About Form and Function

November 12, 2009

Just look at this for a moment:


Beautiful, isn’t it? The first gramophone was invented in the 1870’s by none other than Thomas Alva Edison (yes, the same man that invented the light bulb and the motion picture camera). Back then, it was only an attempt to play back previously recorded telegraph messages. But from that point in human history until the 1980’s, the turntable experienced an unprecedented rise until it became the center of the music market, used for both professional and consumer purposes. It became an icon that is still present in our collective consciences, some 20 years after it was replaced from mainstream use.

Then along came the CD, and people discovered the wonders of the digital sound. As hard as it may seem to believe today, the transition between the two formats was far from easy. Analog technology was in place everywhere and the CD simply couldn’t compete in costs with vinyl LP’s yet. Besides, there was the human factor: we don’t like change. We never have, and this was probably as big a change as the music industry has ever experienced. People started complaining that new CD recordings sounded weird. The warm, familiar sound of their old LP’s was gone, and they didn’t like it one bit.

What was the deal? Today it seems obvious that a CD sounds better than a vinyl record, so what happened back then? Theoretically, there is nothing that keeps a vinyl record from sounding better than a CD. They do have a wider frequency response (the range of frequencies they can play), so in theory a new vinyl record played by a high-end turntable should sound better. Well, not quite.

You see, while vinyl records do have a wider frequency response, it is not flat, which means than not all frequency components are played at the same level of intensity. Our hearing is also not flat for all frequencies, so any mismatch between both frequency curves may result in audible differences when compared to a live performance. Add to that the mechanical noise and distortion that the stylus introduces and you get the listening experience that people identified as “warm”. Compared to that, audio CD’s play music with a frequency response that, while inferior to that of high-quality vinyl records, still generously covers all of the hearing spectrum, which ranges from 20Hz to 20KHz. The rest of the spectrum captured by vinyl records not only isn’t audible, but it can actually cause interference and distortion in the audible range. 1

As a result of these differences the listening experience changed dramatically and, while the CD theoretically offered a better sound quality, people found it lacking depth and musicality, and often described it as sounding metallic. Early audio CD’s were also affected by poor analog to digital conversion processes, which hindered the final quality of the sound, mainly due to aliasing of higher frequencies.

Why am I writing sooo much about this stuff? Well, because I believe there is an important lesson hidden somewhere here: Technology may be great, but it’s only great if it serves a purpose. The list of great devices that were huge commercial failures is long, and it’s usually because at some point those devices lost track of their purpose: why do people need this? Or, more importantly, do they need it at all?

These devices are not just feats of engineering and design, they need to make our lives easier or more enjoyable. If they don’t, they will almost certainly fail. The problem with the CD was that many people were unpleasantly surprised by the new format and the dramatic change it introduced in their listening experience. If it were not for the tremendous savings and convenience that digital technology brought to the music industry, it is unclear whether the CD wouldn’t have gone the way of the Dodo.2 It took a few years for the MP3 to make its way into the market, and that’s a format that is incredibly convenient and efficient compared to the CD.

The point is: don’t give me technology, give me solutions. Don’t tell me what this is made of, tell me what it can do. Can you think of a company that designs and markets its products this way? And how’s it going for them lately? Not bad?

I wonder why that is.

We are analog beings.

  1. Most amplifiers and speakers have a marked non-linear behavior outside of this range, which contributes to the distortion.]. Besides, a CD’s frequency response can be perfectly flat, which provides an even higher fidelity to the original recording.

  2. The list of devices arguably better than the CD that failed to replace it during the last decade is also long: MiniDisc, LaserDisc, even Audio DVD’s…]

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The old and the new

November 11, 2009

gramaphone by the ant hill mob, on Flickr

Just Beautiful. And it plays music, too.

iO by M Al-Ghanim, on Flickr

… but yeah, this is more like it.

About Form and Function.

… more on that later.

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Paying Tribute

November 10, 2009

The first thing I would like to do before actually starting to post real stuff here is acknowledge those people who have influenced me and inspired me to start this project. I don’t have the privilege of knowing them personally, but I absolutely feel like they deserve credit for the amazing work they put in their respective sites. To them, my sincere gratitude. I owe you big time.

DISCLAIMER: Even though I admire all of them greatly, they have no affiliation with me, nor my opinion regarding any of the posts in this blog. There is no association whatsoever between this blog and any of the others I mention here. Guys, If you feel that my mentioning you here doesn’t do you justice, please buzz me and let me know.

First, I want to mention Patrick Rhone from Minimal Mac. I don’t think I have ever been so blown away by a weblog before. The first time I saw it was during this summer, right after he started posting, and I instantly fell in love with the idea. I check it every day ever since. Patrick is a Technology Consultant, Mac Geek, Productivity Nerd and Blogger, and also happens to be a terrific guy. Besides Minimal Mac, he is involved in a series of other projects, including a fearless Mac tech-support program via Twitter for free (@machinemethods). Way to go Patrick, and thanks for the inspiration.

There is also Berto Pena from Think Wasabi, a Spanish weblog about productivity on the Mac. Berto is a productivity expert, writer, blogger and a black-belt-ninja-master of Evernote. Among other really interesting things on his site you will find a series of articles named: “101 uses for Evernote”. He is also an advocate of the GTD way, and gives priceless advice frequently on how to put it to good use. He recently wrote a book called Gestiona Mejor Tu Vida (Manage Your Life Better) in Spanish, which is available online and must be selling like hotcakes. And, having read it, I’m not the least bit surprised why.

Next up is Rands, from Rands in Repose. Though Rands is not his real name, his voice couldn’t be more real. His posts are crafted with a skill and expertise that you will rarely see anywhere else on the Internet. He works as a senior engineering manager and in his weblog he gives advice on how to manage teams and reflects on the technology world in general. If you read one of his posts you will be instantly hooked. Guaranteed. He is also the author of Managing Humans, a great book where you can learn about his experiences as a software engineering manager.

