Shuffle’s Got a Secret

By Bill Machrone,1759,1777890,00.asp

Apple’s new iPod shuffle has stellar audio performance. In the bass registers, it blows away the competition, including its bigger siblings. I mentioned this in my review of the shuffle, saying that Apple’s hard drive players lag behind some newer players in bass performance, but that the shuffle was way better than anything else out there. An Apple exec has basically challenged me to prove it.
Although the most important thing with any audio device is how it sounds, we use common audio test techniques to quantify such factors as frequency response, harmonic distortion, and maximum loudness. Along with an iPod shuffle, I gathered four other players and ranked them for perceived audio performance, concentrating on the bass. I used a pair of Apple earbuds and my Sennheiser Pro headphones for all the listening tests. The five players, from best to worst, were the iPod shuffle, a Creative Zen Micro, a Dell DJ 20, a 15GB Apple iPod (third generation), and an Apple iPod mini.
Good bass performance requires realistic reproduction of low piano notes, string bass, electric bass, cello, and kick drum or bass drum—and the players’ abilities were noticeably different. The difference clearly was not in the codecs or digital electronics but in the output stage, which drives the headphones.
Apart from a slight low-end falloff on some of my 20-Hz to 20-KHz swept sine wave tests, I couldn’t quantify the difference I was hearing. I tried something different: a 40-Hz square wave. Roughly, 40 Hz is low E, the lowest note produced by a standard upright bass or an electric bass guitar. The square wave contains the fundamental frequency and a theoretically infinite number of harmonics. The harmonics give instruments their distinctive timbre; sine waves are never found in musical instruments. Square waves are also the most demanding kind of wave for an amplifier to reproduce accurately, as the output voltage must rise instantly to the full amplitude, remain at that voltage for a period of time (at 40 Hz, it’s 1.3 milliseconds), then drop through zero to the full negative amplitude. Then it has to hold the negative voltage for another 1.3 ms, and the process starts over again.
I tested the players with the 40-Hz square wave, with and without the load of a standard pair of Apple earbuds, and judged them on their ability to form a good square wave and sustain the voltage. Without the load, all but the iPod mini were able to form a good square wave. With the load, all but the iPod shuffle failed, in varying degrees, to sustain it. The speed with which the square wave sinks back toward zero indicates how long the player can sustain bass notes and their harmonics under load. All of the players except the iPod shuffle showed deterioration of the wave, but the ones that showed the least deterioration sounded best.
I then played pink noise through the players to verify my findings. Pink noise is random but has the same amount of power at every frequency. To the player’s electronics, it resembles music more than white noise or sine wave sweeps do. With the earbud load, the players showed different levels of falloff in the low bass, as predicted by the 40-Hz square wave test. You can see the results displayed at
The iPod shuffle’s near-perfect rendering of the square wave means that it uses push-pull output instead of the single-ended, capacitor-coupled output found in just about every other player. You just can’t get this kind of audio performance from a single-ended circuit. I find Apple’s audiophile approach exciting on several different levels. You can hear the improvement; will Apple incorporate the same technology in future hard drive players? And technologically, it’s fascinating. My inner geek wants answers to half a dozen questions, including how they’re generating the negative power supply voltage and whether they’ve gone with a capacitorless design. I’ve asked Apple, but so far the company is mum.
I believe I proved that my ears were right: Several other hard drive players edge out older Apple players, but the iPod shuffle does them all one better. I think I also proved conclusively that the iPod mini’s output capacitors are woefully undersized, as some audiophiles have been saying since Apple introduced the device. I also found that the iPod mini has lots of harmonic distortion—everywhere but at the industry-standard 1-KHz measuring point.
You’d think that Apple would be touting the breakthrough performance of the iPod shuffle, but again, not a word. Does the company think we don’t care about fidelity? And if so, why did Apple bother with such a radical redesign and audio improvement?

Living a Virtual Life

Is World of Warcraft a game, or is it a harbinger of virtual realities that we all might inhabit? Only a Night Elf knows for sure.

By Steven Levy


Sept. 18, 2006 issue – Two years into the history of World of Warcraft—an online game that accommodates 7 million players around the world—no one had successfully ventured into the dungeon to slay a group of computer-generated villains known as the Four Horsemen. But four experienced “guilds” of players—one in Europe, two in America and one in China—were coming close, posting updates on separate Web sites they maintained. Finally, a 40-person contingent from a U.S. guild conquered the last beast—and its members became instant international celebrities in a massive community where dragons and Druids are as real as dirt.

In the physical world we vainly scrounge for glory. Bin Laden still taunts us, the bus doors close before we reach them and leave us standing in the rain. But in the fantasy realm of Azeroth, the virtual geography of World of Warcraft, the physical pain comes only from hitting a keyboard too hard, camaraderie is the norm and heroism is never far away. In simple terms, Warcraft is the most advanced and popular entry in a genre called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMO. “I call it the Technicolor, Americanized version of ‘Lord of the Rings’,” says Chris Metzen, VP of creative development for the game’s maker, Blizzard Software. But for millions it is more than a game—it’s an escape, an obsession and a home.

