Int. Bedroom, Night
Back before he started marrying his daughters, Woody Allen used to make funny films. In one of the better of them, 1977’s critically acclaimed Annie Hall, Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is standing in line for a film while the guy behind him pontificates loudly on various things, among them influential scholar Marshall McLuhan. Singer challenges him, and the man pompously reveals that he teaches a class on media at Columbia University. So Allen replies, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here,” and retrieves him from behind a lobby card. McLuhan retorts, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”
It’s a satisfying fantasy. Pretty much everyone has been frustrated by misinformation, by seeing the blatant distortion of something about which you are in a position more than anyone to know, something about which you can’t possibly be wrong, and all those idiots are getting it wrong! Anyone who has seen a newspaper report about something in which they are directly involved will know what I mean: “Hm, I made a speech about monetary policy, but it says here that I played a short set on acoustic guitar, used a comically large mallet to smash a watermelon, and denounced the pope. Also, I had on my gray suit, but in the report, it says I was ‘covered head to toe in Elizabethan-era finery, including a doublet, breeches, and an enormous high-crowned beaver hat.’ Damn it all, I distinctly remember not wearing my high-crowned beaver hat!” It’s hard to extrapolate from one’s own experience of reading news stories about one’s area of expertise and not come to the alarming conclusion that 95 percent of the stuff we read was simply made up by someone who really wanted to get home in time to watch Shark Week.
What must it be like for the true expert, someone who works in the home theater industry inventing, engineering, testing, or manufacturing the products we use only to face—probably daily—a steady fire hose of outrageous misunderstanding, distortions, and outright lies? Well, with all apologies to Woody, I’ve imagined my own scenario wherein a home theater expert—we’ll call him Marshall—confronts that misinformation, personified in the form of Mr. Wilson. The setting is Mr. Wilson’s bedroom. It is 3:00 a.m.
Marshall: Mr. Wilson? Mr. Wilson, wake up. Hi, my name is Marshall. I work in the home theater industry. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions?
Mr. W: What? Who? What the hell are you doing in my bedroom? It’s 3:00 a.m., and— Hey, I can’t move!
Marshall: Yes, I zip-tied your arms and feet together.
Mr. W: How’d you do that?
Marshall: Well, I’m an engineer.
Mr. W: Clever.
Marshall: I also drew a semi-obscene drawing on your forehead in permanent marker. But anyway, to the point at hand. The other day at work, you told a co-worker who asked your advice about choosing between two brands of speakers that speaker A, quote, “is ten-thousand times better than speaker B. Literally.” This was not long after you used another co-worker’s horseradish mustard without asking.
Mr. W: You can monitor me at work? But how— Oh, right, you’re—
Marshall: I’m an engineer. Mr. Wilson, speaker A does not sound ten-thousand times better than speaker B. As it happens, I worked on both. They share similar design features and crossovers, they launch sound the same way, the drivers are made by the same company. They sound very similar, Mr. Wilson. We happen to know that the reason you think A sounds better is due to bias. You like A because their logo reminds you of a spaceship.
Mr. W: I like spaceships.
Marshall: We know, Mr. Wilson. We know. Now, on another occasion, you went onto an Internet forum and in response to someone who asked whether a certain lossy digital compression scheme was better than another lossy digital compression scheme, you wrote, quote, “You would have to be a drooling moron not to hear a clear difference between the two.” You went on to say that the inferior one “had no punch and sounded like it was being filtered through an old refrigerator.” You then went on to claim that you could “tell the difference from a mile away even if you were trapped at the bottom of a well. Literally.” Mr. Wilson, have you compared both formats in an ABX double-blind test? Were you able to correctly identify X a statistically significant number of times? Were you able to repeat it? Did you know that in test after test, both formats are 99 percent transparent for 99 percent of listeners? And finally, Mr. Wilson, do you know what the word literally means?
Mr. W: [timidly] Oh, I tested it quite thoroughly. I had my neighbor, Barney, listen to two samples, and I said, “There, now isn’t the first one, like, a million times better?” and he agreed.
Marshall: Mr. Wilson, we happen to know that your front speakers are wired out of phase, one of your rear surrounds is shorted at the terminal and doesn’t output any sound, your subwoofer isn’t even plugged in, and Mr. Wilson, Barney is deaf in one ear.
Mr. W: [defensively] Well, maybe that makes—
Marshall: No, it does not cause his other good ear to hear twice as well. One last thing. Mr. Wilson, you’ve told a number of people that digital music is inherently inferior to analog because “we hear in analog.” [Marshall then goes on to explain, in great detail, about the Nyquist frequency, Fourier transform, and sampling rates until, hours later, Mr. Wilson’s heart slows, his breathing becomes shallow, and he quietly dies].
And, scene. (Oh, relax, his death is just a metaphor.)
To quote Woody, “Boy, if life were only like this.”