Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков
Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков

The Ghostly Remains of "Tom's Diner"

Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков
Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков

When the MP3 audio compression system was being developed, then-doctoral student Karlheinz Brandenburg needed a test track to hear whether his compression was messing up the sound too much. He chose "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, an a cappella song, to test his MP3 system.

Because MP3 uses "lossy compression," a system in which some data is thrown away in order to make the file smaller, it was important to sort out whether he was throwing out data that could afford to be lost and still have the track sound natural. "Tom's Diner," with a melodic human voice, reverberation, and occasional silence, fit the bill nicely. In other words, while a full pop band might sound okay, the MP3 compressor really showed what it was doing when it crunched on a single human voice.

When Brandenburg ran "Tom's Diner" through his early MP3 encoders, the result sounded terrible, which led to substantial tweaking, paving the way for substantially better-sounding MP3 music in the future. (Yes, I realize "better-sounding MP3" is an oxymoron to audiophiles. Let's just move on.) All of this led to Suzanne Vega becoming known as "the mother of the MP3."

All of this is history to get us to the video below. Musician Ryan Maguire and video artist Takahiro Suzuki collaborated to make "The Ghost in the MP3," which has two important components, both dealing with loss through technical means. First, the audio track is everything that MP3 "threw away" from "Tom's Diner." Second, the video is everything that MP4 "threw away" from the "Tom's Diner" music video, though I'm not sure which version of the video was used. (MP4 video compression is similar to MP3 in that it is lossy; it throws out things that it guesses humans won't perceive much.) The result is weird and ghostly, but bearing a resemblance to the original song in an eerie way. Enjoy, and then check out the original videos for comparison.

Here's Suzanne Vega's original a cappella track, used for tuning the MP3 algorithm:

And here's the "DNA remix" video many of us of a certain age remember (it was a huge hit in 1990). It's not clear to me which part(s) of this video may have been used in the ghost video, or if there's a third video in play. Anyway, this happened, and it still rocks today:

If you're into technical details, go read all about it. Also note that I covered some of this way back in 2008 on this very blog!

(Via Waxy.)

Big Questions
Why Are the Keys On a QWERTY Keyboard Laid Out As They Are?

Why are the keys on a QWERTY keyboard laid out as they are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

What is commonly called QWERTY (more properly, the Sholes layout) was designed by Christopher Lathan Sholes, then modified through a series of business relationships. Sholes's original keyboard was alphabetical and modeled after a printing telegraph machine. The alphabetical layout was easy to learn, but not easy to type on.

For one thing, all practical typing machines of the day relied on mechanical levers, and adjacent letters could jam if struck with rapidity. There has long been a myth that Sholes designed the QWERTY layout to slow typists down in order to prevent this. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Sholes’s first customers were telegraphers. Over several years, he adapted the piano-like alphabetical keyboard into
a four-row keyboard designed to aid telegraphers in their transcription duties.

This new layout mostly spread out commonly struck keys, but also placed easily confused telegraph semaphores together. This layout was sufficient to permit telegraph transcription to keep up with transmissions and created a growing market.

During this time, Sholes teamed up with several other inventors to form a typewriter company with assignment of all related patents. An association with Remington led to increased sales, at which time another company acquired the shift platen patent that permits a typewriter to type in mixed case, and they seem to have made a few essentially random changes in order to avoid the original typewriter company patents.

So that’s it then, right? QWERTY is crap?

Well, no. QWERTY was based mostly on the needs of telegraphers in transcribing Morse code, and Morse had been scientifically designed to make transmission of English language messages as efficient as possible. The result is that the QWERTY arrangement is pretty good—efficiency-wise.

In the 1930s, John Dvorak used modern time-motion study techniques to design his own keyboard, and around it had grown up a whole cult following and mythology. But the fact is, it’s much ado about nothing. Careful scientific studies in the 1950s, '70s, and '80s have shown that choice between the Sholes and Dvorak layout makes no material difference in typing speed. Practice and effort are what yields rapid typing, and studies of professional typists have shown that however well we may perform on timed trials, few typists ever exceed 35 words per minute in their daily work.

So relax. Take an online typing course, practice a little, and relax.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Afternoon Map
Monthly Internet Costs in Every Country

Thanks to the internet, people around the world can conduct global research, trade tips, and find faraway friends without ever leaving their couch. Not everyone pays the same price for these digital privileges, though, according to new data visualizations spotted by Thrillist.

To compare internet user prices in each country, cost information site created a series of maps. The data comes courtesy of English market research consultancy BDRC and, which teamed up to analyze 3351 broadband packages in 196 nations between August 18, 2017 and October 12, 2017.

In the U.S., for example, the average cost for internet service is $66 per month. That’s substantially more than what browsers pay in neighboring Mexico ($27) and Canada ($55). Still, we don’t have it bad compared to either Namibia or Burkina Faso, where users shell out a staggering $464 and $924, respectively, for monthly broadband access. In fact, internet in the U.S. is far cheaper than what residents in 113 countries pay, including those in Saudi Arabia ($84), Indonesia ($72), and Greenland ($84).

On average, internet costs in Asia and Russia tend to be among the lowest, while access is prohibitively expensive in sub-Saharan Africa and in certain parts of Oceania. As for the world’s cheapest internet, you’ll find it in Ukraine and Iran.

Check out the maps below for more broadband insights, or view’s full findings here.

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site

Map of Internet costs in each country created by information site

[h/t Thrillist]


More from mental floss studios