hiding in the shadows on personal servers, for obvious reasons. If we all agreed one of these was the One Canonical Clone, we’d maintain perfect parity with the Official Wordle, but taking it down would be trivial for the NYT and we’d all have to make the clone decision again. The (technically, not legally) open nature of the source also means that we have access to the two word lists that the game uses. It is thus entirely possible to write the game code from scratch, only scraping the word lists. It’s worth noting that the order of the solutions list matters as well – it’s prerandomized, and the script doesn’t rely on PRNG at all. This too would ensure parity between Official Wordle and the One Canonical Clone, but I imagine NYT could get this taken down via the word list copyright violation. They could also at any time obscure their own code and change either of the word lists and/or implement PRNG. Of course, plenty of the clones that folks are flocking to4 don’t even attempt parity from the jump.

This of course ignores matters of feature parity and deviations from the original. Does the clean-room One Canonical Clone have a colorblind mode? Can NYT sneakily claim grids of yellow, green, and grey are protected trade dress? Will the One Canonical Clone’s developer add “helpful” features that add just enough friction to make daily play more of a nuisance than a joy? The clones are all too similar to declare an obvious replacement, but a lot of questions would remain even if we all managed to unite on this.

I don’t know what the point of this post really is. I think sometimes we grow attached to a Thing and we lose it for reasons beyond our control. This sucks, and in a desperate attempt to cling to the Thing, we frantically scramble to replace the Thing while realize that what made the Thing special could only really exist within the Thing’s original context. Sometimes it’s best to learn from what you loved about the Thing and channel that into Something New. Enjoy Things while you have them, lament their loss, but know that you’ll experience that feeling again. In my opinion, the news of Wordle’s acquisition was enough to ruin the Thing. And I think that just has to be ok.

  1. Plenty of folks aptly noted that Wordle felt a lot like the good ol’ days of the internet. Functional, not bloated, not swarming with modals and ads. There’s a lot to be said for that. ↩︎
  2. Rollover is at midnight local time, so there is some disparity across time zones. ↩︎
  3. Okay, not technically. The solutions word list contains approximately 2,300 entries. These are not chosen with a PRNG; they’re hardcoded into the game in a random order. My understanding is that there isn’t a contingency once the end of this list is hit in 2028. ↩︎
  4. hello wordl is a prime example. Interestingly, this was a clone that existed prior to the acquisition, largely for the sake of being able to play more than one puzzle in a day. After the acquisition the dev changed it over to daily mode by default to more closely mimic the original game. I don’t mean to knock the dev here at all, she’s doing good work on a thing people want. The response to the news has just felt like a scramble from all sides. ↩︎

2020 & 2021 Media retrospective

At the end of every year, I try to do a bit of a media retrospective of my favorite stuff that came out that year. I neglected to do one last year, what with all the things going on. But, some good art has happened over the last two years. Particularly music, in my opinion, which was originally all I was going to stuff into this post. But, I opted to add video games and movies to the mix. I may also do a post about comics in the future, probably less specific to 2020-21 and more just… things I’ve read in the past couple of years. I rarely read books that aren’t comics these days, but I have to put in a good word for Rosemary Mosco’s A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching, a beautifully illustrated guide to an underappreciated bird. Aaron Reed’s Subcutanean was also interesting, a procedurally generated horror novel. I’m hoping to write a bit about this and gimmick in general in the future. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty in this post. Particularly with film, I’m sure I watched more than one movie that was made in 2020 that I didn’t hate, but looking through release lists, I can’t even find stuff that I did hate. And of course… the last few years have done a lot to the ol’ memory. Anyway, here’s some stuff I appreciated from the past couple of years. I’ve been struggling to finish this for a month or so… to that end, note that none of this is in any particular order. Next post should be more interesting.


