What you gon’ do with all that donkey

Posted June 27, 2006 at 9:40 am | 8 Comments
I’m currently sitting at a small desk on the second floor of this building with my laptop plugged into a 10Mbps hub, surrounded by teenage Fassis using MSN Messenger to chat with their friends in a mixture of French, Moroccan Arabic, and emoticons.

Cyber Cafe


Fes is a city full of striking contrasts between old and new. Parts of it seem suspended in time; while wandering around the Medina-city of Fes el Bali, you feel transported to the Middle Ages, but then you’ll be yanked rapidly into the present when you notice that the donkeys traversing the narrow streets are loaded down with cases of Coca-Cola and propane canisters. While marveling at the picturesque skyline of gilded mosque towers and ancient buildings, you’ll notice that the roofs are peppered with antennas and satellite dishes as far as the eye can see.
One minute you’ll be admiring the extravagant zelij tilework of a 14th century medersa, imagining the lives of craftsmen ages ago, and then you’ll suddenly hear the crackly refrain of “My Humps” drifting out the window of a nearby fondouk. I find it paradoxically amusing that a few minutes after riding a donkey through the Dyers’ Souk I can wander into a cyber cafe and update my blog.

Cost for a five-minute donkey ride: 15 dirham. Cost for one hour of broadband internet access: 10 dirham. I’m not sure what this says about the local economy.


Already Tried a SIGQUIT…

Posted June 5, 2006 at 7:25 pm | 39 Comments

I have to admit that when I released my debut rap single about a year ago, I never considered “nerdcore” a legitimate musical genre. I may have presented it as such in my blog post, in which I linked to other nerdy rappers whom I admired, but this was mostly because I’ve been indoctrinated into the academic tradition of giving credit to “related work.” Certainly there were a variety of geeky rap artists writing songs about topics like anime, computers, video games, and role-playing, but I doubt that most of them would have identified themselves as “nerdcore.” At that time, many of these artists were not aware of the other nerd rappers populating the Internet, and I suspect that some of them would have taken offense at the “nerd” label. MC Plus+, for example, did not identify his music as nerdcore, describing himself instead as a “CS gangsta.”

But then came the Wired article, which adopted the same tone as my blog post and declared that a variety of artists were “nerdcore” whether they knew it or not. Another item in the Daily Tarheel followed suit, and then one on cool.com.au, and more like them that began with greater and greater frequency to portray nerdcore as a genre, a musical “scene,” or even a nerd “movement.”


My performance at Geekapalooza.

These descriptions in the media were not particularly accurate, given that the nerdcore “movement” was really just a handful of people with web pages and blogs who emailed MP3s to each other. Nevertheless, they gave a certain credence to the idea of a collective of nerd artists banding together to start a musical trend. Artists increasingly began identifying themselves as “nerdcore,” and as awareness of the nerdcore label increased, many aspiring rappers jumped in and began recording songs.

I regard the nerdcore “movement” with a certain ambivalence. The great thing about nerdcore is that anyone can do it — its self-publishing ethic means that all you need to be a “nerdcore artist” is a microphone and a pirated copy of Adobe Audition. The horrible thing about nerdcore is that anyone can do it — even those with little originality or talent.

MC Frontalot, who is generally portrayed as the “godfather” of nerdcore (having coined the term many years back) is an extraordinarily skilled rapper who puts a tremendous amount of effort into his lyrics and his recordings. Meanwhile, scores of copycats have jumped onto the nerdcore bandwagon by recording low-quality tracks with little artistic merit, diluting the genre with their hackneyed rap attempts. I shudder to imagine what the average person might think of the nerdcore “movement” were his first exposure to the field to be the music of a goofball like Rappy McRapperson (consciously atrocious) or an uninspired imitator like Ill Engineer (also shitty, but unintentionally so).

There’s also the larger question of whether nerdcore is a parody of hip-hop or an homage. Much of mainstream rap music is insipid and unimaginative, constantly repeating the same tired themes, so I can understand the appeal of satirizing it. However, there’s a lot of great rap out there as well, and as someone who regularly listens to and thoroughly appreciates “real” rap music, my personal intent is not to ridicule the genre as a whole, or to poke fun at hip-hop culture. While the majority of nerdcore hip-hop does incorporate humor, the type of nerdcore that I admire the most has lyrics that are funny in their own right, and not because they mock mainstream rap music.