And of course, David Lanham, a terrific, terrific artist that is currently working at The Iconfactory, designing awesome icons for the Mac. If you have a minute, go pay him a visit at his website, where you will find a great collection of some of his incredibly talented work, in both digital and traditional formats (or, for the purpose of this blog, analog).

These are the big four places I go to every time I have a moment to spare. Among other sources of great inspiration are:

Merlin Mann from 43 Folders. In his own words: “43 Folders is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” Good, good stuff here.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. Also, he is the author of The Power of Less, an awesome book that will teach you how to eliminate the clutter in your life and focus on what’s really important. Do more, by doing less.

That’s it, I believe. I’m sure I will be adding to this list very soon, but for now I guess this is a fairly accurate collection of the online places I find inspiring, interesting and/or amusing. If, with time, I can produce something that is anywhere near close to what these incredibly talented people are up to every day, I will be proud and consider myself extremely satisfied.

And if I can add some value to you, and make the time that you are spending here useful, my mission will be complete.

And now, without further ado, let’s get started.


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Today's quote →

November 10, 2009 |

Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring!

Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Dracula (1897).

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First Post - The Manifesto

November 10, 2009

Hey there, welcome to Analog Senses.

First, let me tell you what this is all about, FAQ-style:

Who are you?

My name is Álvaro Serrano, I’m 26 years old and I am from Spain. I currently live in Madrid, where I’m working at Polytechnical University of Madrid (UPM), developing software for Biomedical Engineering applications.

I got my MSc degree in Telecommunication Engineering from UPM last year, with Bioengineering and Telemedicine as my major. I’m also enrolled in a post-graduate program in Bioengineering and Telemedicine in the same university so, as you can imagine, I don’t get bored much.

I like reading, drawing, going to the movies a lot and listening to music. I’m a Mac user and my favorite sport is tennis (big-time Federer fan). I’m also a proud Spaniard, which means whenever I’m not at work or in class, I’m probably out with friends enjoying the fine Spanish weather or having a few beers (we call them cañas).

If you want to know more, you probably are a bit too curious. Shoot me an e-mail and I’ll be glad to answer any questions you may have. You can reach me on, or on Twitter: @analogsenses.

So, what is this all about?

I consider myself a creative person. Not necessarily an artsy type or anything like that, but ideas have always come to me about a lot of things I could do, paint, write or say. Up until a few months back, my plate had been mostly full with my studies and the rest of the stuff I was going through. Now, however, for the first time in years I find myself out of excuses not to do something about those ideas. And so here we are.

This is a formal attempt to capture some of those ideas and reflections and let them out of my head. Sometimes I will write something, others it will be a picture or a drawing, a good quote that got me thinking or a link to a cool website or post that I have seen elsewhere but that you should totally check out.

I will probably write about many things, because that is the nature of my thinking process: I don’t usually focus on just one topic, but rather a few ones that are important to me. Among the posts here you will find stories about the Internet, technology in general and Apple in particular, productivity, minimalism and whatever I may be up to (movies, songs, books, etc.). Occasionally you may have to bear with some tennis-related posts, but I will do my best to keep them under control, as I understand they may be a little off-topic. But I know myself, and I know I won’t be able to resist if there’s a big event going on, specially if Federer is playing.

OK, but what’s with the analog thing?

To be perfectly honest, I just thought it sounded cool, and the domain was available :-P

Kidding aside, it seemed like a good way to indicate that this is not a technical blog, even though it may include posts about technology. Hence the analog, as opposed to digital. Rest assured, I will not use Geek language here (well, let’s just say not much Geek language) or get lost about how many hours it took me to compile the code of the application I’m working on. My purpose is to make every post readable by as many people as possible. I want to write in a way that it doesn’t matter if you are an engineer, a musician, a nurse or a sportsman, you will be able to find something here that piques your curiosity and hopefully, your interest.

Also, Analog Senses is meant to let readers know that this blog will talk about various different things, that it is essentially a window through which we can look at a digital world, from an analog perspective.

How often will you be posting?

The posting schedule will not be fixed, but it is my intention to add at least one new text post every week, even though so far I’ve been failing miserably in doing so. Aside from that, there may be links, pictures, quotes or brief messages. I am perfectly aware that time is an increasingly precious thing in a world that moves faster every day, so I promise you that I will not waste yours with senseless posts. I will only write when I have something to say that I believe adds some value to the blog. This is my commitment to you. If you ever feel that I have lost my way, please write me up and let me know what you think.

Wait a second… if you’re from Spain, why the hell do you write in English?

I know, I get this a lot. Well, there are various reasons why I chose to write this blog in English. First and foremost, I believe that English is the natural language of the Internet. The reason why anyone writes a blog and puts it out there is so that their content reaches the maximum number of people, and I believe English will provide me with a better way to do so.

Second, some if not all of the topics I will cover here are far more popular in the English-speaking world than they are in Spain (take Apple, for example). While this may be debatable, it is my opinion and ultimately my choice.

Third, I’m lucky enough to be able to write decent English. My intention is to let the content speak for itself, and I hope that my writing is not a problem for anyone. Of course, I accept and welcome criticism and corrections, so if you ever see a blatant error anywhere, please let me know so I can learn from it and correct it immediately. Thanks.

And last but not least, for some reason I find it easier to write in English sometimes. It’s as though thinking in a foreign language helps me to narrow down my chain of thought and focus on whatever it is I want to say. Weird as that may be.

Well, I guess that’s enough for the first day. Welcome aboard, I really do hope you enjoy your stay.



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