Bacchae – Pleasure Vision (2020)
I keep putting off publishing this post because I can’t really think of what this album reminds me of. It rings a distinct vibe with me, but I can’t quite place it. In a sort of post-hardcore vein, I suppose. Absolutely stunning album, though, that I’ve been listening to… near-daily? I don’t know, a lot.
We are the Union – Ordinary Life (2021)
Trans ska! Coming out album for frontwoman Reade. Lot of feels here, but even if there weren’t, it’s just a great album. Great time for ska, not really something I’d predicted for the early 2020s. ‘Morbid Obsessions’ was a track that really hit hard for me on this one, and it has a banger of a video.
Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation (2021)
I love KKB’s earlier work, but I’d largely call it fairly simple pop music. Clever lyrics, and a lot of fun. Civilisation, which joins together two EPs, is less fun and far more complicated. Some wild rhythmic structures in an album that lyrically is a sort of vaguely optimistic look at the rather frightening state of everything. I’ve listened to this album a lot. Lovely animated video for ‘The Princess and the Clock’.
Sevdaliza – Shabrang (2020)
Sevdaliza has sort of a trip-hoppy vibe? And this sophomore album feels a bit more consistently produced to me than her earlier material. Not that her early stuff was bad, but this feels more like an album, and it’s a beautiful listen start to finish.
Catbite – Nice One (2021)
This excellent woman-fronted ska band released a short album a few years back, and then re-recorded it twice in two completely different styles. Now they’re back with this somewhat longer album, and it’s gold all the way down. ‘Call Your Bluff’ is a favorite off this one.
June Jones – Leafcutter (2021)
This album is real gay! I dunno, it’s just sort of indie pop stuff, lyrically beautiful with a hint of melancholy to the delivery. June has a beautiful, haunting voice.
Rural Internet – BREAKING UP (2021)
Queer hyperpop hip-hop type stuff, incredibly chaotic from start to finish. Rural Internet released a second album in 2021 and it’s excellent as well. But BREAKING UP just has a really special structure to it, and an incredible way of communicating energy.
Hayley Kiyoko – I’m Too Sensitive for This Shit (2020)
At some point in 2021, I went to see what Hayley Kiyoko was up to and stumbled across a streamed performance she did for SF Pride 2020. This was the first time I heard the track ‘She’ from I’m Too Sensitive for This Shit, and I bawled my eyes out. The rest of the EP is great; the opener, ‘Demons’, has some great Circus-era Britney vibes. But, y’know, gayer.
Hachiku – I’ll Probably be Asleep (2020)
Oof, just beautiful, heart-wrenching bedroom pop. ‘Shark Attack’ is likely the only time I’ve heard an artist clarify that a song is about their late dog and not oral sex. So, you know, lyrically there’s a bit of tender ambiguity to chew on.

Video games

Calico (2020)
Game set in a magical little town where you run a cat café. You can make a bunch of animals follow you around including cats, cool birds, and capybaras. You can make the animals big or small. Honestly, that’s all you need to know.
Doom 64 (1997, 2020 rerelease)
Ordinarily I wouldn’t count a rerelease, but this is the first time Doom 64 has been ported to something more modern than an N64. I expected it to just be More Doom, but I was surprised by how puzzly it was. I really enjoyed the level design in this game.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)
The face that this only came out in 2020 is really telling me how much the pandemic has distorted my sense of time. I’d only really played Pocket Camp before, and it was a fun time but I fell out of it. I can’t really assess New Horizons as a game, I can’t really detach it from the work-from-home pandemic experience. I will say that there are lots of good outfits, and games that offer me a dollhouse experience are incredibly important to me. I’ll also say that the museum is a beautiful video game space, particularly the butterfly room and the aquarium portion.
Monster Train (2020)
Deck-builder, somewhat in the vein of Slay the Spire, but with a tower defense type twist. There’s a lot of depth here, and the builds can get incredibly silly. A lot of different strategies to play with as you’re always controlling essentially both a primary and secondary class.
Good Job! (2020)
Really fun physics puzzler. It’s one of those games where a lot of the fun comes from how absolutely chaotically you can just wreck shop.
Röki (2020)
Emotional adventure game with a great sense of space and a compelling story. Lots of sweet monsters. Some less sweet monsters. Simple but enjoyable puzzles.
Manifold Garden (2020)
I played this one pretty recently, as I had been waiting on a physical edition. This was one of those games that kind of ruined other games for me for a while. I’ve mostly fallen out of first-person games, but a good first-person puzzler in the vein of _Superliminal_… I’m all in. The gimmick here is that you can shift gravity to an adjacent wall that you’re near. Great stuff, and a visual treat.
Carto (2020)
Top-down adventure game where the gimmick is that you rearrange the map, Carcassone-style. Really cool game, I loved playing with this mechanic.
Disc Room (2020)
This is one of those games that works because losing is so unpunishing. Aside from being integral to progression in the game, the bullet-hell-esque rooms are quick whether you succeed or fail, and your next attempt is completely frictionless. Good soundtrack, I grabbed it on saw-shaped vinyl.
Tetris Effect: Connected (2020)
I already posted about this, but I’m more and more convinced that whether you want to play Journey mode or a classic Marathon, this is the best Tetris to date. Obviously, Tetris Effect is older, so I’ll say something specific to Connected that I didn’t mention in that post: the 4-player coöp boss fight mode where you end up merging everyone’s playfield together into one massive 40x20 board? It whips.
Slipways (2021)
Very puzzly resource-management/construction type game. The core premise is simple, building trade connections between nearby planets. The puzzle is in managing what planets to connect such that you’re producing enough to keep expanding in the same way. Bit hard to describe, that didn’t really do it justice. Incredibly brain-burny though.
Super Mario Bros. 35 (2020)
I wrote about this, and I’m still bitter about Nintendo’s ephemeral approach to this brilliant concept. Don’t have much more to say about it, and it’s pointless anyway since nobody can play it now.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale (2021)
Made me cry, so that’s a good start. Very emotional game from the folks who did Wandersong, a game I discussed in my 2019 retrospective. Top-down adventure game where you’re restoring color to a world devoid of it. You can basically paint anything and just sort of… have a lot of fun with the world while you’re playing the game. Very good difficulty/accessibility options. Lena Raine did the soundtrack, and it’s evocative in that way that I find unique to Lena’s work.
Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion (2021)
Short top-down adventure game where you help Turnip Boy commit tax evasion. Cute, lot of fun little interactions.
Boyfriend Dungeon (2021)
This game had some issues; I’m not going to argue with the handful of valid criticisms that circled the well of social media for a week or so after it was released. Personally, I felt a bit put-off by the fact that there were only two dungeons. I don’t like to complain about game length, but two just felt incomplete. At any rate, I liked what this game did. Dungeon crawling dating sim is 100% my jam.
Beast Breaker (2021)
Launch your cute little mouse friend around a battlefield, ball-physics style, to blast through big ol’ critters. Lots of charming characters, neat weapon builds, and the story goes on for quite some time. Great pick-up-and-play-a-level sort of game.