Above all, it’s in the nature of nerds to be inclusive. When a new kid transfers to your school, if he tries to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids, they won’t have anything to do with him, but if he sits down at the nerd table, they’ll welcome him. Being at the bottom of the social hierarchy leaves nerds little room to criticize, and the tendency to be tolerant and non-judgmental is one of the nerd traits I admire. So on one hand I understand why the new nerdcore compilation features a whopping 55 artists, many of whom had never previously produced a single track; on the other hand, I fear that this policy of blanket inclusion may cause the rappers with actual talent to be buried amidst a tide of crap. Rhyme Torrents (Beefy Cover)
So, with that decidedly mixed review, I direct you to the first ever nerdcore compilation album, Rhyme Torrents, slated for release tomorrow and soon available for download. I will say that despite my misgivings about the project, the first disc contains some awesome hip-hop. I was blown away by the hilarious rhymes in Shael Riley‘s tightly produced “Miss Information,” which spreads outrageous lies about some of nerdcore’s major players (apparently I am actually Ice Cube). I was also immensely impressed by ytcracker‘s “White Warrior,” a hard-hitting dis track targeted at mc chris, who has recently taken some flak in the nerdcore community for declining to participate in the compilation project. The infectious tracks by Beefy (“Tub of Tabasco”) and MC Hawking (“Rock Out with your Hawk Out”) are definitely worth a listen, and of course I recommend you check out the new song that I recorded for the compilation, Kill Dash Nine (lyrics here). Invoking the kill command with the -9 flag is the Unix equivalent of “terminate with extreme prejudice,” and I think it also makes for a catchy hook. Crank up the volume and shout along the next time you need to vent some of your repressed geek rage. Rhyme Torrents (DJ Snyder Cover)

Vodka Research

Posted June 1, 2006 at 12:14 am | 32 Comments

Perhaps you saw the Internet meme about vodka filtration that was circulating last year. An enterprising group of young “scientists” purchased a bottle of extremely cheap vodka and a Brita filtration pitcher, and after pouring the vodka through the charcoal filter several times, they claimed that the result was indistinguishable from expensive “top shelf” vodka.

Original Vodka Experiment

I admired the ingenuity of these researchers, but I found their experimental methods somewhat suspect. They began by tasting the cheap vodka, which they all thought was horrible. Next they filtered it once and drank some more. “Much better,” they agreed. They ran it through the filter again and found that it tasted even better! I’m sure you realize that this experimental design has certain confounding factors.

So naturally, I was skeptical of the findings; after all, if all that were required to produce good vodka was plenty of filtration, it’s hard to believe that cheap vodka would be so repugnant. Even so, if their results were borne out by further study, the potential gains would be staggering. Instead of wasting my money on Chopin or Grey Goose, I could purchase a $9 plastic handle of Vladimir vodka, run it though a filter, and mix up deliciously smooth martinis at a fraction of the expense.

So, in true scientific spirit, I replicated the vodka filtration study at our weekly Computer Science Department social event, but under revised conditions that I believe produced more reliable results.

First Experiment

We began by filtering a bottle of “Pavlova,” a foul-smelling but extraordinarily inexpensive brand of vodka (cost: $8 per liter). We decided to compare the filtered Pavlova to Ketel One, a Dutch vodka that is generally very highly regarded (cost: $27 per liter).

Pavlova and Ketel One

We set out two pitchers of vodka labeled A and B along with small cups for tasting. Our subjects sampled the two varieties, wrote down their preferences on small sheets of paper, and cast their votes in a ballot box.

This initial vodka filtration experiment seemed a success. Of the 24 people who participated in the blind taste test, two-thirds preferred the inexpensive filtered vodka (Pavlova) over the expensive premium vodka (Ketel One). I myself preferred the Ketel One; I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased with my refined taste in vodka, or disappointed that I couldn’t use the filtration trick to reduce my monthly martini budget.

Experiment 1 Chart

Second Experiment

Although our preliminary results were encouraging, we decided that further experimentation was required before drawing any definitive conclusions. In our next experiment, conducted several months later, we investigated two additional factors:

  1. The first experiment failed to establish that people would choose the more expensive vodka in the absence of filtration. In the second experiment, we ran an initial baseline in which participants sampled unfiltered versions of both vodkas, to ensure that the taste preference could be attributed to the filtration.
  2. It is possible that the filtration process actually removes alcohol from the vodka. This would certainly account for the improved taste, but it would make the procedure much less valuable. In the second experiment, we used an alcoholmeter (a modified version of a hydrometer that measures percentage content of alcohol) to see if the filtration removed alcohol from the liquor.

