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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.)

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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holidays
The Plugin That Keeps the Internet From Spoiling Santa Claus
iStock
iStock

During simpler times, the biggest threat to a child's belief in Santa was usually older siblings or big-mouthed classmates. Today, kids have access to an entire world wide web, full of potentially Santa-spoiling content. Luckily, there's a plugin that helps parents maintain their kids’ innocence through the holidays.

Created by the virtual private network provider Hide My Ass (HMA), the free software analyzes web activity for any information that might threaten to “bring a child’s belief in Santa crashing down.” In place of the problematic content, the plugin brings up an image of the jolly man himself. Typing the phrase “Santa is not real” into Google, for example, will instead take you to a web page showing nothing but a soft-focused St. Nick pointing into the camera and staring at you with judgmental eyes. The plugin is also designed to work for social media communications, internet ads, and articles like this one.


Hide My Ass

According to a survey of 2036 parents by HMA, one in eight children in the U.S. have their belief in Santa ruined online. Whether it's because of the internet or other related factors, the age that children stop believing in Santa is lower than ever.

The average age that current parents lost their faith in Santa Claus was 8.7 years old, and for today’s kids it’s 7.25 years. Concerned parents can download the plugin for Chrome here, though it may not be enough to hide every type of Santa spoiler: Of the parents who blamed the internet, 26 percent of them reported kids snooping over their shoulder as they shopped for gifts online.

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