In the Earth (2021)
Brilliant sort of supernatural, psychedelic horror. Lovely synth soundtrack. Does the Close Encounters of the Third Kind communicating via cool synths thing. Colorful and visually intriguing including sequences by Cyriak. Lots of flashing, watch out for that.
Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021)
It was just fun. The dog is very big, and he looks pretty rough. There’s a part (spoiler alert?) where everyone’s trying to get rid of him because he’s too big, and he tries to make himself small! It’s wild. I wouldn’t call it good, but I had a blast with it.
Lamb (2021)
Slightly spooky drama about some folks in Iceland who have a run-in with a sheep demon of some sort and end up raising a half-sheep/half-human son. I don’t think any of my friends liked it as much as I did, but it was touching and slow in the way that I enjoy.
The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)
I’ve never been huge on the Matrix series. This film was about what I expected, perfectly enjoyable but I wasn’t as hyped up for it as anyone else I knew. I did think its intense lean into self-referential material worked extremely well, and its heavy-handed rejection of the coöpting of the original film’s motifs was well-deserved and well-executed.
Psycho Goreman (2020)
Not really a horror film so much as a… monster buddy film? It plays with some horror type tropes, and it’s not afraid to get a little gross and gory, but it’s wonderfully self-aware and not afraid to joke around. Brilliant film.
Werewolves Within (2021)
Fun comedy horror thing. Somehow based on a Ubisoft game? I know nothing about the game, but I’m still shocked that the film was at all self-aware and genuinely a pretty good time. Silly characters kind of drive the whole experience.

A dismal sea of color

I have been deeply into audio equipment for as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, I was always scouring Goodwills and Hamfests for the next old thing that would bump up my hi-fi game and look good while doing it. The latter part wasn’t difficult; not everything was Bang & Olufsen, but audio equipment from the ‘70s and ‘80s pretty much universally looks interesting if not outright lovely. The first piece of new audio equipment I owned was a Roku SoundBridge M20001, a roughly rack-width aluminum tube that connected to a home network to stream from iTunes, a variety of other home music servers, and internet radio stations. It accepted no media of its own2, it was purely for streaming. Roku opted to keep the unit free of buttons; all interaction was done via remote control or computer. This meant that the front of the unit was made up of only one thing – a massive blue dot-matrix VFD. It looked like nothing else in my hi-fi stack. It looked like nothing else on the market; the display and the overall aesthetic were a direct result of the lack of physical media and the bold decision to omit face buttons.

