Tag Archives | Atlantic magazine

On Lance Armstrong and Me

“Together with almost everyone who had been a fan and admirer of Armstrong’s achievements, both athletic and philanthropic, I’ve been wrestling with painful, complicated feelings of anger, sorrow, and disillusionment as the totality of his disgrace sinks in. But as a magazine journalist once deeply invested in covering the Armstrong era in cycling, I also feel a shock of self-recrimination as I struggle to reconcile my part in lionizing a man who, in hindsight, was almost certainly a cheat and a liar of breathtaking audacity and shamelessness.”

I’ve got an essay posted at TheAtlantic.com about covering Lance when he was riding high and watching his downfall with regret and chagrin.

November 2, 2012 at 7:56 am

The Light Fantastic

I detest sodium-vapor streetlights, whose yellowish glow now colors the night and stains metropolitan horizons everywhere. When I was growing up in suburban California in the 1960s and ’70s, the world after dark was lit by warm incandescence and whitish mercury-vapor street light. Although the latter had a spectral signature with vampiric overtones, turning reds to black and casting a blood-drained pallor on white skin, it still approximated something akin to plain white light.

But after the energy shocks of the 1970s, high-pressure sodium lights gradually took over the night. Following the economic imperative to use the most cost-effective lighting—high-pressure sodium lights consume half as much energy as mercury-vapor lamps and can last up to 16,000 hours longer—transportation departments and cities embraced sodium light. It was as though someone said “Fiat lux sulfurea—“Let there be light from hell.” The relentless spread of sodium streetlights is documented in NASA night photographs from space: New York City and Los Angeles are circuit boards of glowing orange, and Long Beach, one of the world’s busiest ports, is a flare of tarnished gold. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where 85 percent of streetlights use sodium. The jaundiced weirdness of sodium light has become a vexing challenge to photographers (one filmmaker, Tenolian Bell, called it “the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”); movie cameras simulate its color by using a gel filter named Bastard Amber. Significantly, retailers have avoided inflicting the unpleasantness of sodium lights on their customers—most commercial parking lots and shopping malls use the costlier white metal halide lights.

Our forced acceptance of sodium light’s ghoulish tint, an accident caused by the electrical vaporization of sodium metal in a gas-filled tube, makes outdoor lighting an example of a “bossy technology,” to borrow a term from Kevin Kelly’s recent book, What Technology Wants. Even worse than this inherent bossiness is the larger problem of light pollution. “Mankind is proceeding to envelop itself in a luminous fog,” wrote the authors of a paper on artificial night-sky brightness in 2001. This “perennial moonlight” that we’ve created enhances our safety and security, but it also dims our view of 10,000 stars and destroys the dance of light and dark.

But now we have a chance to bid good riddance to sodium vapor, and perhaps even resist the heedless trend of adding more and more light. The color of night is changing again.

In the next decade, a large percentage of America’s 37 million streetlights will be equipped with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and other kinds of solid-state lighting. Once again, energy-saving is the driving force. “We’re still at the front end of the wave,” says Mark S. Rea, the director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “but LEDs are inevitable as a replacement technology.” He predicts that LEDs, which are already 10 to 20 percent more energy-efficient than high-pressure sodium lights, will have a 40 percent advantage within a year or two.

Large-scale streetlight-upgrade programs have already begun in New York, Anchorage, San Jose, Pittsburgh, and many other cities. In Los Angeles, a $57 million project backed by the city’s Department of Water and Power and the Clinton Climate Initiative will replace 140,000 of the city’s 209,000 streetlights. Michael Siminovitch, the director of the California Lighting Technology Center at UC Davis, argues that the true potential and savings of the new lighting are less a matter of the source than of digital “adaptive controls.” Unlike sodium lights, LEDs and other next-generation lights can be tuned to various colors, easily dimmed, arranged into luminous surfaces and shapes, and turned on and off instantly.

Will this versatility translate into self-restraint? “We have the technology to make beautiful, modest night lighting,” says Jane Brox, the author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. “But our relationship to light is not rational. To ask people to live with less light, even if it’s well designed—a lot of people feel like that’s going backward.”

