More chicks in the mix

The Audio Engineering Society is attempting to mend its membership. In LA in 2014, it organised an all-female panel (with a male moderator) to encourage creative women into music production. What let it down was its title, which I borrowed for this post.

This isn’t intended as good journalism. To deserve such an accolade, I’d have given the AES a right to reply before publishing. I’m a lone writer, though. My most popular blog post to date is about legal compliance with radio emissions regulations. If you do happen to be reading this and you object, please comment appropriately.

The UK section is pushing the UN’s He For She initiative very hard, dedicating much of its newsletter and several of its lectures to the subject of gender equality, and encouraging its members to sign a public pledge. In this month’s newsletter, more space was devoted to gender issues than to anything else. I’ll accept this as necessary: social engineering is a large part of our craft.

About twenty years ago, a friend of mine, an undergraduate engineer, was working on an industrial placement for a manufacturer. One requirement of her job was helping to run a stand at a trade show. Within earshot, a salesman of a more senior generation said to a customer, ‘She’s only here because she’s pretty.’ He also quipped, ‘I thought harass was two words’. A senior designer she’d passed on the stairs at work had once asked, ‘Fancy a shag?’ As the power relationship was skewed ovewhelmingly in their favour, these remarks couldn’t be raised safely. They had to pass without comment (except to me).

While it’s hard to arbitrate he-said-she-said disputes, I see that casual verbal abuse is becoming exceptional: mindsets such as these are rightly being seen as revolting instead of funny. I’m confident that this kind of sexual harassment would be treated seriously anywhere I’ve worked since.

We have a more nuanced understanding of discrimination today. It exists more perniciously in small decisions and ungendered put-downs: the sort of abuse that all human beings face at some point in their lives as they progress in a competitive world. No matter who you are, you harden yourself against cruelty and failure, because unscrupulous people will use any vulnerability as a foothold. Although it’s illegal, some will attempt to weaponise sex, age, race, and social status. Women still have it harder: it’s just more difficult to prove.

The terms of He For She’s pledge are surprisingly hard to see at a glance on their website, but the gist is as follows:

  • When making appointments, insist on seeing candidates with a range of backgrounds and attributes.
  • Abandon the use of sexist language and turns of phrase.
  • Don’t bully or demean women, either to them or to others.
  • Call out sexism when you see it.
  • Spread the word about the initiative.

I’ve not signed it. Laudable as the terms are, the gesture makes me uneasy for three reasons:

  1. Why would I sign a statement that I’ve stopped beating my wife? Following these rules is the minimum standard required for permission to participate in a modern industry. I’ve listened to my peers, I’ve read feminist literature, and I’ve recruited with fairness in mind. Equal rights aren’t a new issue to me: I’ve agonised about my behaviour and my wider accountability for decades and (as I should) questioned equality of opportunity versus outcome in the field of engineering. I haven’t always done well, and I still feel ashamed when I fail, but I promise to make my failures in life ever more subtle and less stupid. And I call bad behaviour, politely but firmly, when I see it. Signing this pledge is like putting the ‘L’ plates back on my car. You never stop learning to drive but, beyond a certain level, you’re not obliged to make a public spectacle of the fact.
  2. Walking around wearing a badge saying ‘I won’t be sexist’ doesn’t stop you being sexist. It just means you like badges. What it might do is embolden you and your peers against unflattering feedback about your conduct, should you receive it. Who knows, it might even make your denial of sexual harassment more plausible at an employment tribunal. Unless it’s a genuine social enterprise, which I don’t think it is, I’m sceptical about the ability of He For She to correct bad behaviour.
  3. There’s evidence that people in some circles are being shamed or no-platformed if they refuse to sign the pledge. To put it bluntly, this isn’t kosher.

I’ve interviewed and recruited women. Good women are as hard to find as good men. They’re just as highly sought: in fact, more so, because they bring fresh perspectives to a very male discipline. My year on the Tonmeister course (1996-2000) comprised sixteen male and two female students. The ratio varies year-by-year, and has occasionally passed 75:25, but has never been close to 50:50. Other technical courses are balanced similarly.