Our second experiment used four pitchers, labeled A through D. Pitchers A and B contained unfiltered Pavlova and Ketel One, respectively. Pitchers C and D contained Ketel One and filtered Pavlova. In the first experimental condition, subjects compared the vodka in pitchers A and B, rated each vodka on a 5-point Likert scale, and indicated which vodka they preferred. In the second condition, the same set of subjects compared pitchers C and D, marking their preferences the same way.

We recruited 26 subjects for the second experiment. Our results were as follows:

First Comparison
Subjects preferring A to B: 12
Subjects preferring B to A: 12
Subjects with no preference: 2
Second Comparison
Subjects preferring C to D: 11
Subjects preferring D to C: 13
Subjects with no preference: 2

Our hydrometer readings showed significant differences in alcohol concentration between the three varieties of vodka: Ketel One measured 88 proof, unfiltered Pavlova 82 proof, and filtered Pavlova 78 proof. We suspect that the reduced alcohol content in the filtered vodka was not actually a result of the filtration, but rather evaporation during the filtration process, as it was repeatedly poured from container to container.

Ketel One

Ketel One: 88 Proof

Filtered Pavlova

Filtered Pavlova: 78 Proof

Although our second experiment still demonstrated a minor benefit from filtration, the effect was far less pronounced than in the first experiment, and in fact the difference may be attributed to the lower alcohol content of the filtered vodka. In the first experiment we filtered the vodka the night before and left it in a pitcher overnight, which may have resulted in even greater alcohol evaporation, accounting for the more pronounced differences.

Experiment 2 Chart

There are a variety of ways in which our data could be interpreted, but our general analysis is that most people can’t tell the difference between expensive vodka and cheap vodka, regardless of whether or not it has been filtered. Of the 12 subjects who preferred Ketel One in the first trial, only 7 preferred it in the second trial; meanwhile, 4 of the 12 subjects who preferred unfiltered Pavlova in the first trial decided they preferred Ketel One to filtered Pavlova during the second trial. This seemingly haphazard set of preferences would be consistent with the hypothesis that our subjects were in general unable to discriminate between the vodkas in either condition.

Despite this confusion between vodkas, our findings imply that Ketel One is superior to Pavlova, at least by one metric. If we assume that a simple way to make vodka taste smoother is to reduce its alcohol content, then we would expect weaker vodkas to come out ahead in taste tests. The fact that many people preferred Ketel One during both trials, despite its significantly higher alcohol concentration, suggests that it is of generally higher quality.


To summarize our findings,

  1. Given a particular brand of vodka, people prefer its taste after it has been filtered, but this is most likely because filtration reduces the alcohol content.
  2. Most people can’t tell the difference between an expensive vodka with high alcohol content and a cheaper vodka with lower alcohol content.

Our second experiment demonstrated approximately equal preferences for Pavlova and Ketel One. Although Pavlova contains 3-5% less alcohol by volume than Ketel One, it is also 70% cheaper, so it would seem a clear winner.

Do our results indicate that you should always buy cheap vodka for your parties? Not necessarily. Vodka distribution at parties is rarely administered in a double-blind fashion. In situations in which the taster is aware of which brand of vodka he is drinking, his preconceived notions of its quality will likely provide a strong influence on his perception of its taste.

Future Work

In the second experiment, we chose two side-by-side comparisons rather than a single three-way comparison because we felt it would be too difficult for subjects to rank three alternatives. Unfortunately this meant that our second experiment never gave us a direct comparison between filtered and unfiltered Pavlova. There was no significant difference between the average Likert scale ratings for filtered and unfiltered Pavlova (2.85 for filtered and 2.87 for unfiltered), but a more thorough experiment might add an additional condition in which the two were compared.

We observed differences between the alcohol contents of the three vodkas, and we assume that alcohol concentration is closely connected to taste preference. In our next experiment, we may attempt to control for alcohol concentration by diluting the stronger vodkas with water. We would also like to control for the size of each vodka sample; in our experiments we allowed subjects to pour their own samples, and a large sip of vodka may be perceived as tasting worse than a small sip of the same vodka.

We also hope to investigate the influence of preconceived notions of quality on perceived taste. In a future study, we plan to pour the same variety of vodka into two different bottles, one labeled with an expensive brand like Ketel One, and one labeled with a cheap brand like Pavlova. By ensuring that the bottle labels and price tags were visible during the taste test, we could measure the effect of brand reputation on perceived quality.

Collin finishes the vodka
Our experiment complete, Collin polishes off the remaining vodka.

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