We’ve learned to be that neighbor who leaves a yellow porch light glaring all night long. Perhaps we can now learn, in the words of the lighting designer Rogier van der Heide, “why light needs darkness.”

[This post originally appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of the Atlantic.]

July 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

3D Audio at Princeton

I’m standing in the confined space of a custom-built anechoic chamber at Princeton University’s 3-D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab, bathed in green light and surrounded on all sides by wedges of melamine acoustic foam. I’m facing a pair of Ascend Acoustics speakers set on tall stands about a foot and a half apart. And I’m considering the advice that professor Edgar Choueiri has just offered, in a voice curiously deadened by a total absence of room reflections.

“You may want to close your eyes,” he said. “If you clear out the visual cues, you get even more realism.”

I’m about to hear a demonstration of Choueiri’s Pure Stereo filter, which promises “truly 3-D reproduction of a recorded soundfield.” Only a handful of people have heard his 3-D demo, but it’s already spawned awestruck hype, as well as preemptive rumblings of audiophile skepticism.

Choueiri leaves. A few seconds later, the sound of flowing water fades in and rises in both volume and presence. I have the uncanny sensation of standing neck-deep in a river, with its plashing surface spreading around me. Next, a buzzing fly circles my head. Then an aural nightscape of crickets and the loud croaks of a frog, precisely over there. An excited crowd, children shouting. A train chugs in from the right and comes to a halt across the platform.

Musical selections follow—an a cappella choir in some vast reverberant space, a New Orleans street band, a quartet of classical guitars—featuring shockingly expansive soundstaging, exact source positioning, and vivid ambience. Then Choueiri’s virtual voice is speaking in my left ear, my right ear, behind my head, and lastly he’s simulating giving me a haircut, with scissors snipping sides, top, and back.

Choueiri reappears at the door. “That was absolutely fantastic,” I tell him.

Spatial hearing in three dimensions depends on subtle differences in timing, sound level, and the shape of our heads and ears, among other factors. Binaural and even conventional stereo recording incorporates rich 3-D information. But “crosstalk” collapses the 3-D illusion: during playback, the left ear hears not only sound from the left speaker, but also some of the right-speaker sound, and the right ear likewise hears spillover sound from the left speaker.

A technique called crosstalk cancellation—processing the audio signal so that the left ear hears sound from only the left speaker, and the right, from only the right—can reveal the inherent 3-D sound in stereo. But crosstalk cancellation has always introduced audible spectral coloration. It’s this problem, applied to two-speaker playback, that Choueiri says he’s licked. He wrote a fiendishly abstruse 24-page technical paper explaining his theoretical work, and then spent several years coding and designing his Pure Stereo filter.

Manufacturers and producers sense enormous profits looming in 3-D audio for TV, cinema, and gaming. Compared with 3-D, the sales pitch goes, surround-sound systems are unwieldy and offer crude spatial definition. Princeton is now negotiating with various consumer companies to license Pure Stereo, and Choueiri also hopes to improve on hearing aids, which currently are not very good at pinpointing where sound is coming from.

In a sense, Choueiri’s adventures in audio represent a hobby that’s spun out of control. His real job is teaching applied physics at Princeton and developing plasma rockets for spacecraft propulsion. Visiting Europe to attend a conference in 2003, Choueiri decided on a whim to detour to Amsterdam and crash a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society, where several sessions explored the technical challenges of 3-D audio. “Within a few weeks, I read pretty much every paper in the field,” Choueiri recalls. Funding for his 3-D audio lab came from Project X, an initiative to encourage unconventional engineering research at Princeton.

Later during my visit, Choueiri invites me to his restored 1834 home near campus, where we spend hours sampling his enormous collection of vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, and high-definition audio files. Choueiri has a Jerry Garcia beard, a high forehead topped with stray tendrils of disorderly hair, and the dark-circled eyes of a nocturnalist. He puffs on a pipe while he roams the shelves.

“The most tiring part of stereo is the fact that the image spatially doesn’t correspond to anything that you ordinarily hear,” Choueiri tells me. “That’s what drove me to create this thing. Your brain is getting the right cues, and you relax. Your brain stops trying to re-create reality.”

[This post originally appeared (as “What Perfection Sounds Like”) in the March 2011 issue of the Atlantic.]

March 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

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