Even with an enlightened selection process, the long-term ratio of graduates, in one of the most artistic of technical disciplines, is about five to one. It’s just hard to attract women to some professions. Those who choose ours set forth their own reasons. Perhaps prejudice drives others away, but you cannot blame every community and every school.

I’ve also been involved with the wonderful ADC conference, which explicitly set out with a goal of inclusivity. Again, it’s not going to approach 50:50 participation in this generation, because that’s not how its audience is composed. Of our four keynote speakers last year, though, three were women working at the highest levels of industry and academia. The fourth was Jules Storer, creator of JUCE: the reason we were there.

With that in mind, here’s a recent tweet from the incoming AES UK chair:

To give Dr Lopez the benefit of the doubt, Twitter is a platform for provocation rather than nuance. But this message goes beyond He For She. It starts to caricature the adversary, treat the problem in monochrome, and urge us to rush to judgement.

Here’s a personal tale. At ADC ’16, I convened a panel about spatial audio. I didn’t have a lot of notice, which is often the way at these things. Spatial audio is my academic speciality. Even for somebody with connections, who has read a couple of hundred papers on the subject and released a modestly successful product, it’s a niche field. We asked three relevant, preeminent female technologists we knew if they were able to attend: two weren’t free to travel for personal and budgetary reasons; the third had already booked into a rival conference. Thinking laterally, we contacted two female executives in relevant companies that would have helped us to take the argument beyond technicalities. When they found time to reply, it turned out that they weren’t available either.

Sometimes, you’re unlucky. It would have been disingenuous to apologise for convening an all-male panel after a deliberate attempt, in good faith, to balance it. Alternatives would have been to dissolve the session, denying delegates an enlivening perspective on an interesting subject, or to have co-opted a less qualified panellist at short notice at the expense of the discussion.

We chose to go ahead with the best panel we could assemble. There was no hostility, and there didn’t need to be: it was a good panel, and we took questions from both men and women. This is why I am troubled by Dr Lopez’s tweet.

Now that personal privilege is a public concern, we should not let hypocrisy undermine small, hard-won victories. As we climb our ladders, it is only by continually engaging our subordinates as equals, and avoiding tyranny, that trust will coexist with power. The choice to respect people we don’t need to respect brings us closer to a fairer, more sustainable workplace. This is the hallmark of what He For She sets out to achieve, and the way to win this argument.

If you’re able to determine who gets to speak in public, it’s easy to ostracise those with whom you disagree. This is fine when the speaker is actually inciteful, but the pledge risks correcting one abuse of power with another, driving poisonous ideas into a place where their proponents cry persecution and recruit more eloquent supporters, while bystanders are caught in the crossfire. The right way to challenge repugnant but prevalent ideas is to tolerate the people who hold them, and beat them in debate until they are on their own.



Putting together a new standard

The topic I jettisoned from my talk about MPE at last week’s conference was my thoughts about what makes a good Working Group, as I didn’t want to imply any criticism of the MIDI Manufacturers Association or its members.

As Chair of the MPE Working Group, I neither presume that I can pilot harder projects through technical and diplomatic adversity, nor will I tempt fate by attributing much talent to what might just be beginner’s luck. All I know is that, over the years, I have seen a couple of things.

Some time in the past, I sounded off about what is wrong with MIDI, and every now and then I still do, but always with a veneration for a standard that has managed to age so gracefully while seeing off so many rivals.

The HD Working Group has been meeting at least weekly for more than a decade now to define a successor to MIDI, and we’ve all been waiting, reading, and preparing. It’s not been an easy journey, and HD has recently stumbled at one of the last hurdles. The MIDI Manufacturers Association functions as a democracy of individual companies, and getting a new idea ratified means convincing important stakeholders that they will benefit from your changes and not be threatened by them.

This has always worked for small changes. But a wholesale replacement for MIDI must be non-disruptive, and a non-disruptive replacement is a paradox. After ten years of development, the HD spec is more complex and intimidating than MIDI, there’s no straightforward compatibility between the two, and it’s too new even to be clear how it’ll be used. MIDI has survived nearly 35 years being meddled with and patched up — MPE is just the latest way of doing this.

The HD spec would fix a lot of our problems automatically and for good, but it’s in a tricky place. Every passing year, the tweaks to the old spec gain some ground on the new, and the case for the new diminishes.