By 2005, VFDs were the predominant displays on hi-fi and multimedia devices. A lot of things were largely the same shade of blue as the massive Roku. Pioneer largely used orange displays; these stood out. Before VFDs were ubiquitous, early adopters stood out. Companies that used LEDs stood out from one another by using different colors. Fast forward to VFDs being phased out and LED-backlit inverse LCDs (that is, LCDs that operate such that the backlight shines through to form the display elements)3 becoming popular, LED colors could once again be part of a brand’s products’ visual identities. Monochromatic OLEDs were a thing for a spell; I recently acquired a twelve-year-old Sansa Clip+4 which has a unique monochromatic OLED screen split into yellow for the status bar and that very OLED shade of blue for everything else.

The individual elements that make up a display were just as much a visual identity as the one or two colors that a company opted for. The shapes of the segments in a seven segment display, the use of more segments than seven, were the custom indicators words or beautifully-detailed icons? Something was lost as displays shifted toward dot-matrices. My beloved HP-41C calculator used a beautiful, 14-segment display for alphanumeric support; its later reimplementation, the HP-42S uses a more functional but incredibly bland dot matrix. Some of the HP-41C’s characters were a bit of a stretch, I do think the HP-42S is more legible for letters. But in general, I find seven-segment displays far more immediately recognizable than the fonts these companies opt for when given a dot matrix. When I was looking to upgrade up from my old Fluke multimeter, a large part of the reason that I opted for a Keysight U1272A instead of the comparable Fluke 2875 was that the Keysight used seven-segment numerics. There’s something to be said for a ‘font’ that’s as standardized and recognizable that we pick it up like the E-13B font in the MICR line of a cheque. Any given figure on a seven-segment display basically always looks the same, even if there is some room for variation.

The move to dot matrix displays genericized them; the move to full color even more so. Of course companies are going to make full use of this, but something is lost when everything is in full color instead of one color that a brand has made their own. I’m sure that color-coded waveforms on modern oscilloscopes are useful, but I have no desire to give up the monochromatic green of my early digital scope’s green CRT. It’s just easy on the eyes. Beyond that, full-color displays are all basically backlit TFTs or OLEDs now; they all look good from a technical standpoint, but they’re incredibly samey and boring. I have a TFT replacement screen for my WonderSwan Color, and I keep resisting installing it. The backlight will make it much more convenient to play, but it just looks… uninspiring compared to the almost pearlescent shine of its reflective unlit stock display.

I’ve name-dropped five or six products in this post that I love, that I regard as classics. I’ve posted several times before about products where the display is worth discussing. This is all largely because they don’t use modern, boring displays, and because someone had to deliberately establish an aesthetic for them around a restricted, custom display. They’re devices where the display is a part of the experience, not just an interactive means to an end. The Roku was stunning at the time, the HP-41C’s alphanumeric display was uniquely its own6, the orange glow of a piece of Pioneer equipment stood out among so many blue panels. These things all have character, and when I talk about these devices with others, the display is a notable thing, it’s worth describing. Now that so many things basically look like real life… well, they just blend into the background, uninteresting and mundane. I know we’re never going back to monochromatic phones7, but I’d love to see simpler displays coming back when applicable. I think the upcoming playdate handheld console may be a shining example of this – a monochrome display that promises high resolution and reflectivity. A point of pride for the engineering team. I hope to see more engineering teams taking pride in the aesthetic of their displays instead of just slapping in the most readily available TFT.

  1. Despite only selling boring multimedia streaming devices these days, Roku still has a web site for the SoundBridge line of streamers, though it only mentions the last model they produced, the M1001. When I got mine, there were three models – the M2000, which was rack-width, the M1000, which was half-rack, and the M500 which was the same size as the M1000, but with an inferior (inverse LCD?) display. When I was confirming the name of this last model, I stumbled across this 2006 review of the M500 which, if nothing else, flooded me with nostalgia. The three models were identical, save for the display. ↩︎
  2. The SoundBridge had a CompactFlash slot, but it was exclusively for a WiFi (802.11B only, if memory serves!) adaptor. ↩︎
  3. Technology Connections talks about an older, incandescent-backlit version in this video, and in many ways touches on what I’m saying in this post. A good watch. ↩︎
  4. Post coming about this. January, maybe? ↩︎
  5. No regrets here. On the tech specs side, each has some pros and cons compared to the other, but they’re quite similar. And I love my Keysight. ↩︎
  6. HP wasn’t the only company to use n-segment alphanumeric displays, of course, but these were so much less standardized than seven-segment numerics that the character choices make the HP-41C’s display iconic among calculator nerds. ↩︎
  7. Here’s one of those that’s notable purely for its display – the MOTOFONE F3, a slim candybar with an E Ink display. Beautiful. ↩︎