Engaging in this orgy of sword-swiping, spell-casting and monster-slaying generally involves a $50 purchase of the software and a monthly $15 fee thereafter to play online. Players in Asia—a clear majority of the WOW population, despite the fact that the game was created by digital dudes in Irvine, Calif.—buy cards that allow them WOW time for a few cents an hour. Then there’s the merchandising: T shirts, jackets, hats, a nondigital (!) board game. In China, 600 million Coke cans were festooned with WOW figures. There are seven novels based on Warcraft lore. And Blizzard recently inked a movie deal with the studio that produced “Superman Returns.” Games-industry analyst David Cole estimates that Blizzard (part of Vivendi) has made more than $300 million from the game so far. Blizzard COO Paul Sams says only, “We are an incredibly profitable company.”

What distinguishes Warcraft from previous blockbuster games is its immersive nature and compelling social dynamics. It’s a rich, persistent alternative world, a medieval Matrix with lush graphics and even a seductive soundtrack (Blizzard has two full-time in-house composers). Blizzard improved on previous MMOs like Sony’s Everquest by cleverly crafting its game so that newbies could build up characters at their own pace, shielded from predators who would casually “gank” them—while experienced players continually face more and more daunting challenges. The company mantra, says lead designer Rob Pardo, is “easy to learn, difficult to master.” After months of play, when you reach the ultimate level (60), you join with other players for intricately planned raids on dungeons, or engage in massive rumbles against other guilds.

“Ninety percent of what I do is never finished—parenting, teaching, doing the laundry,” says Elizabeth Lawley (Level 60, Troll Priest), a Rochester, N.Y., college professor. “In WOW, I can cross things off a list—I’ve finished a quest, I’ve reached a new level.”

Like many WOW players, Lawley is active in a guild. Some of the high-ranking guilds, like the one formed by noted Japanese venture capitalist Joi Ito (Level 60, Gnome Mage), are mini-societies with their own Web sites, online forums and private lore. First Ito invited people he knew professionally, like Ross Mayfield (Level 60, Human Palladin), CEO of an Internet company on whose board Ito sits. “Warcraft is the new golf,” says Mayfield. “I actually closed a deal with a company I met through WOW.” But as Ito met others in WOW, the roster diversified. There is a priest whose character is … a priest. There are soldiers, bartenders, truckdrivers, lawyers and Goggle engineers. The guild’s “raid leader”—who organizes the twice-weekly ventures into the feared Molten Core to slay the powerful “boss mob” monsters—is Jamie Ray (Level 60, Night Elf Druid), a night-shift nurse in Parkersburg, W.Va.

Though WOW is a fantasy world, the interaction between guilds and individuals relies on human choices and morals. The first thing one does when joining the game is to choose an avatar from one of eight “races,” split between two factions: the human-looking Alliance and the more bestial Horde. Edward Castronova (Level 42, Priest), an Indiana U professor and author of “Synthetic Worlds,” once roiled the WOW community by a blog posting entitled “The Horde Is Evil,” in which he charged that only the antisocial at heart would pick that darker side. Castronova believes that if someone behaves badly in the game—an example would be the WOW equivalent of spree killing, where someone ganks a character of a much lower level, just for the hell of it—that person should be judged harshly in the real world as well.

Another example of questionable behavior is viewable in a video that more than 80,000 people have accessed on YouTube. When one guild member died (in real life, not Azeroth), his grieving friends decided to hold a funeral for him inside the game. The solemn affair was disrupted when a rival guild burst upon the unarmed mourners and slaughtered them mercilessly. “It’s unfortunate that someone would do that to people trying to honor one of their guild members,” says Mike Morhaime, Blizzard’s president. Another event that bothered Blizzard’s management was an in-game protest march, when hundreds of naked Gnomes gathered to call for more powers.

Generally, though, players of the game enjoy a form of com-ity rarely seen in the real world; higher-level players go out of their way to tutor newbies and accompany them on quests. Deep friendships are forged. Relationships begin that flower into marriage, with Tauren brides and Undead grooms tying the knot in some virtual tavern in Thunder Bluff.

Warcraft even has its own economy, as the gold and exotic armor and weaponry that players accumulate are much coveted in trade. Despite the opposition of Blizzard (which thinks that using real money to gain an edge in the game violates WOW’s egalitarian spirit), a thriving industry makes tons of real dollars by “gold farming” (accumulating in-game currency and selling it) or “power leveling” (borrowing someone’s avatar and grinding through the game to gain experience). Most of the manpower is supplied by Chinese workers like Zhang Hanbin (Level 60, Rogue), a 24-year-old dropout who works in a grim apartment-cum-sweatshop in the provincial town of Wuxue. An eight-hour day collecting game loot can yield 100 gold pieces, worth about $30 on the black market.