Either in its current or a modified form, I want HD to thrive. It seems that there are a few options open to the Working Group to keep it alive, all of which might work, in varying shades of palatability. Some of these are happening, and some aren’t:

  • Keep working on the market model, convincing the company representatives who intend to vote ‘no’ that it’s in their interests to vote ‘yes’.
  • Allow companies to start commercialising the draft specification without permission, on the basis that the first few compatible products will create a small ecosystem, prove a market for HD devices, and establish a commercial case without frightening incumbents.
  • Encourage software framework developers to add implementations of HD to make it easier for third parties to assimilate.
  • Approach a different standards body, such as the USB Implementers Forum or the ISO, to ratify the specification as a standard that is independent of MIDI, and bring it back to the MMA as a fait accompli. This might be less hard, but risks destroying the MMA by driving it into irrelevance (or making it look like this is the intention). Doing so could alienate much of the industry.
  • Go back to the drawing board, and work out a roadmap where MIDI 1.0 can be turned into MIDI 2.0 by backwards-compatible steps, each of which will require a little work in exchange for some exploitable advantages. For example, MIDI 1.1 could mandate full-speed USB, assume bidirectionality by default, revise its note model to support MPE, respond to the System Exclusive Device Inquiry message, and abandon Polyphonic Aftertouch (the messages for which might then be reappropriated at some point in the future). All of these have clear commercial value, ease communication with computers, and pave the way for a ten-year plan of improvement. The new spec gets chucked away, but not the underlying vision, which is actually the important part. Who, after all, knows what the market will need by the time MIDI 2.0 sees the light of day?

The last one would, of course, be terrible. HD isn’t at this stage and I hope it doesn’t reach it. For what it’s worth, though, here is my conclusion from what little I’ve seen of Working Groups.

Creating a new specification is just like software design …

  1. Have a short attention span, because you never know which way the industry will turn tomorrow.
  2. Surgically fulfil specific, identifiable needs.
  3. Always have an up-to-date implementation so that the spec makes sense.
  4. Engineers have enough to learn. Resist the temptation to change established practices. Even if it hurts a bit, make the old spec fit new requirements.
  5. Put something out within a year, or two things will happen: the world will forget you, and the sunk cost fallacy will sink its teeth in. In other words, hardly anyone will volunteer to junk more than a year’s work even when it’s the right thing to do.
  6. Capture neat ideas in a roadmap, and leave space to put them in, but promise as little as possible. Non-essential features should be marshalled into a to-do list for a future spec. They may never be needed in practice, so don’t burden early adopters with them.

… Except for the bits that aren’t.

  1. Keep the door open. Never work in secret or limit discussion. These days, being courteous and responsive to keyboard warriors is part of your marketing campaign. However —
  2. Don’t let your guests take over. Good specifications need clear ownership, so limit scope and limit control.
  3. In this industry, don’t sell your spec for money, as it will need all the help it can get. People have grown very accustomed to getting stuff for free.
  4. Make it really easy. Great documentation isn’t enough these days: people expect TED talks, code libraries, unit tests, and preferably source code for a working demo.
  5. Persistent and contrary people will drive you crazy along the way. It may not look like it, but many of the people that work you the hardest will turn out to be your greatest friends and advocates. Like you, they want this specification to meet their needs and succeed in the wider world, which is why they push back so hard. Do all you can to understand them, be unfailingly polite and positive, and go out of your way to accommodate them if that’s what it takes to keep them on-side.

Academic stuff

I realised I didn’t have my academic papers up on the web site anymore. Here are the more significant ones.

Supper, B, 2010. Processing and improving a head-related impulse response database for auralization. Paper 8267. AES 129th Convention.

Supper, B, 2009. Characterising studio monitor loudspeakers for auralization. Paper 7994. AES 128th Convention.

Supper, B, 2005. An onset-guided spatial analyser for binaural audio. PhD thesis, University of Surrey.

Supper, B, 2000. Virtual reality presentation of loudspeaker stereo recordings. Undergraduate technical project, University of Surrey.

VR audio engine running on RISC OS in 2000
VR audio engine running on RISC OS in 2000