Are you getting the idea that “Warcrack” (as some call it) eats up a lot of time? “Of all the games that my [addictive] clients are involved with, World of Warcraft is the most popular,” says clinical psychologist Kimberly Young. Mostly, trouble comes in the form of kids who fall asleep in class, and furious spouses. “My girlfriend—who actually bought me the game—was ready to kill me,” says Alex Rascovar (Level 60, Gnome Mage), a New York City actor who often binged with eight-hour sessions before he went cold turkey a few months ago. There are parental controls available, but most parents haven’t a clue. (Only when embarking on this story did yours truly learn that his son [Level 60, Troll Shaman] had hit the level cap in WOW.)

In China, a competitive society where real life is becoming as freaky as anything you’d find in Azeroth, players seem even more prone to go overboard. According to the Xinhua News Agency, one girl died of exhaustion after playing WOW for several days without a break.

Even those who dropped out will be tempted to return later this year when Blizzard releases its long-awaited update The Burning Crusade. The key features include two new races, a new continent to explore and an increase in the level cap from 60 to 70. Hundreds of thousands will jam the WOW servers until they once again reach the peak.

Edward Castronova sees all this as an early indicator of what will become a vast participation in synthetic worlds, with fuzzier and fuzzier lines between virtual and physical realms. “In 20 or 30 years the technology will be here to create incredibly more realistic and immersive worlds,” he says. “There will be a world that fits the fantasy of any life you want to lead.” Those deep into WOW, of course, are already living that future. “Yes, it’s just a game,” says Joi Ito. “The way that the real world is a game.”

With Melinda Liu in China and N’gai Croal and Peg Tyre in New York

Japan’s succession

International Herald Tribune

Your report “Princess Kiko of Japan has a boy” (Sept. 5) employs language that serves to propagate an archaic and misogynist myth, by referring to Crown Princess Masako’s “inability to bear a boy” as a cause for the succession crisis surrounding the Japanese throne.Anyone with a basic comprehension of human biology knows that it is the father who determines the sex of the child, since only the father can provide sperm carrying the Y chromosome.Such imprecise language fuels the kind of misunderstanding that erodes women’s position in society and implicitly lends support to the kind of biased feudal system discussed in the article.

Catherine Ganzleben, Geneva

What it means to be Japanese

International Herald Tribune

TOKYO The other day I received the results of a DNA test administered by the Genographic Project, a joint project by the National Geographic Society and IBM, whose goal is to analyze human DNA samples and understand the route which mankind took in populating the world.

After submitting my DNA – obtained by simply swabbing the inside of my mouth – along with about $100, I received two months later information about my paternal ancestors.

I’ve always been interested in trying to find the origins of my ancestry. I am a Japanese male, born in Japan. Both of my parents are ethnically Japanese and as far as I know, all my recent ancestors for at least the past three centuries were born in Japan.

The Genographic Project, which I happened to stumble upon while surfing the Internet, gave me an opportunity to satiate my curiosity about my ancestral origins.

The results of the DNA test told me that my earliest human male ancestor was born in Africa about 50,000 years ago.

About 45,000 years ago, another male ancestor came from somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula or present- day Iran.

Five thousand years later, it seems, another ancestor was born in Central Asia. Then, some time 35,000 years ago, my most recent identifiable ancient ancestor was born in an isolated region of central China while the Ice Age was in full swing.

China, according to the Genographic Project, is where my genetic journey ends, or rather, where my most recent ancestor comes from. I now know that genetically I am related to more than half of all present-day Chinese males and that there is someone at the moment living in China with whom I share a common ancestor dating back some 1,000 years.

Despite knowing all this, however, I have no idea when or how my paternal ancestor came over to the Japanese islands. Perhaps he was a merchant who came over from China to trade with the native Japanese and decided to settle permanently in Japan.

In the city of Fukuoka, where my father’s family comes from, there is an area called Tojin-machi, or Tang- Town, Tang referring to China’s ancient Tang dynasty. I wonder if, many centuries ago, my ancestor came over from China and set up shop in this particular area of Kyushu.

Or maybe he was some kind of swashbuckling pirate who roamed the coasts of China and Japan and was eventually shipwrecked on Japanese shores.

I could go on and on speculating. Interestingly, the research of the Genographic Project tells us that most of the paternal ancestors of the present-day ethnic Japanese come from all over Asia. Many, however, do not have the same gene that I have which indicates an origin of somewhere aside from central China, such as Southeast Asia or the Korean Peninsula.

Some conservative elements in Japanese society take pride in the alleged homogeneity of the Japanese “race,” and ardent nationalists and racists look disparagingly upon other ethnic groups. Such DNA test results should make them think twice about what they say or think about other peoples – or about themselves, for that matter.

If we employ notions of racial superiority, look down upon other ethnic groups or consider them as “others,” we are in effect insulting our ancestors, who traveled far and wide over tens of thousands of years under unimaginably harsh conditions to get to where we are now.

We may be Japanese according to notions of ethnicity and citizenship, but genetics tells us beyond doubt that we are all related to the peoples of China, Korea and the rest of Asia. And, ultimately, all of us in the human race are Africans.